Wondering what to do with your time in Sacramento, California? Take a walk on the wild side of town, why don’t you, where Gold Rush miners once mingled with the local people of the state’s capital!
At the Old Town Sacramento Waterfront, entertainment and fun can literally be found at every corner. Just spend a few seconds looking around–you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported back to the 1800s! You might even feel like you’re in Frontierland at Disneyland!
But this ain’t no theme park, because Old Town Sacramento is the real deal. In fact, this picturesque area is registered as a national historic landmark. The restored historic buildings, museums, old-fashioned shops, and cobblestone streets will draw in history buffs from left and right.
Here’s a list of some of the best things to do with your time in Old Town Sacramento, California.
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Table of Contents
WHAT IS OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO KNOWN FOR?
Old Town Sacramento is known for its rich history as a major commercial center during the California Gold Rush. It was the original terminus of the Pony Express and the first transcontinental railroad, which made it a hub for commerce and transportation in the 19th century.
Today, Old Town Sacramento is a popular tourist destination that showcases the city’s cultural heritage with its preserved historic buildings, museums, and landmarks. Here are some of the highlights of Old Town Sacramento:
- Historic Buildings: Old Town Sacramento is home to many well-preserved historic buildings, including the California State Railroad Museum, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, and the Eagle Theater.
- Riverfront Views: Old Town Sacramento is located on the banks of the Sacramento River, and visitors can enjoy scenic views of the waterway from the historic riverfront district.
- Restaurants and Shopping: Old Town Sacramento is a vibrant shopping and dining destination with a wide range of boutiques, souvenir shops, and restaurants.
- Festivals and Events: Old Town Sacramento hosts a variety of festivals and events throughout the year, including the Gold Rush Days festival, which celebrates the city’s history during the California Gold Rush.
- Entertainment and Nightlife: Old Town Sacramento has a lively entertainment and nightlife scene, with live music venues, theaters, and bars.
Overall, Old Town Sacramento is a must-see destination for anyone interested in California’s Gold Rush history or looking for a fun and unique tourist experience!
IS OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO WORTH VISITING?
Yes, Old Town Sacramento is definitely worth visiting! The historic district is a unique and charming area that offers visitors a glimpse into the city’s rich history and culture.
Based on the list above, there are SO many reasons why you should plan a day trip out to see Old Town Sac (as well as the rest of the city!).
This small little area offers a surprisingly large range of experiences, from exploring history and culture to shopping and dining, to enjoying beautiful scenery and entertainment. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, or just looking for a fun day out with the kiddos, Old Town Sacramento is definitely worth a visit.
HOW TO GET TO OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO, CA
The easiest and most efficient way to get to Sacramento is by driving. If you’re driving from the Bay Area, Sacramento is just about 2 hours away.
Don’t feel like driving? An alternative way to get there from the Bay Area is by taking the Amtrak train, which drops you off at the Sacramento Valley Station, just a short walk from this historic district. One-way fares from the Bay Area range from $20 to $40 depending on where you hop on.
If you’re flying into Sacramento, the closest major airports are as follows:
- Sacramento International Airport (SMF) – 10 miles from Old Town Sacramento
- Stockton Metropolitan Airport (SCK) – 55 miles from Old Town Sacramento
- Oakland International Airport (OAK) – 92 miles from Old Town Sacramento
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – 98 miles from Old Town Sacramento
THE PAST AND PRESENT OF OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO
So what exactly is Sac’s significance in the olden days? Well, Sacramento was an important commercial hub during the Gold Rush. The town also served as the last stop on the west for the Pony Express and Transcontinental Railroad.
Today, we get the pleasure of being able to experience this living history in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Among its wooden-planked sidewalks, you’ll find a plethora of restored buildings from the mid-1800s now occupied by various museums, novelty stores, bars, and restaurants.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO, CA
Old Town Sac is jam-packed with things to see and do that both kids and adults will enjoy. From historic museums to riverboat cruises, train rides to gold tours, costume shops to candy shops, you’re guaranteed to have a sensory overload here!
1. ENJOY THE WEEKEND ATMOSPHERE
On weekends and summer days, take a walk down the wooden plank sidewalks and enjoy the extra-vibrant energy here. You can expect horse-drawn carriage rides and street performers dressed in period costumes.
Hopefully, you even catch a glimpse of musical performers and the man with the piano-playing marionette dolls on strings!
Every Labor Day weekend, their epic Gold Rush Days event occurs. This is where they put the historic atmosphere into overdrive. Expect wagon rides, Pony Express re-creations, gunfights, and even more interactions with living history characters.
2. TAKE A RIVER CRUISE
On a warm and sunny day, one of the best things to do in Old Town Sac is to hop aboard a river cruise! Spend the afternoon on a narrated cruise learning about the legendary past of California’s capital city, from the first days of the Gold Rush to the booming metropolis that is here today.
City Cruises by Hornblower offers a few different options to soak in the views of Old Sacramento Waterfront.
Make the most of your weekend and step aboard for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon on the river with a cocktail cruise! Grab a drink at the bar and relax as you set sail on this 1.5-hour cruise along the Sacramento River.
3. SEE THE HUNTINGTON & HOPKINS HARDWARE
While strolling through the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, you’ll definitely cross paths with the Huntington & Hopkins Hardware building. This free museum is meant to recreate a hardware store from the 19th century. Today, it stocks trinkets, tools, and machinery from the era!
4. CALIFORNIA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM
The California State Railroad Museum is by far one of the most popular things to do in all of Sacramento. This museum is dedicated to showcasing train and rail history with over 2.5 acres of exhibits filled with trains. There is also a picnic area dressed up in 1840s style, museum store, library, and even excursion train ride!
You can expect to see 19 historic steam locomotives, dating from 1862 to 1944. You can even climb in the opulent dining cars and pretend like you’re a wealthy sir or madam living the life!
5. TAKE A TRAIN RIDE
Did you know you can actually ride a historic train pulled by vintage diesel locomotives from The California State Railroad Museum’s collection? How cool is that!
On this immersive 50 minute round trip ride along the scenic Sacramento River, you and your family will get to experience railroading firsthand as it was in the early part of the 20th century. If you’re traveling with children, this is an activity that they will really enjoy.
The Sacramento Southern Railroad operates on weekends (and occasionally on Tuesdays) from April through September. Train rides depart and return to the Front Street Train Depot in Old Sacramento Waterfront.
6. GRAB DRINKS AT THE RIVER CITY SALOON
Step back in time at this western-themed saloon modeled after the bar’s original 1870’s appearance. If you’re looking to try their most iconic drink, they claim to have the best Bloody Mary in town! If you’re looking to grab a bite to eat, they offer free peanuts and have a wonderful menu consisting of deli sandwiches and other fried carbs.
Looking for some after-hours entertainment? There is karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays. Kids are welcome till 8pm. Specifically for the kids, they serve a locally brewed sarsaparilla for just 25 cents! (A second mug will cost more.)
7. CALIFORNIA AUTOMOBILE MUSEUM
If you or someone you’re traveling with loves antique cars, Sacramento’s riverfront car museum is an essential stop during your visit to Old Sacramento Waterfront.
This is a great museum dedicated to antique and vintage cars, along with a few trucks and motorcycles. They have a collection of over 150 classic cars, race cars, muscle cars, hot rods and other early models for visitors to enjoy. A must-see stop for gearheads and car enthusiasts!
8. TAKE AN UNDERGROUND TOUR
One of the most unique things to do in Old Town Sacramento is to head underground to tour an old, hidden world of buried buildings and alleyways!
Back in the olden days, the original streets of Old Sacramento were often devastated by floods. In the 1860s, developers decided to raise the buildings and streets and place them right on top of the old. Today, much of the old is still there waiting to be explored.
On this tour, you’ll explore excavated foundations, windows, doorways, and pathways while listening to stories of the past from costumed docents. Regular underground tours are offered from late March through December.
9. TAKE AN AFTER-HOURS TOUR OF OLD SAC
For the over-18 crowd, you have another fun after-hours tour option! With the Old Sac after-hours tour, you’ll hear all about topics that can’t be discussed in front of kids–murder, mischief, madness, and mayhem!
You’ll spend your night on the new town with a “shady character” from the past, who’ll show you around to the saloons, gaming halls, theaters and houses of ill-fame – places you can only see in the twilight. From there, you’ll hear all the gossip on murders of passion, political intrigue, and the century’s most notorious woman!
Old Sac After Hours tours depart from the Sacramento History Museum. This half-mile guided historical walking tour lasts about 90 minutes.
Tickets are $30 per person, and guests must be 18 or older. They recommend making reservations early, because tours can sell out quickly!
10. OLD SACRAMENTO SCHOOLHOUSE MUSEUM
Explore California’s early days of schooling in a detailed replica of a traditional one-room schoolhouse from the late 1800s. You can expect to learn from costumed docents which adds to the fun and amusement of this activity.
Admission is free to this museum is free. There are really fun school-related souvenirs for sale as well.
11. SACRAMENTO HISTORY MUSEUM
Explore the beginnings of Sacramento and the Gold Rush that started it all. Learn about the history and stories of the area’s first inhabitants, the pioneers who settled here during the Gold Rush, and more via this museum’s galleries and exhibits.
The interactive displays and children’s imagination stations really do help visitors step back in time. Be sure to check out the historic print shop exhibit, where you can learn about newspaper production and even get your own “Wanted” poster printed!
Pro Tip: If you purchase one of the underground walking tours, admission to the museum is included.
12. GET LOST IN EVANGELINE’S
It’s Halloween all year long at Evangeline’s! Seriously, if I had to choose just one thing to see/do in Old Town Sac, it would be to check out this three-story wonderland of costumes and novelty gift items. Every time I’m in Sacramento, I make it a priority to stop by Evangeline’s!
You will be shocked to see the assortment of amusing props, costumes, wigs, figurines, and gifts in this building. How they even find some of the items in stock, I have no clue, but keep it coming.
13. SHOP AT ATRIUM 916
Among the many storefronts, kitschy trading posts, and gift shops in Old Town Sacramento (all of which are a ton of fun to explore), Atrium 916 really stood out to me. The store’s concept is to bring together businesses that promote sustainability and make a positive impact to society.
Almost everything you find in there is handmade by its creators. You never know what will be in stock when you visit!
14. TAKE OLD-TIMEY PHOTOS AT MCGEE’S
McGee’s Old Time Photos is a family-owned and operated photography studio where you can dress up in the old-timey garb of your choice and memorialize your look in the form of an old-time photo. If you’re looking for a fun activity to do with the kids or even just a memorable souvenir to bring home, this is it!
They also have a gift shop with toys, souvenirs, mugs, and more.
15. GET OLD-FASHIONED ICE CREAM, DONUTS, AND MORE
There are so many fun old-fashioned snacks in Old Sacramento! Perfect for when you want a little somethin’ somethin’ in-between meals.
Feeling mini donuts? Fountain soda? Ice cream? Sasparilla? How about old-fashioned candy? It’s all possible in Old Sacramento (especially near the Pioneer Square area)!
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN SACRAMENTO, CA
- Downtown Sacramento Historic Food Tour: Sacramento’s food scene is on the rise, and there is no better way to taste all that it has to offer than via a food tour!
- Sacramento Historic River Cruise
- South Fork Half-Day Whitewater Rafting Trip (Lotus, CA): a must-do with friends in the summer time!
- Visit the California State Capitol Museum: The California State Capitol is home to the state’s government and is open to the public. The museum offers free tours that showcase California’s political history and beautiful architecture.
- Explore the Crocker Art Museum: The Crocker Art Museum is the oldest art museum in the Western United States and features a diverse collection of art, from contemporary to classic. The museum also has a beautiful garden and hosts regular events and exhibitions.
- Take a trip to the Sacramento Zoo: The Sacramento Zoo is home to over 500 animals from around the world and is a popular destination for families. It features a range of habitats, including an African savannah and a rainforest.
- Visit the Tower Theatre: The Tower Theatre is a local landmark that hosts a range of events, including film screenings, concerts, and theater performances.
- Go on a bike ride along the American River Trail: The American River Trail is a beautiful bike trail that runs along the American River and offers stunning views of the surrounding area.
- Explore Sutter’s Fort: Sutter’s Fort is a historic fort that dates back to the Gold Rush era. Visitors can explore the fort’s many rooms and learn about California’s early history.
- Visit the William Land Park: William Land Park is a local favorite that offers visitors a range of activities, including a golf course, a pond, playgrounds, and picnic areas. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
- California State Indian Museum
WHERE TO STAY IN SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
Most of the hotels in Sacramento are located in the downtown and midtown areas, close to the city’s major attractions. This area is home to the California State Capitol, Old Sacramento, and the Sacramento Convention Center.
The Fort Sutter Hotel Sacramento (Midtown Sacramento): – 12-minute drive to Old Town Sac – In addition to spacious, modern rooms, the hotel has a number of amenities including a restaurant, a fitness center, a la carte breakfast, and a bar.
Hyatt Regency Sacramento (Downtown Sacramento): 10-minute drive to Old Town Sac – features an outdoor heated pool, a restaurant, and a full-service spa. Free WiFi is offered in all rooms. Subtle gold, red and white accents are featured in every contemporary, spacious room!
And that concludes this post! We hope that this post has inspired you to try something new! If you have any questions about the destinations or have your own travel tips to share, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.