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Sacramento: The Two-Day Tour

California's buttoned-down capital has a few surprises in store.

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page P01

If you're looking for hot nightlife and a wild bit of debauchery, Sacramento wouldn't be your kind of town.

As California's capital, it's a buttoned-down sort of place. While I didn't see any of the "girlie men" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complains of, there were more regular guys in white shirts and ties than I believe exist in all other California cities combined.

For Schwarzenegger sightings, head to Sacramento's Capitol. (Sacramento Convention And Visitors Bureau)

But Sacramento is a graceful, pleasant, easygoing place. Sandwiched between the American and Sacramento rivers, it's a great town for history, politics, biking, walking and floating, either on a river boat, in a water taxi or in a tube.

Although it's small, the city's neighborhoods are varied. Around the Capitol building, Sacramento looks a bit like Washington, except prettier, due to the giant sequoias and palm trees that line the grassy mall.

A district filled with fine old homes is reminiscent of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. In central downtown, the outdoor cafes and coffee shops and bookstores lend the feel of an upscale college town.

Old Sacramento brings to mind the Gold Rush, the great transcontinental Atlantic-Pacific Railway and the Pony Express -- all of which once began and ended here.

Now that JetBlue's entrance into the market has forced other carriers to slash their fares from the East, Sacramento is positioned to resume its place in history as a major gateway to the California West.

The city is just about an hour's drive to Napa Valley, about an hour and a half to Sonoma Valley wineries and the spas of Calistoga, and a hop and a jump to Gold Rush country. It's a very short, pleasant drive to snow-capped mountains, lakes and white water, and about a three-hour drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Oregon border.

It would be a mistake, however, to buzz right through town on the way to something else. I gave it two days, which is just about right, unless you want to use it longer as a base to nearby attractions.

Most of my first day was spent in Old Sacramento, which boomed for a time in the 1800s, when gold was found in the nearby foothills. In fact, the Gold Rush is said to have spurred one of the largest recorded mass migrations in history. The old part of the city fell on hard times in the 1900s and became a slum. City planners carefully resurrected it in the 1960s.

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