It could easily have become one of those dead, re-created-village places where people in period customs run around, not fooling you for a minute. Instead, the city allowed merchants to open real restaurants and shops in some of the 53 historic buildings, making it feel not only historic but alive.
The 28-acre site with National Landmark status also holds several small museums, such as the Wells Fargo History Museum and the extensive, 100,000-square-foot Museum of Railroad History, part of the California State Railroad Museum complex.
For Schwarzenegger sightings, head to Sacramento's Capitol.
(Sacramento Convention And Visitors Bureau)
From now on, whenever I see road crews working on the same little bit of asphalt for months at a time, I'll be thinking of the exhibits about the railroad men working with their bare hands in the wilderness, carving passages through solid rock and laying 10 miles of track a day.
The museum has on permanent exhibit 21 restored locomotives and cars from the 1860s through the 1960s, and I must say it's a bit disconcerting to see in a museum the kind of cars you remember riding.
I had planned to rent a bike to explore the extensive paths along the river and the city after hitting a couple more of Sacramento's 15 museums. But I happened to be there in July, when temperatures hit their peak, averaging 93 degrees during the day. Locals point out that it's a dry heat, which might be why I felt the need to repair to the hotel swimming pool.
By September, average temperatures fall to 87 degrees, and in October, they average a balmy 78. Really, the only time to avoid Sacramento heat is July and August: The winters are mild, with sunny days in the 50s and 60s. April averages jump to 71, and May and June remain in the low 80s, on average.
Even in the hottest two months, temperatures dip into the 60s in the evening and early morning. In fact, on my second day in Sacramento, I began by enjoying the cool of the morning at a cafe in the modern downtown. I strolled to the State Capitol, a building similar to but somewhat more luxurious than the U.S. Capitol and found no lines.
Guided tours are available, but don't you often find that guides tell you way more than you feel a need to know? I chose a self-guided tour. Once you pass through a metal detector, security officers allow you free rein to just wander around.
If you go, watch the walls for the portraits of former governors. My favorite display was of the somber portraits of Pete Wilson (1991-99) and George Deukmejian (1983-91) looking very important and official, hanging next to a somewhat wild and abstract, close-up rendering of the face of Jerry Brown (1975-83).
From the Capitol, I headed to Sutter's Fort, where the first settlers set up camp in 1839. When I reached the grounds, however, I noticed the California State Indian Museum next door and decided to stop there first.