California’s capital city has long lived in the shadows of its flashier neighbors. Sandwiched between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, “Sac,” as the locals call it, is often underestimated and overlooked as a small and sleepy cow town — a rest stop on the way to greener and glitzier pastures. But thanks to the downtown revitalization and the rousing success of “Lady Bird” — Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated homage to her home town — Sacramento has been suddenly, and rightfully, thrust into the spotlight.

Following in the footsteps of the Forty-Niners , I came to Sacramento with the aim of striking it rich. My mission: to mine the city’s treasures while home for the holidays in December. Technically, I was born in Sacramento, but I grew up about 20 minutes away in Davis. And while my teenage self would make regular pilgrimages to the city’s thrift stores and shopping centers, I didn’t fully appreciate what the City of Trees had to offer.

Yes, it housed the California State Capitol. And yes, it had far less traffic — and Botox — than our star-studded neighbors down south. But what made the landlocked capital special?

As it turns out, a lot. With burgeoning culinary, arts and cultural scenes, Sacramento had blossomed and matured, much like I had since leaving the West Coast for college in 2008. And while I wasn’t paying attention, the midsize city had become bigger and better, worthy of the red-carpet treatment.

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Local faves

The cheese does not stand alone at 1Fairytale Town. 1Fairytale Town Google Map: 3901 Land Park Dr. Website: 916-808-7462 The holey, bright yellow play structure joins 35 other storybook-themed attractions that populate this beloved nonprofit children’s park. Squealing tots can scramble up Jack’s Beanstalk, grab the reins of Cinderella’s Pumpkin Coach, slide down the Old Woman’s shoe and even take a power nap in Mother Goose’s lap. Built in 1959 to encourage imagination and literacy among the city’s kids, the 3½ -acre fantasy park is a favorite among families with children 10 and younger. Don’t forget to say “Hey, diddle, diddle” to the park’s furry occupants, which include three not-so-little Vietnamese potbellied pigs, two of Mary’s sheep, a floppy-eared Peter Rabbit and a friendly miniature donkey dubbed Eeyore.

The 2Crocker Art Museum 2Crocker Art Museum Google Map: 216 O St. Website: 916-808-7000 is a work of art itself, combining the elegance and charm of the Crocker family’s original 1871 Italianate mansion with a sleek, modern building. Founded in 1885, the first public art museum in the Western United States boasts an impressive collection of international ceramics, American and European paintings, and works by new and established California artists. Lap up the frothy desserts painted by Wayne Thiebaud and applaud Stephen Kaltenbach for his ethereal portrait of his father, a labor of love that took him seven years to complete. In the lobby, get the lowdown on free lectures, concerts and daily tours, as well as hands-on learning opportunities for toddlers and even programs for patrons with chronic pain, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Visitors check out one of the restored locomotives and cars at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Stephen Kaltenbach’s “Portrait of My Father, 1972-1979” is one of the eye-catching artworks at the Crocker Art Museum. Fairytale Town has attractions inspired by stories and nursery rhymes to encourage literacy and stoke the imaginations of children.

Guidebook musts

Toy collectors, train enthusiasts and history buffs unite at the 3California State Railroad Museum. 3California State Railroad Museum Google Map: 125 I St. Website: 916-323-9280 Storyboards and interactive exhibits detail more than 150 years of railroad history, including the country’s first transcontinental railroad line and today’s modern high-speed ones. Grab your conductor’s hat and climb aboard one of the museum’s 21 beautifully restored antique locomotives and train cars. Is fantasy not cutting it? Catch a ride on the museum’s real railway, which leads six-mile train excursions along the Sacramento River on Tuesdays through April 24 and Saturdays and Sundays from April 7 through Sept. 23.

It’s hard to miss the hundreds of public art pieces that electrify downtown’s drab exteriors. The city is a hotbed of California artists, which means Instagram gold for camera-toting travelers. Admire more than 20 of the most notable additions by foot with 4 Sac Running Tours, 4Sac Running Tours Google Map: 1720 L St. Website: Not available which leads a Wide Open Walls murals tour. Guides, such as founder Jenn Kistler-McCoy, provide a wealth of information about the artworks, artists and Wide Open Walls mural festival that draws locally, nationally and internationally recognized talent to the region every August. Don’t miss Raphael Delgado’s indomitable grizzly at 1413 21st St. and the latest “Lady Bird” mural at 16th and I streets.


Local faves

Even in late December (at 58 degrees) there’s a line out the door at 5Gunther’s Ice Cream. 5Gunther’s Ice Cream Google Map: 2801 Franklin Blvd. Website: 916-457-6646 Haters will say “only in California,” but Sacramentans know better. A neighborhood mainstay since 1940, the soda fountain’s premium handmade and small-batch sweets are popular year-round. The 800-square-foot shop serves 40 flavors of ice cream alongside sherbets, sorbets and fresh-fruit freezes; I opted for two scoops of strawberry cheesecake. Significantly higher in butterfat than its commercial competitors (6 percent, to be exact), the uber-creamy and oh-so-refreshing frozen treat hit the spot. Recognize the store’s mascot, Jugglin’ Joe, out front? The animated neon sign, which depicts Joe slinging ice cream, makes a quick cameo in “Lady Bird.”

I half-expected a 1920s flapper to greet me with a tray of French 75s when I walked into the 6Shady Lady Saloon. 6Shady Lady Saloon Google Map: 1409 R St. Website: 916-231-9121 The dimly lit, speakeasy-style watering hole, with its dark U-shaped wooden bar, lush decor and pressed-tin ceiling, evokes the glamour and ambiance of pre-Prohibition America, when quality concoctions and conversation, not plasma TVs, reigned supreme. Jazz, blues and country artists perform five nights a week. All the while, knowledgeable bartenders, often wearing suspenders, create old-timey cocktails with house-made tonics, bitters and syrup. Try one of the signature Southern-inspired dishes — the flaky duck confit “tots” and airy pork rinds are crowd favorites — paired with a light and refreshing White Linen cocktail of gin, St. Germain, lemon, sugar and muddled cucumber.

At Dive Bar, a 40-foot-long aquarium holds 7,500 gallons of saltwater — and the occasional mermaid. Chef de cuisine Allyson Harvie, left, spends some time with diners at the Kitchen, a champion and forerunner of the farm-to-table movement. A retro combo — there’s music five nights a week — perfectly accompanies the speakeasy-style decor at the Shady Lady Saloon.

The eclectic artwork and colorful tapestries plastering the walls of 7Tower Cafe 7Tower Cafe Google Map: 1518 Broadway Website: 916-441-0222 reflect not only the international menu but also the ethnic patchwork of residents: Mexicans, East Africans, East Asians, Caribs and Europeans among them. Housed in the birthplace of the now-defunct Tower Records, the hippie haven serves gigantic portions of comfort food, with vegan and vegetarian options, of course. Request a seat in the lush outdoor garden area outfitted with hanging lights, a burbling fountain and a shady canopy of Japanese maples, ferns and palms. The restaurant is often packed on Sundays with young families and college students dining alfresco, drinking Tower Bloody Marys and eating the signature French toast, which is soaked overnight in vanilla custard and topped with maple-infused butter.

Guidebook musts

No, it’s not the tequila talking. 8Dive Bar 8Dive Bar Google Map: 1016 K St. Website: 916-737-5999 ’s 40-foot-long aquarium, located above the main bar, holds 7,500 gallons of saltwater, 60-some tropical fish and, on occasion, mermaids and mermen. The mythical sea stars, who don glittery, waterproof makeup and 35-pound silicone tails, perform several times a day, waving, smiling and blowing kisses at the smartphone-wielding barflies below. Slip on your shell bikini or surfer trunks and get there early for cheap Happy Hour offerings (including $4 draft beers and rail drinks) and a front-row seat to the Not So Little Mermaid show. Tip: The middle bar stool along the back wall is best.

Tower Cafe, inside the birthplace of the lamented Tower Records chain, displays artwork that complements its international menu. Neon mascot Jugglin’ Joe slings scoops over the roof of Gunther’s Ice Cream, a Sacramento mainstay since 1940.

Usually, it’s dinner then a show, but not at the 9Kitchen. 9Kitchen Google Map: 2225 Hurley Way Website: 916-568-7171 The chefs take center stage as the evening’s emcees, preparing and explaining the inventive dishes at a table in the center of the room. Helmed by chef-owner Randall Selland, the sophisticated eatery, which helped put Sacramento’s farm-to-fork restaurant scene on the national map, was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant award in 2012 and AAA Diamond Awards for six consecutive years. The prix fixe, five-course dinner is a four-hour dining experience that feels like an exclusive dinner party. The chef and diners trade jokes, and patrons can ask for food modifications and seconds (or even thirds) of any course. The dinner will set you back $135 per person, or $174 with wine pairings. Reservations book up months in advance, so plan ahead.


Local faves

You won’t find anything over $75 at 10Rire Boutique, 10Rire Boutique Google Map: 2522 J St. Website: 916-294-5068 and that’s intentional. Owner Josie Lee has firsthand experience being a frugal fashionista. “I started this as a college student,” says the Sacramento native. Lee makes it a priority to carry high-quality and budget-friendly items that stay on trend beyond one season. The 30-year-old fashion blogger turned entrepreneur worked her way through Sacramento State University, started her own women’s clothing boutique at 25 and now manages storefront locations in the Midtown and Oak Park neighborhoods. Expect to find delicate necklaces and vibrant totes displayed near off-the-shoulder tops, summery shorts and breezy, casual dresses. (This is California, after all.) Her lifestyle boutique also champions other female artists and entrepreneurs by exhibiting their paintings and selling their wares. Oh, and the store name? It’s the French word for laughter. “I pronounce it ‘ry-er,’ even though it’s supposed to be pronounced more like ‘ree-uh,’ ” Lee admits and laughs.

Lovers of all things vintage flock to 11WAL Public Market 11WAL Public Market Google Map: 1104 R St. Website: for rare and high-quality vinyl records, funky furniture and one-of-a-kind clothing. Set in the heart of Sacramento’s newly revitalized R Street corridor, the 9,000-square-foot complex is a treasure trove for thrift store thrill-seekers. The stores are on the ground floor of the Warehouse Artist Lofts, a 116-unit complex that offers subsidized housing for local artists. Peep at the vintage cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry at Old Gold, the $4 bargain bin at Kicksville Vinyl & Vintage and the industrial workstation at Benjamin’s Shoes, where owner Benjamin Schwartz can often be found cobbling custom orders. Remember to sneak a selfie with Fish Face Poke Bar’s vivid-orange squid mural on the way out.

While gems are on the wall, Kicksville Vintage & Vinyl — inside WAL Public Market — has a $4 bin to root through. Some of the area-made wares by more than 65 California merchants and designers line a shelf at Display: California. Inside the Lady Adams Building, Evangeline’s Costume Mansion has eight themed rooms full of ghoulish delights.

Guidebook musts

Forget the last-minute See’s Candies run and opt for an original, California-made product from 12Display: California. 12Display: California Google Map: 3433 Broadway Website: 916-822-4925 From the Anson Design planters shaped like Pokémon’s Jigglypuff to burlap, Sacramento-stamped Apolis totes, there’s something for everyone. Run by husband-and-wife creative team Roshaun and Maritza Davis, who met as students at Sacramento State University, the store showcases wares from more than 65 California merchants and designers. “People have a deep love for California,” Maritza says. “And we love that they love it.” The store’s inventory runs the gamut, including mini sage bundles, “West Coast Best Coast” wall prints and coffee mugs with cheeky messages such as “Reading is sexy.” After your Cali shopping binge, walk down Broadway Street to their other store, Damas, a women’s boutique where more than 40 percent of the items are made by women-run businesses, and the Annex, a revolving pop-up shop that serves as an incubator for area entrepreneurs.

It’s Halloween 365 days a year at 13Evangeline’s Costume Mansion. 13Evangeline's Costume Mansion Google Map: 113 K St. Website: 916-443-2181 A human-size, flying chicken costume points the way to a vintage glass elevator, which transports fantasy-seekers to a land where trends never die. (Hello, poodle skirts and neon leg warmers.) Browse the mansion’s eight rooms, which tout themes including the “Gothic Chamber” and “Storybook Land” and are lined with hundreds of costumes as well as makeup and accessories. “If you don’t leave with a costume, you’ll at least leave with some fun inspiration,” store manager Rachel Immel says. On the third floor, try on candy-colored wigs that would make Katy Perry envious or face the mask wall for a fright. Fun fact: The store inhabits the Lady Adams Building, which since 1852 has accommodated a brothel, a disco and a bank-themed restaurant.


Local faves

Throw on a comfy robe and feel your stress melt away at one of the 14Inn & Spa at Parkside 14Inn and Spa at Parkside Google Map: 2116 Sixth St. Website: 916-658-1818 ’s respite-minded themed rooms, such as “dream,” “balance,” “tranquility” and “happiness.” In the guest rooms, the pan-Asian accoutrements wink at the roots of the former owner, an affluent Chinese diplomat, who previously lived in the 1930s Spanish Revival building. Overlooking Southside Park, the 11-room bed-and-breakfast is far enough away from the briefcase-toting politicos but within walking distance of the heart of downtown and the recently minted Golden 1 Center, an indoor arena and new home of the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings. Amenities include cooked-to-order gourmet breakfasts (including French toast and egg frittatas), free WiFi, flat-panel TVs and a nightly social hour with complimentary drinks and snacks.

The lobby at the Citizen Hotel, with its vintage political cartoons and leather-bound law books, befits a capital city. All of that glass in a bathroom at the Inn & Spa at Parkside seems geared toward inspiring serene moments of reflection. A guest room at the Inn & Spa at Parkside, a bed-and-breakfast housed in a 1930s Spanish Revival building that once was home to a diplomat.

Guidebook musts

Around the corner from the California State Capitol, the 15Citizen Hotel, 15Citizen Hotel Google Map: 926 J St. Website: 916-447-2700 part of the Autograph Collection of luxury properties, celebrates Sacramento’s political pulse with a cosmopolitan flair. Legislators and lawyers will feel right at home in the 14-story hotel’s stately lobby, which features vintage political cartoons alongside hundreds of leather-bound law books. Rooms include high ceilings, large window treatments and bold-striped wallpaper, plus the requisite Keurig coffee maker and fancy toiletries. After an afternoon of exploring the city, grab farm-to-fork fare at the attached Grange restaurant and retire to your room, where room numbers depict two shaking hands and “Closed Door Session” hangers replace “Do Not Disturb” signs. And Fido is invited to join the fun: Four-legged friends of any size stay free.


Local faves

A once-sleepy area, 16Midtown 16Midtown Google Map: 1401 21st St. Website: 916-442-1500 is now flush with young professionals, growing families and, yes, hipsters. Just east of the Capitol-dominated downtown, the “Grid” offers an ever-growing concentration of white-linen restaurants, funky art galleries and craft coffeehouses, as well as bars, breweries, bistros and boutiques. Highlights include Art of Toys, an art gallery and vintage toy store; Federalist Public House, a shipping-container bar with a rooftop garden; the Flamingo House Social Club, a millennial-pink house bar; the Rind, a cheese-focused eatery that serves blue-cheese cheesecake; Magpie Cafe, a farm-fresh spot that punctuates meals with a decadent chocolate avocado mousse; and Cantina Alley, a wildly popular open-air, art-filled restaurant. Streets lined with lofty trees make the area feel like a cozy suburb — walkable, accessible and, at times, quaint, especially during summer recess. Don’t miss the year-round Midtown Farmers Market on Saturdays and the monthly Second Saturday Art Walk, for which businesses and art galleries stay open until 9 p.m.

The Tower Bridge spans the Sacramento River and links West Sacramento with the downtown area. Old Sacramento, a National Historic Landmark, is a 28-acre spread of 19th-century riverfront buildings that have been rescued by restoration. Midtown’s ever-growing scene of restaurants, boutiques and clubs makes it a magnet for young professionals. Maybe a hipster or two, too.

Guidebook musts

No use ordering an Uber in 17Old Sacramento. 17Old Sacramento Google Map: 1014 Second St. Website: 916-970-5226 Carriages have the only horsepower that can navigate the raised and uneven cobblestone streets. The 28-acre riverfront collection of 19th-century buildings was once the launching point for the Gold Rush and the state’s commercial hub, which served as the terminus for the transcontinental railroad line, the transcontinental telegraph system and the Pony Express. The area fell on hard times in the 1900s and became a slum before city planners meticulously restored the area in the 1960s. Now a National Historic Landmark, the quarter is the opposite of a ghost town, swarming with tourists on any given day of the week. More than 65 businesses operate inside the six-block zone. Avoid the kitschy trappings — except for the saltwater taffy and a quick visit to Zoltar, the animatronic fortuneteller — and opt for patio dining at Rio City Cafe, where you can stake a claim on the sweeping riverside views of the landmark Tower Bridge.