My surprisingly great weekend in Sacramento

5d ago

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Sacramento hasn’t been at the top of my must-visit list, but on a recent trip there, I had a surprisingly great weekend. Thanks to the city’s many museums and rich history, it exceeded my expectations, and I actually wish I had stayed longer.

Here were the highlights of my trip to Sacramento.

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In This Post

The Hyatt Centric Downtown Sacramento was an excellent choice

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

As you might expect from a city its size, Sacramento has numerous hotel options, and they tend to be cheaper on the weekends than during the week.

Depending on the points and free night awards you have, there are plenty of options from Best Western, Hilton, IHG, Marriott and Wyndham.

After reading about various hotels and thinking through my elite-status strategy, I eventually settled on the Hyatt Centric Downtown Sacramento. The property has changed hands several times over the years, and its history is fascinating. In the early 20th century, it hosted a famous jazz club called the Clayton Club where legends like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday performed.

 

The hotel’s decor pays tribute to this musical past. Throughout the property, there are posters from past events and music-themed touches like decorative volume knobs on guest room mirrors. The rooftop bar is also called the Clayton Club these days, though I bet the original was a bit livelier.

The Hyatt Centric Downtown Sacramento was previously called Hotel Marshall, honoring the man who discovered gold in California. The property also apparently housed a Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Lobby restaurant. (Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

The central location of the property makes it popular. It was actually sold-out the weekend I visited. Just be sure to request a room that’s not on the sixth floor, where the bar is located. I woke up to noise from people leaving the bar at closing time both nights.

Rates for the next few months start at $189 on weekends and $229 on weekdays. This is a World of Hyatt Category 4 hotel where award nights range from 12,000-18,000 points apiece.

You don’t need to rent a car to get around

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

I didn’t rent a car while in Sacramento and am really glad I didn’t. The city center is compact and easily walkable, with the main sights all relatively near each other. It’s also easy to navigate since the north-south streets are numbered and the east-west streets have letter names.

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

I really enjoyed the pedestrian-only area along K Street, which has lots of restaurants, bars, clubs, street performers and shops. K Street continues from the more modern downtown area through a pedestrian walkway under Interstate 5, connecting to the Old Sacramento historical district.

Along the Sacramento River, there are excellent paths for walking and riding bikes. Also, Tower Bridge (which crosses the Sacramento River) has the distinction of being the shortest highway in California, so you can walk across it and then tell people you walked a whole highway from one end to the other.

Old Town and DOCO are the places to be

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

There are two popular areas for hanging out, and I enjoyed both since each offers something different.

In Old Sacramento, cobblestone streets and frontier-era buildings have been preserved. There are also monuments to history, such as Mile Marker 0 for the Transcontinental Railroad and the end of the Pony Express route.

Aside from the Old West look and the historical schoolhouse, there are numerous restaurants, pubs, activities, museums and a carousel and Ferris wheel. These sit next to the riverwalk and the Delta King, a paddlewheel steamboat that once provided river transport and now holds a hotel and a restaurant.

DOCO stands for “Downtown Commons” and is the area surrounding the Golden 1 Center indoor arena. Here, you’ll find multiple restaurants and bars, late-night snack shacks and free outdoor activities. These include cornhole, yoga classes and pop-up events.

DOCO is a pedestrian-only area and sits between Old Sacramento and the rest of downtown, making it super convenient for sightseers.

The street art is inspiring

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, but I love checking out a city’s street art, and Sacramento has an incredible collection to peruse while you’re out and about.

Without venturing out of my way, I passed dozens of works. Some of the larger commissioned ones have placards explaining their themes and giving background on the artist, too.

I loved the museums I had time to visit

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Sacramento has nearly 30 museums, and though I didn’t get to them all, I really enjoyed the ones I was able to visit.

Gardens at California State Capitol Park

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Unfortunately, the California State Capitol Museum is still offering virtual tours only, so you cannot visit the Capitol building or the museum in person.

However, the huge gardens outside are open for visits. Since it was close to my hotel, this was the first place I visited, and I definitely enjoyed all the greenery, paths and sculptures.

Different parts of the gardens showcase plants, trees and flowers from various regions of the U.S. and from other countries. This is also a popular area for walking, picnics, photography and people playing with their dogs.

Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Located near the Capitol, the Leland Stanford Mansion is now a state park and recently underwent a $22 million, 14-year restoration to bring it back to its original Victorian grandeur. The home was originally built in 1856 and then purchased and enlarged by the Stanford family, who had made their money in the railroad industry. The house served as the governor’s office for Leland Stanford and two subsequent California governors.

The home was used as an orphanage after Jane Stanford donated it to the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, but it is now open to the public. Guided tours are required to visit but are free. Tour guides will explain the history of the home, the Stanford family and life in Sacramento from the 1850s to 1870s. Tours depart every hour on the hour but are limited to a maximum of 10 people.

Crocker Art Museum

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

I visited the Crocker Art Museum during the Bank of America “Museums on Us” weekend, which provided free admission (the California Museum is also on this list, but I didn’t visit it). I’ll admit that I am not the biggest art museum fan, but this museum is huge and impressive.

It was originally a private museum holding the personal collection of the Crocker family (another dynasty that made its money in the railroad industry), and they built a facility next to their house to showcase their works during parties held there. These days, the collection has expanded greatly and extends into a building multiple times the size of the original, as well as into parts of the former family home.

The Crocker Art Museum also offers free guided tours, which you can find on the museum’s website. I was the only person who showed up for the tour, so I enjoyed a one-on-one experience completely for free. It was fantastic.

The museum has exhibits of numerous types, including some of the personal effects of the Crocker family, European paintings they purchased during a trip to the continent in the 19th century, modern sculptures and huge collections of jade and pottery. The museum also has hands-on activities for children and the passion of the tour guide was infectious.

California Automobile Museum

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

From the Crocker Art Museum, I walked to the California Automobile Museum. Admission is $10. The museum is not just about cars but also the impact of cars on California’s culture.

At this museum, I meandered independently, even though you can look for volunteers in blue vests to ask questions or request a tour. The museum is not overly large and follows a straightforward layout highlighting the evolution of cars over time and their impact on California.

What I found most interesting was the section on low riders and cruising in California noting the history and legal discussions surrounding this phenomenon.

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park sits on the eastern side of Sacramento, so I used part of my monthly Uber credits for a ride to this open-air exhibit showcasing the original fort that served as the foundation of the modern city and also the logistics hub from which early miners set out to look for gold. Admission to the fort is $5.

While it was somewhat interesting, this wasn’t the highlight of the trip.

State Indian Museum

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Next door to Sutter’s Fort is the State Indian Museum where admission is also $5.

The museum explores the history of native peoples in California, both before and after the arrival of Europeans in the area. The highlight for me was stumbling on a powwow on the grounds outside, with hundreds of people gathered. I did not see any information about this on the museum’s homepage, nor is there any information on the “events” tab on the website.

The powwow included local musicians and dancers in traditional dress, and I could tell that I was not the only person who heard the drumming and went to see what was happening. This was a trip highlight for sure.

California State Railroad Museum

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

From the powwow, I took another Uber ride back to Old Sacramento and visited the California State Railroad Museum, which was fascinating but also overwhelming in some ways.

There are tons of trains and numerous exhibits. This is one of those museums where everything is just … there. I couldn’t find any logical path to follow or much information after leaving the first hall. Thus, it turned into mostly a photo opportunity with random exhibits.

There are tours mentioned on the website, so I recommend taking one to get a better understanding of the museum and what you are looking at. The only two areas that had information for those touring independently were the exhibit on Asian immigrants working on the railroad and the exhibit covering the famous Golden Spike Ceremony when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. I definitely enjoyed finding out that the famous painting of this ceremony is a farce.

Excursionist train ride

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

Near the Railroad Museum, you can visit the Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station. This is a replica of a frontier train station and the boarding area for the excursionist train rides run by the Central Pacific train line.

Excursionist trains run daily, but there is also a first-class car available on the weekends. In first class, we had snacks (a choice of cookies or pretzels) and drinks (choice of bottled water or bottled lemonade) plus chocolates to make it a “sweet ride,” according to the cabin attendants. Economy-class seating options include interior benches or open-air cars, while first class has more space and more comfortable seating. These premium cabins rotate on a monthly basis, and the car I rode in was The El Dorado model from the 1920s.

Economy tickets are $15, while first class costs $25. Note that you can buy tickets online in advance, but there is a $2.50 processing fee.

The train ride lasts for approximately 50 minutes, going south along the river and then coming back along that same path. Closer to Christmas, though, these trains operate on a “Polar Express” theme, taking families to Santa’s workshop and following the theme of the popular children’s story. Cabin attendants told me tickets for these rides sell out quickly and advised planning ahead.

Taking the train down the coast was a fantastic end to the weekend

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

I flew up to Sacramento International Airport (SMF) from my home in Southern California for the weekend on my first-ever Spirit Airlines flight, which went smoothly.

To return home, I decided to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight train. This train runs once per day in each direction between Seattle and Los Angeles. I departed on time at 6:48 a.m. and arrived in Los Angeles around 9:30 p.m. — which was 20 minutes late.

Admittedly, this is a 14-hour ride, but paying just $61 for my economy ticket gave me the chance to experience a long-distance train for the first time in over seven years. Some people don’t enjoy trains, but I love them. I relish being able to move around and have more space than you experience on a plane. The lounge and dining cars allow you to eat at a real table with panoramic views rather than the tray table at your plane seat.

Yes, flying gets you there faster. However, the experience is sometimes more important, and I enjoyed taking the slow, scenic route.

The Coast Starlight train left Sacramento and headed over to Oakland before turning south for San Jose, Salinas and San Luis Obispo. It’s at this point that the scenery hits its peak: Until you pass Ventura, the train runs right along the coast. There are beautiful views over the cliffs, down to the Pacific Ocean below. Those of us on the observation car’s upper deck even saw seals swimming near an empty beach.

Even with beautiful vistas, 14 hours is a lot of time. But breaking it up with dining, sightseeing, working, stretching your legs while walking from your seat to the snack car and whatever else you like to do to pass time, it really isn’t that bad. And I found the scenery outside the viewing car to be a great end to a weekend that was better than I expected.

Bottom line

(Photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy)

My weekend in Sacramento went better than I expected. Options abound for food and drinks, entertainment and hotels. The city is easy to get around and had a lot more to do than I had expected.

Most tourists in California visit Los Angeles, San Francisco and areas along the coast. Sacramento is overlooked, but I think it merits consideration after my recent visit. It’s an especially great city to visit on a weekend since I found hotel rates to be 20%-30% cheaper than on weekdays. Would I go back to Sacramento to visit? Absolutely, and I would take my wife with me next time.

Featured photo by Ryan Smith/The Points Guy.

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