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9 Best Things To Do on the Old Sacramento Waterfront
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9 Best Things To Do on the Old Sacramento Waterfront

The Old Sacramento River’s eastern banks are where you’re heading for this adventure.

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5 min read

December 16, 2021

Only a few minutes away from Sacramento’s sleek, modern Golden 1 Center, the Old Sacramento Waterfront stands as a time capsule of sorts. Its wooden sidewalks serpent around 19th-century buildings, providing a glance into the Gold Rush you can’t experience anywhere else in California—not at this concentration at least. The Old Sacramento River’s eastern banks are where you’re heading for this adventure.

Old Sacramento Waterfront is a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District that lives in homage to California's beginning with the Gold Rush of 1849.

Gold Fever: The History of the Old Sacramento Waterfront 

When glittering nuggets of gold were discovered in the Sierra Foothills, a hell-bent tide of fortune-hunters raced as fast as they could to the Gold Country. Sailing as far as they could up from San Francisco Bay east on the Old Sacramento River, the gold-hungry pioneers pulled up at the furthest point they could given that they were in their sailing ships. A town sprang up seemingly overnight, with a slew of buildings constructed out of leftover ship timbers and sails—this was the birth of Old Town Sacramento. And today, on those same sycamore-shaded banks of the Old Sacramento River, you too can get a sense of those years; only now you can do so at a 28-acre National Historic Landmark.

Old Sacramento Waterfront Things to Do

1. Travel Back in Time at Old Sacramento State Historic Park

Completely blocked off to street traffic, this corner of the Old Sacramento Waterfront relives the days when the Pony Express and the First Transcontinental Railroad rolled around town. Old Sacramento State Historic Park is a beauty to behold, with exterior walls of the historic Eagle Theater still intact, constructions of canvas and wood salvaged from ships, and the 1855 Huntington-Hopkins Hardware store full of fun trinkets from the bygone era.

The Delta King is an authentic, historic, and permanently moored riverboat on the Sacramento River.

2. Explore the Delta King

A historic riverboat that once shuttled travelers from San Francisco to Sacramento is now a waterfront hotel and a primo dining destination. Docked at the edge of Old Sacramento on the Sacramento River, this grand 1927 bateau welcomes guests to explore its ornate interiors and even spend the night in one of the shipshape rooms. Yet, if you haven’t got all day to spend at the Delta King, you have nothing to worry about—there are two restaurants on board. The Pilothouse is for fine dining and the Delta Bar and Grill serves as a more casual alternative (with an exceptional American Kobe burger, might we add).

The California State Railroad Museum interprets the role of the "iron horse" in connecting California to the rest of the nation.

3. Pop by the California State Railroad Museum

Located inside the Old Sacramento Historic State Park, the California State Railroad Museum’s nondescript exterior hides one of the region's most immersive experiences of transport. It’s all the glamorous, pre-ridesharing-app rail travel you can think of, set within a cavernous, hangar-sized interior with more than 40 magnificent engines and railcars. Star-status sightings at this railroad museum include the house-sized Southern Pacific Railroad Cab Forward Number 4294 and a rocking sleeping car that stimulates a night’s journey. Don’t miss the top floor’s immersive display of toy trains that zip around a mini countryside of towns, bridges, and tunnels—your kids are going to love it.

4. Take the Underground Tour at the Sacramento History Museum

After a series of devastating floods in the 1850s and 1860s, the early town of Sacramento raised its street level up to nearly 20 feet. If you take the Underground Tour led by the docents of the Sacramento History Museum, you can still explore the hollow sidewalks and the dark, subterranean spaces left behind. Your tour ticket also gets you into the museum; the exhibits tell you everything you need to know about Sacramento’s booming Gold Rush past. The third floor even features half a million dollars worth of gold!

Do yourself a tremendous favor and go to a record store today. Vinyl has gotten to the point where it’s exclusively for the collector.

5. Shop at Brook’s Novelty Antiques 

While a good portion of Old Town Sac proffers in Gold Rush romance, Brook’s Novelty Antiques is a timewarp to a pre-Spotify era when record stores were an essential component of a trendy neighborhood. Located on Firehouse Alley, this hidden gem brims with bins of jazz, soul, and classic rock. You can also find a small collection of vintage Americana; keep an eye out for jukeboxes, pinballs, and slot machines.

6. Wander ARound Evangeline’s Costume Mansion

Ever wished it was Halloween all year long? Well, one of the best things you can do in Old Sacramento is visiting Evangeline’s Costume Mansion, a goth palace filled with every costume and accessory imaginable. Wander around the many themed rooms spread across two buildings; one of them is the 1853 Lady Adams Building built of brick ballast from a namesake ship and the other is the show-stopping three-story Murder and Mayhem scavenger hunt. Participants in the latter experience are sent into a manor to learn about the most notorious murders in history.

Once home to the Sacramento Firehouse No. 3, the Firehouse Restaurant is a must-stop lunch spot on the Old Sacramento Waterfront.

7. Lunch at the Firehouse Restaurant

Housed in a former firehouse of 1853, the special occasion, fine-dining Firehouse Restaurant dishes out elegance like no other. The stately dining room—opened in 1960—hosts museum-worthy framed artwork from the Gold Rush era, setting the stage for dishes such as herb-crusted rack of lamb and other specialties. Service, as you might have guessed, is nothing short of a first-class affair; everything has a bit of historic charm to it, making it one of the best things to do to get a feel of the Old Sacramento Waterfront. If weather permits, nab a seat on the outdoor courtyard and enjoy your food near a gurgling fountain.

8. Dine at Fanny Ann’s Saloon

Named after the famous 1842 Sacramento steamship that served in the Civil War, the old-timey Fanny Ann’s Saloon is crammed with an entire museum’s worth of bric-a-brac hanging from the ceilings and walls—a few of these trinkets are supposedly rescued from the actual boat itself. There’s an astounding collection of local farm-to-fork cuisine cranked out by a tiny kitchen downstairs. Burgers, wings, and pub-grub staples like the signature Jiffy Burger topped with peanut butter and bacon are ones you need to try.

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. You’re off to great places, and today is your day.

9. Hike the Sacramento Waterfront Trail

The Sacramento Waterfront will always remain one of the state capital’s best walking trails. The year-round wander encircles the banks of the Sacramento River, boasting multiple Instagram-worthy angles of the nearby pedestrian bridges—stunning mountainous landscapes reflecting in blue waters are guaranteed to flow all the heart reacts.

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