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Two hours north of the state capital, tucked away among rice fields and almond orchards, is a little oasis: Chico, California. Chico is most commonly known for being home to Chico State—one of California’s first state universities—which was established in 1887. But you may all be wondering the same thing: What else is up there, and why should I bother to visit? As someone who spent four years living in the fastest-growing city in California, I’m here to give you the scoop on why this NorCal gem is bound to steal your heart.
This may come as a shock to you, but Chico has some of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at (and this is coming from someone who grew up and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area). The hidden foodie hot spot offers many local favorites ranging from casual college eateries to upscale steakhouses. If you’re looking for the ultimate Chico staple to kick off your visit to the “City of Trees,” your first stop will have to be Madison Bear Garden, or as the locals call it, “The Bear.” This classic burger joint is located inside a historic building right in front of the Chico State campus, making it a popular place for students to grab a bite to eat between classes. The signature Jiffy burger—a bacon burger smeared with a heavy helping of peanut butter—is bound to be a favorite among those who crave an unlikely flavor combo.
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If classic pub food with a twist is more your flavor, The Banshee in downtown Chico will satisfy your craving. The menu features a wide range of dishes for every mood. The braised brisket Pho-rench Dip is the flavor mash-up food lovers dream about, and the bubbling oven-baked mac and cheese is impossible not to love.
Chico doesn’t stop at casual dining, though. Treat your taste buds by taking a trip to 5th Street Steakhouse. Locally owned and operated, the steakhouse offers a variety of USDA Prime cuts of beef, fresh seafood, and other unique dishes that are sure to make any occasion memorable.
Chico has no shortage of hotels, but if you’re seeking a distinct, luxurious experience, look no further than the Hotel Diamond. Situated in the heart of downtown Chico, this classic accommodation has been in business since 1904—and for good reason. The rooms are as sumptuous and comfortable as the rest of the hotel and come equipped with soft robes and slippers. The hotel also has the Diamond Steakhouse, a high-end dining destination that features world-class fare made with locally grown produce.
For outdoor recreation, head to Bidwell Park, a 2,500-acre stretch of land that’s separated into two parts: lower and upper park. Lower Bidwell Park is home to the One Mile Recreation Area, which is where you’ll often see college students lounging, playing frisbee, or taking a dip in the man-made Sycamore Pool. The section of the park is also a great place to enjoy a scenic, leisurely California bike ride. Meanwhile, Upper Bidwell Park offers great hiking trails, thanks to its location in the foothills of the Cascades. One of the most beloved trails is Monkey Face. Suitable for beginner and moderate hikers, this dirt pathway leads to a rock that resembles the profile of a monkey head, giving it its name.
After all of that hiking, you’ll likely want to cool down, and if swimming sounds like a perfect way to spend the afternoon, make sure to visit Bear Hole in Upper Bidwell Park. Bear Hole is a natural swimming area created from a running creek, where you can usually find locals and students soaking in the sun and diving into the cool waters to escape the Chico summer heat.
You may not even know it, but some of your favorite brands and products are coming from Chico. The most notable local businesses include women’s apparel company Lulus and California outdoor company Klean Kanteen. (Lulus even has an outlet store in downtown Chico.)
But if you prefer artisanal local goods created by Chicoans, then visit Made in Chico, a downtown gift shop specializing in products made by local artists and craftspeople. You can find everything from jams to stationary, and there will be plenty of Chico soul in each treasure you find.
One of the best things about Chico is not something that can be seen with the human eye or experienced through your taste buds—it’s felt through the hospitality and heart of the community. Students make up the majority of Chico’s population, and that’s how I spent my four memorable years in the city. But being a transplant never changes the way that the locals treat you; shop owners and local vendors go out of their way to create a welcoming and warm environment to all who visit.
Whether you go to Chico for the unique eats, charming downtown, or outdoor adventures, the city has a unique way of stealing the hearts of those who experience it.
Paige DeRuyter is a contributing writer for California.com. A San Francisco Bay Area native, she spent several years living up north in Chico, California for her undergrad before returning to the Bay…
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