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Cruising up the alpine-studded mountainside and leaving the idyllic town of Auburn behind, the change in ambience and scenery becomes palpable as you draw closer to Tahoe National Forest. The pleasant breeze becomes crisp and biting; the highway becomes enveloped in steep, snowy terrain; and the air becomes permeated with the fragrant scent of pine forest. When the towering trees finally give way at the crest of the mountain road, you’re greeted by incredible vistas of snow-covered peaks and powder-dusted conifers, which stretch on for as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Sierra Nevada.
While many continue driving on I-80 until they reach popular Lake Tahoe, there’s another spectacular region that’s not as well known but just as rich in natural wonders and outdoor adventure: Truckee, California. The town of Truckee is the gateway to Lake Tahoe and is often overlooked in favor of its glitzier neighbor—but it is quickly becoming a coveted destination in its own right, attracting more and more attention with its quaint main street, buzzing nightlife, superb restaurants, and charming shops.
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Truckee is also steeped in history. Recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the town is named for a Paiute Indian chief who helped thousands of European emigrants cross the Sierra Nevada in the 1840s; according to local legend, the chief would shout “Tro-kay!” (which means “everything is alright”) when he encountered travelers, so they assumed he was introducing himself, and the name stuck. Aside from its Emigrant Trail, the town also became known for its logging and ice-manufacturing industries, and—thanks to the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics—it was eventually recognized as a major destination for winter sports.
The Truckee of today continues to draw tourists and outdoor enthusiasts alike with its contemporary comforts and natural splendor while still retaining its historic roots, combining Old West charm and high style to create a distinctive ambience. Here’s how to spend a winter weekend in the lakeside town.
As you arrive in downtown Truckee, the city’s storied past is immediately on full display: The lively sidewalks are lined with Victorian structures and historic buildings housing unique boutiques, eateries, nightlife spots, and novelty shops (there’s even a retro gas station). So, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve taken a step back in time—especially once you reach The Truckee Hotel. This historical landmark in the heart of downtown has been welcoming travelers since the 1870s, when it served as a stagecoach stop along the Dutch Flat Wagon Road. It continues to be a popular haven for visitors, beckoning with its warm, wood-accented interiors and modern amenities.
Check in for the weekend and head up to your thoughtfully appointed guest room to drop off your bags and prepare for the adventures that await. (If you prefer a more secluded stay, there are cozy Airbnb cabins as well as the Lucky Dog Lodge merely minutes from downtown.)
Fuel up for your afternoon excursions with a hefty sandwich at the locally beloved Full Belly Deli. As the name implies, you won’t leave here feeling hungry. The eatery uses fresh ingredients to craft crave-worthy creations such as the savory GNAR burrito stuffed with dry-rubbed tri-tip, gooey pepper jack, hash browns, a fried egg, and green chilies; a decadent Cuban sandwich bursting with black forest ham, roasted pork loin, Swiss cheese, and tangy pickles; and the Dirka Dirka featuring corned beef, pastrami, pepperoncinis, Swiss, and jalapeño coleslaw. Once you’ve made the difficult decision, slide into one of the picnic tables on the patio to devour your meal.
Once satiated, drive 15 minutes to the famed Northstar for a day on the powdery California slopes. This luxurious, family-friendly destination is one of the best ski resorts in California, with terrain that provides mountain thrills for even the most experienced skiers and snowboarders. But even if you’re more into après ski, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment here. From ice skating and sitting by the fire pits to snow tubing down the hill and warming up with a cup of hot cocoa at The Village at Northstar, you can enjoy a combination of excitement and relaxation. For the ultimate indulgence, pamper yourself with a spa treatment to soothe your muscles after your day of fun in the snow.
After the sun sets over the snowy peaks, retreat to your room at The Truckee Hotel and freshen up for dinner with a leisurely soak in the clawfoot tub. While it may be difficult to draw yourself away from the cozy environs, it’s time to nourish your body and soul with a divine dinner at Pianeta. Walk for two minutes to reach this romantic restaurant on Donner Pass Road, and you’ll be greeted by the mouthwatering scents of simmering bolognese and sizzling Italian sausage.
Settle in at your table and kick off the night with an artisanal beverage and the piatto formaggio featuring Humboldt fog cheese, aged pecorino, and creamy Taleggio—all carefully plated alongside quince spread, fresh fruit, and fig compote. Follow it up with a plate of house-made tagliatelle interlaced with spicy fennel and Tuscan-style sausage and smothered in savory marinara sauce. Or, for something slightly lighter, order the heaping bowl of fresh clams served in a fragrant broth perfumed with white wine, tomatoes, and basil. End the evening on a sweet note with the silky lemon panna cotta adorned with mixed berry coulis.
When you return to the hotel, savor a nightcap at the on-site Moody’s, lounge by the fire pits and reminisce about your first day in Truckee, or simply read a good book in bed before turning out the lights.
Rise and shine to beat the lines at Squeeze In. The quirky, alien-themed eatery only has 50 seats, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character and delectable breakfast fare—drawing droves on the weekends (even celebrity chef Bobby Flay has dined here). The countless breakfast options can seem overwhelming, but it’s hard to go wrong at Squeeze In. From banana walnut pancakes and cream cheese–stuffed French toast to Spanish- and Hawaiian-inspired four-egg omelettes, there’s something for every craving on the robust menu. (Kids are also bound to love the adorable bear-shaped pancakes and the mugs of hot chocolate capped with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.)
Follow up your hearty meal by meandering through downtown Truckee. The main thoroughfare offers a peek into the past, but make no mistake—you’ll find nothing but contemporary businesses here. Browse for your next novel at Word After Word Books; shop for locally made ceramics, handcrafted jewelry, and home decor at Bespoke; treat yourself to a stylish sweater, T-shirt, or boots at Nomad Boutique; and satiate your sweet tooth at the bright-pink, nostalgia-inducing s’mores food truck.
Before continuing your Truckee explorations, grab an afternoon pick-me-up from Coffeebar. Aiming to evoke the café culture of Italy, this hip hangout spot offers artisanal cups of joe in a convivial environment. From perfect pour overs and espresso shots to lavender lattes and coconut chai teas, you can find your fix here.
Channel your newfound energy into an outdoor activity at Donner Memorial State Park. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, less than 10 minutes from downtown Truckee, this gorgeous expanse offers ample opportunities for outdoor recreation. Fish for planted trout and kokanee, cross-country ski or snowshoe along the 8-plus miles of trails, and witness the region’s fascinating geologic formations—all while taking in views of the glimmering Donner Lake surrounded by snow-dusted peaks and lush forest.
When you’re ready to warm up, head to the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center, where you can immerse yourself in Truckee’s history. This small yet riveting museum features compelling exhibits with artifacts and stories of the Emigrant Experience, including those of the Donner Party, Native Americans, and transcontinental railroad workers. Right outside lies the Pioneer Monument, a California Historical Landmark that was erected to commemorate those who emigrated to California from the east in the mid-1800s.
Toast to your fun-filled day in Truckee at the venerable Moody’s. The stylish restaurant specializes in inventive farm-to-table eats and artisanal beverages—but it is anything but pretentious. This inviting bistro is where you’ll find first-time tourists alongside longtime Truckee residents, who flock here for the seasonally driven fare. Savor everything from authentic Neapolitan pizzas and house-made pastas to succulent, organic steaks and fresh seafood. Though the menu changes frequently, you won’t leave here disappointed, especially when you can enjoy live music with your meal.
Indeed, Moody’s not only draws crowds with its delicious food, but also with its musical performances on most weekend nights, when diners can listen to acclaimed blues, jazz, or Americana bands starting at 8:30 p.m. With bumpin’ tunes, farm-fresh dishes, and laid-back vibes, Moody’s is the perfect place to end your unforgettable weekend in Truckee.
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Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…
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