The main draw of Sacramento has been its proximity to other places: Lake Tahoe (90 minutes east), the Bay Area (90 minutes southwest), Napa and Sonoma (90 minutes west). But with housing prices in even Oakland skyrocketing, young creatives are finding the capital city an affordable haven, and they’re powering demand for places to eat, drink, and frolic. A waterfront entertainment complex debuts this summer, and a new sports arena will open downtown in time for the Kings’ next tip-off. But the city’s best asset might be its original one: the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers that makes this some of the most fertile land in the nation, not to mention a playground with a hint of newfound cool.
Central Valley temperatures can soar by midday, so hit the streets early. First, fuel up with bananas Foster french toast at the neighborhoody Bacon & Butter, or dig into a chipotle-spiked pile of eggs, wilted greens, and hash browns at Grange, the restaurant inside the Citizen Hotel ($169-$800). Housed in the 1925 California-Western States Life Insurance Company building, the grand 196-room boutique hotel offers bright, updated accommodations with some period touches. The American River Parkway’s Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail includes 32 miles of paved pathway that snakes through parkland and past bridges and historic sites all the way to Folsom, with its turn-of-the-century main drag. Stroll any part of the trail, or rent a bike from Practical Cycles in the Old Sacramento tourist district, whose 19th-century buildings are best avoided unless you adore taffy or trains (the Railroad Museum is world famous). The whistle-clean light-rail system can shave off a few miles if you want to explore the trail’s more natural stretches to the east. Require liquid refreshment? Head 20 minutes south on I-5 to the delta town of Clarksburg, where wine and farmland flourish. The Old Sugar Mill, built to process cane in the 1930s, features brick-walled tasting rooms for a dozen or so local wineries. Drive over drawbridges and along narrow farm roads to Bogle, a winery with a bucolic picnic area beneath white-flowering pear trees. Grab some gourmet goodies from Selland’s Market Café or the Corti Brothers in Sactown before you go.
Sacramento has more trees per capita than any other city in the world. By May the canopy is all abloom as you prowl Midtown for shopping deals. J Street is home to funky thrift stores as well as affordable boutiques like Shop Cuffs, with its mix of vintage and new fashions, and the Sugar Shack Boutique, which offers racks of well-priced girly frocks. The Warehouse Artist Lofts complex—there’s subsidized artist housing above and retail on the ground floor—is the centerpiece of a booming new R Street scene. Pick up a pair of custom fabric loafers from Benjamins Shoes, run by 31-year-old self-taught cobbler Benjamin Schwartz, or a record and a 1960s highball set from Kicksville, which specializes in LPs and midcentury housewares. Set partly in a 19th-century mansion, the Crocker Art Museum has an enviable collection from around the world, focusing heavily on California. The capitol building and its grounds occupy a block of the city center, and it’s worth popping in to gaze at the Beaux Arts dome and the hall of governors’ portraits (check out ’70s-era Jerry Brown). As happy hour approaches, find your way to R Street’s Shady Lady Saloon for a rum-powered Venezuelan sour.
Scorching afternoons yield to dreamy evenings. Located in the basement of K Street’s art deco Crest Theater, Empress Tavern is where Michael Thiemann executes large-format meat dishes for au courant carnivores. (His casual vegetarian restaurant, Mother, is a lunchtime favorite.) Brick archways amplify the din, but the smoked prime rib and the bone marrow whiskey luge will keep you quiet. Ella is a more serene spot to taste the “farm to fork” capital, the stellar service framing seasonal dishes like pork-and-rabbit terrine with candied fennel. Half cocktail bar, half high-end barbershop (trims stop at 5 p.m. on weekends), Bottle & Barlowe lures the after-dinner crowd with fancy libations on the front patio. B-Side, a recently converted dive, spins classic vinyl nightly for sidecar-sipping cool kids. But the best place to finish the night might be in the bar at the Citizen, which is decked out like a formal library with political cartoons and pics from Arnold’s bodybuilding days. Book one of the penthouse suites for a balcony view of the Capitol as it lights up the night sky.