Right along the well-traveled route between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, handsome Sacramento is one of those places most everyone's heard of but far fewer know terribly well. Barely an hour from the Napa Valley, Sacramento doesn't attract the attention many other places in Northern California do—in fact, of the many things that are impressive about this almost demure city of nearly half a million people, Sacramento's modesty and serenity are perhaps the most striking.
It is, as someone from this part of the world might say, a "chill" place, by and large, a place of tree-shaded streets connecting charming, classically Californian commercial districts. This also happens to be one of the most diverse, most integrated cities in North America, giving it a somewhat worldly feel, for all its laidback-ness.
With the Bay Area property market what it is right now, affordable Sacramento—already connected to Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose via Amtrak's fairly frequent, daily Capital Corridor commuter service—now has the undivided attention of real estate investors. In other words, the way things are in Sacramento will most likely not be the way they stay for very long. Before everyone starts saying it's a thing, go check it out—you'll discover that, in its own way, Sacramento is already very much a thing. Here are just a few essential experiences to get you started.
Hit the Sunday farmers market
San Francisco loves its fresh ingredients, but here you’re even closer to many of those farms responsible for the same produce. Sacramento has all of the good stuff with almost none of the pretense (and often at less punishing prices). It feels like you're never far from a good farmers market here, but the one to start with is the lively one held Sundays underneath the freeway at the foot of Southside Park.
Get out on the American River
Snaking its way up toward the Sierras, it's impossible to truly appreciate Sacramento without spending time along this locally loved waterway that never seems to be very far away. There's no shortage of ways to engage along a 23-mile stretch known as the American River Parkway, from the world-class bike trail that runs parallel to swimming at Sand Cove (it's almost a real beach!) to floating and kayaking opportunities and even rock jumping in the more rugged stretch of the river at Folsom.
Visit the city's coolest neighborhood
From walkable Midtown with its abundance of nightlife and coffee shops to the charming residential streets of Land Park, much of Sacramento has long been nicely livable. Cool, however? Not so much. That's changing, and quickly—to get up to speed, head out into Oak Park, just off the city's famous central grid but once pretty much off the map for anyone who doesn’t live there. The neighborhood has recently been transformed into a lab of sorts for the sort of change you can likely expect to see a great deal of around town, in the years to come. Pretty much anything the modern city dweller would want or need can be found along a short-ish stretch of Broadway. Indie bookstore, excellent coffee shop, microbrewery, urban gardening center, restored historic theater—it's all here. Rents are already climbing (surprise, surprise)—if you're thinking of living here, better get in now.
Have a beer. Have many beers, in fact
With dozens (no, really) of microbreweries around and with more sure to come, it's safe to say that Sacramento—like pretty much every big city out West, these days—is crazy for craft beer. From the tasting room at Sactown Union Brewery in East Sacramento (open five days a week) to the intimate Pangaea Bier Café in quiet Curtis Park with its excellent tap selection, there's no wrong way to dive into the scene—just make sure you do.
Take the kids—or the kid in you—to Funderland
Open since 1946 and just one of the many things that make Sacramento's massive Land Park so worth a visit, Funderland (pictured) is one of the best little vintage amusement parks in the West. Disneyland it's not, but the Crazy Cups will be just one of the rides that may seem more than a little familiar. While you're here, pop next door to Fairytale Town, another retro wonder, a not-for-profit park that brings popular children's stories and nursery rhymes to life. (Say hi to Mary's little lambs for us.)
Get out on the Delta
Anyone with a passing knowledge of California weather could be forgiven for wondering how and why, on a gorgeously sunny afternoon, is Sacramento, far away from the cooling breezes of the Pacific Ocean, not roasting to death? For that, thank the city's location at the tail end of the vast Sacramento Delta, which most days conveys the cooling breezes from the far-away San Francisco Bay and into one very lucky city. The Delta is perhaps the last thing many visitors to California expect to find, with a landscape more typical to the likes of Louisiana than the Golden State, with its levees, rice farms and sleepy little villages rich in history. All that's missing, really, are the gators. Start your tour in tiny Isleton, home to an annual Cajun festival (no, seriously) in June where crawfish—naturally!—are a focal point. While you're out here, make sure to visit Locke, a historic village settled by the Asian immigrants that were so important to the early life of the Delta. Stop in at Al The Wop's (13936 Main St., Walnut Grove, CA), an antique of a tavern that remains a firm favorite with road-tripping Northern Californians.