Toured the capitol? Explored old town? Then discover Sacramento's Midtown, a stroller's paradise of shops, galleries, and balmy alfresco dining.
Sacramento's reputation as a cow town persisted long after the herds had actually left. As the western terminus of the nation's first transcontinental railroad, the city was a natural gathering point for cattlemen, although later the bovine references probably had more to do with state legislators who stampeded out of town to the suburbs every night. "But people are starting to realize that Sacramento isn't a cow town anymore," says Diane Tempest, from Galleria Tempest in the Midtown district, the city's lively eating and schmoozing hot spot. A wildly popular art walk through the neighborhood's galleries and boutiques on the second Saturday evening of every month has helped transform Sacramento's sundown stampede into a galloping nightlife.
The alluring mix that makes Midtown a draw is reflected in Tempest's combination of work by local artists, her daughter's cutting-edge floral designs, and the wine bar next door. A block away at Bows and Arrows, vintage furniture and clothing treasures share what co-owner Olivia Coelho calls "three thousand square feet of '60s and '70s awesomeness."
The 2nd Saturday Art Walk emerged from the trunk shows of a few scattered Midtown boutiques in the '90s, and now virtually every shop, café, and valet parking spot has an exhibition or an easel up, with music playing somewhere close by. Zanzibar Tribal Art Gallery at 18th and L streets is a good place to start at 6 p.m. Pick up a map there or get one at www.2nd-sat.com.
"If you want to buy art for under $200, check out the coffee shops and boutiques," Coelho advises. Stroll along J Street to Cuffs Urban Apparel, which imports deejays on the art walk night, and the Spanish Fly Hair Garage, where you might hear a band and see a fashion show.
That's a lot to experience in three hours, but Sacramento has summer evenings that encourage late meals outside. "It can get hot during the day," says Tempest, "but around 6:30 or 7 the delta breezes come in and it's glorious."
Hip dining spots in Midtown include palatepleasing hangouts such as the Waterboy (known for its sweetbreads, sometimes sauteed with marsala, bacon, and mushrooms), and the high-end Mexican restaurant Zocalo, in the theatrically reconstituted Arnold Bros. auto showroom. Zocalo's pozole verde—a tangy hominy stew with pork, cabbage, and lime—is a must.
Sacramento has become what many cities aspire to be: a great walking town. Along Midtown streets, under a canopy of Dutch elm trees, the scene hums. Drop into 58 Degrees & Holding Co., for wining and dining, on 18th and Capitol.
Art and food have become so intertwined in Midtown that the second Saturday easels-and-eats crawl includes a stop at Michelangelo's Italian Art Restaurant, where dining and painting are both alfresco. The spaghetti comes with just one meatball, but it's the size of a softball. Get a table along the east wall and you can add your signature to others by a painted mural. Then visit the adjoining gallery to see how the pros do it.
The art at Moxie restaurant is all in the way owner Adam Chaccour reels off more than a dozen Italian specials as if he were performing an aria. If you prefer the main menu, try his hearty meat loaf.
Sacramento's cuisine may be nouvelle, but its history is Old West. It's an easy walk from Moxie to the area's first European settlement at Sutter's Fort. About nine times a year, the fort has Pioneer Demonstration Days.
If you have a passion for Victorian architecture, tour the Governor's Mansion at 16th and H streets and the Leland Stanford Mansion at Eighth and N streets, both now state historic parks. The posh Governor's Mansion, built in 1877 and furnished with fireplaces of Italian marble, gives you a glimpse of how the Golden State's chief executives lived from 1903 until 1967, when it was briefly inhabited by California's first actor-turned-governor, Ronald Reagan. Contrast this with the grandeur of Leland Stanford's 19,000-square-foot former estate and its 19th-century-style gardens.
On Midtown's southern border along Broadway, the fabled but now defunct Tower Records chain got its start under the neon beacon of the Tower Theatre. The cinema still thrives on a schedule of independent and foreign ﬁlms. The Tower Café next door offers outdoor seating, and it's a favorite breakfast stop for locals addicted to the delicious blueberry cornmeal pancakes.
From Midtown, a quick drive takes you to family-friendly Old Sacramento, west along the Sacramento River, and to William Land Park, south of Broadway. The park contains the zoo—which is home to endangered animals such as the white-handed gibbon—and the toddler-oriented Fairytale Town, where Mary's Little Lamb will put her hooves right up on the rail to give you a woolly greeting. "All the doorways are low here," says a park ranger, "so the kids feel they're in charge for a while."
After viewing animals—wild and tame—families can acquaint themselves with the ground-beef favorite served by Willie's Burgers & Chiliburger, and Suzie Burger. Willie's thoughtfully provides paper towel dispensers on the wall next to its tables. Suzie dishes up both burgers and cheesesteaks and is scenically located in what was, until recently, a gas station.
Fill 'er up. Whether you're seeking a classic burger or a hopping gallery and dining scene, this town is now a capital destination.
CALIFORNIA HALL OF FAME
Founded by California First Lady Maria Shriver two years ago, it spotlights state luminaries such as Walt Disney, Jackie Robinson, and Sally Ride. 1020 O St., (916) 653-7524, www.californiamuseum.org.
CALIFORNIA STATE CAPITOL MUSEUM
Daily tours show state history and lawmaking. 10th and L streets., (916) 324-0333, www.capitolmuseum.ca.gov.
CALIFORNIA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM
For insight into the technology behind the opening of the West, visit this dazzling stable of iron horses. 111 I St., (916) 323-9280, www.csrmf.org.
CROCKER ART MUSEUM
The oldest continuously operating art museum west of the Mississippi River is in the midst of an expansion that will triple its size. 216 O St., (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org.
A riverside re-creation of Gold Rush days. Front Street between I and L streets, (916) 442-7644, www.oldsacramento.com.
Photography by Catherine Karnow
This article was first published in May 2008 and updated September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.