Born from the boom of the 1849 Gold Rush, Sacramento, the laid-back capital of California, has a decidedly slower pace of life these days.

Grand Victorian houses painted in playful colors rub shoulders with more staid modern structures, and Sacramento’s low-rise cityscape has just a single building above 30 stories, making the city feel manageable to explore even if you only have time for a short visit.

Once bounded by the Sacramento and American Rivers, the city limits have pushed well beyond these natural barriers – though the main neighborhoods that travelers will want to put on their itineraries still lie around Sacramento’s original foundations.

Here are the best Sacramento neighborhoods to explore on your trip.

Historic facades of brick buildings in the tourist-friendly Old Town district, Sacramento, California, USA
Sacramento’s most historic district, Old Town contains the largest concentration of Gold Rush-era buildings in California © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

Explore California history in Old Sacramento

Chock full of brick structures with old-timey signage, Old Sacramento is where the city got its start, and today this district is the largest collection of Gold Rush-era buildings in the state. Sandwiched into just a few blocks between the Sacramento River and Interstate 5, Old Sacramento has plenty of kitschy shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, reachable by raised wooden boardwalks that run above and along the cobblestone streets. This area is particularly atmospheric in early September during Gold Rush Days when the streets are covered in truckloads of dirt and plied by horse-drawn carriages and costumed actors and performers put on a show.

Holding down the fort at the northern end of the area are the California State Railroad Museum and the Sacramento History Museum, perfect spots for trainspotters and history nerds to while away part of a day. The Sacramento History Museum runs fascinating Underground Tours that take you below the current street level to show how the buildings were put on supports and ratcheted up an entire floor in the 1860s, the surprisingly successful method used to avoid further flooding from the rivers.

Old Sacramento is the city’s main draw for travelers, and if you want to stay in the thick of things, you can sleep aboard a restored 1927 paddlewheel boat called Delta King that’s permanently moored in the river.

The permanently moored Delta King steamboat by night, now a hotel in Downtown Sacramento, California, USA
The permanently moored Delta King, now a hotel, is a fixture of the Sacramento riverfront © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

You’ll find yourself in the middle of the action in Downtown Sacramento

Immediately east of Old Sacramento, Downtown Sacramento offers a balanced mix of business and pleasure, best evidenced by its bookends of the Golden 1 Center, where the Sacramento Kings NBA team tips off, and the California State Capitol building

By day, the culturally inclined have lots to keep them occupied. The Crocker Art Museum has an incredible collection spread across three floors of a railroad baron’s elegant Victorian mansion as well as a modern extension – don’t miss Thomas Hill’s massive 6ft by 10ft Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite painting if you’re headed to Yosemite National Park on a day trip from Sacramento. If you love classic cars, you should make a pilgrimage to the California Automobile Museum, a short drive southwest of downtown; or you can brush up on your knowledge of under-represented people in the state’s history at the California Museum. The lush Capitol Park that surrounds the statehouse is studded with monuments, native plant species and a Victorian-style rose garden with a central fountain.

By night, downtown’s K Street – conveniently connected to Old Sacramento via a pedestrian underpass – is abuzz with bar hoppers. Join the party up on the outdoor deck at Darling Aviary or down the stairs at Coin-Op Game Room, where you can get rid of your quarters in dozens of old-school arcade games and pinball machines. Fuel up before a big night at Solomon’s, a Jewish-style delicatessen with international flavors that celebrates Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, or at The Bank, a financial institution turned food hall with ornate coffered ceilings and a self-serve craft beer bar in the vault.

Sacramento’s best big hotels are downtown, including the Kimpton Sawyer, which boasts a tree-dotted outdoor pool terrace on the 3rd floor, and The Citizen, set inside a 1925 building that was Sacramento’s first skyscraper.

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Seek out stylish restaurants and eye-catching architecture in Midtown

A step east of downtown, Midtown is much more residential than central Sacramento, yet it still retains an urban atmosphere – think chatty sidewalk cafes, well-used bike lanes and walkable streets. Architecture admirers should head to the ironically named “Poverty Ridge,” where poor residents fled during the devastating floods of the 1860s and which had become Sacramento’s wealthiest neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. Stroll along 21st and 22nd streets to see an impressive variety of architectural styles on display, from Beaux Arts to Italianate and Colonial Revival.

The neighborhood is at its most vibrant on Saturdays when the Midtown Farmers Market, with stalls of local produce and crafts, is on; the Second Saturday art walks take it up a notch further. If you aren’t cooking up your farmers' market finds, Midtown dishes up some of Sacramento’s coolest restaurants for every taste, from vegan tacos at Bambi to German sausages at LowBrau and farm-to-fork fare at The Waterboy. You can’t go too wrong picking a spot to eat in this area, and restaurants, coffee shops, bars and breweries are scattered all around the neighborhood.

Midtown has a handful of hotels along its border with downtown, but if you want to stay elsewhere in the neighborhood, you’ll have to use a house rental service like Airbnb or Vrbo.

Wooded Victorian houses with porches, with trees and succulent plantings by the sidewalk on a street in Midtown, Sacramento, California, USA
The Midtown neighborhood of Sacramento boasts houses in a variety of architectural styles, from Beaux Arts to Italianate to Victorian © slobo / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Families will love the scene in East Sacramento

Cozy East Sacramento will make you feel right at home. This chilled-out neighborhood is the perfect spot for families who want to experience the city at a slower pace or for visitors more interested in reading and relaxing in local cafes than museum hopping.

East Sacramento has tree-lined streets and is dotted with parks large and small. At nearly 32 acres, McKinley Park is the biggest of the bunch and is a hit with kids thanks to its adventure playground, pool and small lake. Popular with joggers and cyclists, a dirt path laces its way along the neighborhood’s northern edge, feeding into the paved American River Bike Trail to the east.

Coffee drinkers are spoiled for choice in East Sacramento: try a small-batch brew from Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters or support coffee growers with a cup at Pachamama Coffee Bar, the only US coffee roaster wholly owned by a cooperative of family farmers from Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and Ethiopia. 

Folsom Blvd is the main commercial street, and here you’ll find local institution Corti Brothers, an Italian-flavored grocery store opened in 1947 that’s been serving lovingly made sandwiches and ravioli for decades – they say their ravioli is the oldest continuously produced food product in Sacramento.

Travelers will find some midrange and budget motels along the highways on the area’s boundaries, but to experience the heart of the neighborhood, you’ll want to rent a house.

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