Fourth grade is when California public school kids study the history of their state, and at my daughters’ San Francisco K-5, normally the school year concludes with a field trip to the state capitol, Sacramento. This past school year, when my younger daughter, like her older sister before her, was supposed to go to Sacramento with her fourth-grade class, the trip, unfortunately, fell through. So, in the interest of both educational enrichment and sibling equity, I took her to Sacramento in early June for a California history field trip of our own.
Would you like to take a similar trip with your kids? To follow in our footsteps, stick to the full and fast-paced two-day itinerary outlined below. Or, pick and choose from the various historic sites and activities on my list to plan a visit that better suits your family.
10:00 am. Arrive Sacramento
Leave San Francisco at 8am and – depending on traffic — you should arrive in Sacramento by 10am. Since our purpose was to soak up as much California history as possible in two days, I wanted to stay within easy walking distance of the city’s key historical sites. The Sacramento Sheraton Grand, located in Sacramento’s city center, mid-way between Sutter’s Fort and Old Sacramento (respectively the eastern-most and western-most sites on our historic hit-list), fit the bill very nicely. Say goodbye to your car for the next 30 hours, check in to your room early if you can, and head on out!
10:30 am. Meander through Midtown
Sacramento’s city center (see map), with the “Downtown” section to the west and “Midtown” section to the east, is laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid of numbered and lettered streets. To reach your first destination, Sutter’s Fort, head east for 14 tree-shaded blocks on K Street (just one block south of the Sheraton) through vibrant Midtown Sacramento. Stop to take a closer look at the colorful murals splashed across the sides of several buildings along the way (part of Sacramento’s “Wide Open Walls” art initiative) and if it’s a Saturday, browse the Midtown Farmer’s Market at 20th Street between J and L (open Saturdays year round from 8am-1pm). You’ll be having lunch on the late side, so pick up a coffee and something sweet to tide you over at Temple Coffee Roasters, at 22nd and K.
11:30 am. Tour Sutter’s Fort
Plan for about an hour at Sacramento’s earliest settlement, Sutter’s Fort (at 26th Street between L and K), which was constructed in the 1840’s by Swiss immigrant, entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, John Sutter. (As your fourth grader will surely know, John Sutter also owned a saw mill in Coloma, California – “Sutter’s Mill” – where gold was discovered in 1848, kicking off the California Gold Rush.) Take a self-guided tour of the various rooms inside this adobe compound, which back in the day contained bustling blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, distillery, bakery, grist mill and blanket factory, and also sheltered weary settlers at the end of their long journey west. Sutter’s Fort was the final destination of the doomed Donner Party, and your kids will be excited to discover a small doll that belonged to Donner Party survivor, Patty Reed, displayed at the Fort.
12:30 pm. Visit the California State Indian Museum
After you’ve finished touring Sutter’s Fort, pop into the California State Indian Museum next door to examine its collection of cultural items belonging to many of the state’s 60 plus native tribal groups, such as an 18-foot redwood canoe, woven baskets, musical instruments, elaborate plumed headbands, and clothing.
1:15 pm. Break for Lunch at Pizzeria Urbano
Back-track to K and 20th Street for lunch at Pizzeria Urbano, which has delicious pizza (available by the slice), paninis and salads. There are many other restaurants here in the so-called “MARRS” (“Midtown Arts Restaurants Retail Scene”) area if pizza isn’t your thing.
2:00 pm. Explore Capitol Park
The grounds of California’s state capitol, forty-acre Capitol Park, are considered to be among the most beautiful state capitol grounds in the country. Enter the park at L and 15th Streets, where you can stop and smell over 150 varieties of roses and read inspirational poems written by Sacramento school children in the International World Peace Rose Garden. From here, slowly make your way toward the Capitol, taking in the park’s lush greenery as well as the various memorials to key moments and figures in California history, such as the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the California Firefighters Memorial, and the Indian Grinding Rock.
3:00 pm. Tour the Capitol
Enter on the building’s south side, facing N Street, and then check in at the tour office — room B27 on the lower level– for a free, guided tour of the Capitol. Tours are given on the hour with no advance reservation required for small groups and cover the Capitol’s historic offices, legislative chambers, artwork, architecture, and history. Visiting the Capitol is also a great opportunity for your kids to learn about the workings of our state government, and they can even see legislators in action in the Senate and Assembly rooms during the work week.
9:00 am. Gawk at the Governor's Mansion
Grab a quick breakfast at the hotel or the Starbucks around the corner on 13th Street, and stroll over to 16th and H Streets to take a look at the Governor’s Mansion. An elaborate white, thirty-room, Second-Empire Italianate / Victorian built in 1877, the house was purchased by the state to house California governors and their families in 1903. Talk to your kids about the role of the governor as you admire California’s answer to the White House from the sidewalk (unfortunately it’s not possible to go inside).
9:15 am. Dawdle through Downtown
From the Governor’s Mansion, head west for 14 blocks on I Street, making your way through Downtown to Old Sacramento. Between 11th and 5th Streets, you’ll pass a number of government buildings, including the California Environmental Protection Agency, Sacramento City Hall, Sacramento County Jail and the Robert T. Masui, United States Courthouse, which you can quickly point out to your kids. Don’t miss the collection of whimsical, miniature cast bronze sculptures positioned in and around the fountain in the courthouse plaza, which depict characters and moments from the California Gold Rush era.
10:00 am. Wander Around Old Sacramento
Take about an hour to wander around this eight-block section of Downtown Sacramento with its historic brick buildings, arcaded boardwalks and scenic location on the banks of the Sacramento River. Yes, it’s touristy, and heavy on kitsch and candy stores (I broke down and let my daughter go a little crazy in Munchies) but atmospheric nevertheless, and will give you a sense for what Sacramento was like back in its early days. The Old School House, a replica of an 1800’s one-room schoolhouse, is worth a peek.
11:00 am. Tour the Underground City
In the mid-1800’s, when Old Sacramento was new, it was repeatedly ravaged by a series of disastrous floods. After a particularly devastating period of flooding from December 1861 through February 1862, the residents of this riverfront settlement decided that enough was enough and undertook the time-consuming and backbreaking work of raising the city’s buildings and streets above flood level. To learn about this chapter in Sacramento’s history and to walk through some of the city’s original, now below-ground, sidewalks and buildings, go on an Old Sacramento Underground Tour. Tours are an hour long, departing on the hour from the Sacramento History Museum. Although we were able to book our tour just an hour in advance at the Sacramento Visitor Center next to the small Wells Fargo Museum on 2nd Street, advance reservations are recommended.
12:00 pm. Break for Lunch on the Delta King
While Old Sacramento has no shortage of restaurants, my pick for lunch is the Delta Bar & Grill, which is located on the Delta King riverboat, itself a historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Permanently moored along the banks of the Sacramento River, the Delta King carried passengers between San Francisco and Sacramento from 1927 to 1940 and now contains two restaurants, a hotel, theater and wine school.
2:00 pm. Visit the California State Railroad Museum
Spend an hour or so at the excellent California State Railroad Museum, to discover how railroads shaped California and the West. Check out the 21 steam locomotives and railroad cars – kids will enjoy going inside the old fashioned dining cars — dating from 1862 to 1944, as well as hundreds of engaging and informative exhibits.
4:00 pm: Depart Sacramento
Head back home to San Francisco, your heads full of facts and your hearts full of memories.
For More Sacramento California History . . .
If you would like to pack even more California history into your Sacramento visit, here are a few more places to consider adding to your itinerary.