California can provide great opportunities to explore its varying landscapes, cities, and people and help find yourself or a part of yourself you may have misplaced. From its Mexican border to its mountains, deserts, and oceanfront, the options and variables are endless. One city that I feel is not only overlooked as a destination and a city that I still need to learn more about is the state’s capital, Sacramento.
If you’re looking for a new way to experience California, look no further than Sacramento. Once a quiet government town, the Golden State’s Capital City is experiencing a renaissance that has quietly transformed the region. The city is bustling with new restaurants, a thriving public art scene, exciting redevelopment and amazing weather to complement any activity. – Visit Sacramento
That was the marketing I saw in late 2018, just little over a year before COVID altered travel, cities, lives. Was Sacramento still thriving after the pandemic? I was going to find out this year.
After one of my very good friends moved to Sacramento in October of last year, I’ve only heard great things from him about the weather, the boys, the location, new construction, the surrounding areas, the breweries, and more. He seemed to feel that the city was running smoothly without any visible pandemic woes. With his move, I now had an even better reason to visit the Bear Flag Republic’s capital. I decided early September would be a great time to experience the perfect weather of Northern California.
The selection of September as the travel month was partly to do with the weather in Northern California. It was great walking around in shorts and t-shirts, no worries about rain, nights that were cooler than the days, it was a welcomed break from the weather in the south. But it was also the perfect time to be there for my taste buds and belly.
Sacramento is truly America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital!
Farm-to-fork isn’t a passing fad or a marketing slogan in the Sacramento region – it’s the way they live. The region has been an agricultural powerhouse for more than a century (the city sits in the middle of 1.5 millions acres of pristine farmland), boasting a year-round growing season, ideal climate and a mouth-watering bounty of crops. Chances are, if you’re enjoying a meal in the Sacramento region, it came from a local farm.
Whenever I leave Sacramento, I reflect back on the quality of food I ate there. It is definitely some of the most fresh and vibrant on the eyes and the tongue. And my luggage heading home is a little happier and heavier with some liquid libations.
My first exodus from the hotel was to the Capitol lawn as dozens of wineries were present to let thirsty ticket holders taste what they had to offer at the Legends of Wine event.
We’ll let you in on a little secret – the largest crop coming out of Sacramento County last year wasn’t rice or tomatoes. It was wine grapes. And that powerhouse crop is fueling some of the most incredible wines coming out of Northern California. Legends of Wine is your chance to taste some of the best.
This annual event invites you to explore varietals from regional wineries that were exclusively selected by international wine legends Darrell Corti and David Berkley. Favorite area restaurants will also be onsite with selections of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork cuisine.
What an event! I met some great people, enjoyed some great appetizers, and of course had my share of wine (a great thing I was walking back to the hotel). Walking around on the Capitol lawn with wine glass in hand and my token to use in the voting of my favorite wine, indeed there was an excited and satisfied smile on my face.
The Legends of Wine was just one of many events during the Farm to Fork Festival which ran from September 7th to the 23rd. The last major event of the festival was one that I would miss as it was at the end of the month. I was able to experience the Street Festival five years ago in Sacramento and it was blocks of vendor booths selling everything from socks to booze to food to also offering education and knowledge about the region, gardening, and more.
Farm-to-Fork Festival – The harvest season’s most anticipated music and food festival takes place on Sacramento’s Capitol Mall, with two days of local food, regional wines, craft beer, cooking demonstrations and much more. The festival is admission-free, and highlights the area’s farmers, ranchers, chefs, and everyone else who make the capital’s food scene America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.
I do wish all of the events of the month were closer together as I had to make the choice of attending the Street Festival at the end of the month or attending the other two major events that happened at the beginning of the month, the Legends of Wine (a new event for me) and the coveted and spectacular Tower Bridge Dinner.
Have you ever had a seated, family style meal with 800 people? One of the nation’s most unforgettable and under-the-radar dining experiences – each year, hundreds gather to enjoy a locally sourced dinner prepared by some of the region – and the world’s – top chefs, served along Sacramento’s famed Tower Bridge. A celebration of Sacramento’s agricultural identity, the event started in 2013 and has grown ever since. Don’t believe me? Tickets sell out in less than 60 seconds!
By working with Visit Sacramento, we were able to visit the massive prep kitchen being used by the team of chefs as they worked to get ready for the Tower Bridge Dinner. Used to prepare all the food for most of the Sacramento school children each and every day, the space was full of activity, creativity, cleanliness, and order. It was truly a treat talking to the chefs and seeing some of the work that went into constructing the food we were to eat days later on a bridge that joined Sacramento and West Sacramento.
The crowd was quite varied for the dinner. With tickets at about $300 per person, I do not recall seeing any kids present but there were professionals from their 20s up to some that seemed in their 80s. A portion of the proceeds help pay for the free Farm-to-Fork Festival on Capitol Mall that attracted more than 65,000 people annually. Visit Sacramento also utilizes a portion of the proceeds to fund local scholarships.
Appetizers were a “choose your own adventure” as multiple tables stretched from one end of the bridge to the other. Walking along, you would just pick one, some, or all the offerings that you thought would please your palate. These same tables that were used for the 15+ different appetizers would be used to prepare all of the food served that evening and then the 10+ desserts would book end the evening on those same tables.
800 people, 80 dining tables, 10 people per table. 5 courses, multiple side dishes, free-flowing water, wine, and beer. What an evening.
Fireworks, a cool breeze, and a casual exodus off the bridge ended the evening. It is one of the great events I’ve been to in the United States and I’ve been fortunate to experience it twice. If you ever get the chance, jump.
As for what else to do in Sacramento, and what if you do not have the opportunity to visit during September? Don’t worry as there is still plenty to do in California’s Capital. Here are just a few things.
Visit Bogle Winery for an afternoon of tastings at one of the region’s most acclaimed (and beautiful) establishments. Bogle is nationally and internationally known. Its name and the company’s several other brands under their umbrella are some of the most enjoyed wines our nation has to offer.
The Bogle location (just 15 to 20 minutes outside downtown) is separated into three major areas, the tasting room downstairs, an upstairs private wine tasting room, and the lawn area with family and adults only area. We moved ourselves to the lawn underneath the redwoods and enjoyed about a baker’s dozen of bottles of wine, accompanied with some cheese, crackers, meats.
The tasting room is a great option, but just don’t be late for your appointment as they run a tight ship and are heavily booked. If you cannot make an appointment happen, enjoying the wines while sitting on the Bogle Vineyard’s grounds with friends is a most relaxing time.
Mural Tour – Many cities across the nation have self-guided and professionally-guided mural tours and Sacramento is no different. Orangutans, Princess Leia and the Johnny Cash mural are some of the more well-known ones you will see around town. One of the victims of COVID was the closure of the Sac Tour Company which provided walking and running tours that helped visitors and locals explore Sacramento.
Museums – They’re great to check out when visiting new cities. There’s the Crocker Art Museum, California State Railroad Museum, California Museum. You can also visit Old Sacramento and the California State Capitol building.
Our home for the long weekend was the The Kimpton Sawyer, (500 J Street, Downtown Sacramento). Just a brief 20-minute ride from the Sacramento Airport, this Kimpton is home to the Sacramento Kings as it sits next to the Golden 1 Center where the basketball team plays. The Kimpton Sawyer is also conveniently located next or you could say it is an anchor to the Downtown Commons (DOCO) entertainment and retail complex. I’ve stayed in many Kimptons and they all have impressed, always with service, cleanliness, welcome-ness, and making you never wanting to leave. The Sawyer’s location could not have been better for what I wanted to experience while in Sacramento; art, the farm to fork festival, and getting a better feel for downtown SAC. That never wanting to leave feel was magnified as the property features a rooftop pool and bar (Revival at the Sawyer), as well as Echo & Rig’s second steakhouse location in the United States.
Sacramento had a rich beer presence before prohibition and is now gaining ground back to recapturing its old title of “The Beer Capital of the West.” Having more than 60 craft breweries (before COVID) seems to be a great start in wearing that crown once again.
Check out these offerings:
- The Locked Barrel – This location was a simple walk from The Kimpton. The venue has had many lives which is an understatement as you look through the windows at the in-ground pool in the basement. All the appetizers were spot on yummy and the drinks were some of the best of the trip.
- Oak Park Brewing Co – Go for brunch! They have some wonderful hearty offerings that will have you asking, did we come for the beer? A great selection of hard seltzers can be found here, too. Take it all out to the large patio area and enjoy the shade or the sun. Your call.
- New Helvetia Brewing Co – Isn’t that a font? But yes, it’s a bar/brewery, too. We did a flight here and they had some good options. Like most bars, if there’s an early Sunday football game, they may open earlier than you think, like 9 or 10 so check all their websites before planning your day.
- At Ease Brewing Co – They had me at free pretzels. Not a huge selection here, but still very good. Just like Oak Park, they offer outdoor seating and are very dog friendly.
I took the time to test my liver in California and I’m happy that I did. Lyft-ing around town was simple and quick and not that pricey.
The Gay Stuff
I never saw an issue with being gay and open and out while in Sacramento as it seems like a very accepting city. You can look at the section of the Visit Sacramento page that covers LGBTQ travel to their city. The gay nightlife is varied and plentiful there. Some of the options are better than the others depending on what you’re looking for and some still need to be explored.
As for the bars and night clubs:
- Bear Dive – Close to down town, sometimes has a big female attendance, I’ll check it out next time.
- Faces – Tried it, might not go back. A large multi-roomed venue that charges a cover. We waited in line out front to pay the cover and noticed that it was loud straight people making up the line so we left. We came back later on the coat tails of a regular in the side door. It turned out to be not so mixed but heavily straight. Overly packed and go go boys that seemed more confused, had not much area to dance in as the place was overpacked. I was hit in the head so security escorted me out instead of the person that did it. They say they’re the #1 gay bar in Sacramento, but the odds are not in your favor if you go in there.
- Badlands – Friends went in, said the drag show was great. The bar also hung banners on the balconies facing the street for politicians that would support our community. I’ll check them out next time. We were bar hopping so we did not want to pay the cover that night unless we were staying all night or for more than at least 2 drinks.
- The Depot – My favorite spot to go as its no frills, good time, great service, smaller than other bars, but really not an issue as it is divided up nicely. Great place to actually have a conversation with people without shouting.
- SideTrax (temporarily closed) – We shall see if it opens again.
- The Mercantile Saloon (“The Merc”) – Didn’t have a chance to go there as I was delayed and frustrated from the head injury from Faces. But I did visit the last time I was in town and liked the different atmosphere here. Low ceilings in some places, open courtyard. A different experience.
- The Bolt – Did not make it to the out of town / Old North Sacramento bar, but looking at the pics online, I think its one I’d like to try.
A Return Visit?
It may surprise many people that Sacramento has a great deal to offer any traveler. It’s not the main city or not even the top three main cities in California that come to mind when you’re thinking of California destinations. But it should not be overlooked as the people are great, the restaurant scene is fresh and creative, and it seems as the gay nightlife is bumping just as hard as any other major city.
Yes, like many American cities, there is a little bit of a homeless problem downtown. It’s something that we all need to work on, but unfortunately for downtown, it is noticeable. There are some empty businesses as well, but what major city in any state does not have that.
I also do know there is a lot more to explore in Sacramento that I really did not touch upon. But that’s what return visits are for and to be honest there’s nothing stopping me from going back to explore more.