Think California doesn't do subtle? You probably have yet to visit the Golden State's mellow capital city. 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 (no, really) from the Napa Valley, Sacramento has never sought the sort of attention 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 somewhat of a 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.
Looking for the lowest available airfares to Sacramento (SMF) right now? They're here.
Hit the Sunday farmers market
Even closer to many of those farms responsible for the produce that makes a visitor to San Francisco green with envy, 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 held Sundays underneath the freeway, at the foot of Southside Park. It's some of the best free entertainment you'll find in town.
Get out on the American River
Snaking its way through town and up toward the Sierras, it's impossible to truly appreciate Sacramento without spending time along this locally-loved waterway. 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, there's no shortage of ways to engage along a 23-mile stretch known as the American River Parkway.
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 didn't live there. The neighborhood has recently 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, garden center, restored historic theater, it's all here. It's safe to say this is one of the coolest neighborhoods out West that you've yet to hear much about. Predictably, rents are already skyrocketing – 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 both in town and nearby now with more sure to come, it's safe to say that Sacramento – like pretty much every big city out West, these days – is pretty well smitten by 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 most excellent tap selection, there's no wrong way to dive into the scene – just make sure you do so.
Take the kids – or the kid in you – to Funderland
Open since 1946 and just one of the many things that make Sacramento's sizeable Land Park so worth a visit, Funderland is one of the coolest little amusement parks west of the Rockies. Disneyland it's not, but the Crazy Cups will be just one of the rides that may seem more than a little familiar to that world-famous theme park a few hours to the south. While you're here, pop next door to Fairytale Town, another retro wonder, a nonprofit park that brings popular children's stories and nursery rhymes to life. (Say hi to Mary's little lambs for us.)
Catch a Kings game at their new home
One of Sacramento's weakest links has long been its downtown – this fall, one of the pieces of the rather complex puzzle currently being put together down here made its big debut: the home of the city's much loved Kings basketball franchise. Where a dying shopping center once stood, the Golden1Center is, the city hopes, the start of something big in what had become one of the most overlooked areas of town.
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? Well, sometimes it does, but there also many times where daytime temperatures can be surprisingly moderate, all things considered. For that, thank the city's location at the tail end of the vast Sacramento Delta, which carries cool 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, more synonymous with, say, Louisiana than the Golden State, with its levees, rice farms (less of those, as the statewide drought drags on) 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) where crawfish – of course – are a focal point. Make sure to stop in on Locke, a historic village settled by Asian immigrants so central to the early life of the Delta – stop in at Al The Wop's, an antique of a tavern that remains a firm favorite with road-tripping Northern Californians.