With help from government business, plus a lively arts and entertainment scene, the California capital is booming

Travel: SacramentoCARLOS ELIASON

On this warm Saturday night in Sacramento, it feels like the Gold Rush never ended. Not only is it the weekend after payday for state workers (our Uber driver says he always sees a significant uptick on these evenings), but there’s a much-touted new player in this government town: the Sacramento Kings’ US$560-million Golden 1 Center. Christened by former Beatle Paul McCartney late last year, Northern California’s first new major indoor sports centre in more than two decades is hosting the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors. The 19,000-capacity joint is so high-tech—use your phone to find the washroom with the shortest line or order food to your seat—it’s often described as a computer disguised as an arena.

Outside the stadium, artist Jeff Koons’s whimsical Piglet-inspired sculpture stands guard, and the rest of the 500,000-strong town rocks with art openings. Along with the prestigious Crocker Art Museum—stacked with Allan Houser and Dale Chihuly sculptures and Wayne Thiebaud paintings—there’s a more dialled-down art walk every second Saturday throughout the city.

Sacramento may not have the élan of its coastal cousins San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it’s a metropolis befitting the birthplace of 19th-century gold fever. After sourdoughs struck those first nuggets nearby in 1848, the city boomed with the largest migration in America (300,000 flocked to California from 1848 to 1855), becoming the state’s capital in just a few years. But unlike other towns, which dried up as quickly as the precious metal, it capitalized on its trading-post role at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers and keeps drawing modern-day prospectors. Now myriad cranes, the barometer of a city’s financial health, are building new shopping malls and residential towers, drawing families out of the burbs to live downtown.

Government and agriculture remain key industries in Sacramento, which is littered with elegant trimmings of power. Take the backlit-domed Neoclassical Legislature buildings, including the governor’s office, with its giant bronze sculpture of a grizzly bear (thanks to previous incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fondness for the state’s official animal). Or legislator-friendly lunch haunts such as Frank Fat’s Chinese restaurant, where legendary deals done on napkins are framed.

Courtesy of a lush 7,000 acres of farmland, the city’s dining spots overflow with local produce. While many tourism marketers claw at the locavore label to promote their food scene, only Sacramento has trademarked the slogan “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” without hyperbole—not bad for a state with a declared drought of five years. (There are an average of 320 days of sun yearly here.)

Old Sacramento—a sliver of historic sites saved before the I-5 freeway sliced part of the city—revels in Wild West nostalgia with the California State Railroad Museum and underground tours run by the Sacramento History Museum (left behind as buildings and streets were raised up on jacks to avoid floods in the late 1800s). Tonight, in Midtown, we’re also at Sacramento’s ground zero: Sutter’s Fort, named for the city’s founder, John Sutter, and home to the early pioneers. Walking around the historical attraction by candlelight, we listen in on Gold Rush–era conversations re-enacted by people in period costumes living the golden dream that still reigns today.

Sacramento’s past as a cannery town earned it the nickname the Big Tomato. For visitors keen to take a bite, here are a few suggestions 

EAT /

Sit down in ex-governor Arnie’s power seat (back to the fire, face full-on to the restaurant) at Lucca Restaurant and order the Lucky Dog Ranch beefsteak. Paragary’s restaurant will have you from the moment you step onto its decorative floor tiles. Key choices include the Jarlsberg, parsley and mushroom salad and a cocktail shrub.

 

STAY /

With its purple-lit palm trees, the Hyatt Regency Sacramento is a central hotel opposite the venerable Capitol Park, home to trees from all over the world among its 40 acres.

STROLL / Jerry Brown

Wander through the State Capitol—and spy Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial gubernatorial portrait by Don Bachardy

SHOP /

Hang out at the Sunday Farmers Market with its embarrassment of cheeses, breads, produce, flowers… Just don’t let the fact it’s held under a freeway (albeit one daubed in pretty murals) put you off.