A baker’s dozen of historical attractions and fun activities that you can do with your children on a family vacation to Sacramento, California
Attractions and things to do in Sacramento with kids
Sacramento, the capital of California, not only offers plenty to do in terms of family fun but also invites you to travel back in time to the heyday of the Gold Rush and its early pioneers. Here’s a glimpse of what’s in store if you plan your next vacation around a trip to Northern California.
SUTTER’S FORT STATE HISTORIC FORT
In 1839, a man named John Sutter and his family established what would become the city’s earliest settlement. It was the destination of many people from the East Coast and Midwest who hoped to start a new life for themselves. Today, the original fort located at 27th and L Streets is surrounded by Victorian houses, medical centers, trendy eateries and condominiums. Step inside the massive wooden gates, however, and you’ll suddenly encounter actors dressed in period costumes who perform living history programs on how the fort’s early residents and adventurers lived. Peek into some of the sparse rooms of immigrant families, watch a demonstration of how bread was made or butter was churned, ask questions of the “local” blacksmith or a traveling fur trapper.
CALIFORNIA STATE INDIAN MUSEUM
Just across the duck pond from Sutter’s Fort is the State Indian Museum. This rotating exhibit displays the clothing, weapons, eating utensils, baskets and other artifacts of the many tribes that make up California’s indigenous population. Seasonal programs are also held which feature Native American guest speakers and performers. Both the Indian Museum and Sutter’s Fort are open every day from 10 to 5 but are closed for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays. In addition, children under 16 (when accompanied by an adult) are admitted free to both historic sites.
SACRAMENTO ZOO www.saczoo.org
The zoo, located in the heart of William Land Park, was originally opened in 1927 as a center to showcase animals such as raccoons, deer, birds, squirrels, owls and bats which abounded in the local recreation areas. By the 1960’s, it had grown from 4 acres to over 14 and featured lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, flamingos and elephants. Like many zoos throughout the country, the Sacramento compound has redesigned many of its exhibits to look like more natural habitats, eliminating many of the traditional cages and replacing them with moats and walls fashioned to look like rocks. Admission to the zoo is free, though donations are asked to continue its upkeep and its breeding programs for endangered animals. One of the most fun things a family can do here is the “Overnight Safari Adventure.” Parents and children literally spend the night at the zoo, allowing them to see those animals that are usually hunkered down asleep during the regular day tours. A barbeque and breakfast are included, as well as storytelling, zoo feedings, and camp songs.
CALIFORNIA STATE CAPITOL www.capitolmuseum.ca.gov
No trip to Sacramento would be complete without a visit to the state’s beautiful capitol building located at 10th and L Streets. Open from 9 to 5 every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, visitors can participate in hourly tours, pop their heads into the vintage offices of the state’s early officials, view sculpture and art, and see films about California history in the downstairs theater. The museum gift shop is also located downstairs and offers a wide variety of children’s books, games, flags, T-shirts, etc. If your trip is planned far enough in advance, you may also want to drop a letter to your state representative and inquire whether you can get a special tour or sit in on a session of the State Legislature. After seeing the Capitol, step aside and stroll in the 40 acre Capitol Park, which not only abounds with tourist-friendly squirrels (take peanuts to feed them) but labels on all of the trees and shrubberies for a self-guided botany lesson.
CALIFORNIA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM www.csrmf.org
Train buffs of all ages won’t be able to resist the reconstructed 1876 railroad depot located in Old Sacramento. This enormous warehouse has several original railroad cars and locomotives on display, as well as plenty of costumed railroad aficionados strolling around who can answer questions about 19th century travel in the Golden State. As with California’s other historical museums, children under 16 are admitted free with an adult.
If you really want to see what Sacramento was like during the Gold Rush era, you need go no further than the city’s historic district—almost 30 acres of vintage buildings, plank sidewalks, horse drawn carriages and wagons, and riverboats that are worthy of Mark Twain’s Mississippi. Bring your appetite for the many restaurants reflecting Sacramento’s culinary diversity…and bring your wallet for all of the clothing, antique, jewelry and tourist souvenir shops. You may even get to see a movie being made if you’re lucky, owing to Sacramento’s generic look and the effort that local preservationists have put into buildings which might otherwise have fallen to ruin. There is even a monument to the Pony Express, reminding us of how far we’ve come in “keeping in touch” with loved ones at a distance. During evening hours, you may want to join the Old Sacramento Hysterical Walk, which is led by costumed docents and reveals some of the sillier trivia about the city’s origins and colorful characters.
Sacramento is home to the Sacramento Kings and Sacramento Monarchs (basketball) that play at Arco Arena. West Sacramento is where you’ll find homegrown baseball with the River Cats. All three teams have Internet websites where you can find game schedules and prices.
Little travelers may be too young to sit through a ball game or too bored to appreciate Sacramento’s historical and cultural significance but if you’d like to wear them out with lots of running around and climbing on things, head for Fairytale Town on Land Park Drive. This mini theme park based on popular fairy tales has special events, storytelling, petting zoos, and, of course, lots of ladders and slides and colorful structures to crawl on or play hide and seek.
Another popular attraction for youngsters is Safetyville USA on Bradshaw Road. Not only is this a built-to-child-size scale model of the city of Sacramento but is designed to teach wee ones about proper safety in crossing streets, etc. Reservations are required. Birthday parties are also available at the center.
CROCKER ART MUSEUM
Art lovers will enjoy a tour of the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest continually operating museum of art on the West Coast. The collection, which dates back to the 1400’s, was originally acquired by the Italianate home’s original occupants, the Crockers, who had toured Europe extensively in the 19th century and felt that Sacramento could benefit from an injection of “class.” The modern wing of the museum features rotating exhibits and lectures while the older, original structure is a popular place for string quartet concerts and arts fundraising events. Children under age 6 are admitted free.
Where did California’s heads of state used to live? From 1903 until the Reagan administration in the 1960’s, the mansion at 16th and H Streets was what all of them called “home.” The furnishings and décor have all been preserved, giving the impression that the First Family has simply stepped out for a few hours and will be returning shortly. The best time of year to visit this elegant Victorian residence is during December, when costumed guides lead tourists through the decorated rooms, relate anecdotes of Christmas’ past, and serve up hot cider and gingerbread cookies. A definite treat that is not to be missed! Children under 16 are admitted free.
TOWE AUTO MUSEUM www.calautomuseum.org
This may be a junket that appeals more to Dad than anyone else but the history of the automobile, as displayed at the Towe Auto Museum on Front Street, is brought alive with nearly 200 antique and classic cars as well as photos of early motoring. Entry fees for children are $2-3.
EFFIE YEAW NATURE CENTER www.sacnaturecenter.net
When you get tired of shopping and learning about history, pack everyone in the car and head for Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento. There, in Ancil Hoffman Park on Lorenzo Way, you’ll find 77 acres worth of beautiful nature trails for hiking and photography, interactive exhibits about the American River Parkway, and even animals that call this region home. The nature center is open everyday from 9 to 5 but closed during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.