National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott recently visited northern California with his family. This is the second of six reports. Read his first post here.
It’s a strange time to be in Sacramento.
A day before we arrived, Jerry Brown was sworn in as the Golden State’s 39th governor. The marbled hallways of the Hyatt Regency just across the street from the State Capitol were filled with lobbyists in dark suits, speaking with each other quietly or silently reading their smartphones.
My kids, dressed in bright bathing suits running toward the heated outdoor pool, turned heads. The politicos have much on their minds: The last governor left the state with a $25 billion budget deficit, and there’s a lot of talk about change in California.
“Who is Ahh-nold?” my eight-year-old son asks.
“You know,” I say. “He was the Terminator. Kindergarten Cop. Conan the Barbarian?”
He draws a blank. I’ve gotta take this kid to the movies more often.
The heart of Sacramento may be the Capitol, but if you’re a visitor, you have to go to Old Sacramento. It’s a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park located along the Sacramento River, with restored buildings, shops, and museums.
And the centerpiece of Old Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum, which is widely considered to be North America’s most popular railroad museum. It looks unassuming from the outside, but inside, it’s mind-blowing experience, even if you’re not a train person.
Beyond the small lobby, there’s a hangar filled with full-size railroad equipment. Yes, full
size. The first locomotive is also the most impressive: the Southern Pacific Cab Forward No. 4294, one of the largest in the world and perhaps the most intimidating. It’s said to still be operational.
There are many others — from bygone names of the Golden Era of rail travel, such as Virginia & Truckee Railroad and North Pacific Coast Railroad — refrigerator cars, sleeper cars, dining cars. It’s a place of discovery for anyone interested in the way America used to travel before the Jet Age.
The “aha” moment for my kids, who never spent much time on trains, came when they walked through a full-size Pullman-style sleeper car, complete with a snoozing mannequin in one of the beds. The car moved back and forth, simulating the sensation of traveling by train.
“Are we there yet?” asked my four-year-old daughter.
It’s difficult to explain to my kids that trains are a perfectly acceptable way to travel, even today. They are used to hopping into our family sedan whenever they need to go somewhere, so showing them how people used to get there — and indeed, how many people elsewhere in the world continue to travel — is helpful.
For younger guests, the real treat is the upstairs model train exhibit, which displays some of the same full-size locomotives and cars on a smaller scale. There’s even a special area for young kids where they can play with toy trains.
Old Sacramento’s other claim to fame, at least when it comes to kids, is its preponderance of candy stores. I counted at least three, and we were drawn to one called Candy Heaven, where we loaded up on gummy bears, lollipops, and taffy.
There are a number of affordable family restaurants. We met up with a friend at Fat City on Front Street, which on that particular day seemed to be catering almost exclusively to families with young children.
The off-season may be an odd time to be here – and this off-season may be odder than most – but it may also be one of the best times to visit Sacramento. Between April and September, things get a little busy as people crowd into the historic district to take a train ride, river cruise, or visit one of the museums.
But right about now, you can practically have the place to yourself.
That’s nice, for a change.