Sacramento’s People Power: A Day in California’s State Capital

Roses bloom in the foreground as the domed center of the capitol building rises up in the distance.
California State Capitol Building. Photo © John Painting/123rf.

As California’s capital, Sacramento is where the buck stops. Politicians representing 37 million people meet inside the city’s sparkling State Capitol building, where they haggle and twist arms over everything from taxes to high-speed railway projects. Just like any state capital, Sacramento has plenty of intrigue and drama. California’s politics can be dysfunctional and are hardly ever boring. The city has a long and colorful history of characters who ruled the statehouse throughout the decades, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and the man they used to call “Moonbeam”—current governor Jerry Brown.

The best part about Sacramento’s political scene is that visitors can watch the legislative fireworks unfold. Unlike stuffy Washington DC, where lawmakers seem more distant and removed, politicos in Sactown often venture outside for a bite or a drink in one of the city’s many downtown bistros. During the week, you can even see lawmakers wandering about the Capitol’s halls of power on their way to committee hearings or important votes.

Watch Democracy Happen

The jewel of Sacramento’s political culture is the California State Capitol (10th and L Streets, 916/324-0333, 8am–5pm Mon.–Fri., 9am–5pm Sat.–Sun., free). The gleaming white dome was modeled after the US Capitol in Washington DC. If the 80 assembly members or the 40 state senators are in session, head inside and take the beautifully ornate elevators upstairs to either the Assembly or Senate galleries to watch them feverishly debate policy. Just make sure to keep a lid on it: there’s no talking or yelling while lawmakers have the floor!

Go Back in Time

After watching the legislature debate, head downstairs to the State Capitol Museum (Room B-27, first floor of the State Capitol, 8am–5pm Mon.–Fri., 9am–5pm Sat.–Sun., free). The museum is the curator of the domed building’s history. Exhibits include portraits depicting past governors and 12 jaw-dropping murals that once graced the Capitol Rotunda. Visitors can also check out several historic rooms from the building’s past that are no longer used by state officials, and have been restored to their turn-of-the-century glory. Between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, you can take a guided tour from the museum office to really explore the Capitol’s historic treasures.

Walk the Halls of Power

Got a bone to pick with your state representative? Head to the east side of the Capitol building, rubbing elbows with lobbyists and legislative aides as you stroll past hushed committee rooms, and look up a member of the legislature. Take the elevators outside the governor’s office to reach their offices. Granted, your representative is probably pretty busy (so don’t make a scene), but he or she just might be around the office. Legislative sessions usually take a break sometime in the middle of the day, and that’s your best bet to catch lawmakers.

Starving for Justice

Democracy makes people hungry. The State Capitol is frequently a hot destination for political rallies on either the north or west steps of the building, and all those protestors have to eat sometime. Luckily, downtown Sacramento has plenty of foodie options. Keep your eyes peeled for food trucks—the wicked ‘wich serves sandwiches like the Broderick BLT, made with locally baked bread and ingredients like braised applewood bacon, fried pickled green tomatoes, and spicy blue cheese aioli. Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen is another famous Sactown food truck, serving mouthwatering grub like the Mustang sandwich (Korean braised beef, house-made kimchi, Havarti, shredded daikon, and wasabi) or hot dogs wrapped in bacon.

Get Inspired

Stroll over to the California Museum (1020 O Street, 916/653-7524, 10am–5pm Tues.–Sat., 12pm–5pm Sun., adults $8.50, students and seniors $7, youths $6, children free) and check out the six-story Constitution Wall. Words and phrases from the California Constitution have been carved into the wall, chosen to inspire visitors to consider the freedoms declared by the document. The multi-colored wall is embedded with metal oxides that change color over time.

Park Your Protest

Retrace the steps of California’s most well-known civil rights leader, Cesar Chavez, at Southside Park (2115 6th St., 916/264-7090). Chavez led a famous 260-mile march in 1966 through California’s Central Valley to Sacramento to demand labor rights for migrant workers. Take a moment and check out the park amphitheater’s beautiful mural painted by local Chicano artists in honor of the march.

Maps - Northern California 7e - Downtown Sacramento
Downtown Sacramento