Tours of Sacramento

A white steamboat with three decks sits at dock on the river.
Sail the Sacramento River on the Empress Hornblower. Photo © Christopher Arns.

Sometimes it’s easy to miss the littlest things when visiting a new place. Luckily, Sacramento has a whole list of great walking tours that show multiple shades of California’s capital. You can roam beneath the city’s cobbled streets with the Old Sacramento Underground Tours (916/808-7059, adults $15, children $10). Back in the 1860s, Sacramento was repeatedly inundated with catastrophic floods, so officials decided to raise the city by one story to escape the ravaging waters of the Sacramento River. The Underground Tours show you the hidden corridors and passageways that were entombed after the city was elevated. You can see the city’s underground from March to November and the schedule frequently changes during those months, so check the website for current times. Tours start at the Sacramento History Museum (101 I St., 916/808-7059, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, adults $6, children $4), which has a glass floor looking down into the city’s buried past. It’s worth coming here maybe 15 minutes early to walk around and get up to speed on Sacramento’s tortured history before taking the tour.

One fun trip is the Historic Old Sacramento Walking Tours (101 I St., 916/808-7059, early June–late Aug. 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sat.–Sun., $5). Costumed tour guides act like they’re actually guiding you through the 19th century. Actors reenact scenes from Sacramento’s Gold Rush days, and you might witness a gunfight, the arrival of Pony Express riders, or perhaps press flesh with a Gilded Age politician. Along with re-creating the sense that visitors are stepping back in time, guides will also explain Old Sacramento’s brick architecture and discuss the original uses of many buildings.

Let’s face it, we all need a laugh sometimes. Hysterical Comedy Tours (J and 2nd Sts., Old Sacramento, 916/441-2527, 6 p.m. Fri.–Sat., adults $20, youth $15) take visitors on a side-splitting walk around Old Sacramento while pointing out interesting (and funny, of course) tidbits about the city. The costumed guides are friendly and extremely informative. If you liked the comedic waltz around Sacramento, sign up for the Hysterical Walk of the Dead (7:30 p.m. Fri.– Sat. Oct. 1–Mar. 31, 8:30 p.m. Fri.–Sat. Apr. 1–Sept. 30, adults $20, youth $15). It’s a lighthearted take on Old Town’s ghouls and goblins that seem to lurk more closely as Halloween approaches.

There’s another spooky option if you enjoy stalking the undead. Historic Old Sacramento Ghost Tours (101 I St., 916/808-7059, weekends mid to late Oct., 6:30–9 p.m., adults $15, children $10) don’t deploy the comedy quite like Hysterical Walks, but these creepy walking trips include “real” ghosts (as in costumed actors) who lament their untimely end dating to the Gold Rush. Some of these “ghouls” play the role of real murder victims from Sacramento history. This tour sells out fast, so buy tickets ahead of time.

Finally, the Old Speakeasy Tour (River City Saloon, 916 2nd St., 5:30 p.m. every third Sat., $10) goes back underground to explore Old Sacramento’s banned watering holes dating back to Prohibition. On one hand, that time period “dried out” Sacramento’s economy; the city’s Buffalo Brewery (largest beer producer west of the Mississippi at the time) was crippled after passage of the 18th Amendment banned alcohol. But Sacramento’s underground party scene took off. The Delta King became a floating vessel of vice with jazz bands, gambling, and illegal booze. This walk makes several stops along Sacramento’s speakeasy trail, and yes, it’s definitely “wet”; feel free to order a Prohibition-era cocktail along the way.

Old Sacramento isn’t the only fun place for walking tours. Downtown Sacramento Tours (916/442-8575, $10) have a slew of guided and self-guided trips around the Capitol District. Music lovers will dig the Rock and Roll History Tour and Pub Crawl (Torch Club, 904 15th St., 6:30 p.m. Thurs. May–July). This tour connects the head-banging dots between downtown and bands like Nirvana, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. As the name says, it’s a pub crawl, so grab a cocktail and get ready to make new friends. If beer goggles don’t appeal to you, sign up instead for the Public Art Tour (Downtown Plaza at 3rd and K Sts., 9 a.m. Mon.–Fri.), which shows you around downtown’s urban artwork collection created by both local and nationally acclaimed artists.

Lastly, tie it all together with the Tales of the Central City Tour (Cesar Chavez Plaza at 9th and J Sts., 11 a.m. Mon.–Fri.). Nothing is off limits on this trip. Explore more about the State Capitol, find out about Leland Stanford’s ghostly progeny and who built the city’s most famous landmarks.

If having a guide sounds like a drag, opt instead for the Sacramento Heritage self-guided tours. There are at least 10 tours that focus on various themes and neighborhoods. Some of the best include the Bungalow Tour, which passes almost 100 of Sacramento’s Midtown and East Sacramento bungalow homes. The Boulevard Park Tour loops through one of the city’s first suburbs; it’s also the former site of the California State Fairgrounds and Union Park Race Course where Leland Stanford owned a harness racing team. These walks are free, really easy to complete, and can definitely be transformed into self-guided biking tours.

Other Ways to Tour Sacramento

Sacramento Bike Tours

Sacramento has perfect topography for a bike ride. It’s a flat city with wide streets and decent infrastructure; there’s currently 288 miles of on-street bikeways and 83 more miles off-street. Sacramento’s grid layout makes it hard to get lost, but if you’re thinking about taking a guided ride, look into Fast Eddie Bike Tours (Midtown Sacramento, 916/812-2712, Mar.–Oct. by reservation, $20–25). For about $20, they’ll take you on a five-mile swing through Midtown. Fast Eddie offers two different themed trips—a historical ride (focusing on vintage architecture and Sacramento’s notable historical figures) and an urban art trip (a jaunt past public art and graphics). Rides are about 90 minutes and don’t run on set schedules; Fast Eddie takes riders by demand. A Raleigh rental bike costs an extra $5.

Sacramento Culinary Tours

Sacramento’s organic and sustainable farms have boomed in the past few years. Foodies can learn more about the Capital City’s culinary Gold Rush on the Local Roots Food Tours (800/407-8918, adults $45–58, seniors $48, kids $45, veterans $50). These four trips take visitors to graze at farmers markets and nosh at fine restaurants, all while explaining the city’s local food culture. If you enjoy history on the side, take the Origins of Sacramento Walking Food and Cultural Tour (2.75 miles, 10:15 a.m. Wed. and Fri.–Sat.) through Midtown’s Sutter District and the Fabulous Forties in East Sacramento. This tour is a walking excursion through the city’s oldest neighborhoods and into local bistros. You’ll sample dishes such as pork carnitas on homemade tortillas, Dungeness crab cakes, stuffed dates with goat cheese, and wash it down with a Czech pilsner.

Sacramento River Cruises

Elegant paddle-wheeled steamboats were the main form of transportation between Sacramento and San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Re-create that journey and book passage with Hornblower Historic River Cruises (Old Sacramento embarcadero, 916/446-1185, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Thurs.– Sun., $20). For one hour, you’ll steam up and down the Sacramento River, passing underneath the Tower Bridge and along historic waterfront. It’s also a chance to learn a bit more about Sacramento’s history. The narrated cruise offers fascinating insight into the River City’s past. Snacks and refreshments are provided. For something a little different, book a happy hour cruise (5:30 p.m. Fri.) and take in the experience with a cocktail.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Sacramento & the Gold Country.