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Theme park for museum & history lovers

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The State Capitol Building is a must-see for anyone visiting Sacramento.

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POSTED June 16, 2012 3:10 a.m.

SACRAMENTO — If you thought Sacramento was just any old state capital, be sure to plan an extra couple of days next time you’re driving through the area. The city is like a theme park for historians, art lovers and just about anyone who wants to know more about the Golden State.

It’s tempting to say it’s a theme park for adults – but it’s really not just for adults. In fact, a visit to Sacramento probably will be one of the most beneficial field trips your youngsters will ever take. They’ll learn about government, the Old West, railroads, Native Americans, the Gold Rush and several other subjects featured in dozens of Sacramento exhibits and museums.

We stopped by the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, where we obtained maps and a long list of attractions in the city. The CVB is just around the corner from highlights like the Governor’s Mansion and the many beautifully maintained Victorian homes and architecture found throughout the downtown area.

We then drove over to take the obligatory pictures of the State Capitol Building, keeping an eye out for Gov. Jerry Brown. But,  alas, no Brown at either the Capitol or the Governor’s Mansion -- although we’re told the governor is frequently spotted having lunch at downtown venues. In any event, the State Capitol Museum makes the stop more than worthwhile with its exhibits and artifacts from the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and a newly unveiled 3-D movie on the disaster.

Nearby we found several other museums to explore. For example, the Crocker Art Museum is located in one of the city’s most beautiful Victorian homes and is, in fact, the oldest art museum in the West. Founded in 1873, the museum today displays original European and master drawings as well as 19th-Century California paintings, sculptures and Asian art.

We stopped in the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, which offers colorful and descriptive displays about many of the women who have been instrumental in helping California grow to its present stature. As with most museums we visited, visitors could spend several hours in just this museum soaking up fascinating facts about the Golden State.

For history buffs, maybe the best place in town to go is Old Sacramento, which has a number of museums including the California Military Museum, Discovery Museum History Center, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum and the Wells Fargo History Museum.

Topping the historical list is the California State Railroad Museum which is said to be one of the country’s best railroad museums. The 100,000-square-foot museum features many actual railcars as well as various real locomotives. A train station replica allows you to see what a 19th Century station was like and, in spring and summer months, the museum offers steam train rides.

We were amazed by the Railroad Museum because so many different types of rail cars and locomotives were on display indoors all in one place. The trains are in tip-top condition and you can always find one of the museum’s volunteers to explain how this or that worked or why this particular steam engine was important. Upstairs is an elaborate model railroad and exhibits explaining how the different sized model trains all came about. We’ve got to say this museum was a favorite for both the adults and kids in our crowd.

Old Sacramento, as one local visitor official told us, was once the skid row of Sacramento until, in the 1960s, a major re-development project was initiated to restore many of the historic buildings and attract new business into the area. The history of Old Sacramento dates back to 1839 when this became the first commercial settlement in the area. When gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1849, the business community along the Sacramento River began to boom. Hotels, saloons, bathhouses and outfitting stores were all set up to take care of the local miners.

Today, Old Sacramento attempts to re-create much of that early atmosphere and it seems to be working – it now attracts more than 5 million visitors each year. Although we noticed several commercial vacancies in the area, that might just be because Old Sacramento is now considered one of the most expensive places in Sacramento to do business.

The area has been restored with cobblestone streets, gaslamps and wooden sidewalks, and you do get the feeling of walking through a town from the Old West. Of course there are a few tip-offs that this particular Wild West town has been somewhat tamed: T-shirt shops seem to abound and there are plenty of candy and chocolate stores, not to mention pizza and just about anything else today’s explorers may want to eat.

The shops in Old Sacramento – no matter how tacky some of them may be – are almost all housed in historic buildings. Among those 53 buildings still standing is a firehouse built in 1853, California’s first threater, and the B.J. Hastings Building which was the western terminus for the Pony Express.

For a unique overnight adventure in Sacramento, try staying on board the Delta King, an early 20th Century paddle-wheeler riverboat. The boat once offered prohibition-era drinking, jazz bands and gambling for its fun-loving passengers and, just like passengers back in the 1920s, today’s guests enjoy enchanting river views, great food and drink and a cozy stateroom unlike any other accommodation you may have experienced. But unlike those early passengers, you will have to be content with scenery that remains pretty constant. The Delta King isn’t going anyplace anytime soon.

On this particular visit, we stayed overnight in a great choice for landlubbers, the Hilton Sacramento Arden West. About five miles from Old Town, the hotel is located in the Point West part of Sacramento and is a particular favorite with business travelers because of its endless amenities and typical Hilton upscale, polished look and feel. We found the spacious rooms to be tastefully decorated and well insulated from any street noise. With its marble counters, pillow-top mattresses and 250-threadcount linens, this hotel proved to be a luxurious respite after a long day of museum-hopping in Sacramento.

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