Explore These Historic Old Towns in the Greater Sacramento Area
It’s no secret that Sacramento is the epicenter for the state’s rich and varied history. From the native peoples who called the area home for thousands of years to the gold miners of the 1800s, the greater Sacramento area has plenty of spots to explore to learn about California’s transformation from a rugged frontier to the economic powerhouse it is today.
In and around the Sacramento area, there are plenty of historic sites to explore. From Sutter’s Fort and the California State Indian Museum in midtown Sacramento to the Marshall Gold Discovery Site near Placerville, there are many history-based attractions in the area.
But to get a real taste of the past, there’s nothing like strolling a historic old town. In many ways, these quaint downtown cores are like living history museums, with original buildings, antique shops and monuments to those who came before us. Luckily, the greater Sacramento area has several historic downtowns to explore, most of them built during the Gold Rush.
There’s no better way to get a taste of California history than a visit to Old Sacramento. The entire area is itself a state historic park, meaning much of the original town has been preserved. Raised boardwalks run past buildings from the early 1800s, now housing shops and restaurants. There’s even a replica of a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse. You can also take a tour beneath the city streets, which were raised in the late 1800s to avoid floods, or check out the historic locomotives at the California State Railroad Museum.
You can even get a glimpse at the past while dining in a few of the area’s many restaurants. The Firehouse is a fine-dining restaurant located in a redbrick fire station built in 1853. The Delta King is a 1927 paddlewheel riverboat permanently moored in Old Sac, with an upscale restaurant and casual bar. For a sarsaparilla (or a whiskey) with Old West décor, check out River City Saloon, in operation since the late 1800s.
An often-underrated old town in the area is Historic Downtown Woodland. The Yolo County city is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having begun as a small farming community, later growing into a major agricultural hub. Woodland’s Main Street corridor has shops, restaurants and historic buildings, including the Woodland Opera House, an opulent brick structure built in 1885. Nearby are Reiff’s Gas Station Museum, showcasing antique gas station pumps and old cars, and the California Agricultural Museum, depicting the history of farming in the Sacramento area. For dinner, check out Kitchen428, a refined farm-to-fork choice in the historic Jackson Building, constructed in 1891.
Auburn is the quintessential Gold Rush town, as it served as a camp for miners working in the surrounding goldfields. Today, Old Town Auburn retains its historic charm with period architecture, and you can take a self-guided walking tour of its 19th-century buildings. One attraction is the Historic Auburn Fire House & Bell, built in 1893. You can also check out a 45-ton concrete statue of a gold miner, or visit the Placer County Courthouse Museum, which tells the story not only of the gold miners, but also of the native Nisenan people who inhabited the area for hundreds of years. It is located in a historic courthouse, built in 1898. Shops and restaurants now occupy most of the historic buildings in Old Town Auburn, including the Auburn Alehouse, located in an 1856 building that was home to the American Hotel.
Exploring the Folsom Historic District is another fun way to spend an afternoon. Just 30 minutes from Sacramento, Folsom was built to support the efforts of miners working on the banks of the American River. Many of the old buildings still remain intact today, including Folsom Depot, the eastern terminal of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, which began service in 1856. The Folsom History Museum has artifacts from the days of the Nisenan through the 20th century, while Pioneer Village is a living history museum with a blacksmith, a caboose and a miner’s cabin. Hungry? Swing by J. Wilds Livery & Feed, a casual barbecue joint housed in former stables!
Just 25 miles up Highway 50 is Placerville, which lays claim to one of the most culturally rich historic districts in the Sierra foothills. The city’s historic Main Street erupted in the 1850s as a supply center for the mining camps just up the road on the riverbanks near Coloma. Many 19th-century buildings are still standing, housing shops, restaurants and bars. Some notable spots to check out are Confidence Hall, a former fire station and later city hall, and Fountain-Tallman Soda Works, a former soda water factory made of stone that is now a museum. You can stay the night at the Cary House Hotel, dating to 1857, which was used as a gold exchange during the city’s heyday. Another cool stop is Placerville Hardware, which has been in operation for more than 150 years! Not only do they sell hardware, but gold panning equipment, western décor, kitchen accessories and gifts.
Nevada City is another of the well-known Gold Country towns. It’s a growing community, but its compact historic area is loaded with charm. Also a former Nisenan village, it was rushed with miners in the 1850s, and the former structures are still in use today. Notable spots include Nevada Brewery, a stone building constructed in 1857 that provided lagers to the miners; the Miners Foundry, an 1855 machine shop that is now an art and cultural center; and the National Exchange Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies. You can take a walking tour of the town to admire the architecture, sip local wines at one of the tasting rooms, or grab a bite and catch some live music at the Crazy Horse Saloon & Grill, which opened in 1862.
Arguably one of the most fascinating old towns in the greater Sacramento region is the Delta town of Locke in southern Sacramento County near Walnut Grove. Considered the only town to be built by Chinese immigrants for Chinese immigrants, it was a thriving community for farmworkers, with private homes, saloons, stores, gambling halls and restaurants. Many of the buildings along Main Street are still in use today. You can visit the Dai Loy Museum to learn more about the town, or spend time in Locke Memorial Park, which pays tribute to the Chinese immigrants who settled here. There are a few art galleries to browse, as well as a Chinese restaurant, housed in Locke’s first building, a former beer parlor built in 1912. You can also grab a beer and burger at the legendary Al’s Place (also known as Al the Wop’s), the first non-Chinese-owned business in town, in operation since 1934.
*Featured photo courtesy Visit El Dorado