Spreading for miles at the heart of California’s 500-mile-long agriculturally rich Central Valley, Sacramento (pop. 466,488) is not what most would expect of the capital of the Golden State. Green and suburban, with only the state capitol and a few modern towers rising over fine Victorian houses that line the leafy downtown streets, Sacramento is a relatively quiet backwater that effectively embodies California’s bipolar politics, forming a sort of neutral ground between the liberal urban centers, which contain 90 percent of the state’s population, and the conservative rural rest, which covers 90 percent of the land.

Now scythed by freeways and stretching for miles along the banks of the Sacramento and American Rivers, the city was chosen as the state capital during the gold rush era, when Sacramento was the main jumping-off point for the Sierra Nevada mines. Dozens of buildings dating from that era have been restored to form Old Sacramento, a diverting shopping complex and tourist trap along the riverfront, where yachts offer sightseeing cruises and the California State Railroad Museum (916/323-9280, daily, $12), boasting one of the world’s largest collections, documents the history of western railroads. Along with the wealth of gold rush architecture, “Old Sac” also has memorials to the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad, both of which had primary stations here.

Two other museums are nearby. The Crocker Art Museum (216 O St., 916/808-7000, Tues.-Sun., $10), two blocks from the riverfront, is the oldest art gallery west of the Mississippi, with a broad range of European and California paintings. A half mile south of Old Sacramento, underneath the interchange of I-80 and I-5 at Front and V Streets, the California Automobile Museum (916/442-6802, Wed.-Mon. 10am-5pm, $10) displays hot rods and muscle cars (from Corvettes to a Lamborghini Countach), alongside examples of just about every Ford made before 1952, from Model Ts to massive Ford V-8s.

A half mile inland from the riverfront, standing at the west end of a pleasantly landscaped park, the impressive California State Capitol (daily, free) has publicly accessible legislative chambers of the state’s Senate and Assembly, and hallways full of exhibits on the Golden State’s diverse counties.

Two miles east of the waterfront, at 27th and L Streets, Sacramento’s main historic attraction is Sutter’s Fort (916/445-4422, daily, $5), a reconstruction of the frontier outpost established here in 1839 by Swiss settler Johann Sutter. The first commercial, as opposed to religious, settlement in Alta California, Sutter’s Fort played a vital role in early West Coast history—this is where the Donner Party was headed, and where the gold rush began, when Sutter’s employee James Marshall discovered flakes of gold at Sutter’s Mill, in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Sacramento. The grounds of Sutter’s Fort also hold the small but interesting California State Indian Museum ($5), which has displays of baskets and other California Native American handicrafts.

During Memorial Day weekend, Old Sacramento hosts the Sacramento Music Festival (916/444-2004), which draws an enormous crowd intent on hearing the dozens of jazz bands—everything from Dixieland and “trad” bands to cutting-edge contemporary players.

Sacramento Practicalities

The Old Sacramento area has some good but touristy restaurants and bars, but the Midtown neighborhood south of Sutter’s Fort holds Sacramento’s best range of restaurants, including the tasty but inexpensive Paesanos (1806 Capitol Ave., 916/447-8646), which has great cheap pizzas and a nice sidewalk terrace.

Another lively spot is the Tower Café (1518 Broadway, 916/441-0222), attached to the landmark 1920s Tower Theater (which plays art-house hits) and serving healthy multiethnic food with a world-beat attitude. (The café is where the now-defunct Tower Records got its start.)

Places to stay include the wonderful HI-Sacramento Hostel (925 H St., 916/668-6631, $33), in a fabulous Victorian mansion right downtown. For an unusual experience, how about staying the night in a 1920s paddlewheel riverboat? The Delta King (916/444-5464, $148 and up) is permanently moored on the Old Sacramento riverfront.