Old Town Sacramento Relives Rail, River History
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Old Town Sacramento Relives Rail, River History

The California capital's Jewish history stretches to before the gold rush and continues to today's mayor.

The Tower Bridge marks the start of Old Town’s restored waterfront. (Photo courtesy of the Embassy Suites Riverfront Promenade)
The Tower Bridge marks the start of Old Town’s restored waterfront. (Photo courtesy of the Embassy Suites Riverfront Promenade)

Sacramento is justly renowned as the capital of California, the largest state in the nation. This attractive, tree-lined, fun-filled city has plenty of worthwhile attractions that can delight visitors year-round.

It also has been in the national spotlight the past year as the setting for Greta Gerwig’s multiple-Oscar-nominated film “Lady Bird.”

While those are more than enough reasons to put Sacramento on your vacation bucket list, there is more. This beautiful city on the Sacramento River is the center of a region with a rich history and a knack for historical preservation.

The epicenter is Old Town on the riverfront, officially known as the Old Sacramento Historic District, a U.S. National Historic Landmark District. It is a short walk from the Capitol.

Filling 28 acres, this authentically restored area was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and the Pony Express. It was also the Golden State’s first booming business district. It became the supply center for the California gold rush and remains a center of agricultural trade.

The riverfront has endured through fire and flood and was restored to an authentic, mid-19th-century ambience in the 1960s.

Today, Old Town’s wooden-plank sidewalks and cobblestone streets are lined with shops, eateries upscale and casual, and entertainment and bustle with tourists and residents alike. Railroad tracks, trains, lovingly restored buildings dating back over a century and replica schoolhouses can be found. You are never far from the river in Old Town, and antique riverboats and steam tourist trains run through the area.

The California State Railroad Museum excursion train passes the Embassy Suites as it returns to Old Town from downriver. (Photo courtesy of the Embassy Suites Riverfront Promenade)

The crown jewel of Old Town is the California State Railroad Museum. The modern main building showcases railroad history with period steam locomotives, and its roundhouse and display areas are home to many giant steam and early diesel-electric locomotives, passenger cars, dining car china, and even an open-to-the-public high-speed rail driver simulator that is included with admission, as are the original Central Pacific railroad shops.

An excursion train runs along the river on a 40-minute narrated journey that is well worth the extra $12 fare.

Jewish Sacramento

Sacramento has a lively Jewish history and a vibrant Jewish present.

Jews have been involved in the city’s economy and civic life since the gold rush. Jewish merchants became suppliers to mines, miners and the growing town, and early rabbis served Jews throughout the region, including the mining towns.

Sacramento’s Jewish population is about 25,000. Jews have an extensive institutional infrastructure, including houses of worship ranging from Reform to Orthodox.

Each congregation has a religious school, although the Jewish community high school, Yachad, is run by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. There is one Jewish day school, Shalom School; a Jewish social service agency, Jewish Family Service; and a Hillel for California State University, Sacramento, and the University of California, Davis.

The observant will find a mikvah, a kosher store and several kosher caterers. There is a Jewish cemetery, Home of Peace, in addition to designated areas in other cemeteries.

Cultural events include a Jewish film festival, a Jewish food fair, and communitywide observances of Yom HaShoah, Chanukah, Yom HaAtzmaut and other Jewish holidays.

The city’s proximity to high-tech companies provides jobs for local Jews and attracts Israelis.

Anti-Semitism is not unknown in Sacramento, but the community has rallied to support local Jewry when ugly acts have occurred. The mayor, Darrel Steinberg, is Jewish.

Visit Before You Go

Getting There

  • Major airlines serve Sacramento International Airport (SMF), which is 11 miles from Old Town, and San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is about 98 miles away.
  • Amtrak operates frequent north-south service the length of California and connects to the east. Sacramento’s station is a block from Old Town.
  • By car, Sacramento is 90 miles from San Francisco and served by Interstate 5 and I-80. Lake Tahoe is 118 miles away on I-80 and is reached over the Donner Pass. Napa, gateway to the Napa Valley and Sonoma wine regions, is 62 miles distant. No car is needed to explore Old Town.
  • The best choice for a cruise port is San Francisco.


  • Old Town and the California State Railroad Museum.
  • Capitol Park and the California Capitol, with free tours available.
  • Crocker Art Museum.
  • Sacramento Southern railroad excursions, running 40 minutes along the river from Old Town and back.

With Several Extra Days

  • Sacramento Zoo.
  • Discovery Museum Science and Space Center.
  • A Hornblower sunset or history cruise on the Sacramento River.
  • Sacramento Rivertrain, offering dinner trains, wine and beer trains, and murder mystery rides (not the museum train).
  • Napa or Sonoma Valley wineries.
  • San Francisco.

Ginny O’s Clothing Tips

Dress casually. Wear comfortable shoes for walking on wooden-plank sidewalks and cobblestone streets.

At a Glance

  • Over 50 advantage — Fairly easy walking with many eateries and shops in Old Town.
  • Mobility level — Low to moderate. Old Town requires easy walking on cobblestone streets.
  • When to go — Sacramento’s climate is mild with hot summers and pleasant spring and fall weather. Winter can be rainy and cool. The best times are April to June or September to November. Festivals abound in May and June.
  • Where to stay — The Embassy Suites Sacramento Riverfront Promenade is on the river and just steps away from Old Town. Ask for a riverfront-view room. The Delta King riverboat has restaurants and hotel rooms. Other chain hotels are in Sacramento.
  • Special travel interests — History, vintage architecture and transportation. \

Jeffrey Orenstein, Ph.D., and Virginia Orenstein (jorenstein@SimplySmartTravel.com) are husband-and-wife travel writers from Sarasota, Fla. Their Simply Smart Travel column appears in newspapers and magazines in eight states and on major websites. They publish travel ideas, articles, photos and blog posts at www.SimplySmartTravel.com and www.facebook.com/SimplySmartTravel.

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