Sacramento in spring

Discover baseball, river walks, and culture in the capital city
Lora J. Finnegan

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Sacramento was once California's forgotten middle child, neither as beautiful as San Francisco nor as smart and stylish as Los Angeles. But these days the capital city radiates a new vigor. A hit ballpark with a championship Triple-A team is helping to revitalize downtown; a waterside promenade and an improving restaurant scene have added interest to the riverfront.

Of course, this sense of renewal might just be because the city is at its best in spring. A spectacular rose garden is bursting into bloom in Capitol Park. And wildflowers are starting to pop along hiking and cycling trails and in parks edging the Sacramento and American Rivers.

Still, some things about Sacramento remain unchanged, including its laid-back demeanor. Things are so casual at Raley Field ballpark, for example, that you can take a blanket and picnic to watch the game from Home Run Hill, grass seating behind the outfield.

FRIDAY

Had a long drive into Sacramento? Pause to refuel at Fox & Goose ($; call for hours; 1001 R St.; 916/443-8825), an old college hangout. Try an English-style lunch of bangers and mash, washed down with one of the 17 beers on tap.

Old-school art. Sacramento has a number of first-rate museums, and one of the oldest and best is the Crocker Art Museum (closed Mon; $6, $4 seniors and students, ages 6 and under free; 216 O St.; 916/264-5423), across the street from Crocker Park. Pretty as a wedding cake, this Italianate Victorian is famed for its collection of early California works, including Thomas Hill's gigantic Yosemite.

All aboard. You don't have to be a rail buff to enjoy the train exhibits at the California State Railroad Museum (10-5 daily; $4, ages 16 and under free; I St. at Second St.; 916/445-6645). Weekend steam-train trips ($6, $3 ages 6-12) fire up this month; clamber aboard for a 40-minute, 6-mile round-trip chug alongside the Sacramento River. When you get back, take a short stroll on the Riverfront Promenade, which begins on the east side of Tower Bridge at the foot of Capitol Mall.

Waterfront grub. The perfect end to the afternoon is to watch the river roll by from the deck at Joe's Crab Shack ($$; 1210 Front St.; 916/553-4249) over a dinner of broiled shrimp and barbecued Dungeness crab.

SATURDAY

Start by roaming Capitol Park (10th St. at L St.; 916/324-0333), the 40-acre garden surrounding the California State Capitol. April is orange-blossom time, so stroll under the giant citrus trees ― remembering the state's once-abundant groves ― and inhale. Follow your nose to the park's year-old World Peace Rose Garden (free; 800/205-1223), stuffed with 701 rose bushes.

Peek under the dome. A visit to the California State Capitol Museum (free; guided tours 9-4 daily; 11th St. at L St.; 916/324-0333) can be surprisingly inspiring. The museum is located within the meticulously restored Renaissance revival-style capitol building, the center of state lawmaking and a wonder of early 1900s craftsmanship, with lots of sculptures, murals, and gold leaf.

Culture vulture. Time your visit right and you can join a free guided Art in Public Places tour by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission (916/566-3992); you'll see a downtown chockablock with more than 50 sculptures, murals, and paintings. Tours are available the second Saturday and last Wednesday of each month (Apr 10 and 28) or by appointment.

Small-plate lunch. If you think this town lacks spice, the Spanish-style tapas at Tapa the World ($$; closed Mon; 2115 J St.; 916/442-4353) will change your mind. In the evening, come back for a glass of wine and live guitar music.

Where Sacramento started. Drive down L Street to find the town's first center of power. John Sutter had a flourishing agricultural empire before the discovery of gold, which led to his ruin. Touring Sutter's Fort State Historic Park ($2-$4; 2701 L St.; 916/445-4422) gives you a peek at life in the 1840s, including Sutter's bedroom (elegant, for the frontier). See the world's tiniest basket at the State Indian Museum State Historic Park ($2; 2618 K St.; 916/324-0971). The state's first residents, up to 300,000 Native Americans, were spread among 120 different language groups.

Italian dinner. Head a few blocks down J Street to the Californian/Mediterranean-themed Lucca Restaurant & Bar ($$; call for hours; 1615 J St.; 916/669-5300). Start with some paper-thin zucchini chips, then move on to the honey-glazed lamb brochette.

SUNDAY

Spend a morning walking the Sacramento River, busy with water-skiers and river-rafters. Grab a wake-me-up espresso and something to munch on at an Old Sacramento favorite, Steamers Coffee & Tea Exchange (101 K St.; 916/448-9404).

Take a hike. Wind along the green, tree-shaded 1-mile trail that connects Old Sac to Discovery County Park ($4 per vehicle; Richards Blvd. at Jibboom St.; 916/875-6961). It's a wide, level trail, perfect for a morning jog, and it continues through Discovery Park and beyond. Start early and you may surprise little green or great blue herons prowling the shallows.

Ride an otter. For a mini-cruise on the Sacramento River, hop on one of the jaunty, banana yellow vessels operated by River Otter Water Taxi (call for seasonal schedule; $6 round trip, $3 ages 12 and under; L St. Landing at Front St.; 916/446-7704). The taxis start up in mid-April; allow an hour to ride the four-stop loop.

Mudbugs, anyone? Crayfish, aka mudbugs, are served simply at Crawdad's River Cantina ($; 1375 Garden Hwy.; 916/929-2268). Pair a bucket of boiled crayfish with a beer and you'll be in heaven.

Batter up. The Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, last season's Pacific Coast League champs, play their home opener April 16 at Raley Field ($6-$18; 400 Ballpark Dr.; 916/376-4700). The team's schedule includes many Sunday-afternoon games, and there are fireworks on opening night and at every Saturday-night game. Above right field, a kids area has a play structure, bounce houses, and a giant slide. Relax at a game, cooled by the river breeze, and you may feel Sacramento has scored, even if the Cats don't win.