Tuesday, March 24, 2009
California's Smithsonian: Sacramento
I've seen Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution —an American heritage and history repository and a collection of some 14 museums and alone worth the trip to D.C. But on a recent weekend in California's capital, it struck me that Sacramento has quietly gathered a Smithsonian-like array of impressive art and history museums. And our state capitol building is every bit as lovely as the US Capitol (ours was modeled after the federal structure, after all).
Unlike Washington's clustering of edifices along a grassy mall in the center of town, Sacramento's are spread out all over town. Yet, in a long weekend, you can visit an awesome array of museums, lauding everything from the history of air travel, rail travel, or military might, to one the finest collections of early California paintings. Some cool new exhibits are open now and a number of major exhibits are right around the corner. Take the kids on a faux-D.C. weekend and you'll have a capital time.
Start at the neoclassical style California State Capitol Museum building, built between 1861 and 1874 and gloriously renovated in the mid-1980s. The dome rises 220 feet above the roof, as does the stately dome of the U.S. Capitol; a shining gold ball on top reflects the state's Gold Rush history. If you have school-aged kids, the art and artifacts are a fun distraction—while they're really learning about how laws are created.
Continue the early California theme and hit the Crocker Art Museum, housed in an 1870s jewelbox of a home; it has one of the best collections of California art around. Head upstairs and gaze at Charles Christian Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines, Thomas Hill’s Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite, and William Hahn's Market Scene, Sansome Street, San Francisco. You'll feel as if you've taken a tour of the golden state, from the mines to the mountains, circa 1870 or so. The grand, Italianate mansion is a work of art itself. Take a moment to scan its coffered ceilings and intricate tilework.
The California Hall of Fame opened just last December in the California Museum. It's an inspiring part of a museum that lauds California's history and innovations. And the artifacts are pretty cool: John Wayne's cowboy boots, Jane Fonda's Oscars, Tiger Wood's golf shoes. There's even an early electric car.
But if you're into way cool machines, it's tough to beat the next two museums: the Aerospace Museum of California and the California State Railroad Museum. The Aerospace Museum sits on the former McClellan Air Force Base and boasts dozens of carefully restored military aircraft; right now they're featuring a clever NASA-designed exhibit called Space: A Journey to Our Future (through Sept. 6). The day I visited, the kids there were not that interested in the moon rock, but couldn't be torn away from the full-sized space habitat and work pod.
Set in Old Sac, the birthplace of the Transcontinental Railroad, the California State Railroad Museum is America's most popular rail museum. You can ride a train (on summer weekends), roam through a Pullman sleeper car that feels like it's moving through a nighttime landscape, and hop aboard a steam engine or two. The kids (or maybe even the dad) might enjoy Small Wonders: The Magic of Toy Trains, a display of over 1,000 vintage toy trains that's too big for any basement. And of course, you can even take Amtrak to visit the rail museum; an active rail station is across the street.
Want more? There's the California Military Museum, State Indian Museum, IMAX Theatre, Governor's mansion, Sacramento History Museum, Sutter's Fort, Towe Auto Museum, and, well, you get the picture. For more, visit the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Where to stay: There's a lot to like about the recently-opened Le Rivage Hotel; its a 4-diamond hotel (seen at left and above) with a spa and all the luxury amenities you could ask for: marble bathrooms with soaking tubs, 42-inch flat screen TV, swanky Italian bed linens; outside are balconies, bocce courts, fire pits overlooking the water. Right on the Sacramento River, the hotel is just a short ride down the adjacent bike trail from Old Sac, and soon a water taxi will begin stopping at the hotel and dining spots along the water.
If you prefer to stay downtown, check out the Citizen Hotel, a beautifully restored grande dame that's now a Joie de Vivre property they describe as "20th century grace redefined by 21st century urban luxury". The beds are super-comfy and the hotel staff is helpful; but ask for a room on the quiet side (there's a noisy nightclub nearby).
Dining: If you're looking for new and cool, Zagat's rates Mulvaney's Building & Loan as one of the top five restaurants in town, so it has been discovered. But its still fun, quirky, intimate, and it feels like a find because, well, its so hard to find (we dare you to spot the sign-still uninstalled on our visit). I sampled the house-smoked salmon and homemade potato chips: yummo! And in the Citizen Hotel, the Grange Restaurant focuses on "organically raised meats and poultry and the freshest produce available from the Central Valley," in a very clubby, Old Sac atmosphere.