A California Capital Romance

Sacramento, California
Sacramento, California

During the California Gold Rush, Sacramento may have been known as “The place where the West came and stayed.” For current and former residents of this capital city in the Northern California hinterland, however, the unofficial motto bespeaks a little less permanence: “ Sacramento, the Gateway to … everywhere else.”

Indeed, its two- or three-hour driving proximity to Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Monterey Peninsula and to the wineries of the Napa Valley has given this Northern California community an unbidden reputation as a pit stop, rather than a destination. Combine this with its status as a government payroll town that empties out on weekends and it may not immediately spring to mind as your first choice for a romantic getaway.

Nevertheless, it does have its share of historical venues, Bed & Breakfasts and intimate restaurants to set the right tone for a first date, a summer weekend or a special anniversary.

Old Town Sacramento

The year was 1849. It was a time when merchants took leave of their shops, doctors took leave of their patients, and the world at large took leave of its senses to seek their fortunes in gold. Sacramento’s early prospectors set up their first town on the riverbanks, unaware of the region’s propensity for winter flooding. When the area became too mucky and muddy, most of the original buildings were abandoned. Not until the Bicentennial did this previous eyesore undergo a major facelift. Today, Old Sacramento is a romantic step into a bygone era with vintage shops, carriage rides, cobblestone streets, intimate eateries, bars and comedy clubs.

Docked at the waterfront is another reminder of an earlier century: a majestic paddle wheeler called The Delta King. Converted to a floating hotel, this riverboat haven also has a dining room, bar and theater company that serves up comedies, musicals and murder mysteries. In addition, local water taxis will deliver you to a variety of riverfront restaurants for cool eats on sizzling days.

If you’re looking for the best place to pop romantic questions, however, look no farther than The Firehouse. Tucked away in an ivy-covered alley in Old Sac, both its outdoor courtyard and Victorian interior are conducive to saying “Yes!” to that handsome prince.

Take it from someone who knows its magical effects first-hand. At that place, on April 21, 1997, my husband asked me to marry him. While I’m sure it wasn’t the first proposal to ever take place in The Firehouse courtyard, it was probably the first to take place between two people who hadn’t even been on their first date with each other yet.

Ah, romance! When you’ve found the right one, you just know.

Old Sacramento is within easy walking distance of the Crocker Art Museum (216 O Street, 916-264-5423), the oldest continually operating art museum on the West Coast. Some of the collections date back to the 1400s and were acquired by the Italianate home’s original owners, the Crockers. The modern wing of the Crocker features rotating exhibits and guest lectures while the older portion is a popular place for small concerts and fundraising events.

Bed and Breakfasts

Given the number of conventions and political wing-dings held in Sacramento, there’s no shortage of hotel chains. If you prefer something on the cozy side, however, the area known as midtown can accommodate you. This is a neighborhood of Victorian houses, trendy boutiques, antique stores and small galleries featuring the works of local artists.

Among the most elegant settings we’ve found are the Sterling Hotel (1300 H Street, 916-448-1300) and Vizcaya (2019 21st Street, 916-455-5243). Fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs for two and romantic furnishings are the perfect ambiance for a weekend with your significant other. The Sterling Hotel also has its own restaurant, Chanterelle, for intimate dining. Summer, of course, is the hardest time to get a reservation, as rooms are often grabbed up months in advance by wedding parties.

The Inn at Parkside (2116 6th Street, 916-658-1818), a boutique hotel and spa located in Downtown Sacramento, is definitely worth a stay. This inn dates from the 1930s and was once the residence of the representative to Nationalist China. An Asian influence is prevalent throughout the house.

The inn’s beautiful grounds, which overlook the historic Southside Park, offer a quiet place for an outdoor breakfast. The tiled grounds, along with a gazebo, are often used for weddings or other ceremonies.

All three inns come with full breakfasts which can be enjoyed in the main dining room, in the privacy of your room, or out on the patios and balconies.

All That Jazz (and Good Food!)

Every May, Sacramento hosts the annual Jazz Jubilee, an event that draws jazz, Dixieland and blues musicians from all over the world. It may be a challenge to find a parking place on Memorial Day weekend, but you won’t have any problem finding hot jazz and cold beverages. Book a hotel early if you and your honey plan to attend.

Here are some of the best places for après jazz appetizers or dinners with foreign flair:

* Aioli: Spanish tapas are the bill of fare at Aioli on the corner of 18 th and L Streets (916-447-9440) . If you’re planning to go on a Friday or Saturday night (when you’ll be serenaded with guitar music), be sure to make a reservation.

* Biba: For lovers of Italian food, try Biba (2801 Capitol Avenue, 916-455-2422 ), named for its owner who has authored a lot of cookbooks about her native country.

* Celestin’s: Interested in trying Caribbean food? Take your inquisitive taste buds to Celestin’s at 2516 J Street (916-444-2423). A mojito — a delicious summer drink mixed with light rum, crushed mint leaves, and fresh sugar, on ice — will keep your thirst quenched as you wait for a table.

* Lemon Grass: Mai Pham, is the owner of Lemon Grass, a Vietnamese restaurant located on 601 Munroe Street (916-486-4891) not far from the university. The spring rolls and the tiger prawns are truly to die for. If Mai is on the premises, she’ll even autograph one of her cookbooks for you.

* Slocum House: If your travels take you to Fair Oaks, a suburb of Sacramento, make reservations for this longstanding favorite. Located at 7992 California Avenue (916-961-7211), this cozy establishment, which feels like private home is as popular for first dates as for those that measure in the hundreds.

Performing Arts

Although they don’t get as much billing as those in San Francisco, Sacramento has its own symphony, ballet, opera and community theaters. Sacramento is also a college town where low-priced, but high-quality student productions can be enjoyed at California State University and the Art Court Theater (3835 Freeport Boulevard, 916- 558-2228) at Sacramento City College.

If you love Broadway musicals, check out the season for the Music Circus, a summer stock production company, which finally transitioned from a large, canvas tent to a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility at 1419 H Streets (916-557-1999).

Audiences aren’t the only ones who appreciated the long-awaited completion of a permanent structure. As a former actress, I can attest that it usually took until nearly 10 in the evening for the day’s heat to finally dissipate; throughout performances, the patrons could be seen vigorously fanning themselves with their programs to stay cool. Cast members in heavy costumes and makeup didn’t have that option.

The tent flaps also weren’t enough to keep out street noise or occasional urban bats that flapped their way in and then got too disoriented by the noise and bright lights to find their way out. After the final curtain calls, be sure to slip on over to Rick’s Dessert Diner for one of their sinfully delicious specialties.

Natural Beauty

Sacramento has more than 100 public parks. One of the prettiest is William Land Park, home of the Sacramento Zoo (3930 West Land Park Drive, 916-264-5166) . If your idea of romance includes picnics, make it a point to pick up everything you need at David Berkeley’s in the Pavillons plaza (515 Pavillons Lane, 916-929-4422) . This gourmet market and outdoor cafe has a large variety of meats, cheeses, crackers or, if you’re really lazy, specialty sandwiches that can be made to order. And don’t forget a slice of their world-famous chocolate cake.

For bicycling enthusiasts, there’s the American River Parkway, Paradise Beach or the Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail. Warning: Try to avoid early morning or sunset rides/jogs unless you’re planning to be with a group. The area mountain lions have discovered that the wooded trails are an opportune place to scope out their next meal.

Seeking a special spot to renew your wedding vows? I recommend the McKinley Park Rose Garden or the expansive grounds of the State Capitol. Just make sure you contact City Hall first and get a permit if you’re planning to invite a crowd to join you.

If You Go

City of Sacramento