Northern California refers to the 48 counties in the northernmost region of the state, including San Francisco Bay, Greater Sacramento, and the Metropolitan Fresno area. It is home to redwood forests, Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley, parts of Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, and the northern part of Central Valley. The land is rich and natural, with varied landscapes that include mountains, sea, lakes, rivers, beaches, and agricultural regions like the Wine Country. Here are the best things to do in Northern California. Certain attractions may be temporarily closed or require advance reservations. Hours/availability may have changed.
1. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
© Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Located in the Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California, is a marine research and education facility which aims to promote the understanding and conservation of the world’s oceans, and to demonstrate the role that scientific research plays in that objective.
Featuring a 20,000-square-foot visitor center, you are welcome to attend the aquarium, where you can touch sharks, sea stars, urchins, crabs and anemones, see Ms. Blue –an 87-foot-long and 18-foot-high whale skeleton- and get closer to the magnificent sea life of Monterey Bay, which is a year-round home year for seals, otters, dolphins, sea lions, whales, a multitude of invertebrates and algae, as well as seabirds and fish. Things to Do in Santa Cruz
100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, Phone: 831-459-3800
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One of the most intriguing things to do in Northern California is exploring Alcatraz. This world-renowned, former maximum security federal prison is located on an island in San Francisco Bay, California. Also named “the Rock”, it was first a military fort, then a military prison and, until 1963, a federal prison. Today, it is a national park and has been designated a National History Landmark.
In its time, it held prisoners such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud, Machine Gun Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, and many more. Come to experience breathing the cold, chilling air that gives even the bravest of men goose bumps.
Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, B201 Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA 94123, Phone: 415-981-7625
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3. Monterey Bay Aquarium
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Founded in 1984, this non-profit public aquarium located in Monterey, California, features more than 600 species of plants and animals and is acknowledged as one of the best aquariums in the United States. The aquarium was built on the site of a former sardine cannery and receives more than 2 million visitors each year.
Known for circulating fresh ocean water through pipes from Monterrey Bay, some of its most prominent attractions include the Ocean Edge Wing, a three-story tank home to the first Giant Kelp forest exhibit in the world, the Open Sea exhibit (formerly the Outer Bay), which has the largest marine observation window in the world, a million-gallon shark tank, and the jewel jellyfish tank. Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the top california points of interest. Things to Do in Monterey
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, Phone: 831-648-4800
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4. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), is a modern art museum and monument of the city of San Francisco, California. It was the first West Coast museum to display only 20th-century art and its collection holds 33,000 objects, including sections on photography, sculpture, architecture, painting, and media arts.
It is one of the largest museums in the United States, offering 45,000 square feet of art-filled public spaces. In May 2016 it was expanded to include an outstanding piece of architectural work by Snøhetta which is perfectly integrated with the existing Mario Botta design. Another distinguished area is the rooftop garden, which includes two open-air spaces and a glass pavilion where a rotating selection of indoor and outdoor sculpture is on display.
151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, Phone: 415-357-4000
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5.Presidio of San Francisco
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The Presidio of San Francisco is a former military base located in San Francisco, California, which is now a national park. In 1776, it was built to defend the New Spain colony and to serve as a base to expand their domain. This beautiful area showcases many woods, hills, and excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.
There are a number of places to visit, including the Batterly Chamberlin museum, an artillery battery built in 1904, Fort Point, a 1861 fortification under the Bridge and Crissy Field Center, a former airfield that is now a recreational area, The Walt Disney Family Museum as well as 800 other historical buildings.
Fort Mason, Bldg. 201, San Francisco, CA 94123, Phone: 415-561-4323
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6. California State Railroad Museum
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Named as one of the best railway expositions of the country, the California State Railroad Museum presents 21 restored Iron Horse trains that date as far back as the 1860s. The museum is a reminder of the important role that these trains played in American society in relation to the development of the Golden State and in providing the connection between California and the rest of the country.
One of the main attractions is the Sacramento Southern Railroad journey, which operates between April and October and takes passengers back through time during a 40-minute roundtrip on an old restored locomotive. Other highlights include a reconstructed 1870 station, photography materials, and a wealth of old equipment. More California vacations.
125 I St, Sacramento, CA 95814, Phone: 916-445-7387
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7.The Triton Museum of Art
© The Triton Museum of Art
The Triton Museum of Art is one of Santa Clara's loveliest cultural gems, originally founded in 1965 by prominent area rancher and lawyer W. Robert Morgan and his wife June. As Santa Clara County's first non-university art museum, the museum has operated in its current location since 1967, renovated to its current 22,000-square-foot space in 1987. Today, more than 40,000 annual museum guests view its well-curated rotating art exhibitions, which showcase the works of California artists working in a wide variety of media. Solo and thematic exhibitions are presented throughout the year, along with a variety of art group exhibitions and open competition exhibitions. Outreach programming reaches more than 90,000 viewers each year, including a satellite gallery location.
1505 Warburton Ave, Santa Clara, CA 95050, Phone: 408- 247-2438
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8.SOMArts Cultural Center
© SOMArts Cultural Center
SOMArts was established in 1979 as an official San Francisco cultural center with the mission to promote art in the community and encourage respect for different cultures. SOMArts provides crucial services to the art community as well as space for large-scale exhibitions and events in the heart of San Francisco. It provides a darkroom, a printmaking studio, a ceramics studio, three gallery spaces, a dance studio, a 180-seat theater, and offices used by organizations such as the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center and ArtSpan. SOMArts organizes a range of exhibitions every month as well as annual events, such as the Día de los Muertos exhibition and Night Light: Multimedia Garden Party. More than 40,000 people take advantage of their free or affordable workshops, exhibitions, and performances, and about 1,200 artists from the Bay Area show their work at SOMArts annually.
934 Brannan Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, Phone: 415-863-1414
9. Jack London State Historic Park
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Also known as the Jack London Home and Ranch, this historic park is located in the Sonoma Mountains close to Glen Ellen, California. It was the home of the famous writer Jack London from 1905 until his death in 1916. His wife, Charmian, inherited the property and upon her death in 1955 it became a museum, finally opening to the public in 1959.
Some of the park’s features include the Winery Cottage where London wrote many of his stories, the House of Happy Walls that was constructed by his wife in memory of him, the Wolf House, which is a 15,000-square-foot house that burnt down just before the Londons moved in, and the couple’s grave.
2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, Phone: 707-938-5216
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10.Palace of Fine Arts
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One of the ten palaces in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina district of San Francisco, California, is one of the few such buildings still standing today. Its architect, Bernard R. Maybeck, designed it to reflect a Roman ruin, and while most of the other buildings were torn down, this one was considered too beautiful, and so it was restored in 1965.
Now a museum and theatre, it hosts numerous art exhibits, is a popular sightseeing spot for tourists and locals, and has been used for wedding parties and photograph sessions.
3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, Phone: 415-563-6504
11. Walt Disney Family Museum
© Walt Disney Family Museum
Located in the above-mentioned Presidio of San Francisco, The Walt Disney Family Museum pays tribute to the story, legacy, and life of Walt Disney. Guests can enter this genius’ mind while traversing the interactive galleries that feature music, films, cartoons, and early drawings, all narrated in Walt’s own voice. Inspiration, innovation, and animation come together in this fantastic place, where Walt still lives and his achievements come to life, taking you on a journey not only back in time, but also within yourself, allowing you to experience our inner child, the one that grew with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto on the screen.
104 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94129, Phone: 415-345-6800
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12.Historic Halter Ranch Vineyard
Historic Halter Ranch Vineyard is a lovely winery and vineyard in Paso Robles' Westside Adelaida District, set on 2,000 acres along steep slopes reaching an elevation of more than 1,750 feet. The vineyard and ranch's history dates back to the 1880s during its tenure as a 3,600-acre ranch holding by California businessman Edwin Smith. In 2001, the property was purchased by Hansjörg Wyss and converted into a world-class winery facility producing 100% estate-grown wines cultivated via sustainable farming practices. Red and white wines are produced from Bordeaux and Rhône grape varieties, showcased in traditional varieties such as Côtes de Paso, Picpoul Blanc, Vin de Paille, and the winery's flagship Ancestor Bordeaux-style red blend, named in honor of the famed Ancestor live oak tree. Visitors can enjoy winery and cave tours on foot or on horseback or taste a variety of wines at the facility's public tasting room throughout the week.
8910 Adelaida Rd, Paso Robles, CA 93446, Phone: 888-367-9977
13. Happy Hollow Park and Zoo
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Nothing beats a zoo for spending the day under the sun, learning new things, sharing with your family, and coming face-to-face with these amazing creatures in a showcase of the wonders and diversity of the world. The Happy Hollow Park and Zoo invites you to partake in an enlightening experience while having fun with the people you love and connecting with nature’s creations.
Some if its famous areas include the Puppet Theatre, the Doc’s Critter Care –an animal hospital- and the Double H Ranch Exhibit, which offers close contact with some domestic species, the Lemur Woods Exhibit, and the Fossa Exhibit. Of course, the main attractions are the over 140 animals, some of which you can even meet up-close!
1300 ter Rd, San Jose, CA 95112, Phone: 408-794-6400
14. Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
© Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
Previously known as Bonfante Gardens after its founders, Michael and Claudia Bonfante, the Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is a horticulturally themed amusement park in Gilroy, California, which aims to educate and inspire visitors regarding the importance of trees.
It features 19 rides, 27 attractions, and six gardens, including the famous 24 Circus Trees garden, which has trees grown and shaped in astonishing patterns. One of its newest additions is the Splash Garden, a water play area aimed at small children that includes the Bonfante Falls, paddle boats and boat rides. These beautiful gardens are quite a sight, and fun activities for kids and grownups alike await!
3050 ker Pass Hwy, Gilroy, CA 95020, Phone: 408-840-7100
15. Ocean World
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Ocean World in Crescent City, California, is an aquarium filled with fun and exciting activities for the whole family. Its fully-guided tours start with the Touch and Feel Tide Pool, where you can to see and touch many species of sea creatures.
Next, try the 500,000-gallon aquarium tank where you can see sharks, seals, wolf eels, and sea lions. Take advantage of one of their best exhibits and touch a real life shark, a memory you will treasure for a lifetime! Be wowed as you take in one of the amazing shows at the Sea Lion and Seal Performance. Don’t forget to visit their famous gift shop on the way out.
304 ghway 101 South, Crescent City, CA 95531, Phone: 707-464-4900
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16.San Francisco Zoo
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Originally named Fleishhacker Zoo after its founder, Herbert Fleishhacker, the San Francisco Zoo is home to 1,000 animals from 250 species, which include many endangered species, as well as rescued animals. Its 100-acre area features Hearst Grizzly Gulch, the home of Kachina and Kiona the rescued grizzly bear sisters, Lipman Lemur Forest, the largest lemur habitat in the country, Penguin Island, the largest non-wild colony of Magellanic penguins in the world, the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, and the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo, where there are animal feeding and petting activities available.
Other well-known areas include the Little Puffer Steam Train, Dentzel Carousel, Elinor Friend Playground, and the Rockin’ Ropes adventure.
Sloat Blvd. at the Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94132, Phone: 415-753-7080
17. Winchester Mystery House
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The residence of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, is a Victorian mansion located in San Jose, California. Even though the property once covered 162 acres, it has now been reduced to 4 ½ acres, just enough to contain the house and its outbuildings.
Since its construction in 1884, it is said to be haunted by the ghosts of people killed with Winchester rifles. Although the house was once seven stories high, an earthquake in 1906 reduced it to four. The house boasts some amazing numbers, including 160 rooms, 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, two basements and three elevators.
525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA 95128, Phone: 408-247-2101
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18.Jordan Vineyard and Winery
© Jordan Vineyard and Winery
Jordan Vineyard and Winery is well known for its high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay varietals. The family-operated winery was originally founded in 1972 by married duo Sally and Tom Jordan and is noted for its unique French production style, which showcases smoother tannins and lower alcohol content than typical California wines. Since 2013, the winery has been open to the public, offering unique Estate Tour and Tasting experiences showcasing the winery's production methods and areas. Guests can taste the company's excellent wines, with food pairings offered within the facility's cellar room. Special events offered throughout the year include vineyard hikes, dinners, and holiday celebrations.
1474 Alexander Valley Rd, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone: 707-431-5250
© Photo credit: Mike Rosati
Located only 3 miles from downtown Oakland and 15 miles from San Francisco, Rock Wall Wine Company is housed in a converted 40,000-square-foot airplane hangar on the former Alameda Naval Air Base, which was decommissioned in 1997. The winery sources its grapes from all over California, using different grape varieties and regional flavor profiles. Their cabernet sauvignon comes from Napa Valley, zinfandel from Sonoma County, petite Syrah from Contra Costa County, and chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. The elegant Rock Wall tasting room is located next to the original hangar and the processing plant. It is open seven days a week, offering wines for tasting or purchase. The food is provided by Scolari’s at the Point. Things to Do in Oakland
2301 Monarch St, Alameda, CA 94501, Phone: 510-522-5700
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20.Napa Valley Balloons, Inc
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Napa Valley Balloons, Inc., located in the Napa Valley, California, is the oldest balloon company in the area and was founded by Don Surplus in 1978. It is also the leading hot air balloon company in the United States, chosen by many well-known personalities for both its reputation and its excellence.
Its pilots have a combined experience of more than 23,000 flight hours, which makes them the most experienced staff in the valley. They offer pre-flight coffee, pastries, tea, juice, and fruits. However, the best part is neither the company nor its staff, but rather the place, which is one of the most incredible valleys on Earth.
4086 ay E., Napa, CA 94558, Phone: 707-944-0228
© Fairytale Town
Located in the William Land Park in Sacramento, California, Fairytale Town is a park for children and families to have a fun day and learn something in the process. Amongst its many features are 25 play sets based on a representation of fairytales and nursery rhymes, including Humpty Dumpty, King Arthur, the Three Little Piggies, Cinderella, Winnie the Pooh, and Hickory Dickory Dock.
Farm animals such as lambs, rabbits, goats, pigs, mice, hen, cows, and donkeys can also be found in the premises, offering an opportunity for interactive learning, and children and grownups can also learn about gardening in the show gardens.
3901 d Park Dr, Sacramento, CA 95822, Phone: 916-808-7462
22.Turtle Bay Exploration Park
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Located in Redding, California, the Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre complex consisting of museums and natural spaces. Next to the Sacramento River, it features the magnificent Sundial Bridge which, as its name indicates, is one of the largest sundials in the world and is also a bridge.
There is a museum containing two exhibition galleries and permanent interactive experiences about local and regional history that is specially connected to Native American culture. Other features include the McConnell Arboretum and botanical gardens, which comprise 20 acres of Mediterranean climate gardens, a medicinal garden, and a children’s garden, extending 200 acres in total along the Sacramento River Trail.
844 Sundial Bridge Drive, Redding, CA 96003, Phone: 530-243-8850
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23.Tallac Historic Site
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Located in South Lake Tahoe, California, the Tallac Historic Site was once a world-renowned resort for San Francisco Bay area’s elite families. Today, its 74 acres, comprising the Baldwin Estate, the Pope Estate, and Valhalla, invite you to stroll through its luxurious gardens, visit the museum, and enjoy the magnificent views.
Sink into the “Old Tahoe” lifestyle as nature combined with human architecture makes this a perfect place to see Lake Tahoe from a different perspective. Even though the buildings are closed during winter, it remains a very popular place for skiing and walking in the snow, and offers a completely different landscape compared to that in the summer.
1 Heritage Way, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150, Phone: 4530-541-5227
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Located in San Francisco, California, the Exploratorium is a public museum and learning laboratory founded by the famous physicist Frank Oppenheimer, who wanted to improve scientific education in the United States. Oppenheimer was awarded a grant to develop new methods for teaching physics to elementary and school children, and this work evolved into an interactive museum of science, art and human perception which opened its doors to the public in 1969.
Much like its founder, the museum has always been at the cutting edge of teaching and learning and now boasts a 50,000-page website and numerous iPad apps. Its main sustainability goal is becoming a net-zero-energy facility by producing more energy than it consumes.
Pier 15, The Embarcadero & Green St., San Francisco, CA 94111, Phone: 415-528-4444
25.Aqua Adventure Water Park
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Located in Fremont, California, the Aqua Adventure Water Park is a great opportunity for a day out with your family. It features four 40-foot-high slides, a 25-yard-long oasis pool with 5 lanes as well as a lazy river that surrounds the whole park with a kiddie island in the middle.
Other services include locker rooms, food service, picnic areas, and beautiful gardens. It also provides a cabana service, 10x10 cabanas with lounge chairs, a table, and a food service option that allows you to avoid queueing. Swimming lessons are also offered for all skill levels.
40500 Paseo Padre Pkwy, Fremont, CA 94538, Phone: 510-494-4426
25 Best Things to Do in Northern California
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Photo: Seymour Marine Discovery Center
- Alcatraz, Photo: Courtesy of ThoPics - Fotolia.com
- Monterey Bay Aquarium, Photo: Courtesy of fannyes - Fotolia.com
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Jane - Fotolia.com
- Presidio of San Francisco, Photo: Courtesy of mizzick - Fotolia.com
- California State Railroad Museum, Photo: Courtesy of alisontoon - Fotolia.com
- The Triton Museum of Art, Photo: The Triton Museum of Art
- SOMArts Cultural Center, Photo: SOMArts Cultural Center
- Jack London State Historic Park, Photo: Courtesy of zauberblicke - Fotolia.com
- Palace of Fine Arts, Photo: Courtesy of marcorubino - Fotolia.com
- Walt Disney Family Museum, Photo: Walt Disney Family Museum
- Historic Halter Ranch Vineyard, Photo: chiyacat/stock.adobe.com
- Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, Photo: Courtesy of takebyju - Fotolia.com
- Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, Photo: Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
- Ocean World, Photo: Courtesy of murmakova - Fotolia.com
- San Francisco Zoo, Photo: Courtesy of Oksana Ariskina - Fotolia.com
- Winchester Mystery House, Photo: Courtesy of Friday - Fotolia.com
- Jordan Vineyard and Winery, Photo: Jordan Vineyard and Winery
- Rock Wall, Photo: Photo credit: Mike Rosati
- Napa Valley Balloons, Inc, Photo: Courtesy of ah_fotobox - Fotolia.com
- Fairytale Town, Photo: Fairytale Town
- Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Photo: Courtesy of maemanee - Fotolia.com
- Tallac Historic Site, Photo: Courtesy of James Phelps JR - Fotolia.com
- The Exploratorium, Photo: Courtesy of zinkevych - Fotolia.com
- Aqua Adventure Water Park, Photo: Courtesy of starsstudio - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Jiawangkun/Fotolia
Platypus Wine Tours
Platypus Tours is a transportation and touring company that specializes in wine tours in the Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, Calistoga, St. Helena, North Sonoma County, Russian River, Carneros, West Side, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valley as well as other spots in the famous Wine Country.
They offer private tours for up to 8 people, whereby you can select the wineries you want to visit and create a customized tour experience. As there are more than 450 wineries in the Napa Valley alone, it is important to have some guidance. This way, you can avoid the crowds and have a far more intimate experience in getting to know the landscapes, vineyards, and hills that characterize this perfect wine-making region.
Home to the San Francisco Giants, the AT&T Park is a baseball stadium located in San Francisco, California. It was previously known as Pacific Bell Park and subsequently SBC Park before being given its current name.
Some of its features include the Willie Mays statue at the public entrance, McCovey Cove, the bay area beyond the right field wall which was named after Willie McCovey and which is famous for receiving numerous “splash hit” home runs, especially in the Barry Bonds era. The giant Coca-Cola bottle with playground slides and the Miniature AT&T Park behind the left field have garnered considerable fame and make this ballpark a famous and fun place to visit.
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94107, Phone: 415-972-2000
Located in the heart of Shoreline Park, a 750-acre recreation and wildlife area just outside Mountain View in California, Shoreline Lake is a 50-acre manmade saltwater lake filled with water from San Francisco Bay. It is a pleasant spot to spend a weekend with the family and go wind surfing. It is in fact a popular place to learn to wind surf. In the afternoon, the winds can reach to 25 mph, which is when the local experts hit the waves. The lake is much warmer than the bay and doesn’t drop below the 50s in winter. Surrounding the lake is the beautiful green space with trails for hiking, biking, and nature watching. Just outside the park is the Shoreline Amphitheatre, a popular Silicon Valley concert venue.
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California State Capitol Museum
Surrounded by 40 acres of gardens, the California State Capitol Museum building has also been home to the California State Legislature since 1869. In 1982, it underwent a major renovation process to restore its beauty and make it earthquake proof. It features a theater which shows films about the Capitol’s story, a gift shop, and the Arthur Mathews mural called “The History of California” on the basement and first floor.
The main attraction are the guided tours which cover the legislative chambers, historic offices, and art work and include information regarding the Capitol’s history and architecture. Park tours are also available, or visitors can take their own self-guided tours.
1315 h St, Sacramento, CA 95814, Phone: 916-324-0333
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Built in 1839, Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento was originally called New Helvetia (New Switzerland) by its founder, John Sutter. It was the first non-Indian community in the California Central Valley and Sacramento’s first settlement, receiving many immigrants. The site provided a refuge for travelers, and Sutter became famous for his hospitality.
He intended to develop his diverse crops and cattle into an agricultural empire, but in 1849 one of his staff discovered gold. The news spread quickly and soon Sutter’s workers left the fort and the property was overrun by gold seekers. Later on, the fort was restored and donated to the state. It has recently been reconstructed to resemble its 1840s appearance. Things to Do in Sacramento
2701 L St, Sacramento, CA 95816, Phone: 916-445-4422
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