Don’t let the pandemic turn you into a Grinch. Celebrate the holidays safely in Sacramento with an al fresco hot cocoa and a brightly lit Ferris wheel.
Rising COVID-19 case counts and statewide curfews make California’s holiday season feel much less merry and bright. Instead of canceling all plans to celebrate head to Sacramento—California’s capital city since 1854—this December for a safe socially distanced vacay with your household (or quarantine crew).
Located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, Sacramento began as Gold Rush boomtown and still preserves this legacy today in Old Sacramento.
Affectionately called “The City of Trees,” “River City,” and “Sactown” by locals, this city is a Cowtown no more, reinventing itself as a thriving farm-to-fork destination surrounded by adventurous outdoor recreation opportunities. And while the pandemic crushed Sacramento’s local restaurants early on, the city pivoted fast, closing roads to create large outdoor dining spaces and promoting takeout dining deals.
This ingenuity carried over to the holiday season, with creative Sacramentans remaking the city’s holiday plans with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. Instead of packing into holiday light shows, ride a temporary Ferris wheel for sparkling city light vistas. Swap shopping in crowded malls with walking Sac’s sidewalks to see decorated holiday storefront windows and find unique gifts.
While you can’t pack into cozy indoor bars, you’ll find al fresco patios with heaters, blankets, and hot toddies. Sure, it’s not the same holiday season we love, but it’s enough Fa La La to put you in jolly Christmas spirits. Bonus: snow is rare in Sacramento and (almost) never accumulates. Bundle up a bit, and you’ll be feeling comfy cozy outside.
If you’ve never explored California’s capital, or it’s been ages since you have, stop waiting for the pandemic to end. Instead, don your most festive mask, keep your distance, obey the curfew, and visit Sacramento (safely) this holiday season.
The Old Sacramento Waterfront is typically holiday central, with the Theatre of Lights extravaganza and a huge Christmas tree lighting. This winter, the Dignity Health Holiday Tree still sparkles every night, and the Waterfront Wheel—a temporary Ferris wheel—is open for socially distant rides. Take a spin until January 31 for views of Tower Bridge, Old Town, and the city lights. Tickets are just $6 and available seven days a week.
Next, snap a selfie with the Christmas tree and celebrate California’s beginnings with a walk through Gold Rush structures turned restaurants and shops. Bring cash for target practice at the River City Shooting Gallery and saltwater taffy at the many candy shops.
If seeing Santa is on your holiday to-do list, hop aboard the River Fox Train’s Magical Christmas Train. Bundle up and ride in an open-air car with heaters to a safe-socially distant celebration with Santa. Masks are required, and families will be grouped together for the ride to Winter Wonderland. Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves will be waiting at this private park along the Sacramento River with hot cocoa and treats.
For a more grown-up rail ride, reserve Sacramento’s new Railbikes. Pedal down the tracks through the countryside, cruise along the river, and enjoy outdoor exercise with a friend or family member.
Shop local for gifts this season and support small businesses that are suffering due to the pandemic instead of mega-corporations. Start with a tour of Sacramento’s storefront windows decked in holiday cheer (until January 1) and vote for your favorite display. From December 1 to 12 in Midtown, receive free gifts with purchases, special holiday cocktails, and treats at 12 Days of Midtown.
Start your holiday shopping spree at Midtown’s Strapping Store, a gift boutique with funny finds, household items, and Sactown shirts and accessories. Buy chocolate boxes, holiday gift sets, and edible stocking stuffers at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates.
Pop by Capital Books to find curated reads for everyone on your list. “One of the great things about shopping locally is that you can find these unique gifts that maybe other people wouldn’t have,” says Kari Miskit, vice president of communications at Visit Sacramento. “Some of it’s Sacramento-centric, some is more West Coast themed, so that’s always fun.”
While mask-wearing and social distancing are required at these shops, you can skip the in-person visit and still buy local with Curbside Holiday from December 19 to 20. Shop online from these and other local brands, choose a pickup time, and Santa will deliver the goods to your car with festive cheer. Driving into Sacramento to browse? Score free metered parking on city streets until December 25.
Where to Eat and Drink
Whether you choose takeout or outdoor dining, don’t miss the local eats during your Sacramento stay. Branded as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” the area surrounding the city is an agricultural powerhouse with a year-round growing season. Most restaurants source their farm-fresh ingredients from local farms.
“Sacramento was really making waves as a culinary capital pre-pandemic. We’d earned our first Michelin star,” Miskit says, “and while certainly the restaurant industry has been impacted by the pandemic, it hasn’t stopped our local restaurants from turning out incredible meals.”
Street closures and clever pop-ups have kept popular restaurants open in the city, with restaurants in the R Street Corridor, Hardin, Handle, and Downtown Commons (DOCO) districts banding together to survive.
Due to Sacramento County’s current Purple Tier COVID-19 status, only outdoor dining is allowed, but the addition of heaters make for charming nights out. “Sitting near a heater under trees with lights, it’s kind of a magical way to have a great meal,” Miskit says.
“All the dining restaurants in the DOCO shopping plaza have created this massive outdoor dining space adjacent to the Golden One Center,” she says. “It’s all socially distant and is usually used for pre-game activities. You can get food from a variety of restaurants all in one spot.” Try Mexican cuisine at Polanco Cantina or bites and bubbles at Fizz Champagne Bar.
Across the street on the 700 block, sip craft cocktails with a bird’s-eye view of the city from Darling Aviary’s new rooftop lounge, or grab brunch and mimosas at Tiger, an indoor food hall that’s transformed Ali Youssefi Square into a communal outdoor dining space.
For fancier local fare that changes with the growing season, try Mulvaney’s B&L, “Mulvaney’s has become one of the standard standout restaurants in Sacramento,” Miskit says. “Patrick Mulvaney is a prolific farm-to-fork leader in the community, and they’re doing a very special outdoor program.”
While crowded bars now feel like a relic from another time, there are safe ways to get your holiday drink on in the city. Start in Midtown at The Jungle Bird for its Sippin’ Santa holiday pop-up. Enjoy a festive Tiki drink served in holiday glassware outdoors on the winter wonderland patio or take one to-go and drink in the comfort of your hotel room.
Over on R Street, thaw out with an Haute Toddy at The Snug’s yacht-rock-themed Doobie Bar or head to Midtown’s Ice Blocks for patio pizza and a hot ramen bar at Beast + Bounty’s pop-up experience.
Looking to spice up a vegan holiday meal? Shop plant-based charcuterie plates from The Dancer’s Pantry, a new service run by Chelsea Farrah Koptke, a dancer-turned-chef specializing in vegan grazing tables and plates. For no-fuss holiday dining, support Sacramento restaurants with a takeout order and enjoy quality cuisine at home.
Where to Stay
Sleep on the border of downtown and Midtown at Residence Inn Sacramento Downtown at Capitol Park: you can walk everywhere from there. Every room is a spacious suite, so you can eat restaurant takeout at your dining room table or cook in the fully equipped kitchen. It’s a shame that the lobby’s hip Hotel Bar is not open, but Chef Keith Wallace’s creations (and stellar burgers) can be ordered for takeout from 3 to 8 p.m. daily. A free buffet breakfast is offered in the morning, but you must take it to-go and dine in your room.
Our favorite way to spend a morning here is grabbing a coffee at Midtown’s Old Soul Co, and taking a walk in Capitol Park. Here you’ll find 140 varieties of roses in the World Peace Rose Garden, a touching Vietnam Memorial, a copycat of the Liberty Bell, and incredible Capitol Building views. For a fancier overnight in the hip Downtown Commons, book The Sawyer, a Kimpton hotel with a rooftop bar and easy access to DOCO’s al fresco dining. Borrow a bike to ride the city’s 32 miles of trails or practice yoga on your in-room mat.