SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Located near the center of California, Sacramento is an ideal launching point to visit some of the state's most popular destinations.
Drive two hours to the west, there are beaches, the Bay Area and the Napa wine country. Head east, Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada and numerous ski resorts are within a short drive.
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But Sacramento also has plenty to offer for those who want to stick around in the valley. The city even placed No. 14 on a Forbes list of America's coolest cities. Here are five free things to do in the Californian capitol.
Sacramento was a hub of the Gold Rush days in the 1800s, and many structures from that era have been preserved along the eastern bank of the Sacramento River just west of downtown. Among the historic buildings are the 1849 Eagle Theatre, the 1855 Big Four Building and the 1853 B.F. Hastings Building, which was once home to the California Supreme Court.
The buildings are part of Old Sacramento State Historic Park, and you can wander around for free and admire the old facades. The park is also home to several museums, including the California State Railroad Museum and the Sacramento History Museum, which do charge admission.
The iconic Tower Bridge is just to the south along the river, where sea lions can occasionally be seen from the bank.
State Capitol building
Built from 1860-74, California's Capitol is one of the most beautiful in the U.S., a must-stop for anyone visiting Sacramento. The majestic dome was built to look like the U.S. Capitol, and the interior is filled with ornate details like marble floors, carved wooden shutters and Corinthian columns. Free tours are available and the California State Capitol Museum is a great way to see some of the history of the building. The grounds are worth checking out, too, 40 acres filled with trees and plants from around the world -- many with labels telling what they are.
The city's free annual Farm-to-Fork Festival, this year planned for Sept. 27, takes place on the Capitol Mall to highlight locally grown food, and is part of a larger Farm-to-Fork Celebration from Sept. 13-28.
William Land Park
Known to the locals as Land Park, this 166-acre park just south of central Sacramento is a great place to go for a stroll, have a picnic, feed some ducks or take a nap under one of its massive trees. There's an outdoor Shakespeare theater, numerous athletic fields, jogging trails and plenty of restaurants nearby. The park also is home to the Sacramento Zoo, a golf course and Fairytale Town for the little ones, though there are fees for those attractions.
American River Parkway
The 23-mile bike trail runs along the American River to Folsom with dozens of access points. The wide trail is great for cyclists, runners and hikers, with countless dirt trails along the river for horseback riding and mountain biking. The river is also popular for rafting and fishing, particularly during the annual salmon run, and has numerous picnic spots. The parkway also teems with wildlife, including deer, turkey, otters and skunks. Watch out for rattlesnakes in warm months.
Fabulous '40s neighborhood
Once the terminus for Sacramento's defunct streetcar network, the Fab '40s area is known for upscale, custom-built homes between J Street and Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento. Many of the homes were built in the early 20th century and have a wide range of architectural styles. The neighborhood also is known for its deodar cedar tree, which is more than 100 years old. The area, filled with unique restaurants and shops, is not far from downtown. During the holidays, the Fab '40s are a must-see for Christmas lights.