The Best of Gay Sacramento

This friendly metropolis makes a perfect short-term getaway

Sacramento is not a flashy place, and relatively few gay and lesbian travelers seem to give this city of 370,000 much thought. But it’s got a lively and attractive Midtown neighborhood, which is home to enough gay-owned businesses and households to have earned it the popular nickname Lavender Heights. In fact, this friendly metropolis that rarely goes more than a day without sunshine makes a perfect short-term getaway.

In Sacramento you’ll find several noteworthy museums, an engaging historic riverfront district, a fabulous restaurant scene, and just enough of a selection of lesbian and gay bars to keep club-goers happy for a few days. Best of all, queer folks here tend to be far more approachable, and also interested in newcomers, than those jaded divas in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

With that in mind, here’s a detailed rundown of how to experience the best of what Sacramento has to offer gay and lesbian visitors in one action-packed weekend. First, a word about getting around: while a car is handy for exploring the greater area, you can easily explore the city’s main attractions and most interesting neighborhoods on foot.

If you’re here for a short time, try to choose an accommodation that’s close to downtown (otherwise you’ll need a car to get to and from your hotel). Well-run and close to most attractions, the K Street pedestrian mall, and several gay bars, the Hyatt Regency scores high marks for its spacious, bright, and airy rooms. This modern high-rise towers above Capitol Park. The rates are high on weekdays but often drop precipitously on weekends and holidays. There’s a very nice health club too.

If you’re seeking a more intimate experience, stay at the Hartley House, which is one of the top gay-operated small inns on the West Coast (the clientele is mixed gay/straight). Randy Hartley runs this marvelously restored turn-of-the-century bed-and-breakfast with fine woodworking, stained-glass windows, and rooms with first-class amenities like high-speed Internet, hair dryers, and voice mail. The highly professional staff prepares a delicious full breakfast and can provide a memorable gourmet dinner with an hour’s notice.

If you arrive on Friday evening in time for dinner, it makes sense to seek out a restaurant where you won’t have to dress up or wait a long time for your food. Try gay-popular Paesanos, a cool but casual spot for creative brick-oven pizzas, pastas, salads, and sandwiches. The prosciutto-pesto pie is a winner. This is usually a good night to check out some of the city’s smaller neighborhood bars. Stand-and-model types tend toward the Depot, a small but popular video bar that gets pretty chatty into the evening, or the Bolt, a butch Levi’s-and-flannel type hangout that gets pretty cruisy into the evening. And a lot of folks hang out at Hamburger Mary’s, which is also a restaurant, before moving on to the late-night bars.

Saturday morning is a good time to take in downtown’s Crocker Art Museum, which occupies a magnificent Victorian mansion and contains more than 2,000 European paintings and drawings. Highlights include works by early California painters Albert Bierstadt and Samuel Marsden Brookes, as well as photography by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, and paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.

From the museum it’s a short walk to the city’s earliest commercial settlement, Old Sacramento. This neighborhood fringing the Sacramento River boomed in the mid-1800s during the California Gold Rush. Its fortunes waxed and waned over time, but preservationists and entrepreneurs eventually recognized Old Sacramento’s potential, and today it’s a bona fide – if rather touristy – attraction. With horse-drawn carriages, frontier-style buildings with wooden balconies and period details, and riverboats tied up along the boardwalk fronting the Sacramento River, this festive district genuinely recalls an outpost on the Mighty Mississippi.

Definitely drop by the Old Sacramento Public Market, whose bakeries, ethnic-food outlets, and meat and produce stalls draw a steady stream of foodies and restaurant staffers (it’s not a bad place to ogle cute cooks in their black-and-white chefs’ slacks). For a full sit-down meal, grab a table at Old Town’s Rio City Cafe, a sophisticated and gay-friendly eatery that’s right on the river. Lunchtime favorites include the open-face Dungeness crab sandwich with cheddar and avocado. Afterwards, while poking around and filling up on fudge and ice cream, be sure to step inside the California State Railroad Museum, which contains 21 rail cars and details the city’s fascinating Victorian rail history – it’s a remarkable collection. More kids-oriented is the Sacramento Museum of History, Science, and Technology, which is housed in the original 1854 city hall.

Have dinner at Moxie, a trendy spot in the heart of Lavender Heights where the eclectic – and reasonably priced – offerings range from rock-shrimp quesadillas to crab pot stickers to medallions of pork with scallions, ginger, and sesame-seed butter. From here, it’s a short walk to what has been for many years the city’s most popular lesbian and gay club, Faces. There’s a cocktail lounge up front, a cruisy video bar with a show stage, an industrial dance floor with I-beams and strobe lights, and a sprawling covered patio.

Sunday, especially if the weather is pleasant, is an ideal time to take in the city’s splendid outdoor scenery. Midtown, which is due east of and the exact size of downtown, is an ideal neighborhood for shopping and for admiring numerous examples of Victorian, Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, Spanish Revival, and Colonial Revival architecture. While strolling along the neighborhood’s tree-shaded lanes, pop inside the Open Book, an excellent lesbian-gay bookstore with a cafe; it frequently stages author readings and other community events. You’ll also find some funky gift and home-furnishings shops along J Street and the blocks immediately off of it.

Stroll west a few blocks to see the city’s most famous structure, the California State Capitol. Tours are given daily (9 to 4) of this gracious domed Renaissance Revival building, which anchors a dashing park filled with colorful and lush flora and a truly diverse mix of visitors, from skateboard kids to same-sex couples strolling arm-in-arm to the occasional ranting lunatic or elected official (and yes, sometimes these categories overlap). You can break up the afternoon with a snack at New Helvetia Roasters and Bakers, one of the queerest coffeehouses around. This converted redbrick firehouse has a great patio and serves excellent desserts and light snacks all day.

If you’re feeling truly ambitious and energetic, consider taking a stroll or bike ride along the banks of the American River, which runs east from the Sacramento River along the northern edge of downtown. Aside from being popular with queers at certain points (notably at the end of North 10th Street, and also at La Riviera Drive), the scenic American River Bike Trail runs for 23 miles out to Folsom Lake. You can pick up the trail at Old Sacramento or from several spots just north of Lavender Heights.

Saving what many consider the best dining experience for last, plan for dinner at the staggeringly popular Waterboy restaurant, where scoping out the pretty patrons is as much fun as the meal itself. This vivacious neighborhood eatery in the heart of Lavender Heights turns out sublime Cal-French-Italian fare like grilled Muscovy duck breast with butternut-squash polenta, baby turnips, shoestring potatoes, and a shallot-black pepper glaze.

Nightlife crawlers might want to end things at one of the bars mentioned earlier, but there’s nothing like wrapping up a busy weekend of sightseeing and eating with a quiet night in bed with your honey. Best of all, if you’re staying at the Hartley House, you can watch movies on your in-room DVD/VCR player – they even provide the popcorn and soft drinks!

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