Photograph by Emily Polar
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Heather Greenwood Davis and her son, Cameron, ride electric bikes around historic Old Sacramento.

Photograph by Emily Polar

A Tour of Old Sacramento

The original part of the city captivates a new generation of visitors.

Benjamin Franklin Hastings takes out a cloth and wipes his brow. He sticks it back into his waistcoat pocket and then motions for me and my 11-year-old son, Cameron, to follow him.

And despite the fact that Mr. Hastings died in 1882, we do.

Our Mr. Hastings is actually a costumed actor played by Curtis Carroll as part of the Old Sacramento Underground Tour run out of the Sacramento History Museum. At first, the idea of heading underground to see the city seemed counterintuitive.

Old Sacramento was the original heart of the city when it was developed alongside the gold rush in the late 1840s; it later became the last stop going west on the Pony Express. The buildings, museums, ice-cream parlors, and train depot maintain the look and feel of that era. Historical markers make it easy to explore the 53 historic buildings, horse-drawn carriages offer quick tours of the streetscapes, and the continued development of the American River Parkway bicycle trail offers cyclists of all abilities a chance to explore the waterfront on two wheels. (We did just that on Pedego electric bikes that morning before the sun got too hot to pedal.)

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Old Sacramento is a convenient spot to access numerous bike trails.

There's also another surprising part of Sacramento to explore its history. In the 1800s, locals built a series of corridors and chambers that are about nine feet tall and run under the downtown core. You can’t simply climb down some stairs to get in here. You need someone in the know. We have Mr. Hastings.

With his mass of keys, he unlocks hidden doors and hallways as we take a tour back through time. Along the way he stays in character, sharing his own story (including his long journey to the area and eventual launch of his own bank on J Street, making him one of the first bankers in Sacramento and one of earliest in the state) and those of his equally progressive neighbors.

“[A woman] operated a business here for nearly 20 years—and on a family-friendly tour, I can only describe it as an overnight entertainment emporium,” Mr. Hastings says. “She was very successful. “

As we tour, Cameron remains enthralled, at times wandering ahead or lingering behind to look at some artifact or another. I’m equally captivated.

Mr. Hastings shares details that will impress a history buff, but he also offers a kid-friendly introduction to a side of the gold rush that is about more than just pans and pails.

He engages Cameron in a discussion about what it would have been like to live during that time and shares facts like the historic divorce of Samuel Brannan and his wife. Brannan was a prominent Mormon and the founder of San Francisco’s first newspaper. He lost a record (at the time) 50 percent of his assets to his soon-to-be ex-wife. To pay the cash-only divorce settlement, Brannan had to liquidate most of his real estate holdings and went bankrupt. That gets Cameron and me talking about feminist history and why California’s laws allowing women to own land and run businesses were unusual at that time.

We also see a model of Mr. Hastings’s bank and take turns twisting the tiny levers and building the Jenga-like jack system that saved the city.

Students from local Cosumnes River College have worked over the years to uncover the life stories of those who once lived here. Through their Archaeological Working Lab they’ve uncovered artifacts (including weighted dice and old newspapers) and assisted in the creation of new displays that help fill in the stories of the lives that were lived here.

The history on its own is interesting enough, but as Mr. Hastings takes us on the hour-long tour through the passageways under the city’s historic buildings, you can’t help but feel like you’re getting an exclusive extra. It feels a little bit like following the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, without the threat of the Queen of Hearts lurking around the corner.

If You Have More Time

Explore the Crocker Art Museum: The first public art museum founded in the western United States showcases California art and offers special programs geared to kids (infant and up).

Take in a Sacramento River Cats baseball game: The Triple-A Sacramento River Cats are local favorites. Tickets are inexpensive and a focus on locally sourced food at the stadium means you don’t have to stick to hot dogs and popcorn while you watch. The Kids’ Zone offers a fun way to stretch your legs when little ones get restless.

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Heather and Cameron watch the Sacramento River Cats play baseball at Raley Field.

Explore Sacramento’s foodie movement: The city has been pushing a farm-to-fork lifestyle for a while now and the result is no shortage of great places to eat. Don’t miss Bacon and Butter. The small eatery tucked into a short strip plaza in a suburban neighborhood has perfect brunch written all over it. Pop in for strawberry and rhubarb flapjacks, chicken and waffles, or pork belly bánh mi.