Despite the state’s expensive reputation, a visit to the California capital doesn’t have to cost a lot © SnapASkyline / Shutterstock
Even though California regularly ranks as one of the most expensive states in the US, that doesn’t mean your visit to Sacramento has to break the bank.
From natural beauties to urban art, make the most of your budget with our round up of the best free (or nearly free!) things to do in River City.
Explore the California State Capitol and its plant-filled park
The grand California State Capitol takes pride of place in downtown Sacramento, with the wide Capitol Mall boulevard offering a preview of the building for half a mile on the journey from Tower Bridge. Completed in 1874, the gleaming white Capitol here was designed to resemble the US Capitol in Washington, DC, with neoclassical columns and a lofty dome.
The Capitol Museum is temporarily closed, but docents are still giving free 90-minute tours of the 40-acre Capitol Park on Wednesdays and Sundays. The huge green space contains hundreds of trees, dozens of monuments and memorials, a camellia grove and a rose garden with a burbling fountain.
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One of the incredible Wide Open Walls murals in Sacramento, California © Visit Sacramento
Admire Sacramento’s urban art with Wide Open Walls
Sacramento has been splashed with color in a big way. Thanks to a mural festival started in 2016, the city has dolled up its otherwise blank building sides and alleyways. Wide Open Walls has now chalked up some 155 murals across Sacramento, painted by artists from California and beyond, including famous names such as Shepard Fairey.
The art spans the city, but the densest concentration is in Downtown and Midtown. You can create a DIY free walking tour using the helpful map on the Wide Open Walls website.
Appreciate Victorian architecture at the Leland Stanford Mansion
The fact that the gorgeous Leland Stanford Mansion is overshadowed by a drab governmental office block makes it stand out even brighter. Built in 1856, this 19,000-sq-ft mansion is dripping with Victorian details, including dark carved-wood moldings, crystal chandeliers with gas fittings, 17ft ceilings and original furniture from the home’s famous second owners.
Purchased in 1861 by Leland Stanford – yes, the name behind Stanford University, but also an early governor of California and a train tycoon who oversaw the completion of the transcontinental railroad – the house was once used as the governor’s official office. It continues to be a reception hall for political events, meaning that it can close to the public at short notice.
Guided tours are free and start with a short video in the small visitor center and museum behind the mansion.
Get outdoors at Effie Yeaw Nature Center
If you need a break from the city and don't want to travel too far, head to Effie Yeaw Nature Center, 100 acres of preserved woodland edging the American River. Walking trails wind through the trees and out to the river’s shoreline, and a small museum and outdoor space showcase the flora, fauna and Nisenan Maidu people who have called this area home. Kids will love the live creatures on display, from the northern Pacific rattlesnake to the resident birds of prey.
Effie Yeaw Nature Center is free to visit, but parking costs $5.
One of Sacramento's great free activities for kids is a visit to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery © Katharine Moore / Shutterstock
Watch salmon swim and spawn at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery
Every year in late fall, thousands of Chinook salmon return to a stretch of the American River in Sacramento to spawn, but the construction of a dam in the 1950s blocked their route, requiring a ladder and fish hatchery for the species to continue to thrive here.
One of Sacramento's great free activities for kids is a visit to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, where children will be thrilled watching the salmon jump up the ladder. View the fish from above the water along the upper walkways, or see the fishy faces gawping through the huge gallery windows down below. Steelhead trout also spawn here in January.
The American River Bike Trail hugs the river, offering up-close views of the water and its wildlife © Visit Sacramento
Walk the American River Bike Trail
Running alongside the Nimbus Fish Hatchery and all the way back to Old Sacramento, the 32-mile American River Bike Trail is a delightful free outdoor activity in Sacramento. The trail hugs the river, offering up-close views of the water and its wildlife, and has various access points, so you can tackle as much or as little as you’d like.
Time travel in Old Sacramento
In contrast to the modern buildings on the other side of Interstate 5, Old Sacramento is a Wild West time capsule. Old Sacramento State Historic Park is home to California’s biggest collection of buildings from the Gold Rush era, with old-timey signage and overhanging balconies that shade the raised wooden boardwalks below. It’s free to stroll this historic district – at least until you decide to get into the spirit and sign up for a sepia photo shoot at McGee's Old Time Photos.
One of the best free events in Sacramento is Gold Rush Days, which takes place over Labor Day weekend in early September. Truckloads of dirt are hauled in to dust over the cobblestone streets, and costumed actors bring the old town to life.
The annual Free Museum Weekend opens the doors to many of the capital's cultural institutions © Crocker Art Museum / Brian Suhr
Get into Sacramento's best museums for free Museum Weekend
What museums are free in Sacramento? Most of the time, the answer is none of them (though Sutter’s Fort and the State Indian Museum have entry fees of just $5 each).
But the annual Free Museum Weekend opens the doors to many of the capital's cultural institutions over two days. The dates change slightly every year, and advance registration is required, so sign up to the Sacramento Area Museums email list to get notified ahead of time.