SACRAMENTO, California – California’s capital is actually a river city like Cincinnati or St. Louis, a truth that dawned on me while eating breakfast aboard the historic and beautiful Delta King sternwheeler.

The iconic steamship is now a hotel and restaurant, restored and permanently docked on its original home in the Sacramento River. The “Delta” that it and its twin, the Delta Queen, are named for is the California Delta, through which the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers empty into San Francisco Bay.

Today, Sacramento is a sprawling metropolis. But the historic riverfront district of Old Sacramento harkens back to the days when the town was established, quickly becoming an important transportation center that helped link Gold Rush mines to San Francisco, the interior with the ocean, and, eventually, the American West with the rest of the young country.

The Old Sacramento Historic District encompasses 85 historic buildings; 32 restored originals and 53 reconstructions.

Visitors will find many quirky and interesting shops such as Candy Heaven, Sock City and Evangeline’s Costume Mansion. Restaurants and taverns include the Pilothouse aboard the Delta King, which, along with its twin, was one of the most expensive and fanciest riverboats when launched in 1927. It plied the waters of the Sacramento River, taking passengers back and forth from San Francisco until 1940, and then was drafted by the Navy as a ferry and for other purposes. It was refurbished for its current use in the 1980s.

Firehouse Restaurant, another popular Old Sacramento establishment, is located in a historic fire engine company house, one of the first buildings renovated during Old Sacramento’s rehabilitation beginning in the late 1960s.

Also within the Old Sacramento Historic District is Old Sacramento State Historic Park, home to the Sacramento History Museum, California State Railroad Museum and Wells Fargo Museum. It also includes a number of historic buildings.

Visitors will also find a monument to the Pony Express, the short-lived but celebrated delivery service that connected St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento in 1860 and 1861, marking the debut of regular and timely cross-country mail delivery.

The gorgeous railroad museum is a can’t-miss destination for any railroad, transportation or history buff. Among the exhibits is a commemoration of the Central Pacific Railroad, headquartered in Sacramento, and the first transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific built the western tracks of the line that joined West with East with the driving of the “Golden Spike” at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.

Old Sacramento, tucked between the Sacramento River and Interstate 5, is lucky to be around at all.

The historic area, which had become a notorious skid row, was planned to be leveled to make way for the interstate in the 1960s and 1970s. But local lobbying and renovation efforts saved some of the old waterfront neighborhood and got the new highway shifted slightly east to its current site. Walkways and city streets running beneath the elevated highway now conveniently link Old Sacramento with the rest of downtown. (Public parking is also available beneath the highway.)

A short walk or drive from the riverfront in downtown Sacramento is Golden 1 Center, the arena that is home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. (The name came with the team from Kansas City and, alas, has no connection with the Delta King.)

Also in the heart of downtown is the California State Capitol, a splendid edifice resembling the U.S. Capitol.

The Capitol was completed in 1874 after 14 years of construction and it, too, flirted with the wrecking ball, which was to give way for a modern capital complex in the 1970s. But wiser heads prevailed and the magnificent old building instead was restored to its early splendor – and reinforced against earthquakes.

Free guided tours are offered daily on the hour. Visitors will see classic architecture including a colorful and ornate dome, the historic Senate and Assembly chambers, the three-room Governor’s Offices (restored in 1906), and portraits of California’s governors including, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The verdant and lovely Capitol Park surrounds the building. The 40-acre park includes 450 varieties of trees and flowering shrubs including many impressive native species such as the coast redwood.

Sacramento is also a center of craft brewing, with more than 50 brewers in and around the city; and a celebrated foodie city that bills itself as “America’s Farm to Fork Capital.”

Just don’t forget about the frontier river town where it all started and that helped a young country develop into a continent-size power.

Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter@SteveStephens.

If you go

SACRAMENTO, California

This city, founded on the Sacramento River, is famous for its foodie fare and for its extensive California history.

Old Sacramento, where the city began, is a delightful historic district filled with museums, restored and reconstructed historic buildings, and many visitor-pleasing shops, businesses and restaurants.

MORE INFORMATION

To learn more about California’s capital city, call Visit Sacramento at 1-800-292-2334 or visit www.visitsacramento.com.