Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Sacramento wrap up and stray observations

February 18th, 2020
Sacramento train station

 

My entire reason for visiting Sacramento was to make up for skipping it on my “Ameritrip” last year in which I traveled by rail from Chicago back home to San Francisco, stopping in a few cities along the way — Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno.

Originally I’d planned to make Sacramento a stop on the trip, but when I started planning it all out there was no way to squeeze another stop into the time I’d allocated.

To get to Sacramento and back I booked tickets on the Capitol Corridor, a train service run by a local joint powers authority, CalTrans, and operated by Amtrak. It’s part of the “Amtrak California” umbrella which also includes the San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner routes.

 

Amtrak California trip to Sacramento

 

From San Francisco there’s the option of taking an Amtrak bus to Emeryville and boarding the train from there, but I decided to take BART to Lake Merritt and walk a few blocks to Jack London Square instead, repeating this process on the way back. Unfortunately the only true transfer point between Amtrak and BART is at Richmond, which is a very long BART ride away for many of us.

On the return trip the conductor announced Richmond as “your transfer point to BART, Bay Area we wish we were Rapid Transit.” Harsh but true.

 

Sacramento train station

 

The train station in Sacramento is a beautiful building from the 1920’s. It serves Amtrak as well as the local light rail and bus lines. Thankfully the station features modern bathrooms, and there’s a Starbucks next door if you need it.

As usual the boarding procedure varies wildly from one Amtrak station to another. Amtrak service is always polite but confusing, and their trains tend to be comfortable but worn out. I guess that’s just modern day America in a nutshell though.

 

Temple Coffee

 

My very first stop after leaving the train station was Temple Coffee Roasters, a chain local to Sacramento though their beans can be found elsewhere.

The line was almost out the door. It’s not the fastest place, though the employees are very friendly. I had an oat milk cappuccino. On a warmer afternoon I went to a different location for an iced latte. Both were excellent. That said, good coffee is not at all hard to find in Sacramento.

 

DoCo

 

Right in the middle of downtown Sacramento near the capitol building is the brand new Downtown Commons, or “DoCo” complex. This fuses an existing shopping center with the new Sacramento Kings coliseum as well as a fancy hotel.

There’s quite a few places to eat and drink in the DoCo complex, presumably aimed at attendees of the basketball games and concerts held there.

 

Neil Hamburger at the Sacramento Comedy Spot

 

The entire reason I chose this particular weekend to visit Sacramento was to see Neil Hamburger perform again, this time at the Sacramento Comedy Spot. It’s not a big venue but it was packed; I was lucky to get in early enough to grab a seat.

Neil’s opening act was Major Entertainer, a musical comedian who sang songs about his wife’s former best friend as well as a song asking the audience to buy his t-shirts.

Neil Hamburger somehow got all the green dye out of his hair a few days after playing the Joker as his alter ego. He went through about an hour of material focused mostly on Aerosmith and KISS, the latter of which he claims is a band everyone has heard of, yet nobody knows their music (I think he might be on to something there.)

His longest and most rambling joke detailed how he was forced to spend 13 hours in LAX Terminal One when Southwest cancelled flights due to the 737 MAX disaster. He blamed it on the planes relying on defective computers that were returned to Best Buy. But the worst indignity was that he had to eat at the only restaurant open in the airport terminal, Rock & Brews, which is owned by KISS front-man Gene Simmons.

He ended the show singing his original song Little Love Cup.

 

There were a few things I didn’t get to do on this trip. Perhaps next time? In no particular order:

  • Tower Cafe: This oddball cafe is best known for brunch, and I’m told the wait list can get pretty long.
  • California State Railroad Museum: I vaguely remember visiting here as a kid, and would have definitely returned if I’d had the time on this trip.
  • Dive Bar: I’m told this isn’t a great bar, the only reason to go is to see the hourly mermaid performances in the giant fish tank above the bar. Performers dress up as mermaids and swim around with actual fish.
  • Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament: A beautiful old cathedral located across from the capitol building that offers tours, but was somehow never open when I was in the area.
  • The Bank: A modern food hall, but located inside of a classic old bank building.

Sacramento street art

February 18th, 2020

Like a lot of cities with abandoned buildings and big blank walls facing unused lots, in recent years Sacramento has turned to street art to make the city more inviting and these walls less prone to graffiti.

The difference between Sacramento and most cities however is that it has a much larger hole to climb out of. At the end of World War 2 there was a migration out of cities to nearby suburbs all around the country, but Sacramento also had to deal with the aftermath of its large Japanese population being sent to internment camps and the decline of the railroad industry.

 

Downtown/Midtown

Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art

 

The downtown and midtown areas are a hotbed of all types of street art murals, in part because there’s just so many blank walls and abandoned buildings to choose from. Like most of the street art throughout Sacramento it’s a mix of pieces commissioned by building owners, murals painted as part of the Wide Open Walls festival, and completely guerrilla installations.

There’s so much street art in downtown in particular that I found a sign opposing it entirely, claiming that the murals were responsible for increasing local rents. I have no idea if that’s true, though it’s a complete 180 degree pivot from the way most people thought about street art just a couple decades ago.

 

Sacramento street art

 

You can’t talk about the downtown Sacramento street art without mentioning the Johnny Cash mural from Shepard Fairey. I’m not sure exactly where the mural is best seen from but you can get glimpses of it from all over downtown.

Fairey’s intention with this one was to honor Cash’s own cause of prison reform. I’m told the mural is fifteen stories tall and took about a week to complete.

 

R Street Historic District

Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art Sacramento street art

 

While wandering over to the food tour of the R Street historic district I snapped photos of a number of murals. The tour guide pointed out a few others to us between food stops.

What makes this part of the city a little different is it was a hot spot for the local art scene due to the sheer number of abandoned warehouse spaces. Despite a recent wave of gentrification, artists have remained in the area. Some of the new construction intentionally includes blank walls used as canvases for commissioned murals.

I personally really enjoyed the mural with the girl trying to fit in with a bear family; it’s ostensibly about how people are treated in a society, though it could just as easily be a metaphor for a neighborhood of misfits.

R Street food tour from Local Roots

February 17th, 2020
R Street sign

 

When it comes to food we’re pretty spoiled in California, with fresh produce from local farms, seafood, and of course plenty of wine to go along with it. So I was a little miffed when all the restaurants were booked well in advance when I arrived in Sacramento on Friday, and were so massively understaffed on Saturday that I couldn’t even get seated at any restaurant bars.

It eventually dawned on me that this wasn’t normal: I’d simply arrived on Valentine’s Day and every restaurant worth dining at in town was squeezed for staff.

Fortunately I’d booked a food tour on Sunday, the R Street food tour from Local Roots. This more than made up for the previous two day’s dining disappointments.

The tour started at the WAL Public Market, a small shopping center in a warehouse building now used for live/work artist studios. The guide met us outside with horchata coffee for the group. I’d never had horchata with coffee in it before — it’s a little sweet but the flavors work well together.

We all went inside for a while to browse while our first meal was prepared. I’d skipped breakfast and was eager for some good food.

 

R Street Food Tour

 

Our first dishes were from a Japanese place including miso soup, sweet sushi-style rice, and both vegetable and seafood poke. All of this was amazing — the miso soup really hit the spot on a somewhat chilly afternoon, and one woman in the group who claimed she hated seafood had to admit the salmon poke was delicious.

From there we walked around the R Street area for a while to look at some of the street art, which I’ll get to in a later post. R Street itself was once a key part of the Transcontinental Railroad shipping empire, but due to a decline following World War 2 it became an unofficial arts district.

The next stop was a Mexican joint called Mas Taco Bar. We all shared a big bowl of guacamole and some fried tortillas to break up into chips along with whatever individual tacos we wanted. I had a salmon taco which came with a fresh tortilla, spicy aioli, and small slices of jalapeno. The service was a little slow, though the taco proved worth the wait.

 

R Street Food Tour

 

From there we backtracked a little to visit the Shady Lady, an upscale “speakeasy” in an old brick building. We ordered individual cocktails; I had a fancy margarita which doesn’t really fit the speakeasy theme but made sense in my mind after eating Mexican food.

We also split some appetizers, the only one of which I tried was fried green tomatoes. This version was a little crunchy on the outside with a sweet, gooey tomato center.

Our guide said this spot used to be a Wonder Bread factory, which I think I accidentally turned into a debate about modern food production. I mentioned learning at the Sacramento History Museum that sliced bread meant kids could safely make their own sandwiches for the first time.

One woman about my age with two kids said she liked the idea of telling them to make their own lunches, which somehow led to an argument about using using modern technology (GMOs, fertilizers, etc.) to feed the world vs. the long term impacts on sustaining healthy farmland. It was a very lively group on this tour.

 

R Street Food Tour

 

Finally we stopped for desert in the “Ice Blocks” area of R Street, which was once a produce packing district where trains were packed with fresh produce and ice for refrigeration. Today the area is all new construction.

The last stop was Creamy’s, a bakery in the Ice Blocks that serves tiny cheesecakes in small cupcake wrappers. These were too rich for my tastes, though the diminutive portions made it more palatable.

My recommendation: If you’re curious about the food scene in Sacramento but aren’t sure what to try, this tour is a great place to start. Local Roots has a few other food tours listed on their website if you’re looking for something different.

California State Capitol tour

February 16th, 2020
California State Capitol

 

Visiting the state capitol for the tour, I was immediately surprised by two things: one, the front of the building is largely covered up by scaffolding for a restoration project, and two, you can’t even enter through the original building at all.

The entrance is not only in the back “annex” of the building where all the offices are located, but in separate wings added in the early 2000’s to allow for more rigid security screenings. It’s not exactly like the TSA though I had to take off my watch and belt to make it through the metal detector.

I arrived slightly late for the official tour that hour, but since it’s a pretty causal and free tour I was allowed to join anyway. Several tours are offered during open hours nearly every day of the year; call ahead or ask at the information desk in the rotunda on the first floor for details.

As it turns out the government offices are all in the annex building, which dates back from the 1940’s and is unfortunately pretty drab. It feels like an upscale public school building at best. The plan is to tear down and replace this part of the building soon.

 

California State Capitol California State Capitol

 

The original building is largely a museum at this point, aside from the State Senate and State Assembly chambers. During my visit on the weekend both chambers were filled with students trying their hands at politics. I have to say a handful of the students sounded very professional.

According to the guide both rooms borrowed their color schemes from their UK counterparts — the red color scheme in the Senate is from the House of Lords, and the green color scheme in the Assembly is from the House of Commons.

 

California State Capitol

 

Speaking of connections to the old world, in the middle of the rotunda is a marble statue of Columbus begging Queen Isabella for funding.

The connection between Columbus’ voyage and California is thin at best, but the statue took on a good luck charm status when legislators would go up to the second floor and try to toss coins into the queen’s crown as a superstition for luck in getting bills passed. Today this practice has been forbidden thanks to damage to the statue, though they’re allowed to toss cotton balls instead.

 

California State Capitol

 

Due to Jerry Brown’s unprecedented split terms as governor, his original portrait was recently removed and is no longer displayed with the other portraits — a new one is in the works. The previous portrait is in a side hall that’s off limits when certain government functions are in session.

This original portrait by California artist Don Bachardy was considered controversial at the time as it broke with the conventions of how politicians were meant to be portrayed in art. At the same time it’s unmistakably Jerry Brown, and in the years since political portraits have become less homogeneous. For example the portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger almost looks like a movie poster.

 

California State Capitol

 

Unlike the tour I took last year of the superficially similar looking Colorado State Capitol building, there’s no viewing deck or even access up to the top of the rotunda.

According to the guide there is a walkway up some very narrow stairs for maintenance purposes, though the very top of the stairs were sealed off when the building was extensively retrofitted/rebuilt in the 1970’s.

 

California State Capitol

 

There’s plenty of other details big and small about the capitol building reveled on the tour — far too many to go into here — so I’ll end on a silly one.

Before he left office, Arnold Schwarzenegger purchased a life-sized bronze bear statue and placed it outside the governor’s office.

On one hand it’s a strange choice and I’m not sure Schwarzenegger is someone I’d consult for decorating advice in general, but on the other it fits the state’s bear motif which is referenced throughout the capitol building. I guess the fact that he left office nearly a decade ago and the bear statue is still there kind of speaks for itself.

My recommendation: It’s a free tour of a building with a lot of history so why not? You may even learn a little about how the state government works along the way.

Old Sacramento Waterfront and the underground

February 16th, 2020
Old Town Sacramento Old Town Sacramento Old Town Sacramento

 

The waterfront is where Sacramento began, although today it barely feels like a part of the city. It’s all but cut off from downtown Sacramento by an enormous freeway, and most of what you’ll find there are your pretty typical tourist trap stores — tacky jewelry, shirts with “funny” slogans you can buy anywhere, funnel cake vendors, etc.

If you know where to look though there is a lot of interesting history to see. Your best bet to learn more about the history of the area is either the California State Railroad Museum (which I didn’t visit on this trip) or the Sacramento History Museum.

I booked a spot on the Sacramento History Museum’s Underground Tour, which also includes free admission to the museum. Unfortunately for me most of the museum was closed for a refresh of the exhibits. And unfortunately for you, photography isn’t allowed in the underground portions of the tour so you’ll just have to either read my descriptions, or go on the tour yourself.

The Underground Tour was led by a guide who was very much in character as a deputy during the gold rush. As he explained Sacramento began as a series of tents next to the river, which regularly flooded. Later on wood buildings were erected, built tall enough that boats could float between them on the second floors when the area flooded.

Wood structures burn down of course, and nothing from that era stands today. It was all replaced by brick structures after a particularly destructive fire. Yet that didn’t work out well in the long run as the mining activities in the area just caused the floods to get more and more intense.

Eventually the residents decided to do three things: divert the American River around the city, give the railroads land along the Sacramento river in exchange for constructing levies, and manually jack up over 100 brick buildings by about 25 feet to match the new street level set by the levies. Oh, and they jacked the buildings up while people were still working in them, which meant getting in and out required climbing a series of ladders.

The tour goes under two buildings in what are now the basement levels. The second one has excavation sites where various materials have been found, including an early toothbrush, a set of weighted dice to cheat at gambling, and what’s believed to be an early painting of Abraham Lincoln.

Alleys in the area were never raised the entire height, but instead slope downward by about 12 feet. A brick patio in one of the above photos was also not brought up to the full height.

By far the most random and disgusting thing I learned on the tour was when the guide pulled out two corncobs — sans corn kernels — and asked “does anyone know what these are for?” As it turns out, they were used for wiping yourself after going to the bathroom. The worst part is you could wash them off in the river and reuse them — the same river where people were getting their drinking water.

My recommendation: Although most of old Sacramento is pretty sad these days, there’s a lot of history to uncover if you do your research and plan ahead. Do not go unprepared.

California Governor’s Mansion

February 16th, 2020
Governor's Mansion Governor's Mansion Governor's Mansion

 

For the weekend I decided to take the train up to Sacramento, staying in a bed and breakfast located in a creaky old 19th century Victorian home. As it turns out the Mansion Flats neighborhood is filled with buildings of similar age and architecture, including the California Governor’s Mansion.

Although the mansion was converted into a museum in the mid 1960’s it was recently closed and renovated to bring it up to modern building codes. Jerry Brown moved in it during his final term as governor.

It’s unclear what the future of the building will be; current governor Gavin Newsom decided not to move in. It’s currently closed to the public.

In the end I’m not sure exactly what the point of having an official governor’s mansion is if governors generally don’t want to live in it. It’s not even particularly close to the governor’s office.

 

Governor's Mansion at night

 

Walking by the mansion after dark I was surprised to find it was lit from below, giving it the look of a haunted house someone painted white in an attempt to drive the ghosts out.

With no living residents in the mansion, for now it seems the ghosts have won out.

The Broad

October 30th, 2019
The Broad

 

My final stop on this trip to Los Angeles was The Broad (pronounced more like “The Brode”) a free modern art museum financed by the wealthy Broad family.

The museum’s main gallery is on the top and third floor, which unfortunately was the only part I had time to visit before heading to the airport. So take what I have to say next with a grain of salt.

 

The Broad The Broad The Broad

 

The main gallery is an almost paint-by-numbers collection focusing on most of the modern art superstars you probably have seen before: Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. If you’ve never seen works from these artists by all means go to The Broad immediately and get up to speed on modern art. For the rest of us it’s largely comfort food.

One clever piece you’ll only see at The Broad is Under the Table by Robert Therrien. This is a giant table and chair set that seems to be a selfie-magnet, as though you’ve somehow been shrunken down after taking the pill that makes you smaller from Alice and Wonderland.

Another artist in the main collection I found particularly interesting was Robert Longo, who takes (or stages) photos, projects them, and then paints them with attention to movement and/or makes subtle differences to re-contextualize them in unusual and interesting ways.

One gallery focused on Ellsworth Kelly, who somehow turned canvases into art that I found physically painful to look at due to the bright contrasting colors. When I attempted to take photos I found some vindication as my iPhone camera had serious issues with autofocus when pointed at his pieces.

 

The Broad

 

What I did find particularly impressive about The Broad is the building itself. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro — the same firm that designed the Moscone West screen that never really worked — it looks like a white cheese grater on the outside, but on the inside it’s as though someone built an Apple Store inside of a hollowed-out cave.

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, I just can’t think of any other way to describe the design without sounding like a crazy person.

 

My recommendation: To be clear I’ve only seen the main gallery on the third floor at The Broad. If you’re unfamiliar with modern art it’s a pretty solid introduction and the price is right — just make a free reservation online and go. Otherwise I’d suggest checking out the special exhibits instead. The friendly staff on the first floor will check in any bags and coats as needed.

Thought Experiments in F# Minor

October 30th, 2019
Thought Experiments in F# Major Thought Experiments in F# Major Thought Experiments in F# Major

 

The Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry is the home of Los Angeles Philharmonic, aka “LA Phil.”

In the early afternoon on non-concert days several tours are available. Thought Experiments in F# Minor from artist duo Cardiff and Miller is an immersive video narrative piece that leads the audience around the labyrinth-like building as a story unfolds.

Best of all it’s completely free.

After checking in at a desk just to the left of the entrance, you hand in a photo ID in exchange for an iPad and a pair of headphones. The experience starts at a specific bench in the lobby.

I don’t want to give too much away here but the video begins with an adorable cat in a cardboard box before synchronizing with the current location, and begging you to walk around with it.

A seemingly detached narrator guides you to walk from place to place with the video as you follow two characters played by the wildly talented actress Jena Malone around the building.

The story is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say it involves life, death, the space in between — and Schrodinger’s Cat.

In real life, security guards stationed at key points open doors that would otherwise be off limits to the general public during the tour hours.

At one moment in the narration the audience is instructed to look at their reflection in a mirrored wall — if you ignore this and watch the video instead, you see the camera operator as he mimics the action, revealing himself in the reflection. I thought that was a clever Easter Egg, perhaps a nod to the impossible mirror scene in the film Contact (also featuring Jena Malone when she was a little girl.)

What really sets Thought Experiments apart from any immersive experience I’ve ever done are the musical performances from LA Philharmonic featured throughout. I’m not even a big classical music fan but I found these to be a treat.

In the final segment I found myself almost dancing as I followed the camera choreography in an empty room as the video veers through a small orchestra performing in the same space.

 

My recommendation: This is an unforgettable experience — I can’t think of a single criticism, it’s the most unique and well put together piece of immersive content I’ve ever seen. Be aware it involves stairs and escalators, and it’s only recommended for those 10 years old or over due to the content. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Angels Flight

October 30th, 2019

 

For my last day in Los Angeles I was determined to cross a few items off my bucket list, and in order to get there I thought I’d cross off another: riding Angels Flight, the “world’s shortest railway.” It’s really a diagonal elevator with two cars that act as counterbalances.

On my previous visit to LA I went on a walking tour that included Angels Flight, but I didn’t read the fine print correctly. Although they promised a 50% discount off the $1 fare if you had a TAP card, they were not capable of charging the fare to a TAP card and required cash payment — which I didn’t have on me.

This time around I had plenty of quarters left over after going to a fancy new arcade and doing laundry, so I figured I’d give it another go. In the video above I’ve documented this quirky, jerky short railway in all its original 1901 glory.

Well… sort of. The history of Angels Flight isn’t quite what you might think. It was originally located at a different location, closed in 1969, and reopened in 1996 at the new space, only to close repeatedly over the years after a fatal accident. You can read all the details over at Wikipedia.

Armed with a pocket full of quarters I took the trip up the hill — only to find they now have a TAP card reader at the ticket booth at the top. Better late than never.

I also took a few photos of Angels Flight:

 

Angel's Flight Angel's Flight Angel's Flight

Santa Monica

October 29th, 2019
Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier

 

After leaving the California Science Center I took the Metro Expo Line — soon to be renamed the E Line and combined with the Gold Line — all the way to the last stop in Santa Monica.

It stops a couple blocks from the beach right by the touristy Santa Monica Pier. Not having been to Santa Monica before I decided to wander around the pier just to see what’s there.

The pier has a few restaurants, a small amusement park with rides called Pacific Park, an arcade, a lot of buskers, and some very nice views. In a lot of ways it felt like a smaller version of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk but with much nicer weather.

It wasn’t particularly crowded when I went but that’s hardly surprising considering it was a Monday afternoon in October. I was more surprised the rides were running at all — there were no lines.

The beach around the pier is fairly pleasant. Lovely sand, lots of space to walk around, sun tan, or play volleyball. Probably best to stay away from the pier if you want to go out in the water though as they do allow fishing from certain parts of the pier.

Walking back up from the beach I wandered along the bike and pedestrian path next to the beach at street level. For whatever reason there’s a couple of old cannons placed there.

As I followed the signs to the nearby downtown area, I saw an older pale guy with long hair, sunglasses with small lenses, a cane, and a mumbling British accent who was having a friendly conversation with a storekeeper. If I didn’t know better — and to be clear I do not — I’d say that guy was Ozzy Osbourne. Then again Halloween’s coming up so who knows.

 

Downtown Santa Monica Downtown Santa Monica Downtown Santa Monica

 

The focus of downtown Santa Monica seems to be the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian street with numerous restaurants, mall stores, two movie theaters, kiosks, and some very 1980’s water features with a dinosaur theme. Unlike most downtown areas these days there’s plenty of seats if you’d like to take a break.

Again, none of this was particularly busy on a Monday afternoon.

On the South end of Third Street there’s a more traditional mall with a Nordstrom. Walking through that mall leads right back to the end station of the Expo Line.

There’s quite a bit more to see in Santa Monica if you have the time of course. The nearby Cat Cafe Lounge would be at the top of my list.