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Sacramento with a capital S

When it came to tourist attractions, California's capital used to be nothing more than San Francisco's country bumpkin cousin.

But in the last decade, Sacramento tourism has begun to come into its own, with a contrast of history and a growing metropolitan flavor, an expanded offering of traditional attractions and more offbeat activities.

A couple hours or less in the car will get tourists to the coast or the Sierra Nevada mountains, making Sacramento a good base for travelers wanting to visit several Northern California attractions in one trip.

Other new travel attractions in Sacramento include an expanded convention center, a tour bus with scheduled daily stops at main hotels, malls and museums, increased accessibility by air and a consolidated rental car complex.

"We've graduated from a sleepy little river town to having a more metropolitan aura," said Jan Decker, executive vice president of the Sacramento Visitors and Convention Bureau. "We have a long way to go before we're on the level of San Francisco, but if you've already done Disneyland, maybe you're ready for something different."

An estimated 5.8-million tourists landed in Sacramento in 1992, but no one knows how much of an increase that is because it was the first tourism survey ever completed by the city.

"We in the industry have always known how important tourism is, but there just wasn't a concerted effort to gauge it," Decker said. "If you reflect on past years, though, you know tourism has increased. We used to be a place to stop for gas on the way from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe."

In the past 10 years alone, the number of hotel rooms in Sacramento has easily doubled to 12,000 available rooms.

While historic residential homes are being renovated into quaint bed-and-breakfast inns all over the downtown area, the city's skyline in both the downtown and Point West areas is bursting with the columns and towers of brand-new luxurious hotels, including Holiday Inn, the Hyatt Regency and the Radisson Hotel.

And the number of people going through the Sacramento airport's terminals tells the story of a growing trend to make the city a destination.

In 1990, a total of 3.6-million passengers came through the Sacramento Metropolitan Airport. In 1993, that number rose to 5.3-million and the number of passengers in 1994 is expected to increase to 5.7-million.

Total major carrier daily departures from Sacramento's airport have risen from 71 in 1991 to 93. Increased competition by airlines has led to falling fares.

Sacramento's airport also has a consolidated rental car complex, one of only three in the country. Shuttle buses take travelers from the airport terminal to a separate facility housing all the rental car services.

But Decker warns visitors not to be frightened by the appearance of the airport's surroundings.

"It must be scary for people that have never been here before to land in a field of tomatoes and corn," he said. "Now, at least we've got a city skyline to reassure people there is a city here."

Sacramento is hanging onto its past in Old Sacramento, a 28-acre historic riverfront district with cobblestone streets, wooden sidewalks and horsedrawn carriages.

The district showcases more than 100 buildings preserved or renovated to recall the Gold Rush era, housing shops, restaurants and museums, including the world's largest railroad history museum.

The city also boasts a Museum Mile, a crossroads of art, history and culture in a several-block area of downtown. Thirteen museums include the California State Capitol Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the Leland Stanford Mansion and the Towe Ford Museum, the world's most complete antique Ford car collection.

A block away from Old Sacramento, the city comes back to the future at the newly expanded Downtown Plaza, a $110-million renovation project. The ultra-modern shopping mecca has 135 stores, a seven-screen cinema complex and America Live, a 67,000-square-foot entertainment complex.

The complex is a "virtual cornucopia of entertainment," according to Decker, featuring live country music, a comedy club, a piano bar, a sports bar, a microbrewery and a restaurant all under one roof.

A likely boost to tourism and conventions in the city will be the planned $80-million expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center, which will triple the exhibit space by spring 1995.

Gray Line Tours made its debut in Sacramento in September, launching the Hop Around shuttle bus. For $12, a visitor can ride the bus from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., making stops at all the major shopping malls and historic sites.

"The concept of the Hop Around is to experience Sacramento, don't just sit on a bus," said Brad Hillard, director of marketing and sales for Gray Line in Sacramento.

By the end of October, Gray Line also plans to offer day bus trips from Sacramento to Yosemite, Old Town Folsom, Napa Valley, San Francisco, the Vacaville factory outlets, Marine World Africa USA and Lake Tahoe, where bus riders can visit casinoes and the paddlewheeler, M. S. Dixie.

Sacramento has a plethora of traditional tourist attractions, such as shopping, history and nightlife. For travelers that have seen it all, however, Sacramento can be the place for unique experiences.

Sacramento visitors can try gold panning, cheer on their favorite snail in a race, sample fresh-roasted coffees at a sidewalk cafe, watch a re-creation of the Pony Express route, taste almonds, take in the National Handcar Races, solve a murder mystery on an historic paddlewheeler, tour a sake brewery or launch their bodies down some of the highest water slides in the West.

For more information about visiting Sacramento, contact the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau at (916) 264-7777 or write the bureau at 1421 K St., Sacramento, CA 95814.

Anne Gonzales is an Elk Grove, Calif., freelance writer.