Benicia is so near yet so far, just 90 minutes from Santa Rosa, but eons back in chronological time.
You’ll know something is different when you discover that street parking is still free. The town is quieter and less crowded than most and is bike- and dog-friendly. Yet it is progressive. City officials are proud to say that they have their first all-female police patrol.
Founded in 1847 by General Vallejo and originally named “Francisca” for his bride, Benicia was the state capital for a short time in 1853.
A good way to get a feel for Benicia is by walking Main Street, actually First Street in the town’s downtown area. Beginning at Military West and running for 11 blocks, it is lined with leafy trees that sprout romantic lights at night and ends at the Carquinez Strait waterfront, a popular place to watch the sunset where you can sometimes spot sea lions.
On this walk, you’ll pass a plethora of antiques shops, including Blue Goose Antiques, which specializes in primitives; Charlie’s Attic, which displays vintage and collectibles; and The Steffen Collection, where you’ll find lovely collections of aprons, teacups and Lucite bracelets.
Former state capital
This town is also known for its glass-blowing studios. Lindsay Art Glass is located on F Street, just off First Street. You’ll see a mind-blowing selection of colorful blown glass in front. Keep walking back and you’ll find a sale area, followed by the studio that is often open to visitors. For a fee you can sometimes blow your own glass ornament.
Smack in the middle of town, Benicia Capitol State Historic Park presents an interesting story. Because there were no building codes at the time and plenty of people needed work, the two-story, red-brick Greek Revival building was built in less than five months and served as California’s third state capitol from Feb. 4, 1853, to Feb. 25, 1854. Most building materials are local, and historic information, artifacts and period furniture await the perusal of visitors inside.
In the first floor Senate Chambers, each desk is topped by a hat. Senators placed their hats right-side up if they planned to vote yea on an item being discussed, or down if they planned to vote nay.
Legislators operated during the heat of the Gold Rush, and hundreds of bills were passed, including one that allowed women to own property. It is claimed that but for a voting technicality, the town would still be the state capital. After being used as a schoolhouse, a jailhouse, a firehouse and even a roller-skating rink, the capitol building was restored and opened in 1958 as a state historic park. Living history events occasionally bring it all to life.
Next door is the 1858 federal-style Victorian Fischer-Hanlon House, a renovated Gold Rush-era hotel that also has served as a house of prostitution and a family home. It is reputed to have a ghost. Donated to the state in 1966, it holds an impressive collection of original period furniture and accessories, including an 1864 Box Steinway piano made in New York and brought here by ship.
The kitchen features an ornate wood-burning stove and a linoleum floor that resembles an oriental rug. A carriage house and three-hole outhouse are behind, along with a garden that holds a century-old wisteria. Tours are sometimes available.
IF YOU GO
Watch for the small yellow “This Place Has History!” plaques positioned on historic markers around town, then use your smartphone app to access photographs and information about the history of that location. (The same information is available online at beniciahistoricalmuseum.org.)
Places to go
Lindsay Art Glass, 109 E. F St./First Street, 707-748-1336, lindsayartglass.com.
Nourot Glass, 675 E. H St., 707-745-1463, nourot.com.
Smyers Glass & Wood, 675 E. H St., 707-745-2614; smyersglass.com.
Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, 115 W. G St./First St., 707-745-3385, parks.ca.gov.
Fischer-Hanlon House, 135 W. G St.
Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns, 2060 Camel Road, 707-745-5435, beniciahistoricalmuseum.org.
Arts Benicia, 991 Tyler St., 707-747-0131, artsbenicia.org.
Where to eat
First Street Cafe, 440 First St., 707-745-1400, firststcafe.com.
Sailor Jack’s, 123 First St., 707-746-8500, sailor-jacks.com.
Where to stay
The Inn at Benicia Bay, 145 E. D St./First Street, 707-746-1055. theinnatbeniciabay.com. Formerly a sea captain’s home, this 1854 mansion is now a B&B with eight rooms and continental breakfast at sister inn, Shorelight Inn Benicia.