About an hour north of San Francisco, roughly halfway between Napa Valley and Silicon Valley, Benicia is a historic, artsy small town. This waterfront town on the blue Carquinez Strait has a delightful historic district packed with dozens of 19th-century buildings, some dating to the Gold Rush era. Once a prominent shipping, transportation, and military hub on the water route from the gold fields to San Francisco, it’s a hidden gem today.
Founded in 1847, once the capital of California, Benicia is the state’s third-oldest city. In 1987, the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Benicia as one of 15 cities for its Main Street Program, which helps rejuvenate aging urban downtowns nationwide and strengthen their historic character through thoughtful economic development.
This Solano County town’s historic district, on and near First Street, is eminently walkable: It’s entirely flat. It’s also friendly and safe: The day after I arrived, a local recognized me from the bookstore the day before. Then I met a couple who were picking up litter as self-assigned volunteers, out of sheer love for the town of 27,000. Here are eight reasons I fell in love with Benicia.
1. First Street Promenade
Lined by tall palm trees and benches, frequented by bicyclists and dog walkers, the First Street Promenade offers scenic views of the Carquinez Strait and the bridge connecting Benicia in Solano County to Martinez in Contra Costa County and ends with a fishing pier. You may see a family of buffleheads, a small duck species, or sea lions here. The big lawn by the end is great for picnics, and dogs can swim at the beach below the promenade.
Pro Tips: For more sea views, a rock-lined shore walk with benches lies a block or two west of First Street on certain blocks. The Marina has a path and lawn beneath willow trees on the waterfront between East Second and Fifth Streets.
2. Public Art
A bronze sculpture of a girl cradling a pelican, Neptune’s Daughter, on the rock-lined shore walk is a reminder of how oil spills damage wildlife, and how we should steward our precious environment for generations to come. A quirky metal sculpture of local ceramicist Robert Arneson’s head (tongue roguishly sticking out) topped by a surfboard and bird, Benicia Bench, located in the Marina, was made by the artist himself. Public art also features colorful ceramic tile murals inset in sidewalks as a crash course in Benicia’s illustrious history.
Sidewalk tile murals portray Jack London, who began writing here and worked to prevent fish poaching, and Francisca de Vallejo, for whom Benicia was named.
Fun Fact: It was the middle name of the wife of the commanding general of Alta California when it was part of Mexico, Mariano Vallejo, who supplied the land for Benicia.
Other sidewalk murals show the Solano, the world’s largest ferry — built by Southern Pacific Railroad — a 435-foot-long ferry able to carry 48 train cars and one locomotive, whose first trip across the strait was in 1879, and a famous boxing match on a barge anchored in the bay in 1889.
Pro Tip: The sidewalk murals on First Street are found from K Street to G Street.
3. Fourth Of July Parade And Other Festivals
Benicia’s July Fourth celebration is very special: There’s a torchlight parade featuring floats, bands, and dancers the night of July 3 on First Street. Locals start marking their spots with chairs on sidewalks and blankets on the lawn at the park.
A two-day Waterfront Festival in late July features live music, microbrew tastings, food, and crafts. The Feast of the Holy Ghost, held on the fourth Sunday in July by the Portuguese community, features a parade, auction, dance, and free food at BDES Hall, a century-old blue building.
The Peddlers’ Fair in August, which features over 100 artisans and locals selling items on First Street, which is closed to traffic, has been held since 1963.
The Christmas Parade and Tree Lighting features a day parade, merchants giving away hot chocolate, mulled cider, and treats at sidewalk tables at night, and carolers and bands celebrating the tree lighting at the fishing pier. Wine walks, a Scarecrow Festival in October, and other events are held every month by Benicia Main Street.
4. Arts Benicia
Art classes from painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking to mixed media are offered by nonprofit Arts Benicia. I took a class in marbling paper, a craft famous in Florence, Italy, which came from Turkey to Italy in the 16th century. Teacher Hampton Deck studied marbling in Istanbul, where it’s called ebru.
Most classes are held in a white 1860 mansion, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, the nonprofit’s headquarters, which holds art exhibits year-round.
Fun Fact: The U.S. Army’s top officer, who commanded the nearby Arsenal, which supplied the Army with weapons and ammunition from the 1850s, World War I and II, and the Korean War, lived here. After the Army closed the Arsenal in 1964, it became an industrial park home to many artist studios.
Arts Benicia sponsors Open Studios in June, when artists in the Arsenal District open their studios to the public.
5. Benicia Capitol State Historic Park
The historic district is packed with Victorian gingerbread-trim houses, farmhouses, and bungalows, many from the 19th century, as well as the former State Capitol Building, where lawmakers met when Benicia was the capital of California for 13 months in 1853–54, before it was moved to Sacramento.
You can tour the structure, where lawmakers legalized the right for women to own property and set a 10-hour workday. Behind it is the Fischer-Hanlon House, built in 1850, a former Gold Rush hotel, which Swiss merchant Joseph Fischer purchased and moved to its current location, converting it to his home after 1858. Tours of the home, which was enlarged with porches, a kitchen, and servants’ quarters and contains many original furnishings and artifacts that reflect upper-middle-class life from the mid-19th century on are available.
The oldest house in Benicia that still has its original exterior and original location, the Frisbie-Walsh House, was built in 1849 in Boston and shipped around Cape Horn, long before the Panama Canal greatly shortened the route. Once owned by the daughter of Mexican General Vallejo and her husband, banker John Frisbie, and later by a retired sea captain, it’s the subject of a sidewalk tile mural Captain Walsh’s Home.
6. First Street Shops And Galleries
Many independent shops, galleries, and restaurants are in the historic district’s low-rise buildings. Here are some worth perusing:
- Fabulous Finds, an antique shop for vintage cookware, glassware, clothing, china, clocks, and art in the Tannery Building
- Happy Life Pottery, a ceramics and gift shop
- Bell & Brass, a highly curated home décor shop
- Gallery 621, which exhibits landscapes and abstracts by local artists
See the Downtown Benicia Business Directory for details and other shop listings.
7. The Benicia Historical Museum
If you wonder why the name of the local museum is the Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns, it’s because camels were once used to deliver mail in and patrol the Southwest, particularly the Arizona and New Mexico deserts. The Army auctioned off its last camels, who lived in the sandstone barns where the museum is housed, in 1864.
Exhibits about state history feature the Bear Flag Revolt — when American settlers declared California’s independence from Mexico in 1846 for 25 days in Sonoma (their flag was adopted as the California state flag in 1911) — the discovery of gold in 1849, and how Benicia became the first military outpost in the Western District before California became a state in 1850. Monthly talks and First Friday live music events are offered.
8. Fabulous Restaurants
Benicia is full of surprises. For example, the head baker at One House Bakery baked bread for The French Laundry, Napa Valley’s three-Michelin-star restaurant, and Bouchon Bakery. The two-level industrial-look bakery is your go-to for sweet and savory baked goods and sandwiches.
For authentic Italian food from a family from Milan, Amore Bistrot is a restaurant and market with a big patio, located at The Inn at Benicia Bay, an 1854 former sea captain’s home.
For a panoramic water view, Bella Siena serves both Italian food and steaks in a spacious exposed-brick space, where a large marble bar is popular for dining.
New Orleans-style food at The Workshop wins rave reviews: Daily specials feature oyster po-boys, chicken and Andouille sausage gumbo, and jambalaya at the casual eatery, located four blocks off First Street.
Pro Tip: Guests at The Inn at Benicia Bay enjoy a daily Italian breakfast and coffee from Amore Bistrot delivered to their rooms.
How To Get To Benicia
- From San Francisco by BART + SolTrans Express Bus: Take BART to the Walnut Creek stop, then the SolTrans express bus at the bus terminal across the street two stops to Benicia City Park, a 20-minute ride. The historic district on First Street starts just past the gazebo.
- From San Francisco by Bay Ferry + SolTrans Bus: Take the Bay Ferry from the San Francisco Ferry Building to the Vallejo Ferry Terminal, then a short SolTrans bus to Benicia City Park.
- From San Francisco by car: Drive Interstate 680 north from the East or South Bay.
- From Napa by car: Drive Interstate 680 south.