Famed tourist destinations within such easy reach, it’s possible we are ignoring what’s in our own backyard. Solano County’s downtowns are historic, quaint and worth checking out. In our third installment in a 3-part series, we spotlight things to do and see in our own county. In our final installment of Solano downtowns, we feature three that can be easily visited on the way to or from the Tahoe.
Although discount shopping abounds, there’s more to Vacaville than the outlet stores. On its tourism website, visitvacaville.org, the town is billed as “One Of Northern California's Most Charming Communities.” Although small, Vacaville’s downtown is certainly charming. Right off the I-80 freeway, downtown’s mature trees, eateries and retail shops, public art, downtown events and inviting spaces to sit and enjoy the scenery, make Vacaville a fun place to visit.
In all seasons, but particularly in spring, Vacaville’s pastoral rolling hills are a welcome site to passers by on the freeway as well as visitors. A town of just over 92,000, Vacaville is Solano County’s third largest city after Vallejo and Fairfield. It’s home to two major healthcare facilities (Northbay and Kaiser), the Nut Tree shops and family park, regional parks and the Buck Mansion and estate, where the philanthropic Buck Foundation's offices are located.
Downtown Vacaville’s hub, at Merchant and Main Streets, is a good jumping-off point for dining, with 20-plus restaurants and 5 pubs/taverns; and around 30 retail stores. Individuals, couples and families with small children will enjoy Andrew’s Park along Alamo Creek. The park is nicely integrated into Vacaville’s picturesque downtown core, so that post-shopping you can rest your legs, after a meal you can walk off some calories and kids can run in the grass.
Visiting Rio Vista mid-week in the morning, when there is no festival or event at hand, the descriptive word that comes to mind is “sleepy.” It feels like the calm before the storm—bottled up energy for the coming boating season is about to descend on the tiny town. Rio Vista is perched along the Sacramento River Delta, about a 40-minute drive from Benicia driving east on I-80 and south on Highway 12.
The 2010 Census has the population of Rio Vista pegged at 7,360. The town comes to life in summer, when boaters descend on its tiny, but quaint downtown. Rio Vista is known for its annual Bass Festival, now in its 66th year. The Festival draws upwards of 15,000 people who enjoy the many events or participate in the fishing derby.
If you happen to be in town when the Rio Vista Museum, at 16 N. Front Street, is open, you can learn about the town’s history. Eateries include the Rio Vista Bakery and Café, at 150 Main Street, which offers the usual coffee drinks but is known for its excellent pastries. You can also order sandwiches to go and picnic along the waterfront or nearby Brannan Island State Recreation Area on Highway 160. Other downtown eateries include Lucy’s, Foster’s Bighorn and Raul’s Striper Café; or try the popular Tortilla Flats on Highway 12.
On Solano County’s eastern border, Closer to Sacramento than to Benicia, Dixon still feels like an old western town. Although surrounded by farmland, with agriculture playing a part of the town’s economy, Dixon’s largest employer is Gymboree, whose distribution center is located there.
It’s very doable to take in Rio Vista and Dixon in a half-day. Instead of driving back to I-80, take State Route 113 from Rio Vista to Dixon or vice-versa. The two-lane road meanders through scenic, rural farmland.
Alternatively, stop in Dixon on your way to (or from) Lake Tahoe, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are several good options for a family-friendly meal, the most recognizable of which is Cattlemen's, the western-themed steakhouse right off I-80. While you are there, drive through the small, historic downtown where there are a few more, less expensive options. Try the popular Bud's Pub & Grill at 100 S. First Street. The eatery goes well beyond the usual pub fare with a long list of yummy lunch sandwiches including a veggie, steak, BBQ tri-tip, pastrami and BLT; also a turkey pesto croissant sandwich, soups, salads and burgers. The dinner menu features seafood, poultry and beef entrees. Just down the block from Bud’s is Dawson's Bar & Café, open all day. If you reserve in advance, you can dine in high Victorian style at Linda Lane's Tea Room, a themed restaurant where they mix their own tea blends.