11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Carson City, NV
Carson City, the capital of Nevada, is on the far western side of the state, near the east shoreline of Lake Tahoe. It's been the capital since Nevada earned its statehood in 1864 and was the territorial capital before that. Before explorer John C. Fremont laid eyes on the land in the 1840s, the Washoe People occupied the region for thousands of years.
From the 1870s State Capitol to the old homes and storefronts lining the Kit Carson Trail, history is hard to miss when visiting. And several tourist attractions like museums, house tours, and heritage railroad lines make this history a participatory experience.
Carson City provides several modern attractions within its historical settings. It also offers access to the region's stunning natural environment. Places to visit like Lake Tahoe and Lake Washoe are less than a half-hour drive from the city center, and downtown offers several local restaurants and boutique stores to explore between adventures.
Find a new Nevada adventure with our list of the top things to do in Carson City.
1. Walk through History on the Kit Carson Trail
Carson City has been the state capital of Nevada since 1864 and was the territorial capital before that. This longstanding history is readily apparent upon walking the downtown streets and capitol grounds. Alongside the stately Capitol building itself, several aesthetic buildings throughout the area still stand from the 1800s.
The Kit Carson Trail is a 2.5-mile self-guided historic walking tour, highlighting much of the remaining 19th-century architecture. The sightseeing route zigzags from the Capitol Complex and throughout the adjacent West Side Historic District. Among the buildings along the route are the Governor's Mansion, century-old churches, and dozens of historic homes.
Nearly 50 landmarks comprise the Kit Carson Trail in total, making it one of the most extensive history walks in the state. Interpretive information on the edge of most properties details the historic statures of each building. These information placards help paint the picture of Carson City's early history.
The Kit Carson Trail is one of Carson City's best attractions. It's also an unavoidable part of almost any visit. Much of Carson City's appeal, including the Capitol Complex and downtown district, are on this historic path.
2. Visit the Nevada State Capitol Building
For those interested in state government or not, the Nevada State Capitol Complex is a beautiful space to walk around and enjoy the day. Tree-lined walkways navigate the complex, which includes other government buildings like the State Library and Supreme Court. And a large plaza and walkway at the center of campus offer a stately place to enjoy the day.
The State Capitol itself, constructed with native sandstone between 1870 and 1871, is the oldest building on campus. It's also one of the oldest capitol buildings west of the Mississippi River. Today, it's a signature building on the Kit Carson Trail and a still bustling center of government.
Self-guided tours of the Capitol are available throughout the week. Alongside government chambers and stately artworks, the building is home to the Battle Born Hall on the second floor. This 2,000-square-foot museum showcases the Trailblazing Nevada exhibit, highlighting significant aspects in state history.
The State Capitol is open for walk-in visitors every day of the week, excluding major holidays, from 8am to 5pm. The Capitol and Battle Born Hall are free to visit.
Address: 101 N Carson Street, Carson City, Nevada
3. Shopping and Dining in Carson City
The capital city has several unique shopping and dining opportunities. The busiest area of town is the historic district next to the Capitol Complex. Here, the Kit Carson Trail weaves throughout the streets, and several landmark buildings invite window shopping.
From antiques to home goods, fashion, and florists, this downtown area has a bit of everything. Other storefronts include music stores, art galleries, and comic book shops. The entire area is very pedestrian-friendly, and several nearby non-metered parking areas make it easy to ditch the car.
This downtown district also has restaurants catering to all three meals of the day. A few of the local favorites for dinner include The Basil and Garibaldi's Italian Kitchen. Breakfast is best served at places like Mom & Pop's Diner, and Scoups Ice Cream & Soup Bar offers both savory and sweet options.
4. Roll Down the Tracks at the Nevada State Railroad Museum
The Nevada State Railroad Museum preserves and displays the state's locomotive history. The museum is south of the downtown district and occupies a large building with several railcars and locomotives inside. Also among the museum's collection are photographs and memorabilia.
Many exhibits at the museum relate to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. This 1869 event transformed access between the coasts, ushering in a new era of trade and migration.
Other exhibits at the museum tell the continuing history of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, one of the most famous short lines in America. The still-operating V&T rail line spans 22 miles from Carson City to Virginia City and played a vital role during the "Big Bonanza" of 1873. Today, commemorative railroad trips are available up and down the line.
Address: 2180 S Carson Street, Carson City, Nevada
Official site: https://carsonrailroadmuseum.org/
5. Tour the Nevada State Museum
Head to the Nevada State Museum for a deep dive into the Silver State. Here, several artifacts and exhibits relate to the state's geology, history, and continuing story. It's a fun place to visit for some valuable insight and to start the Kit Carson Trail, as the historic walking trail extends in both directions from the museum.
The museum itself is within the historic Carson City Mint, dating back to the late 1800s. Permanent exhibits range in subject matter from native populations to the rocks and minerals that comprise the state's unique landscape. And every exhibit showcases great detail with informative panels and comprehensive replicas.
For more museum attractions, the Children's Museum of Northern Nevada is just across the street. This favorite family attraction is housed within the 1939 Carson City Auditorium, another historic downtown building. This experiential learning museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Address: 600 N Carson Street, Carson City, Nevada
Official site: https://www.carsonnvmuseum.org/
6. Find Adventure at Washoe Lake State Park
This popular state park is on the southeast shore of Washoe Lake, less than a 15-minute drive north of the city. The park caters to several recreation outlets, including hiking, camping, and equestrian activities, and with waterfront access and a boat launch, it's also popular for water sports.
Whatever the activity, brilliant views of the opposing Carson Range backdrop the entire lake. This beautiful view often includes soaring wildlife across the sky, and the trails at the park offer a variety of landscapes, including dunes, beaches, and inland shrubs.
Washoe Lake State Park has 49 campsites available, some accommodating RVs up to 45 feet in length. No hookups are available, and all sites are up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the year. Temperatures hit a max during the summer, and a few sites have shade structures to combat the heat.
Official site: http://parks.nv.gov/parks/washoe-lake
7. Hop aboard the V&T Railroad
The Virginia & Truckee Railroad is a historic short line dating back to the 1870s and the "Big Bonanza" in the region. This boom of gold and silver put Virginia City on the map, and the railroad became instrumental for transporting ore and supplies to and from Truckee. By 1872, the line connected to the larger Central Pacific Railroad.
Today, the V&T runs as a heritage line, offering scenic passenger trips from Truckee to Virginia City and back. These narrated tours depart from the Eastgate Depot and include a 3.5-hour layover in Virginia City. The route navigates scenic canyons and tunnels and takes approximately 90 minutes to cover the 22-mile length of the track.
Several other route options are also available. The holiday Polar Express route is perhaps the most popular, often selling out weeks in advance. Other notable rides include a Memorial Day Weekend Train and a Mother's Day Train. V&T Railway also has unique motor-assisted railbike tours available.
Official site: https://vtrailway.com/
8. Spend a Sunny Day at Bowers Mansion Regional Park
Bowers Mansion Regional Park is a scenic 13-mile drive north of the city, near the west shore of Washoe Lake. The park features expansive lawn space, different playground areas, and a popular public pool in the summer months. It's also the site of the Historic Bowers Mansion, dating back to 1864 when silver mining was at a boom.
The mansion has been meticulously restored and receives accolades for its 1860s accuracy. Guided tours are available on the weekends and holidays between Memorial Day and the end of October. Tours run every hour during these operating times. There's a small fee to tour the home.
While the mansion tour is enlightening, the surrounding parkland is also a popular place to visit. It's a beautiful outdoor landscaped space with tall trees all around, ideal for a picnic or casual time spent outside. During the week, it's a common gathering spot for playdates and adventure time.
9. Step Back in Time in Virginia City
Virginia City, Nevada, home to the 1870s "Big Bonanza" silver and gold boom, is a scenic 15-mile drive from Carson City. This historic mining town is also accessible via a ride on the V&T Railroad heritage line. And while this once "Queen of the Comstock" has long since busted its silver and gold deposits, much of its historic infrastructure remains.
Today, Virginia City is more of a tourist destination than a mining town. A long boardwalk straddles both sides of the main drag of Virginia City, with several colorful storefronts vying for attention. Here, the range of shopping extends from souvenirs to western fashion and includes more than one old-fashioned candy store.
Virginia City is also a hot spot for museums and historical attractions. The Mackay Mansion Museum and Fourth Ward School Museum are two visitor favorites. Another cultural icon worth seeking out is Saint Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church, although it's hard to miss.
10. Take a Dip in Lake Tahoe
The western edge of Carson City limits includes Lake Tahoe shoreline. This proximity means residents of the city can reach the iconic blue waters with less than a 20-minute drive from downtown. And this access makes Lake Tahoe a popular outlet to enjoy throughout the year.
Highway 50 heading west out of town is the main access route to Lake Tahoe. This country-spanning highway passes by Spooner Lake, part of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. This outdoor space is popular with hiking and boating opportunities. Spooner Lake is also where the road forks to head south or north along Lake Tahoe.
Several beaches span both directions on the shoreline. To the north, places like Chimney Beach and Sand Harbor Beach draw a lot of attention. Secret Cove is also a popular spot, despite its name, and offers a known nudist beach. And heading south on the shoreline is the fastest route to Stateline and South Lake Tahoe.
11. Day Trip to Reno
The "Biggest Little City in the World" is a half-hour drive north of Carson City. Reno has long since been a tourist destination, but the city has evolved into a top family destination in the state. Among its many family-friendly tourist attractions are museums, auditoriums, and wildlife sanctuaries.
Neon lights are also a big attraction of Reno, including the iconic Reno Arch on North Virginia Street. This illuminated arch and other lighted signs flash late into the night, offering guidance for the city's several dining and entertainment options.
A few museums in Reno to put on the radar include the National Automobile Museum and the Nevada Museum of Art. The massive National Bowling Stadium is also hard to miss when visiting, with a giant aluminum bowling bowl adorning the side of the building.