The town can be divided into three areas: Southampton (north of Military), East Benicia (east of First Street), and West Benicia (west of First Street). Most of the town's HI older homes are on the east and west sides. The far east side has an industrial park, where the town's many local artists have rented out studio space. Also in or near the industrial park are the Valero oil refinery, the 1859 Clock Tower and the 1850s Camel Barns. The Benicia State Recreation Area is on the far west edge of the city. Southampton contains primarily stucco family homes, most of which were built between 1970 and 2000.
The main retail area in Benicia is First Street, which attracts out-of-town antique and boutique shoppers and those seeking small-town charm.
Connections to Benicia include Interstate 680 from Martinez to the south and Cordelia Junction (Fairfield) to the north, and Interstate 780, Columbus Parkway, and other local roads from Vallejo to the west. Amtrak also runs past the city north towards Sacramento, but the train station lies in Martinez across the Carquinez Strait. Railroad tracks carrying Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad lines cross the strait alongside the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.
Benicia was founded on May 19, 1847 by Robert Semple, Thomas O. Larkin, and Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, on land sold to them by General Vallejo, and named for the General's wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The first intended name "Francisca" was dropped due to then Yerba Buena changing its name to "San Francisco", so Mrs. Vallejo's second given name was used instead. Benicia was sixth site selected as the California state capital from February 11, 1853 to February 25, 1854, but the capital was then moved to Sacramento. The restored capitol building is part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park. Benicia was also the county seat of Solano County until 1858 when that was moved to Fairfield.
From 1860-1861, Benicia was indirectly involved in the Pony Express. When riders missed their connection with a steamer in Sacramento, they would continue on to Benicia and cross over to Martinez via the ferry. One of the earliest companies in California, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, established a major shipyard in Benicia in the 19th century. Benicia became an important wheat storage and shipping site. It was also the site of the United States Army's Benicia Arsenal. In 1879, the Central Pacific Railroad re-routed the Sacramento-Oakland portion of its transcontinental line, establishing a major railroad ferry across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa. The world's largest ferry, the Solano, later joined by the even larger Contra Costa, carried entire trains across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa, from whence they continued on to the Oakland Pier. After California's wheat output dropped in the early 20th Century and especially after the Southern Pacific (which took over the operations of the Central Pacific) constructed a railroad bridge at Martinez in 1930 to replace the ferry crossing, Benicia declined until the economic boom of World War II, which doubled the population to about 7,000 residents.
Two developments in the early 1960s would completely change Benicia: The closing of the Benicia Arsenal in 1960–64, and the completion of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge in 1962. The closing of the Arsenal removed Benicia's traditional economic base, but allowed city leaders to create an industrial park on Arsenal land which eventually provided more revenue for the city than the Army had. The completion of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge made it possible for the city to become a suburb of San Francisco and Oakland, and suburban development in the Benicia hills began in the late 1960s.
Between 1970 and 1995, the population of Benicia grew steadily at a rate of about 1,000 people per year, and the city changed from a poor, blue-collar town of 7,000 to a white-collar bedroom suburb of 28,000.
The town is also the location of the Valero Refinery. The refinery was completed in 1969 by Exxon Corporation, and bought by Valero Refining, a San Antonio based oil company in 2000. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the Exxon refinery in Benicia among the top five facilities for toxic chemical releases to the environment in California in 1997. Flaring, most commonly associated with vapor plumes coming from tall stacks at the refineries is the process used to burn off gases during "upsets," when something goes wrong and equipment must be shut down rapidly to avert an explosion or fire. Those emergencies can produce thick black clouds of unburned hydrocarbons, which in turn produce six-figure fines from the air district and local governments. Refineries face possible fines if they flare for more than three minutes.
First Fridays on First. On the first Friday of each month, May through October, participating shops and restaurants encourage a festival atmosphere with balloons and live music on First Street. During the summer months, outdoor movies are shown at 9 p.m. at the Benicia State Capitol. There is no entry fee for this event.
Torchlight Parade & Dance. Traditionally held on the July 3, Benicia’s 4th of July parade stretches all the way down First Street and typically includes music, dancing, floats, horses, clowns, and live entertainment. A street dance and live entertainment traditionally follow the parade on First Street. There is no entry fee for this event.
Picnic in the Park & Fireworks. On July 4, there is a large community picnic at Benicia’s City Park traditionall starting at noon. Shortly after dark (approximately 9pm) there is a fireworks display that originate at the foot of First Street. There is no entry fee for this event.
Benicia Peddler's Fair. This outdoor event began in 1963 with a few collectable and antique stores displaying their items on tables outside St. Paul's Church. Today, over 300 antique and collectable dealers as well as other vendors display their wares in booths that span approximately 11 blocks of First Street. Unverified sources cite attendance in 2006 at approximately 20,000. This event is sponsored by St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Benicia. There is no entry fee for this event.
Sailing. Benicia is an active sailing community. In additional to individual sailing out of the Benicia Marina, there are several organized events and competitions. During the summer months, there is a yacht racing competition on Thursday evenings sponsored by the Benicia Yacht Club.
Youth Sailing Program. The Benicia Yacht Club sponsors a Youth Sailing Program that offers 5 Tuesday training sessions of approximately 4 hours each. These classes are an introduction to sailing for those with little or no small boat sailing experience. The classes cover parts of the boat, rigging and the basic elements of boat handling and seamanship. Participants successfully completing the class will be able to rig and sail a dinghy on a protected body of water in light to moderate winds.
Common activities for the high school population include organized games and events such as La Migra, a somewhat more complicated version of tag involving cars, dances at the local Clocktower, and High School football games.
There were 10,328 households out of which 36.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.2% were married couples living together, 11.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 29.9% were non-families. 23.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 6.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.60 and the average family size was 3.10.
In the city the population was spread out with 27.1% under the age of 18, 6.5% from 18 to 24, 28.3% from 25 to 44, 28.8% from 45 to 64, and 9.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females there were 94.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 90.1 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $67,617, and the median income for a family was $77,974. Males had a median income of $59,628 versus $39,893 for females. The per capita income for the city was $31,226. About 3.1% of families and 4.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 4.4% of those under age 18 and 2.9% of those age 65 or over.