The rapidly growing city of Bakersfield, in California’s southern Central Valley, is full of pleasant surprises. Once known only for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield—or Bako, as the locals affectionately call it—has become a Central Valley hub for arts and culture while still retaining the richness of the region’s past. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including the 125-year-old Noriega Hotel, upholds the area’s Basque heritage with boarding-house-style meals of oxtail soup and a myriad side dishes (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees herded sheep and planted orchards here in the late 1800s).
Fast-forward to Bakersfield’s citified attractions, including the gallery-filled Arts District, home to the 1930 Fox Theater, where performances range from pop music to film noir, and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the place to hear the Bakersfield Sound, a gritty style of country western music. Find out more about hardscrabble musical pioneers like Owens and Merle Haggard with a visit to the Kern County Museum, a collection of 56 historic buildings spread out among grassy lawns. You’ll also get a lesson in California’s oil industry: Kern County’s wells pump 70 percent of the state’s “black gold.” Afterward, shop for vintage finds at Bakersfield’s Antique Row, then pop over to the swanky Padre Hotel for a cocktail on the rooftop lounge.
There’s plenty of nature to be had around Bakersfield, too. Wildflowers blanket the local grasslands and nearby Tehachapi Range in spring. See them in March and April at the 37635 hectare Wind Wolves Preserve, the West Coast’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. At any time of year, these vast grasslands are a haven for wildlife and an inspiring place to take a hike or pedal your mountain bike.
The three-storey Fox Theater , with its Art Deco tower, has reigned as Bakersfield’s glitziest landmark since its marble floor was first polished for opening day in 1930. Today it’s the centrepiece of Bakersfield’s gallery-and-theatre-filled Downtown Arts District, clustered around 19th and H Streets.
Thanks to its 1990s' refurbishments, the interior of the Fox gleams with gilded ceilings and gildedwalls, which can steal your attention away from the stage where big-name live bands perform. Come on Friday nights to watch foreign flicks or cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the 24-metre silver screen.
Day or evening, wander the galleries in the streets surrounding the Fox. Start at Metro Galleries on 19th Street, where you can ponder over abstract and contemporary realist works by more than two dozen Californian painters, sculptors and mixed-media artists. At the Art Center Gallery on Eye Street, gaze at local artists’ creations, or make your own in weekly art classes for children and adults. Or drop into the 'underground' Bellmoore Gallery on Chester Avenue, cloistered in the basement of a 100-year-old building that was once a bakery. White-washed brick walls showcase up-and-coming artists’ work, and the space also hosts musicians, performance artists and fashion shows.
To see the latest creations by local playwrights, wander into the budget-friendly Spotlight Theatre on 19th Street, where you might catch a hot-off-the-press slapstick comedy or a tear-jerking drama. For a special night out, go 4000 kilometres off-Broadway to Stars Bakersfield Music Theatre on Chester Avenue, where you can dine on roast beef while watching a classic musical like Funny Girl or Guys and Dolls.
Theatre performances without the slightest speck of pretence (remember to dress down, not up) happen at the Gaslight Melodrama, located in a big red barn on the outskirts of town (and one of only four professional melodrama theatres in California). The Gaslight attracts a fun-loving crowd that is instructed not to be quiet: drink a beer and munch on pulled pork sandwiches while you boo the villain, cheer the hero and aww the love interest on stage.
Maybe it’s because Central Valley summers are hot, or maybe it’s because its natives are proud of their heritage, but Bakersfield museum visitors can find a wealth of brain-fuelling exhibitions to expand their minds.
Start by strolling through the Kern County Museum, where 56 historic buildings are spread out over 6.5 beautifully landscaped hectares. A popular stop here is country singer Merle Haggard’s childhood home, an old rail freight wagon that his parents bought in 1935 for $500. Find it amid an array of older structures—including an 1860 general store where travellers could purchase a 25-cent bath, a one-room school building and an 1882 doctor’s office—plus an antique Southern Pacific engine and a Santa Fe wagon.
Inside the museum’s main gallery, at the 'Bakersfield Sound' exhibition, learn about Haggard and the gritty country-and-western genre that he and others pioneered—a backlash against the slicker, more polished music coming out of Nashville. Then move on to the 'black gold' exhibition, where you’ll learn how oil (a key part of Kern County’s economy since 1895) is extracted from the earth, with gear such as rotary drills and bobbing pump jacks.
Move from human history to natural history with a visit to CALM, the California Area Living Museum. Walk through the zoo’s 14 park-like acres and learn about the Golden State’s native fauna. See more than 200 animals that have been injured or cannot survive in the wild, from bobcats and mountain lions to bighorn sheep and cottontail rabbits. At the raptor display, look deep into the eyes of a bald eagle or a long-eared owl. While you’re here, get in an upper-body workout on the Condor Challenge ropes course and 10-metre climbing wall.
Then travel way back in geological time at the central Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science. An offspring of CALM, the museum houses a huge collection of fossils from the Miocene period, 14 to 15 million years ago. Ancient remains of sea lions and sharks, excavated from Sharktooth Hill, north-east of Bakersfield, prove that the Central Valley once sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Another interesting historical site is the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park , 45 miles north of the town. This early 1900s' settlement—an attempt by a group of African Americans to create a Utopian society—offers a remarkable look at an unusual event in Californian history. Visit a reconstructed schoolhouse, a church, and other structures.
The 1893 Noriega Hotel is the oldest and most famous of the Central Valley’s Basque eateries, but it has plenty of friendly competition in Bakersfield’s Old Town Kern neighbourhood—also known as the Basque Block. Here, in the largest concentration of Basque restaurants in the United States, each dining hall has its specialities, but one fact unites them: Basque food is served in hearty, prodigious quantities.
Wherever you go, you’ll be served a similar 'setup', as it’s called—sourdough bread, cabbage soup, beans, salsa, boiled vegetables, pickled tongue and spaghetti. It all needs to be consumed before the main course, which might be roasted leg of lamb, beef or oxtail stew, or fried chicken. It’s a monumental task for even the biggest eaters, but Central Valley Basque food has been served this way since the mid-1800s, when many Basque people travelled from their homeland between Spain and France to seek their fortunes in California’s Gold Rush.
If you’re not that hungry, just sit at the bar and order a Picon Punch—the customary Basque brandy-and-grenadine highball, which is usually mixed with a bitter orange liqueur or sometimes maraschino cherry juice, and is typically garnished with lemon peel. The cocktail miraculously straddles the narrow line between tart and sweet.
Start your exploration of Basque food culture at the Wool Growers Restaurant on 19th Street, clearly marked by a neon sheep sign. The no-frills 1950s' eatery is one of Bakersfield’s most popular restaurants, serving specialities such as oxtail soup and perfectly crispy French fries. The brightly lit dining room with long trestle tables is boisterous and friendly, a complete contrast to the film-noir vibe at the Pyrenees Café on Sumner Street, two streets away. The Pyrenees’ dark wood bar, vinyl booths, throbbing jukebox and neon Budweiser sign attract motorcycle clubs, indie bands and Basque old-timers alike. Its walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Basque pioneers. ThePyrenees’ breakfast menu offers pleasant surprises though: nab a seat at one of the outdoor patio tables and order the bacon-stuffed pancakes.
Right next to the 99 freeway, and surrounded by graceful queen palms, the Chalet Basque Restaurant has small tables and booths in lieu of family-style trestle tables—more appropriate for date night—but everything else is traditional Basque. In addition to the multi-course set-up, the Chalet serves a garlicky escargot dish that you won’t find elsewhere. And on the other side of town, at Benji’s French-Basque Restaurant, patrons try to manage their calorie intake during the set-up so that they can save room for dessert. Benji’s is more French than Spanish (frog’s legs are popular), but the big attraction is the dessert soufflés—chocolate, lemon, Grand Marnier or raspberry. Order one when you order your main course so that the waiting staff can time its delivery. Due to its delicate architecture, your soufflé must be served at the precise moment it comes out of the oven.
Since Bakersfield doesn’t have alpine lakes or redwood forests, you might not see it as a place for hiking and nature study—until you pull into the car park at Wind Wolves Preserve. Here, at the largest non-profit nature reserve on the West Coast, you can walk (or mountain bike) for miles amid waving golden grasslands, grazing tule elk and colourful carpets of wildflowers.
The reserve—which is funded entirely by private donations through the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy—encompasses 37,635 hectares near Highway 166 to the south of Bakersfield, beyond the orchards and the oil fields that were once used for cattle farming. The tract holds a surprising amount of water—creeks, marshes, wetlands and even a 5-metre limestone waterfall—plus groves of cottonwoods and other broad-leaved trees. Kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer and even occasional black bears are at home here, but you won’t find wolves at Wind Wolves. The name refers to the tall grasses that sway in unison with the wind, making it appear as if animals are wandering through the prairies.
Springtime is the most dramatic season in which to visit, when Wind Wolves’ slopes explode in a firework display of colourful mule-ears, poppies, lupine, goldfields and blue-eyed grass. To see them, take the short Wildflower Loop Trail that begins near the entrance kiosk. At any time of year, walkers can start at The Crossing picnic area and follow the Tule Elk Trail for about a mile to glimpse the reserve’s herd of more than 200 elk. More ambitious hikers can continue for five more kilometres to connect to the Reflection Pond Trail, where a historic cattle pond provides a watering hole for wildlife. From high points along this walk, you’ll survey an immense sea of grasslands—green in spring and gold during the rest of the year. Complete a 11.5 kilometre circuit by returning on the San Emigdio Canyon Trail. As you wander, keep your eyes peeled for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, a cute, cat-sized creature with long ears and a pointy nose.
Hardy walkers who want to head deeper into the Wind Wolves wilderness can catch the weekend shuttle bus to the El Camino Viejo trailhead, five miles south of the main car park. From here, you can walk for miles along the historic wagon route used by early travellers between El Pueblo de Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Mountain bikers are welcome too. The reserve’s most popular mountain biking route is the El Camino Viejo Trail, which parallels San Emigdio Creek. If you want to spend the night here, it is possible to camp under canvas at the reserve’s San Emigdio Campground if a pitch is booked in advance.
Real cowboys around Bakersfield don’t shop at the shopping centre—instead, they tie up their horses next to the tall red boot outside Emporium Western Store and load up their saddlebags with rugged jeans and shiny silver belt buckles. In business for more than a century, the Emporium stocks oodles of western apparel plus more than 2,500 pairs of boots, so the staff know their way around the pointed-toe versus square-toe issue. In the market for a cowboy hat? Choose one from the stock of 2,000 plus, and then get the store manager to steam it until the brim curls just the way you like it.
But maybe western clothes aren’t your thing. If you’re in the market for something retro-glam—like a 1950s' poodle skirt or a 1920s' feather headband—visit Bakersfield’s Antique Row (19th Street between H and R Streets), where antique centres house dozens of vendors and consignment shops. Three of the largest are the Mill Creek Antique Mall, Great American Antiques and Central Park Antique Mall, housing more than 5,600 square metres of nostalgic flotsam. Or browse previously owned designer fashions and vintage costumes at In Your Wildest Dreams on 18th Street, right next to the Padre Hotel. Dig through a gold mine of house-clearance furniture, artwork and home decor at Chester Avenue’s Timeless Furnishings & Antique Gallery.
For time-capsule-worthy shopping-plus-dining, head to the Five & Dime Antique Mall, in the old Woolworth building on 19th Street. Peruse the three floors of antiques, then enjoy a toasted cheese sandwich at the 1950s throwback Woolworth’s counter. The iconic Woolworth’s department store closed in 1994, but new owners snapped up the Art Deco building and gave it new life. Waiters decked out in black bow ties scribble down orders for chilli cheese fries, amidst black-and-white chequerboard flooring, steel bar stools with red vinyl seats and Streamline Moderne staircases.
No trip to Bakersfield is complete without a visit to Dewar’s Candy Shop—the original is on Eye Street (look for the pink neon ice-cream cone). This retro ice-cream parlour can rightfully boast that its frozen creation was served at Disneyland Resort—and it’s made with the same small-batch recipe that the owners used nearly a century ago. Sadly, ice cream doesn’t travel well, so spoon down a sundae on location and then stock your suitcase with a bright red box of Dewar’s peanut-butter-filled chewy sweets. These soft, pillowy treats make a perfect gift—if they make it home.
Bakersfield’s most iconic building, the Spanish Colonial Revival Padre Hotel, stands like a sentinel on the corner of 18th and H Streets, and is home to Bakersfield’s only four-diamond-certified accommodation. The 1928 building’s chic rooms and public spaces offer a fancy tribute to Bakersfield’s past, starting with the reception's 4.5-metre-high mural of a well-coiffed cowgirl glancing over her shoulder. Creative ornamentation pops up everywhere: gargoyles protrude from the building’s exterior, a glowing neon sign crowns the roof and colourful farm animals embellish the breakfast cafe’s ceiling. Finally, the wallpaper is adorned with cowboy hats, farm implements and oil derricks.
See it all with or without a room reservation. The Padre offers a handful of public restaurants, including the stately steak-and-lobster Belvedere Room, the grab-and-go breakfast venue Farmacy Cafe and the rooftop Prairie Fire lounge, with fire pits for chilly winter evenings and cool misters for hot summer nights. For another evening stop, visit the speakeasy-style Brimstone Bar and Grill—with dark teak panelling, a pressed tin ceiling and billiard tables—and imagine the velvet rafter swing that once hung from the ceiling, ridden by a swimsuit-clad beauty.
All of the 112 guest rooms are aptly swanky—thanks to an $18 million renovation in 2010 that restored the hotel to its rightful glory—decked out with chic furniture, leather-headboard beds with memory-foam mattresses and sleek, glassed-in showers. If you’re staying for more than one night, splurge on one of the Padre’s posh suites, each with a separate living room, a couple of monumental flat-screen televisions and a waterfall Jacuzzi bath.
The Padre Hotel has had its fair share of intriguing history too. Ghost hunters swear the building is haunted, particularly on the seventh floor where workers regularly report hearing children’s laughter when no one is present. Some attribute the hauntings to the Padre’s previous owner, the irascible Milton 'Spartacus' Miller, who bought the hotel in 1954. When city building inspectors told him that he had to bring the hotel up to fire code standards, Miller got so riled up that he hung protest signs from the Padre’s exterior and positioned a mock missile on the roof, pointed at City Hall (the missile is now at Bakersfield’s Kern County Museum).
When Spaniards began descending on Bakersfield in the 1800s, searching for gold and herding sheep, they brought with them an appetite for roast lamb, oxtail stew and baguette upon baguette of French bread. While the shepherds have (mostly) come and gone, the tradition of Basque cuisine remains in Bakersfield. Few places stick as closely to the script as the Noriega Hotel, a former boarding house founded by Basque expats in 1893, and still a bustling place near the town’s train tracks.
Known locally as Noriega’s, the restaurant attracts visitors at the bar, where patrons listen to music, chat and sip Picon Punch (a Basque cocktail). Then it’s time to grab a seat at the long communal tables, where each meal begins with starters both common—salad and rolls—and not—cottage cheese cut with mayonnaise and pickled tongue. After that come platters of Basque classics including paella, lamb stew, bacalao (a salted cod dish that hails from the Basque region) and fried chicken with freshly chopped garlic. Loaves of French bread and hunks of blue cheese fill the spaces in between. Meals are all-you-can-eat affairs with all-you-can-drink red table wine—or coffee, tea or milk for non-drinkers.
In 2011, Noriega’s caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which named the institution—run by the same family since 1931—an American classic. 'We were very surprised by that,' says Linda Elizalde-McCoy, who owns Noriega’s with her sister, Rochelle Ladd. 'They determined that yeah, it was something different.' The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly have also endorsed the restaurant, which keeps the 120-person dining room buzzing. (Ms McCoy notes that summers bring more tourists, while locals fill the place year round.) Though Noriega’s harks back to a time before gluten-free regimens became a thing, most dietary restrictions can be accommodated: vegetarians who eat eggs are offered omelettes, and those who can’t consume flour can opt for baked chicken instead of fried.
Lunch is about $17 a person, dinner $22; children are charged a dollar per year of age, up to 8 for lunch and 12 for dinner. Booking is recommended.
For music enthusiasts, Bakersfield is much more than an agricultural hub. The Central Valley city—and in particular, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace—is the home of a whole music genre. It began in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl drove farmers from Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and other states to California, and they brought with them their own country-based music aesthetic. Honky-tonk bars started springing up around Bakersfield, and in the late 1950s and ’60s a few local musicians—namely Texas-born Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose parents had come from Oklahoma—popularised a more rocking, less-produced style of country music that became widely known as The Bakersfield Sound.
Buck Owens didn’t just shape the sound that has influenced generations of country and rock musicians, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Dwight Yoakam—he also created a vibrant musical monument to preserve it. In 1996, Owens opened the Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a 550-seat music hall, bar, restaurant and museum. Located just off US Highway 99 in the heart of Bakersfield, the Palace transports visitors to a film-set version of the Old West (think archetypal Western shopfronts with swinging saloon doors, a sheriff’s office and even a jail) and offers a full calendar of raw-country musical acts.
Some of the biggest names in country, from Willie Nelson to Brad Paisley, have given impromptu performances at the Palace, and on any night of the week you’ll find patrons two-stepping or line-dancing the night away, dining on homely cuisine like chicken fried steak and mesquite-wood-smoked rib eye, and perusing the immense collection of music memorabilia. (The real showpiece hangs above the bar: Owens’ 1972 Pontiac convertible with bullock horns mounted on the bonnet.) You can also rub elbows with Owens’ greatest musical influencers—including Elvis, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams—who are immortalised as life-size bronze statues.