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Bakersfield’s Arts District
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Bakersfield’s Arts District

California's Central Valley
Bakersfield’s Arts District
Explore art galleries, live music and the exquisite Fox Theater

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 2,500 miles 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 pretense (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. 

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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 93,000-acre 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.