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 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 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 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 non-profit 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-story Fox Theater, with its Art Deco tower, has reigned as Bakersfield’s glitziest landmark since its terrazzo was first polished for opening day in 1930. Today it’s the centerpiece of Bakersfield’s gallery-and-theater-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 gold-leaf walls, 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 like Rocky Horror Picture Show on the 80-foot silver screen.
Day or evening, wander the galleries in the blocks surrounding the Fox. Start at Metro Gallerieson 19th Street, where you can ponder over abstract and contemporary realist works by more than two dozen California 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 kids or adults. Or drop into the “underground” Bellmoore Gallery on Chester Avenue, cloistered in the basement of a century-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 of local playwrights, wander into the budget-friendly Spotlight Theatre on 19th Street, where you might catch a hot-off-the-press slapstick comedy or 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 prime rib 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 shush: 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 hoppers can find a wealth of brain-fuelling exhibits to expand their minds.
Start by strolling through the Kern County Museum, where 56 historic buildings are spread out over 16 beautifully landscaped acres. One popular stop here is country singer Merle Haggard’s childhood home, an old rail boxcar 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 schoolhouse, and an 1882 doctor’s office—plus an antique Southern Pacific engine and a Santa Fe caboose.
Inside the museum’s main gallery, at the “Bakersfield Sound” exhibit, learn more 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” exhibit, 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 the zoo’s 14 park-like acres and get schooled on 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 exhibit, look deep into the eyes of a bald eagle or long-eared owl. While you’re here, get in an upper-body workout at the Condor Challenge ropes course and 32-foot climbing wall.
Then travel way back in geologic time at the downtown Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science. An offspring of CALM, the museum houses a huge array of fossils from the Miocene period, 14 to 15 million years ago. Ancient remains of sea lions and sharks, excavated from Sharktooth Hill, northeast of Bakersfield, prove that the Central Valley once sat at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Another interesting historic spot is Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 45 miles north of town. This site of an 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 California history. Visit a reconstructed schoolhouse, 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 specialties, but one fact unites them: Basque food is served in hearty, prodigious quantities.
Anywhere 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 lamb leg, 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 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, usually mixed with a bitter orange liqueur or sometimes maraschino cherry juice, and typically garnished with a 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 dinner house is one of Bakersfield’s most popular eateries, serving specialties like oxtail soup and perfectly crispy French fries. The bright-lit dining room with long trestle tables is boisterous and friendly, a contrast to the film-noir vibe at the Pyrenees Café on Sumner Street, two blocks 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 dining room walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Basque pioneers. The Pyrenees’ breakfast menu offers pleasant surprises: 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 setup, the Chalet serves a garlicky escargot you won’t find elsewhere. And far across town at Benji’s French-Basque Restaurant, patrons try to manage their calorie intake during the setup so they save room for dessert. Benji’s is more French than Spanish (frog’s legs are popular), but the big ticket is a dessert soufflé—chocolate, lemon, Grand Marnier, or raspberry. Order one when you choose your entrée so the wait 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 parking lot at Wind Wolves Preserve. Here, at the largest non-profit nature preserve 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 93,000 acres near Highway 166 south of Bakersfield, beyond the orchards and the oil fields that were once used for cattle ranching. The tract holds a surprising amount of water—creeks, marshes, wetlands, and even a 15-foot 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 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, walk the short Wildflower Loop Trail near the entrance kiosk. At any time of year, hikers can start at The Crossing picnic area and follow the Tule Elk Trail for about a mile to glimpse the preserve’s herd of more than 200 elk. More ambitious hikers can continue for three more miles to connect to the Reflection Pond Trail, where a historic cattle pond provides a watering hole for wildlife. From high points along this hike, you’ll survey an immense sea of grasslands—green in spring and gold the rest of the year. Complete a 7-mile loop 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-size creature with long ears and a pointy nose.
Hardy hikers who want to head deeper into the Wind Wolves wilderness can ride the weekend shuttle bus to the El Camino Viejo trailhead, five miles south of the main parking lot. 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 preserve’s most popular biking route is the El Camino Viejo Trail, which parallels San Emigdio Creek. If you want to spend the night, tent camping at the preserve’s San Emigdio Campground is available by advance reservation.
Real cowboys around Bakersfield don’t shop at the mall—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 knows their way around the pointed-toe versus square-toe issue. In the market for a cowboy hat? Choose one from the 2,000-plus inventory, then have the store manager steam it until the brim curls just the way you like it.
But maybe western duds aren’t your thing. If you’re in the market for something retro-glam—like a 1950s poodle skirt or a 1920s feather headband—go to Bakersfield’s Antique Row (19th Street between H and R Streets), where antique “malls” or multi-dealer shops house dozens of vendors and consignment stores. Three of the largest are the Mill Creek Antique Mall, Great American Antiques, and Central Park Antique Mall, housing more than 60,000 square feet 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 ofestate-sale furniture, artwork, and home accents 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. Shop the three floors of antiques, then nosh on a grilled 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 chili cheese fries, amidst black-and-white checkerboard tile flooring, steel barstools with red vinyl seats, and Streamline Moderne stairways.
No trip to Bakersfield is complete without a visit to Dewar’s Candy Shop—the original on Eye Street (look for the pink neon ice-cream cone). This throwback ice-cream parlour can rightfully brag that its frozen confection was served at Disneyland Resort—and it’s made with the same small-batch recipe 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 taffy chews. 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 sentinel on the corner of 18th and H Streets, and is home to Bakersfield’s only four-diamond lodging. The 1928 building’s chic lodgings and public spaces offer a gussied-up tribute to Bakersfield’s past, starting with the lobby’s 15-foot-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. Colourful farm animals embellish the breakfast cafe’s ceiling. 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 eateries, like the stately steak-and-lobster Belvedere Room, the grab-and-go breakfast spot Farmacy Cafe, or the rooftop Prairie Fire lounge, with fire pits for chilly winter evenings and cool misters for hot summer nights. For another evening stop, go to the speakeasy-style Brimstone Bar and Grill—with dark teak panelling, a stamped 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 tub.
The Padre Hotel has had its fair share of intriguing history too. Ghost hunters swear the building is haunted, particularly 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).