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Central Valley Foodie Road Trip

From the Basque restaurants of Bakersfield to historic Galt, drive California's heartland in search of upscale eats and classic comfort foods.

1 - 3Days,12Stops,292Miles
Tom Fowlks
Kjohansen/Getty Images
Marianna Massey/Getty Images
JT Baskin Photo/Getty Images
Halfdark/Getty Images
Halfdark/Getty Images
Courtesy of Hilmar Cheese Company
Mitch Diamond/Getty Images
Leslie-Ann Smith/Getty Images
ZUMA Press/Alamy
Traveler1116/Getty Images
Courtesy of Larry Hoyt/StreetZlan
Stop 1


1600 Truxtun Ave, Bakersfield

Bakersfield is full of surprises. Once known for oil and agriculture, this Central Valley town is morphing into an arts, culture, and sports hub, while still offering a glimpse of the past. Visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 45 miles north. This early 1900s settlement—an attempt by a group of African Americans to create a utopian society far from negative influences from the outside world—offers a remarkable look at an unusual event in California history.

Bakersfield’s newer attractions include the gallery-filled Arts District, where the 1930 Fox Theater showcases everything from pop music to ballet. Don’t miss Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, home to the region’s signature Bakersfield Sound, a twangy type of country music. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants is a reminder of the region’s rich Basque history (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees settled sheep ranches here in the late 1800s). In spring, wildflowers blanket the nearby Tehachapi Range.

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Stop 2

Downtown Visalia

220 N Santa Fe St, Visalia

Just a short side trip off Highway 99, Visalia’s historic and walkable downtown gives travelers all sorts of appealing alternatives to standard fast food fare. The Vintage Press has been a local favorite for more than 50 years. It’s an elegant spot for dinner and also a sure lunch bet, thanks to a delicious Armenian lamb shish kebab sandwich. Valhalla Restaurant & Gift Shop brings the tastes of Denmark to town by serving up traditional breakfast favorites like aebelskiversand crepe-style Danish pancakes, as well as open-faced frikadeller(Danish meatball) sandwiches at lunch. And if you’re in the mood for something with more spice, try the chile verde burrito or carnitas at Colima Mexican & Seafood Restaurant.

Plan your visit


The Vintage Press

216 N Willis St, Visalia

Take a short side-trip to Visalia’s historic downtown and The Vintage Press. A local favorite for more than 50 years, it’s an elegant spot for dinner and a sure lunch bet, thanks to a delicious Armenian lamb shish kebab sandwich.

Stop 4


2600 Fresno St, Fresno

Fresno makes for a surprisingly lively getaway. Seven stadiums and a pair of arenas satisfy sporty types, and an annual Woodward Shakespeare Festival in lush Woodward Park reveals Fresno’s cultural bent.

But agriculture is king here. Check out bountiful Vineyard Farmers’ Market, Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. In early spring, drive or bike along the 62-mile Blossom Trail, when the route lined with fruit and nut trees is in full bloom. In summer, it morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, and fruit stands overflow with seasonal produce.

Back in town, explore subterranean Forestiere Underground Gardens, hand-dug by an Italian immigrant who saw going underground was a great way to keep cool and comfortable during Central Valley summers. Kids love Chaffee Zoo, especially the frolicking pinnipeds in Sea Lion Cove. Monthly Art Hops are a great way to explore the Mural District, a hotbed of artists’ studios and galleries. After dark, restaurants and clubs light up the neon-bright Tower District.

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Stop 5


678 W 18th St, Merced

While the Central Valley is best known for its fruits and vegetables, man does not live by produce alone. If you’re hankering for beef, Merced has a pair of meat-centric choices to consider. With its vintage neon sign proclaiming “Charcoal Broiled Steaks,” there’s little mystery about the specialty at The Branding Iron. Around since 1952, this local institution is famous for prime rib and a coffee-rubbed ribeye. Or try the double French burger (actually made with four patties!) and a root beer float (delivered by a car hop, no less) at the vintage H & W Family Drive-In.

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H&W Family Drive-In

121 W 16th St, Merced

Detour into the past for a double French burger (made with four patties!) and a root beer float (delivered by a carhop, no less) at Merced’s H&W Family Drive-In.

Stop 7

Hilmar Cheese Company

9001 Lander Ave, Hilmar

In the town of Hilmar you can visit and tour Hilmar Cheese Company, a perfect stop for Yosemite National Park–bound travelers and anyone driving along State Highway 99. The impressive visitor center features a gourmet gift shop while the café takes full advantage of Hilmar’s pepper jack and cheddar via grilled sandwiches and a cheese chowder. Depending on the production schedule, you may get to see workers packing massive 640-pound chunks of cheese for shipping. And at the end of the tour, there are free tastings of Hilmar cheeses, including a delicacy available only at the factory: fresh curds known as cheese squeakers.

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Stop 8


1010 10th St, Modesto

Modesto was the town that inspired the classic film American Graffiti and still has casual spots well-suited to its cruising tradition and eating on the go. At breakfast, check out Mr. T’s Delicate Donut Shop, which officially made it to the A Team after earning honors as one of America’s top 15 donut destinations. Its bacon maple bars are utterly irresistible—and best of all Mr. T’s is open 24/7. Or you can relive the glory days of drive-in dining at Modesto’s A&W Restaurant, which has been around since 1957.

Stop 10


125 Bridge Place, Stockton

Surrounded by bounteous farmland, Stockton is all about fresh, local foods. Its most famous crop is asparagus and in April you can watch cooking demonstrations and even taste asparagus ice cream (really!) at the San Joaquin Asparagus Festival. On Saturday mornings, browse the Downtown Farmers' Market where more than 80 vendors peddle an array of Chinese, Indian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Korean groceries—plus mountains of vegetables. Stop at The Fruit Bowl on Waterloo Road for a bucket of peaches, nectarines, or apricots. Then sit down for a slice of this farm stand’s fresh peach pie. And speaking of baked goods, the Genova Bakery, an Italian deli that has been filling the air with the aroma of traditional breads for a century, draws long lunch lines to its landmark yellow wood-framed building.

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Stop 11


221 W Pine St, Lodi

Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, Lodi, 83 miles east of San Francisco is also a leader when it comes to going green. Upwards of 25,000 vineyard acres are certified sustainable, and this is the birthplace of Lodi Rules, California’s first third-party certified sustainable winegrowing program. A variety of tasting rooms have sprouted up in recent years, with most of the action located within a 15-minute drive from downtown. A great place to start is the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, offering a rotating selection of varietals from nearly 80 local vintners.

Though the range of wines has grown, the rich, concentrated New World varietals are still the region’s hallmark, and more than 40 percent of the state’s Zinfandels are produced here. Lodi Row x Row (formerly Zinfest), an annual three-day tasting party each May, offers a chance to sample some 250 wines from Lodi’s best producers.

Stop 12


380 Civic Dr, Galt

Pull into Galt’s historic downtown and you’ll be surprised to discover a diverse selection of restaurants. In a beautifully restored 19th-century building, Brewster’s Bar & Grill cooks up contemporary comfort foods—and mixes a mean craft cocktail too. Over at Pastosa by Lucia, such favorites as the house-made gnocchi have brought authentic Italian cuisine to town. And the eclectic street foods at StreetZlan range from chicken-and-waffles to 12-hour smoked brisket tacos—or treat yourself to the chilaka peppers stuffed with Oaxacan cheese.

Plan your visit


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Road Trip Snapshot

Learn more about the amazing locations featured in this road trip. Ready to plan your trip? Print the itinerary or map your adventure to get started.

Stop 1Bakersfield
1600 Truxtun Ave, Bakersfield
Stop 2Downtown Visalia
220 N Santa Fe St, Visalia
Stop 4Fresno
2600 Fresno St, Fresno
Stop 5Merced
678 W 18th St, Merced
SPOTLIGHTH&W Family Drive-In
121 W 16th St, Merced
    Stop 7Hilmar Cheese Company
    9001 Lander Ave, Hilmar
    Stop 8Modesto
    1010 10th St, Modesto
    Stop 10Stockton
    125 Bridge Place, Stockton
    Stop 11Lodi
    221 W Pine St, Lodi
    Stop 12Galt
    380 Civic Dr, Galt
    • Galthttp://www.ci.galt.ca.us/

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