On a massive stretch of coastline halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles lies San Luis Obispo, California. With the Pacific to the west and the fertile San Joaquin Valley to the easy, this Mediterranean county makes for one of the greatest getaways in the country.
Much like the rest of Cali, SLO (as the locals call it) is rich with the West Coast lifestyle. Surf culture is abundant, as are the fine cuisines coastal California is known for. If you’re planning a trip to this beautiful locale, then here’s everything you need to know.
From Humble Beginnings to Modern Day
Originally inhabited by the Chumash Native American Tribe, this town got its start from explorers venturing out from a Spanish Mission in San Diego. They found abundant supplies of food and water in the area, perfect for a new settlement, not to mention a milder climate. After the Mexican War for Independence was over, the area was able to be settled.
Land grants called ranchos were divided up, and a town began to form in San Luis Obispo. That small town has remained the center of the county into today’s modern times. Back then, it was mostly a farming community with the heart of the wild west.
During the Gold Rush, the town saw an influx of its population and a shift towards an economy based on mining. As time went on, things began to modernize, and the town became a popular stop for travelers heading up and down the coast. Slowly, its hotspot status allowed it to develop into one of California’s “coolest” counties.
Where to Go and What to Do
There are plenty of things to do in San Luis Obispo. In fact, there’s enough to make your head spin. Here are some of the major spots you’ll want to stop at during your visit. Get your itinerary list ready.
A Drive and a Hike
Head out onto Chorro Street to catch a glimpse of the city’s mission, circa 1772, and through the Spanish-style neighborhood on your way to Foothill Boulevard. You’ll pass artichoke fields, cow pastures, and see the rocky peaks overlooking the area. From here, you have a few options.
You could choose to stop at Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve to walk amongst the sage scrub and centuries-old oak trees covered in Spanish moss, or you could head to the pygmy forest. Elfin Forest Natural Area is a preserve that takes you on a wooden walkway through dunes featuring succulents and rare horned lizards.
Alternatively, you could also head over to Montana de Oro State Park to explore its 8,000 acres. Here, you’ll find remote beaches, wildflower meadows, canyons and the ever-popular Valencia Park.
Seafood and Drinks
Morro Bay’s Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant serves up delicious oysters caught fresh from the bay, which they barbecue and slather in garlic butter. From here, you can sit on the deck and catch a glimpse of sea lions playing in front of Morro Rock.
When it comes to drinks, there are two options that stand out amongst the rest. Firestone Walker is by far the area’s most popular brewery, but give BarrelHouse Brewing Company and a try instead (or visit both!). There’s ample seating, and dozens of craft beers to choose from including a seasonal blonde ale infused with honey.
They also have the BarrelHouse SLO, which is a speakeasy-style basement taproom in one of the city’s oldest buildings. It’s quite the experience, and worth a mention on this list.
When it comes to San Luis Obispo restaurants, none can compare to Paso Robles. Featuring organic ingredients and a wine list from local vineyards, you can rest assured your dinner will be nothing short of amazing.
Pick another night and head to Arroyo Grande, as well. It’s 45 minutes south, but well worth the drive. You’ll find a wood-fired oven that serves up mouthwatering pizzas and a selection of exquisite dishes created from the Mediterranean culture. Their avocado and Meyer lemon hollandaise sauce is out of this world.
A Night on the Town
Start your night out right with a movie at the Sunset Drive-In. Dating back to the 1950’s, this theater still plays box office hits beneath the stars. To continue the fun of arts and cinema, visit the Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Hills. Here, you’ll find all sorts of interesting acts and may even catch a celebrity musician.
For dessert and cocktails, head over to the historic Madonna Inn where you can sit down at the retro Silver Bar and sip something special. Their selection is impressive, featuring classics like the Old Fashioned and creations all their own.
You could also try Whiskey & June in Atascadero. With a more dive-like feel and a vast selection of whiskeys to choose from, it’s an instant hit for most tourists. If the term “dive” turns your nose, then it might change your mind to hear this location is owned by Daniel Green, the same man who worked at the three Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park.
Fun in the Sun
If hitting the water on a kayak sounds like your cup of tea, then head over to Pismo Beach where you’ll find Central Coast Kayaks. San Luis Obispo weather is always accommodating; you’ll be able to traverse over kelp forests as well as though the stone arches at Dinosaur Caves Park.
For an out of this world Mexican meal, stop in at Arroyo Grande. They feature traditional dishes served with class and style. Give the Azteca a try, a dried red chile relleno with salsa, queso fresco, onion, and cilantro. Alternatively, you could try their tortas. These sandwiches made for two are guaranteed to hit the spot.
California is home to wine country, so it only makes sense that you can pick up some decadent bottles here as well. There are over 100 wineries in the county, so take your pick. For a historically classy experience, try J Dusi. They’re one of the valley’s oldest winemaking families, offering timeless tastes.
You can also find a variety of top-class Nappa Valley wines at a local liquor store, which is excellent if you want to keep things on a budget but still enjoy renowned Californian wine.
No matter where you go, you have to visit Bubblegum Alley San Luis Obispo. This is where tourists can leave their mark in the city. This 15-foot walled alley is covered in used bubblegum on every square inch. Spit yours out and leave it to the rest, so a piece of you will always remain here on the West Coast.
Sure, it’s a little gross. However, it has become an honored tradition for travelers to take part in. While the city has made efforts in the past to clean up the alley, the stubborn gum has proven that it is here to stay.
A Taste of Art
SLO is home to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. This contemporary focused museum is located in the heart of an artist community in Harmony. You can enjoy glassblowing demonstrations, find handmade pottery, or even enjoy a little fair-trade coffee while in town. The museum itself is filled with wonderful pieces from famous and local artists alike.
Head over to Paso Robles for a shopping extravaganza featuring everything from major brand name to the eclectic. You’ll find housewares, local crafts, and clothes aplenty. There’s also an old 1940’s era showroom turned artist studio that features Studios on the Park. This open party allows anyone to take part on every Saturday of the month.
San Luis Obispo: Fun Facts
Every destination has a set of interesting facts surrounding it, and SLO is no different. Check out these little tidbits of information.
- The town is home to William Randolph Hearst’s bizarre yet magnificent castle.
- It is also home to Ales Madonna’s unique Madonna Inn.
- The first floor of the Palm Street Parking Garage holds historical pieces from a now non-existent Chinatown that popped up during the mid-1800s.
- San Luis Obispo, California, is home to the Carnegie Library, built by Andrew Carnegie with a grant of $10,000. Today, it stands as the county’s historical museum.
- The Chamber of Commerce is the oldest voluntary organization in the county.
- The city derives its name from St. Louis, a 13th-century prince who gave up his throne in Naples to become a friar.
- The original mission was started by a single priest with supplies from Spain.
Where to Stay
San Luis Obispo, California, is incredibly affordable to stay in. Keep things simple with the Granada Hotel & Bistro on Morro Street. For under $200 a night, you can stay right in the middle of all the action. No matter which direction you turn to, there’s something new and exciting to do. Plus, they have fireplaces in deluxe rooms.
The Granada’s brickhouse charm is inviting, but they also have their delightful bistro with culinary masterpieces; not to mention the incredible wine selection. Rooms feature expansive windows for natural lighting, Persian rugs, and LCD flat screens.