There’s so much to love about a place nicknamed Happy Town, U.S.A. That city would be San Luis Obispo, known for not only its captivating scenery but also for its laid-back lifestyle and happy residents. This lifestyle is reflected by a pay-it-forward attitude, feel-good social interaction, and an overall sense of acceptance.
Located along California’s epic Highway 1, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo sits between rolling hills and the coast. Called SLO (in part because the city’s motto is “Life’s too beautiful to rush”) -- or San Luis -- by locals, the city is filled with charming shops and farm-to-table restaurants serving California cuisine with a famous wine region just south of town.
Things To Do In San Luis Obispo
With year-round sunshine, nearby beaches and wineries, an abundance of hiking opportunities, plus a vibrant downtown filled with historical and cultural attractions, SLO may just have it all. The city is pedestrian and bike friendly with bike lanes and bike racks downtown making it easy to get around by foot or pedal.
Travel Back In Time Circa 1772 With A Tour Of The Fifth California Mission Founded By Father Junipero Serra
Located in the heart of downtown SLO, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France. Tour the mission, visit the museum, then explore the gardens, grown and evolved over centuries.
Visit The Funky Bubblegum Alley
Noted on several lists of the weirdest stops in California, Bubblegum Alley features thousands of pieces of chewed bubblegum placed on 70-foot alley walls. It’s the city’s most popular -- yet unofficial -- landmark. Thousands of people visit each year to leave their gum along the walls, which are an estimated two million pieces strong. Bring gum to add your own to the masterpiece.
Hike To Bishop Peak
San Luis Obispo’s Bishop Peak, the tallest of the Nine Sisters, is a popular trail. It takes some endurance to hike the 3.5 miles round trip from the trailhead at Highland Drive, especially considering the elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. For a shorter route, take the Felsman Loop Trail instead. The panoramic views at the top are reward for the exercise. Climbing enthusiasts seek out the massive boulders at the top of Bishop Peak, and you may enjoy watching the climbers while there.
Enjoy A Night At The Drive-In
Sunset Drive-In is one of the few drive-in theaters left in California. Enjoy two newly released shows nightly, and be sure to grab a hotdog from the old-school concession stand.
Kayak Morro Bay
Head to Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, or Avila Beach for sea kayaking. The serene waters of Morro Bay Estuary are an ideal setting to spend a day on the water and view the ecosystems in this intersection of fresh and salt water. The bay water is protected from the open ocean by a scenic four-mile-long sandpit. Between the protected waters and the moderate temperatures, it makes for an ideal location for beginners or families to kayak. For a guided tour, take the Morro Bay Kayak Tour with Central Coast Outdoors and watch for birds, harbor seals, sea lions, and sea otters.
Bike The SLO Wine Region
Rent a bicycle and spend the day visiting vineyards. Grab a picnic lunch before heading out to wine country. There are more than 30 boutique wineries in San Luis Obispo’s wine region, all within a short biking distance from each other and from downtown.
Best Restaurants In San Luis Obispo
Grab A Bite At The Farmers Market
For 30 years, every Thursday evening, visitors have meandered the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market -- the second largest farmers market in the Western U.S. It started when downtown businesses began staying open past 5 p.m. on Thursday evenings to allow residents the opportunity to shop after work. In 1983, farmers were invited to sell their produce, marking the official beginning of the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market. The city closes six blocks to host a weekly street party with farm-fresh produce, smoky barbecue, entertainment, flowers, and more. The Thursday market is open from 6 to 9 p.m. weekly. Before you visit, check out what’s in season to make shopping easier.
Enjoy more farm-fresh produce at Novo. There, global cuisine and craft beverages are served outdoors with a view on their Creekside patio, in the intimate bar and lounge, or in the downstairs cellar. Stop for brunch if you’re visiting on a Sunday. Try the lobster benedict with langostino lobster, poached eggs, fresh hollandaise, arugula, and tomatoes atop an English muffin served with roasted potatoes. Or indulge in the French toast: a brioche bread with sauteed bananas, pecans, and a rum caramel sauce.
For lunch, visit La Esquina Taqueria to find classic Mexican dishes served with a twist. The fine-dining Mexican restaurant features classic dishes with flair. They specialize in infused tequilas, so be sure to try the house margarita. People appreciate the modern, understated Latinate look and open, airy feel of the space and recommend the mescal pineapple margaritas and chorizo and clams bowl, which is spicy and filling.
A husband-and-wife team brought Italy’s modern aesthetic and obsession with quality to the Central Coast when they opened Flour House. The pasta is house-made, and all the dishes have a focus on the light, fresh, and flavorful. You can’t go wrong, whether you order one of the pizzas, such as a classic red Margherita, or one of the house-made pasta dishes, such as the Bigoli -- long, thick pasta infused with parmigiana Reggiano, nduja pistachio pesto, and fresh clams. Try to save room for dessert; the Deconstructed Tiramisu is worth it, with a Belgian dark chocolate vase, espresso-soaked ladyfingers, mascarpone cream, Borghetti foam, an espresso and salty chocolate crumble, and microgreens.
Finish with a nightcap at Nightcap. You’ll find an intimate cocktail lounge serving sipping spirits and crafted cocktails. The lounge is located inside Granada Hotel, a historic 17-room boutique hotel. The lounge’s reflective ceiling, leather menus, candle lighting, curtained booths, and gorgeous marble countertops give it its energetic vibe. Martini Hour runs Tuesday through Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m.
Best Places To Shop In San Luis Obispo
Downtown SOL is an ideal destination for people watching and finding unique shopping treasures.
You’ll find a fun and friendly shopping experience at Ambiance. The clothing, shoes, jewelry, and accessories are carefully curated. You’ll also find bath and body products, home decor, and books at this unique shop.
For handmade jewelry, natural apothecary items, teas, home goods, and one-of-a-kind gifts, visit Len Collective. Designer Shannon Len collects unique artisan goods from across the globe. Her respect for the earth is evident in her selection of offerings.
To find a local store selling fair trade products and an eclectic selection, stop by HumanKind Fair Trade. The non-profit organization’s mission is to provide fair wages and sustainable employment for skilled artisans around the world. They work with artisan groups from about 40 different countries providing handcrafted apparel, accessories, home goods, and gifts. All items in the shop were made by an artisan who is able to provide for his or her family.
Best Places To Stay In San Luis Obispo
For an overnight visit, stay at the newly opened Hotel Cerro. Located on Garden Street in the heart of San Luis Obispo, the rooms have views of downtown, the surrounding mountains, and the hotel’s edible gardens. Enjoy the full-service spa, gym, a rooftop pool and bar, and the Brasserie restaurant.
If a modern, urban aesthetic mixed with comfort and sophistication is more your style, stay at one of the SLO Brew Lofts. Each loft has five suites, each with a unique setting and aesthetic including exposed brick walls, reclaimed hardwood floors, hand-woven rugs, and Moroccan tile. View the downtown area and a creek while walking distance from the entertainment, shopping, and restaurants.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the off-the-beaten-trail boutique wineries between San Luis and Santa Barbara, which is one of seven Pacific Coast stops to make while riding the Coast Starlight (as is SLO).