Home to one of the nation's fastest-growing and most acclaimed wine regions, a stretch of relatively uncrowded yet spectacular beach communities, the legendary Hearst Castle, a sunny and moderate to warm year-round climate, and the lively and welcoming college town for which it is named, San Luis Obispo County occupies a gorgeous stretch of California's legendary Central Coast and ranks among the best spots in the state for a fun, action-packed weekend getaway.
To be sure, SLO County (and plenty of locals and visitors do simply refer to it as SLO) isn't as high-profile a destination among LGBT travelers as Palm Springs or Sonoma. You won't find much in the way of gay nightlife, for example, but this is a laid-back, welcoming part of the country, and there are plenty of terrific bars, cafes, and restaurants in San Luis Obispo that draw a mix of LGBT folks, and as a romance-driven food-and-wine destination with plenty of engaging outdoorsy activities, the area has tons to offer. It's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles (about a 3- to 3.5-hour drive from either city), and the county has appealing lodgings options to fit every budget. SLO County also makes a great one- or two-night stop if you're making the famed drive along mesmerizing Highway 1, as it's right between the stunning sea cliffs of Big Sur and and the vibrant arts, culture, and wine-touring of Santa Barbara County.
Deciding where to stay? Check out the San Luis Obispo County Gay-Friendly Hotels Guide.
Not sure where to eat and drink? Have a look a the San Luis Obispo County Gay Nightlife and Dining Guide.
Right in downtown San Luis Obispo, Central Coast Gay Pride takes place in early July and has been going strong since 1996, typically featuring a top-name entertainer along with a bunch of fun parties and events in the area. But this is a great year-round destination with festivals and events (see wine-tasting, below) throughout the year, and if you have time for to visit for more than just the weekend, you might consider coming on Thursday, when downtown SLO's legendary farmers market (it feels more like a downtown food-arts festival) takes place.
San Luis Obispo County Resources
Definitely have a look at the extremely helpful website of Visit San Luis Obispo County, which has tons of useful information on local attractions, key events, and what to do throughout the region, whether you're road-tripping along the coast or experiencing the acclaimed wine and food scene a bit inland.
For more on wine-touring, the Wine Institute of California produces a terrific site with specific information on each of the state's key wine regions, including the San Luis Obispo County and Paso Robles wine countries.
With nearly 300 wineries spread throughout Paso Robles as well as the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande AVAs near the town of San Luis Obispo, this sunny swatch of coastal central California has developed into a world-class wine destination over the past three decades. Two especially enjoyable times to visit if you're a wine lover are September, which is California Wine Month, when countless special events and tastings take place, many of them related to the fall grape harvest, the four-day Paso Robles Wine Festival in mid-May, the four-day Roll Out the Barrels wine event in late June at downtown SLO's historic Mission Plaza, and the Harvest on the Coast Weekend in early November, held in beautiful Avila Beach.
Set regally on a 1,600-foot-elevation hilltop with commanding views of Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle (800-444-4445) ranks among the most curious and celebrated homes in America. The main 68,500-square-foot house, Casa Grande (it has 115 rooms!), anchors 150,000 acres of ranchland and was designed by the colorful media titan William Randolph Hearst and the acclaimed though intensely private San Francisco architect Julia Morgan (she kept mum about her personal life, but many have speculated that she was a lesbian). Construction on the castle began in 1919, but the two continued adding and augmenting the estate until 1947.
In the late 1950s, a few years after Hearst's death, his heirs donated the estate, including the several adjoining outbuildings, a tennis court, and two over-the-top breathtaking swimming pools (the outdoor Neptune Pool is pictured here) to the state of California, which now operates it as perhaps the most famous property in the state park system. A variety of tours, with prices starting at $25, are offered year-round, daily (except a certain holidays). A visit here starts by at a large visitors center a short way off Highway 1, which has extensive guest services, a cafe, exhibits, and a theater showing a film about the castle. From here, tours depart on buses for the scenic 15-minute bus trip, which climbs the winding original driveway to the estate. The guides who conduct these tours (which generally last for one to two hours) are uniformly knowledgeable and entertaining - they're well worth the admission. If it's your first time visiting, consider the Grand Rooms tour. You can also opt for more than one tour on the same day (others cover the cottages and kitchen and the upstairs suites; there are also evening tours that afford guests the chance to imagine what it would have been like to be an actual guest of Mr. Hearst's, during one of his famously enchanting soirees (which were attended by "who's who" of early-20th-century luminaries, including Winston Churchill, Howard Hughes, Joan Crawford, Errol Flynn, Bill Tilden, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck).
After or before touring the castle, head just across Highway 1 from the visitor center to Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room and Sebastian's General Store and Market (805-927-4100). Hearst Ranch Winery turns out an impressive roster of elegant wines (there's a second location in San Simeon), including a critically lauded, full-bodied Petite Sirah and picnic-perfect dry rose, and you can pick up sandwiches, sweets, and gourmet snacks in the adjoining market inside this handsomely restored 1850s general store.
If you're looking for a slightly more adventuresome take on sampling vino than you might typically find at a winery, or you just want to get out and enjoy the adrenaline rush of soaring high above a magnificent vineyard, book a ziplining tour with Margarita Adventures (805-438-3120). The ziplining course here consists of six different ziplines and includes an amazing finale, where you glide for some 1,800 feet across a vineyard of Pinot Noir grapes. If you're up for, before or after your high-flying tour over the vineyard (the guides here do a great job of explaining the wine-growing process and the ranch's history), you can walk just across the street to taste wines at Ancient Peaks Winery, which produces a variety of first-rate (especially given the reasonable prices) wines; tour guests receive a discount on wine and the tasting, and light food is served in the attractive Tasting Room Cafe and on the adjacent patio. Wine highlights include a crisp, lightly citrus-y Sauvignon Blanc, a spicy medium-body Zinfandel, and an age-worthy blend of Rhone and Bordeaux grapes named Renegade.
The outfitter and winery are located in the small town of Santa Margarita, which is in a fertile wine-growing valley between SLO and Paso Robles, adjoining historic, 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch, which is home to sustainable vineyards, a natural-beef cattle business, and some of the county's prettiest wedding venues (this would make a very special setting for an LGBT marriage ceremony and reception). Margarita Adventures also offers guided hiking and nature walks as well as kayaking tours (although kayaking has been suspended indefinitely until because of low water levels in Santa Margarita Lake).
Downtown San Luis Obispo abounds with shopping and dining options, with a very nice selection of locally owned establishments mixed in with a number of chain retailers. Many of the favorite restaurants and bars are along the main drag, Higuera Street, which is the site on Thursday evenings of the famed San Luis Obispo Farmers' Market, a scene of festivity that thousands of participants each week. You'll find not just stalls selling fresh produce but also all kinds of food vendors (barbecue is a specialty among them), and area shops and galleries stay open extra late. The gay-popular Novo Restaurant and Lounge, which overlooks Higuera but also has lovely outdoor seating in back on the creek, is a favorite stop on these evenings. Just a block off of Higuera, be sure to walk around the strikingly handsome 1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, part of the state's Spanish Colonial missions system.
Tiny Avila Beach, viewed in this photo from a dramatic bluff above the gay-friendly Sycamore Springs Resort & Spa, is one of the more scenic stretches of sand along California's central coast. The small village is just a 10- to 15-minute drive south of downtown San Luis Obispo. In Avila Beach you'll find a short stretch of restaurants overlooking the beach itself, and then just west you can continue along the sand or drive 2.5 miles to Port San Luis Pier and Harbor District. At the end of the pier, you're treated to a great view of the bay, and you can often spot sea lions and rather outgoing sea birds - there are also a couple of casual and fun seafood restaurants, Mersea's and the Olde Port Inn. Sycamore Springs Resort is a holistic-minded, alternative spa that emphasizes wellness, healing arts, and fitness - it's a lovely getaway for the body and mind, and a wonderful break if you'd like to stay someplace quiet and secluded yet still near SLO's dining, retail, and winemaking.
About 12 miles down the coast is the largest coastal community in the county, Pismo Beach, which has a laid-back surfer and beachcomber vibe, a slew of motels near the beach, and some fun bars - often there's an event in Pismo during San Luis Obispo Gay Pride in July.
Head north up the coast from Avila Beach, and you'll reach the upper half of coastal SLO County, comprising the towns of Morro Bay (famous for Morro Rock and a wealth of great seafood restaurants), Cayucos (if you have a sweet-tooth, do not go through this town without stopping at Brown Butter Cookie Company), and Cambria. The latter has a number of reasonably priced hotels and motels overlooking the beach and marks the start of one of the most dramatic stretches of Highway 1, which follows the shoreline north from here, passing Hearst Castle, and continuing up toward Big Sur in Monterey County