Located along a perennial sunny stretch of California's Central Coast, in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains and around a three-hour drive from both Los Angeles and San Francisco (and an easy day-trip to Santa Barbara or Big Sur), the greater city of San Luis Obispo (or “SLO,” for short) has a lot going for it. It's home to California Polytechnic State University (“Cal Poly”), stunning beaches, dozens of wineries, and seemingly endless views. With its laid-back vibe and unique cultural offerings, SLO is easily one of Central California's most alluring destinations. Here are 12 ways to make the most of your visit.
California's 21 historic missions (religious outposts founded by Spanish priests to catholicize Native Americans) make up the state's historic Mission Trail, a 600-mile route from San Diego to Sonoma that loosely follows Highway 101 along what's known as “El Camino Real.” San Luis Obispo is home to San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth oldest of these missions and one of the most attractive, with its towering mission walls, porticoed arcades, and vineyard. Father Junipero Serra—responsible for many California missions, including Mission Dolores, established this Spanish-style adobe in 1772. Today San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is located right in the center of SLO and is open to the public daily as an operating parish with its own gift shop and a museum highlighting early California history. Along with its impressive appearance, the mission provides a real sense of what the central coast was like before California entered statehood.
Go Explore Dunes
No, you haven't been suddenly transported to the Sahara desert. Dunes exist all along the Pacific Coast, but at 22,000 acres, San Luis Obispo's Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are the most extensive remaining dune system south of San Francisco. They also have a history as intriguing as the dunes themselves. In the early 20th century, the dunes were the site of a massive oil leak, as well as home to the “Dunites,” a colony of artists, writers, nudists, and other fringe-dwellers who set out to create a "secret utopia." Nearly a century later, they're still a burial site for the “Lost City of Demille,” the many set items from Hollywood Director Cecil B. Demille's "The Ten Commandments" that were dismantled and left here after filming for his epic 1923 drama commenced.
More importantly, however, the dunes remain a National Natural Landmark with several distinct regions ripe with recreational opportunities. There are the State Beach campgrounds, a seasonally accessible wildlife refuge filled with rare floral-like surf thistle and yellow-flowering giant coreopsis and home to such animals as the California red-legged frog and the California least tern, and the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area (SVRA), is a playground for quads, dirt-bikes, and four-wheel-drive vehicles. If off-roading isn't your thing, Pacific Dunes Riding Ranch offers guided horseback rides through the area, and private naturalists-led group hikes are another popular option.
Central California's stunning and serene coastline is an obvious muse for painters, photographers, and sculptures, whose work is on display at downtown San Luis Obispo's San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, a compact museum of regional art and artists, including Morro Bay's Dorothy Cutter and 20th-century painter Helen Hunt Reid. The free museum hosts docent-led tours, ARTalks, and workshops for both adults and kids, and even offers the chance to purchase exhibit “souvenirs.”
Surf's the word in greater SLO, which is home to the renowned Pismo Beach—a well-known surf spot with some of the most consistent breaks around. Sandbar Surf School offers lessons in the area, but if you'd rather watch from the sand, you've got 17 miles of coastline to choose from. Pismo boasts a 1,200-feet-long ocean pier for strolling and fishing (no license is required), along with the bluff-top Dinosaur Caves Park—an 11-acre park overlooking the ocean. From late October through February, the town's eucalyptus trees are also home to winter monarch butterflies—typically more than 25,000 of them, though their numbers have dropped over reason seasons.
Another way to enjoy the waters around Pismo is with Central Coast Kayaks, which offers guided tours highlighting everything from local caves to sea creatures.
It's kitschy, creative, and a bonafide landmark. SLO's Madonna Inn has been delighting guests since the completion of its first 12 rooms in 1958. Today, this whimsical space boasts 110 uniquely themed guestrooms and suites, each with their own custom-designed furnishings. There's the Bridal Falls room, with its bright green walls and the inn's signature waterfall shower, and the Traveler's Suite housing an elaborate stone fireplace and two facing king beds. The inn sits on more than 1,000 acres and features an onsite bakery, gift shop, steak house (complete with a hand-carved balustrade from Hearst Castle), and cafe. There's both a spa and an in-ground pool for relaxing, and big band entertainment every night of the week. Take one of the inn's pink bicycles out for a ride, embark on an hour-long horseback trail ride, or opt for a game of bocce ball or crochet. Of course, the inn's hot pink tennis courts are another option for completing your over-the-top experience.
Home to rolling vine-covered hills and temperate Mediterranean temperatures year-round, San Luis Obispo produces more than 40 grape varieties, including riesling, chardonnay, and zinfandel. Together, the region's two American American Viticultural Areas, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande, are home to 100+ tasting rooms. Bring along a picnic, head out on a bicycle tour, or embark on a curated trail of wineries, each with its own innovative offerings and twists—like Malene Wines' mobile tasting room, operated out of a '69 Airstream trailer. You'll find wine-related events whatever season you visit, including the SLO Coast Wine Collective's Harvest on the Coast Weekend, with artisan foods, live bands, and ample vino tastings held annually in autumn.
Contribute to a Wall of Gum
Downtown SLO is home to one of the area's most unique tourist hotspots: Bubblegum Alley, a narrow alleyway lined on either side by 15-foot-tall, 70-foot-long walls, each of them covered in dried globs of chewed gum. Sure, it's gross, but it's also strangely fascinating—a multicolored world of gum-written names, notes, and images, such as hearts, flowers, and murals. Rumor is that the wall got its start in the 1940s or '50s by San Luis Obispo High School students. It may not be the most sanitary local attraction, but it's photo-worthy for sure.
For nearly three decades, people have been flocking to downtown SLO's Higuera Street on Thursday evenings to peruse fresh produce, sample sticks of honey and cubes of cheese, and listen to live music while enjoying the scents and sights of the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market. Shop for bananas, strawberries, avocados, and peaches, savor pork sandwiches and corn on the cob, and experience the bounty of California's Central Coast. It's a chance to mingle with 100-plus farmers and food purveyors from throughout the region along a nearly six-block stretch. Another downtown market takes place Saturday mornings.
It's known as Cal Poly's “architecture graveyard,” though locals also refer to it as Poly Canyon—a nine-acre site filled with 15-20 student-made design projects that have been built on-site since 1964. This open-air test site features everything from a geodesic dome to an underground home, a “Design Village” that was also once home to student caretakers who watched over the property up until about 2008. Some of these large-scale installations have been vandalized in the years since, but they're still really impressive to see. Some students added an observation deck to the site in June 2019—the graveyard's first "new life" in 15 years.
Soothe sore muscles at SLO's Avila Beach Resort at Sycamore Springs, a therapeutic hot spring and lodging that's been welcoming guests since the late 19th century. Occupying 100 wooded acres, the property is home to a soaking waterfall and lagoon, 23 open-air hillside hot tubs, and private balcony or patio hot tubs in the resort's many rooms and suites. The resort's onsite spa offers massages, scrubs, and facials, while 'healing arts' classes such as yoga and tai chi are open to free for guests and to the public for $15 a pop. Nearby you'll find Avila Hot Springs, a funkier setting with rustic tent camping, RV parking, and cabin rentals, as well as a 104-degree mineral pool and a heated swimming pool with two tube slides. Go for a dip, book a massage, or rent a beach cruiser and take in the area's spectacular ocean views. Palm trees provide shade when the Central Coast sun makes its oh-so-often appearance.
See a Show
When it comes to entertainment, San Luis Obispo has no shortage of options. At the historic Fremont Theater—an Art Deco-style movie theater that opened in 1942 (on the night before the U.S. entered World War)—you can catch legendary films like Easy Rider in addition to live acts ranging from former Monkee Michael Nesmith to old-school rock band Blue Oyster Cult. The annual March San Luis Obispo International Film Festival also screens at this beloved venue, where beer and wine are sold right alongside pizza and popcorn. For something a little more romantic, head over to the Sunset Drive-In to catch a new release movie without ever leaving your Prius. It's a family-friendly place that gets cold in the evening, so don't forget a blanket or two—and a lawn chair, if you'd rather watch the feature from outdoors.
Residents along the Central California Coast are no strangers to fitness, so get in shape with the best of them with a climb up to Bishop Peak, a 1,546-feet-tall volcanic summit that formed more than 20 million years ago and today offers a great workout, not to mention stellar panoramic views. The out-and-back trek is approximately 3.5 miles round-trip and varies between grassy slopes and mixed forest before opening to reveal the other neighboring 'Nine Sisters' peaks, and the city of San Luis Obispo laid out before you. Dogs are allowed on the trail as well, so bring along your pooch if you like. The peak doubles as a popular spot for climbers and boulderers, too.