Things to Do And See in San Luis Obispo, California
San Luis Obispo, California, lies halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Often referred to as SLO, it possesses a comfortable Mediterranean climate resulting in 315 days of sunshine annually. Maybe that is why it continually being voted as “Happy Town” USA and one of the best places to live in America. Here are the things to do and see in San Luis Obispo that my daughter, Taylor, and I enjoyed.
(this article was originally written in June 2016, and updated May 2020)
SLO: A California Gem
San Luis Obispo is a great vacation spot for families, outdoor enthusiasts, shoppers, friends, romantic getaways, culture junkies, and history buff. We loved the laid-back charm and energy of the town and didn’t want to leave. Nature lovers will be in “tall cotton” getting to know the area that is flanked by lush, rolling mountains and steep hills on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Temperatures never exceed 90 degrees, so the climate was an attractive factor for outdoor adventurers.
Nestled in the middle, the town of SLO is historic, trendy, and culturally relevant. It possessed a California ease that I had never experienced.
Where We Stayed
The Lamplighter Inn & Suites was our home while in San Luis Obispo. It had stunning views of the gorgeous Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic mountains. Comfort and convenient best described this hotel, which also included free Wi-Fi, breakfast, parking, and friendly staff.
Lamplighter Inn & Suites is within walking distance of the popular downtown area, which was a huge bonus. Our room had an in-room safe, microwave, mini-fridge, and a small balcony overlooking the pool. It was a perfect budget-conscious choice for accommodations in SLO, but if you wish to splurge for something unusual, the Madonna Inn is a great alternative.
Downtown San Luis Obispo consisted of seven blocks and five streets packed full of thriving businesses housed in historic buildings. There was such an eclectic fashion to the setting, no rhyme or reason to the stores (which I love), and a big selection of alluring restaurants. SLO offered a little of everything.
I would describe the city’s people as an older crowd of hipsters who are all very socially conscious. The locals I met said that SLO residents help each other and had a strong sense of community.
Taylor and I explored our artistic side at The Station, a wine bar that doubles as an art studio. We engaged in a class on learning how to channel our creative energies into mandalas and zentangles under instructor Sadie’s direction. The class was given a step by step guide on how to make the cool drawings while we relaxed with a complimentary glass of wine. I enjoyed learning something new.
What You Can Do in San Luis Obispo
Shopping the surf, clothing, thrift, art, and locally owned stores were great ways to experience SLO. Cool cafes, trendy restaurants, and fine dining blotted the canvas to satisfy your taste buds more.
For those choosing to enjoy the climate and outdoor opportunities, mountain biking, golf, surfing, whale watching, windsurfing, birding, hiking, and sailing were popular activities, but not the only. Favorite hiking spots included the Reservoir Canyon and the San Luis Mountain.
Bubble Gum Alley, in the center of town, is a fun touristy attraction where visitors leave their mark by placing their gum on the walls. Yes, this is a real thing.
History lovers will want to visit the San Luis Obispo Mission, the 5th of the California Spanish Missions that consisted of 21 religious outposts, circa 1769 through 1833. The missions expanded Christianity among the Native Americans. The guides (docents) narrate traveling tales and highlight the mission’s daily life and accomplishments.
The SLO Film Festival
Taylor and I attended SLO’s international film festival, and loved it! The festival was in its 22nd year and ran like a well-oiled machine.
The Fremont Theatre, an 1840 art deco movie house downtown, was the epitome for hosting the event, and other local theaters participated as well. We attended the opening night party, where we got to mix and mingle with both producers and directors.
The only film that we had time to see was “Our Little Sister” at the Pam Theatre, but the crowds (even daytime and weekday) was impressive. The SLO community very much supported the arts, and I appreciated that. Make sure to drive by the Fremont after dark to see the brilliant pastel neon lights in this restored beauty. Other features at the Fremont included a children’s theater and history museum.
Where To Eat in SLO
San Luis Obispo is a food lovers paradise. With craft beer spots, ethnic eats, local farm-to-table restaurants, upscale eateries and breweries, plus a mega-famous Thursday night farmers market, it was easy to see why. I did not have one thing in SLO that was not good enough to write home about. My favorite breakfast was at the Big Sky Cafe, a modest foodie spot. The food at this local eatery was so good that I feel sure it will make my top eats of the year post.
I tried both the Devil’s Mess and Traditional New Mexican Pozole (hey, I am a food blogger, too, do not judge), and my eyes rolled back in my head from the deliciousness. Big Sky Cafe also has choices of coffee cake, jalapeño corn muffins, or toast for your bread options. The tasteful and creative artwork on the walls is for sale, so you can also take home a souvenir.
Luna Red, located one block from the SLO Mission, features globally-inspired cuisine. They featured live music in an attractive outdoor setting. Luna Red was the perfect place for cocktails after work and unwinding, with sangria, hand-crafted cocktails, and small plate tapas. I recommend the Roasted Beets (topped with sweet, crunchy honeycomb) and the Pickled Eggs. Oh my, were they yummy!
For lunch, why not try the California sensation, The Habit, for a char burger combo under $8. If you would rather stay local, the Splash Cafe has noteworthy clam chowder in a bread bowl. They also had an artisan bakery with gorgeous pastries, cookies, and cakes.
SLO Won Us Over!
After traveling to other parts of California, I think that San Luis Obispo might be the best bang for your buck and was an affordable vacation destination. It also lies near the epic Pacific Coast Highway One drive along the rocky and drop-dead gorgeous California coast and the infamous Hearst Castle.
I am still in awe of this adorable town and how it just now came across my radar.
FYI: If you need help getting around, you can hop aboard the Old SLO Trolley for 50 cents a ride.
FYI: SLO is a college town, home to Cuesta College and Cal Poly, an engineering, architecture, and agriculture school.
Fact: SLO County (which includes San Simeon, the home of the iconic Hearst Castle) is home to a population of over 250,000 and 45,000 live in the city of San Luis Obispo.
Though San Luis Obispo sponsored our trip, all opinions and reviews are 100% our own and unbiased.
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