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A Detailed Guide To San Luis Obispo, California: What To Do In SLO
About halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco lies an idyllic little pocket of the Central California coast that kind of flies under the radar (except with California natives). The San Luis Obispo area is known for scenic beach views, hiking and surfing, sweeping coastal drives, cute towns, awesome food, and some of the best vineyards in California.
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I think part of why it hasn’t gotten quite the same attention is that, until recently, flying directly in was difficult and expensive, so people coming for coastal views and wineries stuck closer to San Francisco (what with Sonoma, Napa, and Big Sur in easy reach).
What that means is that SLO (as locals call it) still has a somewhat rustic, almost bucolic, feel…it feels first and foremost like a farm community, rather than a tourist destination. You can have a fun, chill, and authentic experience here without having to elbow people aside. So let’s talk about what to do in San Luis Obispo!
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Getting to know the San Luis Obispo area
When I refer to San Luis Obispo, I’m technically talking about a larger area (often referred to as SLO County by locals) that encompasses everything from Paso Robles wine country up north, all way the down to south Arroyo Grande. Here’s a general breakup of the area, for reference.
- You have “north county” (Morro Bay & up, including Paso Robles wine country)
- San Luis Obispo, or SLO, is its own thing
- Avila (a tiny beach town)
- What’s referred to as “south county” (also called “five cities”, including Arroyo Grande, Grover, Pismo, etc)
- Edna (or Edna Valley) is wine country
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Where to stay
Consider whether you want to be in SLO proper, down in one of the beach towns, or up high for the views. One note is that I would strongly recommend a car for this type of trip, to really experience all the great things to do in SLO.
Here are some charming hotels that locals recommend:
- Granada Hotel & Bistro (in SLO)
- Avila Beach Resort Sycamore Springs
- Avila La Fonda
- Hotel Cerro (downtown SLO)
- Hotel SLO (in SLO, and where Ox & Anchor is)
- Cliffs Hotel & Spa (Pismo Beach; probably on the lower end “fancy” wise, but great views)
- Or go super kitsch and stay at The Madonna Inn
If you find a good one as well, consider an apartment or condo rental with a great view. We were staying in Avila up on the hill, and loved watching the sunrises and sunsets, with our own little firepit (this was their home, not a rental, but the area does have rentals).
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Things to do in San Luis Obispo
I was visiting a SLO area native, which definitely made it a richer experience. She not only lives there now, but grew up in the area so knows it inside and out. So while I came with a “short list” of things to do in SLO, I really leaned on her expertise (which you’ll find reflected in this post, so YOU get to benefit as well!).
Walk around SLO
The main downtown area is super cute, with lots of local shops and restuarants. I’m not much of a shopper myself, but we had fun popping into a few boutiques, having lunch at Seeds, and trying out a few different coffee shops.
You might even swing by the historic Fremont Theater, a beautiful building from the 1940s, and consider seeing a show. Or, if you’re a foodie, try out a walking food tour…something that was on my list but I didn’t have time for (this downtown and this uptown food tour get great reviews).
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There aren’t a ton of “must-see” things to do in SLO, but one spot you definitely need to swing by is the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. It is considered one of the most beautiful missions in California, built in 1772.
It’s actually still an active church in the community (has been since its original construction), and you’re welcome to go inside or enjoy the pretty courtyards and gardens around the mission. Each hour, the bells on the bell tower ring, and there’s a fun little sign about each of the bells.
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On the flip side, many people will put Bubblegum Alley on their list of things to do in San Luis Obispo, and I just have to say…WHY??? The first pic below is from the mid-2000s, and I guess it was okay (if you don’t think too hard about the fact that all of that was in people’s mouths).
But then when we visited this time, there had been a lot of rain lately and the alley was definitely in need of a power wash. Blech. To me, Bubblegum Alley is skippable.
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SLO is a charming place to just walk around and kill some time in, whether having a sangria on the patio of Luna Red, browsing records at the very cool Boo Boo Records (a local institution), or picking out a dried flower arrangement at Idlewild Floral.
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If you’re looking for good coffee in SLO, then a stop at Scout Coffee Co needs to be high on your list. Their two locations have delicious coffee and treats, and some interesting seasonal drinks.
I found the inside of Scout super charming, and was intrigued enough to order my latte with their sunshine syrup (tangerine and cinnamon). And BOY was it good!
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Explore the SLO Farmer’s Market
If you can time it right, one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo is to visit the downtown SLO Farmer’s Market. Held every Thursday at 6pm, it is such a good time, and a great way to have a real SLO locals experience.
You can browse local craft booths while local musicians busk…I got an adorable pair of earrings, and was charmed by the mystery book booth in the third pic below. There are tons of fresh local fruits and vegetables to buy, as well as meat and fish.
There’s an entire giant stand dedicated to nut butters. I sampled a few and couldn’t resist a jar of DELICIOUS cinnamon toffee almond butter (which was confiscated a couple days later by the TSA). And there are tons of food stands from local restaurants so you can have whatever kind of dinner you prefer.
Sample as many wines as you can
The San Luis Obispo area doesn’t get the wine region hype that Napa or Sonoma does, but it should—and that means you can have an amazing wine country experience that feels more intimate and authentic, and is far less expensive.
The area is packed with tiny microclimates, making for a wide variety of vineyards and wine styles. There are over 30 vineyards just in the Edna Valley and San Luis Obispo coast micro-region, within 5 miles of the coast, and if you count the nearby Paso Robles area that number is 200+.
Edna Valley is the coolest AVA (American Viticultural Area) in California, and is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in particular, though they’re playing around with other grapes. I found a couple delightful Albarinos (Chardonnay isn’t my personal fave). Paso Robles expands that into Zinfandels and French varietals such as Bordeaux.
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We stopped by Baileyana on my first afternoon in town, with the intention of visiting a couple others afterward. And then we ended up there for like 3 hours, trying every wine they had open!
A friend of my friend’s was working the tasting room that day, and we had a blast chatting with him and really diving into their different wines…despite my best intentions, I checked a half case on my flight home.
The winery has a number of separate labels, including Baileyana, Tangent, and True Myth. We tried their sparkling Brut rosé, Albarino, rosé, Gruner Veltliner, and a Sauvignon Blanc patterned off a Sancerre.
Then we switched over to reds, starting with their Halcon Rojo Pinot Noir (super light & silky & drinkable), La Entrada (in volcanic soil), and Architect’s Pinot (a staff fave, kind of the most true Pinot we tasted). Next came the True Myth Mosaico red blend (very interesting, would be great with fatty meat…spicy & smoky). S-BAR Syrah (amazing, like a fruity punch in the face).
And then I couldn’t resist the Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which was delicious (I took a few bottles of it home). I think Baileyana is a must-visit winery in San Luis Obispo.
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A couple days later, on a day that couldn’t make up its mind between pouring rain or gorgeous, we pulled up at Biddle Ranch.
It’s a beautiful modern-looking vineyard and tasting room, though was absolutely packed when we were there (since it was raining and they couldn’t make use of their ample outdoor space).
Their wines were fine, though overpriced for what they were. I’d 100% come back here on a beautiful day though (I recommend a reservation to be safe, in case it gets unexpectedly busy).
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We also spent a bit of time at Saucelito Canyon, which was super small inside, but had a great outdoor area (again, the weather wasn’t our friend…it absolutely POURED while we were here).
We got to choose from different tasting options, and I had their Rosé Reserve, Backroads Zinfandel, Limekiln Valley Zinfandel, and a couple more. The ladies working there were super friendly, and we ended up tasting a bonus Temperanillo and their Estate Zinfandel.
To me all the wines felt very young and more acidic than I prefer, but the staff were great.
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Sip an interesting cocktail
If you need a break from vino, the San Luis Obispo area has a some great cocktail options for you. I really wanted to try a hand-crafted cocktail at Sidecar, but the days they were open didn’t quite work with our schedule.
Instead, we bellied up to the bar at Krobar Craft Distillery for a couple of super interesting cocktails. Their menu changes frequently, and I can’t remember exactly what I had, but one was like some kind of smoked banana old fashioned?? I had a passionfruit drink as well.
This is definitely worth a stop! They do offer tastings and a distillery tour as well, if you’re interested.
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Marvel at the kitschy, overwhelming Madonna Inn
The Madonna Inn is…hard to describe. Its appeal is even harder to truly describe for someone like me 🙂 The best I can do is “Dolly Parton meets Alice in Wonderland, but make it tackier”. And over the decades, that has made it an absolute local icon.
Decorated in the 1950s by an obscenely rich guy’s wife, it is the definition of “money can’t buy taste”, but that is the draw. They have 110 uniquely-themed guest rooms and a LOT of hot pink decor…and they *really* go all out for holidays (I visited before Valentine’s Day, as you can see below).
The inn is located on a 1,000-acre ranch and offers a number of outdoor amenities (tennis, hiking, biking, basketball, etc.) as well as a spa.
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We didn’t stay here, but did come walk around to bask in the intense decor, and then picked up a piece of their famous cake. Their cakes are insanely over-the-top, and a local draw for all types of occasions. I got a slice of German chocolate cake that was as big as my head.
There’s also a steakhouse here, a cafe, a cocktail lounge, bakery, live music, and more. It’s really quite the experience.
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Taste your way through the San Luis Obispo Public Market
If your goal is to sample lots of different options, then SLO Public Market is a great lunch or dinner stop. It’s got a number of different restaurants, from burgers to bao buns, pizza to Thai.
There are a number of specialty shops as well, including cheese, fancy chocolates, ice cream, macarons, and beer.
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We decided that wood-fire pizza sounded great, so ordered a couple from Humble Oven and then went to sit by Rambling Spirits with a cocktail while waiting for our pies to come out.
We devoured our pistachio pesto and chicken pizza as well as the Gorgonzola, grape, and balsamic. YUM. Then we browsed some of the cute stores, including snagging a few souvenirs at SLO General Store. It was a great way to while away a rainy afternoon!
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Take a hike at Pismo Preserve
Hiking is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo and the surrounding area, and you’re spoiled for choice—there are over 52 miles of trails. I’ll share a few different options here, but barely scratched the surface and didn’t get to two of the main ones I’d planned.
Two that came highly recommended were Terrace Hill (an easy .8-mile hike wtih great views over SLO) and the Cerro San Luis Lemon Grove Loop (a 2.2-mile with great views).
But on this day, we decided that Pismo Preserve was the right fit for us. It’s not too aggressive, though offers several trails of varying lengths and difficulties, and has gorgeous ocean views…one of the great things to do in Pismo Beach!
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We’d picked up a picnic lunch at DePalo & Sons, a cute little specialty Italian grocer and wine shop in Pismo Beach, and enjoyed it in the sunshine. Pismo Preserve has good facilities, including clean restrooms and some picnic tables.
Then we headed out onto the trails…we didn’t have tons of time so didn’t go all the way in a loop, but still got to enjoy GORGEOUS views down to Pismo Beach on the left (first pic), and over toward Pirate’s Cove and Avila Beach on the right (second pic).
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Enjoy the chill charms of Avila Beach
On Saturday morning we decided to walk the Bob Jones Trail down from where we were staying in Avila, to Avila Beach. The pups were very excited 🙂
It’s an enjoyable flat trail, mostly paved though some gravel, that wanders from SLO along the creek and right down to the beach…about 2.5-3 miles one-way. It’s popular with walkers (of both the dog and person variety), joggers, and bikers.
The town of Avila Beach is super cute, with little restaurants, plenty of shops, and some wine tasting rooms. It was surprisingly un-crowded late morning on a Saturday.
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Our destination this fine morning was Kraken Coffee Company, which was awesome. We got delicious coffee and a handful of pastries and enjoyed them out in the sunshine.
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Avila Beach and the pier are a big draw themselves, though it wasn’t our focus on this visit. It’s not normally that cluttered with debris…what you see there is from the crazy storms and flooding they’d had right before I visited.
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Have a more epic dinner out
There are tons of delicious places to eat in this area, and most of them aren’t particularly fancy or expensive. But sometimes a more special meal is in order…and that took us to Ox & Anchor one night. It’s a classic steakhouse, but with a more modern feel.
We sipped awesome cocktails, devoured steak, fries, tons of sauces, and couldn’t resist their donuts and ice cream for dessert. If you’re looking for a great night out, this is one to consider!
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Another option for a nice dinner out is Ventana Grill, and it comes with the added bonus of AMAZING views! It’s more of a Mexican-California fusion vibe, with delicious ceviche, moles, enchiladas, fresh tortillas as an appetizer, and great cocktails.
We didn’t visit on this trip, but several years earlier came for my friend’s wedding weekend, and despite awful weather we had a blast.
Live the wild life at Avila Valley Barn
Avila Valley Barn is a few different things, depending on what you’re looking for. It’s kind of like a large farm stand, but also with little trinkets, baked goods, an ice cream shop, and farm animals you can feed and interact with.
I couldn’t resist a berry tart and a pretty coffee mug, and a did a quick walk around to say hi to the animals. As someone who grew up on a farm, this isn’t a draw for me, but for kids it’s definitely something they get excited about.
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Consider the views & hiking at Pirate’s Cove Beach
We made a quick stop at Pirate’s Cove to get a sense of it, but didn’t have time for any hiking. It’s beautiful, but worth noting that it’s probably fine safety-wise during the day but has a lot of homeless/drug encampment issues and definitely is not super safe at night. My friend said she wouldn’t park and leave her car here, though.
As an alternative, there are some beautiful walks along the cliffs in this area (you can see them in this pic), but you’d start from different places to get there.
Hike the stunning coastal Point Buchon Trail
It’s just a bit further afield (an easy 30-40 minute drive from Arroyo Grande), and this easy hike in Montaña de Oro State Park offers scenery that (as I said in my original post), “punches you in the face”.
The Point Buchon Trail is only open certain days, so make sure you check the official website before you go. The state park has quite a number of other hiking options as well, including the popular Bluff Trail.
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Where to eat & drink in San Luis Obispo
As I’ve talked about throughout this post, there are so many delicious places to eat in this area that it’s hard to know where to start. Definitely read through the whole post for specific recommendations in different parts of the area. But here’s a quick gander through some options.
We had a delicious dinner at Luna Red one night, devouring paella and sangria on their lovely patio. I’ve also talked more in-depth about Ox & Anchor and Ventana Grill up above so check those out for a fancier dinner. The Madonna Inn is a quirkier choice as well.
One other option, whether for brunch, or a fancier lunch or dinner, is Brasserie SLO. Located in Hotel Cerro in downtown San Luis Obispo, we had brunch here on my last day, and I enjoyed a bellini, smoked salmon and pea quiche, and their lemon ricotta waffles w/blueberry compote.
And then there are so many good quicker food options and also GREAT coffee shops. You know I love me a coffee shop and bakery when I travel. Here were the ones we visited (the first two I go in-depth on above):
- Scout Coffee Co – A must-visit in San Luis Obispo (two locations)! Get the sunshine syrup in your latte, and try the baked goods
- Kraken Coffee Company – A few locations, we visited their delightful beachfront spot in Avila Beach for great coffee and good pastries
- Blackhorse Espresso & Bakery – A little less fancy and hipster-feeling than the other two, simple cute space. I got a maple white mocha which was pretty good.
- Old West Cinnamon Rolls – I don’t think their coffee is impressive, but these cinnamon buns are…whoa.
If you’re looking for quicker options, Shalimar had delicious Indian delivery, and we also got our yummy picnic lunches at DePalo & Sons (a great little Italian grocer and deli). Grabbing a bite at one of the many food stands in San Luis Obispo Public Market is also a great choice. And we had a healthy, fast lunch at Seeds one day (think avocado toast, sandwiches, and smoothies),
WHEW! It’s insane how much you can cram into a long weekend in the San Luis Obispo area.
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