Once named the Happiest Place in America by Oprah, San Luis Obispo, California, known as SLO to its locals, is a small town with a lot to see. Located mid-distance from San Francisco and Los Angeles, SLO is in the heart of the Central Coast. This college town offers many beautiful day hikes, nearby beaches, and vineyards, so it’s a relaxing destination where you can thoroughly enjoy yourself. If you are driving up or down the California coast, San Luis Obispo should definitely be at least a stop on your trip. Or you could simply take off and spend one day here when you feel the need to recharge your batteries. You certainly won’t regret it!
What’s the Best Time to Visit San Luis Obispo?
Residents of SLO enjoy a moderate temperature year-round, but the best time to visit SLO is from July to September when the temperature has an average high of 80° and an average low of 54°. During the summer months, on an average weekday, there are fewer people than the rest of the year. That’s because many of its residents who attend Cal Poly return home.
If you are looking to beat the crowds, it’s best to avoid visiting on a weekend during the summer. The Fourth of July weekend is always the busiest, as many residents of the central valley travel west for the festivities, and the town nearly doubles in size.
SLO also hosts several festivals. The main ones are the Live Oak Music Festival in June, the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival at the end of April, and the Central Coast Renaissance Festival in July. But this is a very vibrant community, and no matter when you come, rest assured you won’t be bored.
A few facts about San Luis Obispo
- SLO is home to the world-famous Madonna Inn which became known for its unique decor and themed rooms. Each of its 110 guest rooms has its own theme!
- The Nine Sisters is a chain of volcanic mountains that spans across San Luis Obispo to its neighboring town, Morro Bay.
- Weird Al Yankovic attended the town’s college, Cal Poly, as an architecture student before he went on to become a famous musician.
- The business formerly known as Juice Club was started by a Cal Poly student as a senior project. Today, it is known as Jamba Juice and operates in 764 locations.
One Day in San Luis Obispo Itinerary
Welcome to San Luis Obispo, an incredibly charming town in the heart of California! Here, you can experience a lot of great sights, food, and culture, and just relax and have a fantastic time. Even one day in this town can be a trip to remember if you have the right itinerary, so here are the best things to see and do around here.
Breakfast at the Breakfast Buzz
This lesser-known breakfast spot is home to SLO’s best breakfast burrito (as voted by locals) and is close to the next location in our itinerary, Bishop’s Peak. When Cal Poly is in session, you can often see students nursing a hangover at this locally-owned cafe. The Breakfast Buzz offers great diner-style food at a cheap price and a relaxed ambiance. The cafe has outdoor seating where you can enjoy a cup of coffee to start your day.
Hike Bishop’s Peak
After fueling up at the Breakfast Buzz, enjoy a scenic hike to the tallest of the Nine Sisters mountains, Bishop’s Peak. This hike includes several trails, but the main route takes roughly 2 hours to finish and is 4 miles out and back. Once you reach the top, you can marvel at a mesmerizing panoramic view of the entire town.
Lunch Downtown at Firestone Grill
If you ask a local where to eat lunch in SLO, there’s a high chance they will point you to Firestone Grill. Famous for its Santa Maria-style tri-tip sandwiches, Firestone is a short walk from the main stretch of downtown. This spot might be known for barbeque, but veggie lovers have options too! Opt for a later lunch, and you can take advantage of their happy hour from 2 pm to 6 pm. Firestone has many great local beers on tap, including several varieties from Firestone Walker and BarrelHouse Brewing Company.
Walk Around Downtown
One of the highlights of SLO is the many unique local shops in the downtown area. Downtown SLO is best seen by walking, so don’t worry about transportation. The main streets are Higuera, Marsh, and Monterey.
Make sure to stop for a picture at the famous Bubblegum Alley – a place that’s exactly like it sounds, an alley entirely covered by gum!
Explore the Mission (and Maybe Catch a Free Concert)
The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sits in the historic neighborhood of downtown SLO. One of the oldest buildings in town, this Spanish mission was founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772. Feel free to explore the mission yourself, or enjoy a docent-led tour open to the public starting at 1:15 PM. During the summer months, on Fridays, you can catch local bands at Concerts in the Plaza for free. You can check the schedule here.
Go Wine Tasting!
It wouldn’t be a true Central Coast experience without trying some of the local, delicious wine. Although Paso Robles – only a half-hour drive away – has the most vineyards per capita, you can find great wine tasting in downtown SLO at Ragtag Wine Company. This convenient location stays open late, so you have plenty of time to explore the area beforehand.
Dinner at Big Sky Cafe
One of the best local spots for dinner is Big Sky Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo. This cafe offers traditional American cuisine and seasonal farm-to-table plates, along with an inviting ambiance, while not breaking the bank. It has something for everyone, especially vegetarians and vegans, so even the pickiest of eaters can find something they like.
Catch a Movie or a Show! Many Choices for Different Tastes
San Luis Obispo has several great options for movie enthusiasts. The Palm Theatre on Palm Street offers filmgoers a chance to watch independent films not shown in other theaters. It’s also the first solar-powered movie theater.
The Fremont Theater, closer to the main strip downtown on Monterey Street, is a beautiful art-deco-style theater built in 1942. It has one screen, but when you walk in, you are sure to be impressed by the ornate ceiling and massive-sized showroom. The Fremont now operates as a concert venue, but it also hosts classic movie showings for its “Rewind Series”, as well as comedy shows–so be sure to check out their calendar.
If you feel like a cozier night in, head on over to the Sunset Drive-In. This drive-in movie theater will take you back in time to the 1960s–although the servers will not be on rollerskates. Sunset shows two different films per night. You can pick one, or stay for both showings.
Where to stay in San Luis Obispo?
100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
The most luxurious hotel in San Luis Obispo, Madonna Inn has an outdoor pool, two restaurants, and even its own bakery! Tennis and basketball courts are also available, along with a fitness centre, plus you can rent a bike. The rooms are absolutely beautiful and incredibly comfortable, so you can rest assured you will feel excellent here, whenever you come.
La Quinta by Wyndham
1845 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
La Quinta by Wyndham is another excellent hotel in San Luis Obispo. It has an outdoor pool and serves an incredible breakfast, and those two facts alone will make sure you enjoy your stay. However, they went the extra mile here to equip the rooms with a fridge, a coffee machine and free toiletries, which clearly shows the level of dedication and the quality of service you can expect. Definitely, a great stay!
Peach Tree Inn
2001 Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
A great option to stay in San Luis Obispo is Peach Tree Inn. This hotel offers clean rooms at a very affordable price, and it’s ideal if you don’t have a car. Downtown SLO and the train station are only a one-mile walk away. If you are traveling by plane, it’s four miles from the airport. Everything is perfectly clean, and a complimentary breakfast is included.
San Luis Obispo Hostel
1617 Santa Rosa Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
If you are looking to reduce your spending, consider staying at San Luis Obispo Hostel. This highly-rated hostel offers many different rates for travelers. You can stay in a private room or choose to bunk in a dormitory-style room separated by gender. Not only is it fairly priced, but it places you at only a half-mile walk from downtown.
Day trips from San Luis Obispo
Don’t be surprised if you decide to stay more than one day in San Luis Obispo. It’s very hard to resist its charm. However, if you do decide to stay longer, some fantastic day trip options will open up in front of you. This part of California’s coast is amazing, day trips are the perfect way to explore it. Here are some popular destinations to consider.
San Luis Obispo is a prime location to take a day trip! If you are looking for a very short drive, you have multiple options. Only 12 miles to the south is Avila Beach. This beach tends to get very crowded in summer, so an even better option is to drive the extra mile to Pirate’s Cove. Pirate’s Cove is technically a nude beach, but don’t worry, come in your birthday suit or just come as you are, everyone is welcome. Avila Beach also has the popular Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa. You don’t have to stay the night to enjoy their private hot tubs.
To the north, only ten miles away, is Morro Bay. Morro Bay is a sleepier beach town, but it has a lot of fun shops along the Embarcadero. If you’ve ever looked at postcards of San Luis Obispo, you’ve probably seen Morro Rock, another of the Nine Sisters. This impressive rock has a nice strand of dunes to lay out in. Down by the pier, you can take a kayak tour and explore the open ocean with an expert guide.
Lovers of the outdoors will surely enjoy the hour-and-a-half trip North of SLO to Big Sur. The stretch of road to Big Sur, known as Highway 1, is part of the Pacific Coast Highway. It offers an exhilarating view of the Central Coast. Just make sure to drive during the daytime, as the roads are very windy and only have one lane.
Big Sur is known as “where the mountains meet the sea” and upon visiting, you’ll quickly see why. This area covers 90 miles, yet only around 1,000 people live in Big Sur Proper. Redwood trees, hot springs, and campgrounds are available for cheap. For those not inclined on roughing it, they can stay in one of the many resorts for a “glamping” experience, such as Treebones Resort. Just don’t expect to have any cell service as you enjoy the serenity away from city life.
Extra tips for visiting San Luis Obispo:
- If you visit on a Tuesday night and like to enjoy a pint or two, be sure to check out Pint Night downtown. Bring your own 16 oz pint glass (or the glass from your first beer) with you, and you can enjoy $4 beers at each participating bar. Frog and Peach Pub and SLO Brew are the two main locations. This night is very popular with college students, so expect to see a younger crowd. Frog and Peach Pub often has live blues and rock music during the event, so bring your dancing shoes too!
- Thursday is perhaps an even better day to visit because that’s when the town has its famous downtown Farmer’s Market. Expect to see performers, eat delicious local food, and chat with the many vendors. Higuera Street closes off for the event.
- If you are visiting a beach near SLO, don’t eat at a restaurant nearby the water. The prices will be higher and the quality of food tends to be lower. These places are known for being tourist traps–you can find better food by visiting Yelp, asking a local where they suggest eating, or following this guide.
Make sure you have everything you need
What to pack for your next trip?
Make your next trip as simple and as enjoyable as possible by packing smart. It’s amazing how much stress top travel items can save you, so choose carefully.
Things like lightweight travel backpacks, for example, are ideal for short trips and allow you to move around with ease, and a passport holder will make sure you keep your documents safe at all times.
Check our travel checklist guide for 2021 to make sure you haven’t missed anything, and travel to your next destination in style and with maximum comfort.
Veronica Gordon is a content writer with a passion for travel currently living in San Diego, CA. She works with Meinhart, Smith, and Manning, PLLC, a personal injury law firm specializing in serious accidents and injuries. When she’s not writing about legal issues, she enjoys going on hikes, chasing laughter at comedy shows, and recreating recipes from the Great British Bake Off.