Mediterranean climate with 315 sunny days a year, gently rolling hills covered by some of the greatest wines in the world, breathtaking coastal scenery, numerous natural parks and close proximity to two of the West Coast’s largest cities. These are just a few reasons why you should put California’s San Luis Obispo on your bucket list as soon as possible.
Whether you’re already packing your bags, or you’re just looking for some inspiration before making the decision to go, check out our list of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo area.
A Little About San Luis Obispo
Located right in the middle of route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo has exactly what a perfect location means. It’s super-easy to get here by car, bus, train – and even airplane, since this incredible vacation hotspot has its very own airstrip with daily flights to/from several larger cities in the region.
San Luis Obispo’s magical landscape is defined by nine mild peaks forming The Morros mountain range, which is also known as Nine Sisters. These hills dramatically change their colour and appearance depending on the season – dry and yellowish in the summer, fresh green and lushy in the cooler months; a great reason for repeating your trip in different times of a year to see this place from a different perspective!
Although these gentle slopes now look absolutely calm and inviting, they are of volcanic origin. Though you won’t find any direct evidence of these ancient volcanoes anymore, they can be appreciated and enjoyed as one of the sources of the region’s agricultural wealth.
People discovered this welcoming place a long-long time ago – in fact, San Luis Obispo is one of the oldest communities in California. This provides many attractive opportunities for history buffs and art lovers – the area hosts numerous cultural sights and museums that essentially breathe history.
However, San Luis Obispo is foremost a place of perfection for all nature lovers. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, beachcombing, surfing – you name it, San Luis Obispo surely has it all. By the way, widely used abbreviation for the San Luis Obispo, SLO, isn’t pronounced “slow” for no reason. This place really is designed for those who are ready to take their watches off their wrists, forget about time and enjoy days spent in this magical place to the fullest. Here’s our ultimate list of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo:
Join a wine tasting tour
San Luis Obispo is known to be a heaven on Earth for all wine-lovers. If you’re one of them, or you just like the idea of possibly becoming one, do not miss the opportunity to taste what this wonderful viticultural region has to offer. If you’re kind of an individualist, you would probably like to explore dozens of local wine cellars at your own pace. But before making the decision, you should definitely check out some organized wine tasting tours on offer too.
Local enthusiasts will show you the shortest way to some of the best wines there are to be found in San Luis Obispo area. Traveling in a group will also spare you the trouble with organizing your transportation. And, obviously, driving your own car from cellar to cellar is not the best idea. Some of numerous local agencies also offer enhanced experience including a dinner, customized concierge service, and door-to-door pick up/return.
Walk the Poly Canyon loop
There’s no better way to enjoy incredible natural beauty of the San Luis Obispo area than to undertake a hike through its wonderful surroundings. There are many inviting trails to choose from. But Poly Canyon loop is a great choice for everyone – not too demanding, suitable for both walking and mountain bike riding, and definitely not boring at any of its stages.
This lovely eight-mile roundabout trail will show you around gorgeous valleys full of lush greenery and singing birds – ornithologists and nature-lovers will be in seventh heaven for sure. Moreover, this hidden gem of a place also has something for the art and architecture enthusiasts. And maybe for those who can appreciate a bit of an obscurity too.
About a mile into your trip, you’ll discover an eclectic collection of experimental structures known as Graveyard of Architecture. These funny, strange and inspirational creations were built by students from nearby California Polytechnic State University. Make sure to take some original pictures here!
Check out the world’s first motel ever
Booking a place to stay the night is often the very first thing we do in the midst of planning our upcoming trip. But why not turning this tasteless obligation into a unique experience of its own? It’s quite easy in Luis Obispo, since this lovely Californian destination is home to the world’s very first motel.
Originally called The Milestone Mo-Tel, this revolutionary inn was built in 1925, reflecting the rapidly growing popularity of motorism and automobiles. Given the poor condition of roads and limited speed of cars in those times, The Milestone Mo-Tel boasted a strategic location in the middle of tiring route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which back in the days took up to 48 hours.
Unfortunately, you can’t really book this place anymore, since it was closed back in 1991 with most of the original architecture torn down. However, the prolific Spanish-mission type bell tower and adjacent building survived and serve as an administrative office for the nearby Apple Farm boutique hotel.
Chase the waves at Pismo Beach…
…or at least admire those who dare. Pismo Beach is a postcard-perfect stretch of Pacific coastline located about 12 miles from the city of San Luis Obispo. It represents a spectacular opportunity to unwind in the magnificent seaside surroundings – wide and long strip of golden sand, intimidating yet fascinating rocky cliffs, and iconic waves rolling all over it.
The place is very popular with surfers due to its wonderful breaks and swells, especially when the tide is high. If you’re ready to join local thriving community of surfers in the water, you’re more than welcome. But it’s all good even if you feel more like watching – take a stroll on the lovely 1,200-foot-long pier towering high above the big blue and have your camera ready for some action-packed pictures of surfing kids beneath you.
Stick your bubblegum in the Bubblegum Alley
Do you know who possesses the largest DNA database in the world? No, it’s not the FBI. The correct answer is municipality of San Luis Obispo, thanks to its infamous Bubblegum Alley. Little bit impressive – and also a fair bit disgusting, this tourist attraction is exactly what its name says – an alley full of chewed, colorful bubble gum layered in abstract patterns all over the walls surrounding this narrow street.
Providing probably the only reasonable use for old, tasteless, chewed bubble gum, this attraction has in fact only one real purpose – it’s pure fun which, as the legend has it, began with the friendly rivalry of local students back in the 1950’s. Though today it definitely appeals mostly to the pictures chasing insta-travelers, it’s actually pretty hilarious experience for anyone. Bubblegums cover an area of approximately 20 metres, and it’s located right in the downtown, so you can easily peak in while visiting some more memorable attractions nearby. Also, since the wall has never been officially recognized as place of any special meaning (and local authorities often refer to it as an “eye-sore”), you never know when it disappears…
Jump in the saddle!
Leave your car at home and spare the world of your carbon footprint, at least for a day. Head into the hills above San Luis Obispo in the saddle of a gentle, intelligent, four-legged animal from some famous local ranches. You can prearrange guided trail rides suiting both complete novices and advanced horseback riders. Most of the trails take approximately one hour and lead you right into the natural, hilly surroundings of San Luis Obispo.
Pick a day with picture-perfect weather and you’ll be able to enjoy breathtaking panorama of the city to the fullest. Some of the ranches also offer packages including a lunch or even a wine tasting, so you can easily improve the experience by adding some tasteful extras too. A day well spent, right?
Play and discover at the Children’s Museum
If you’re spending your family vacation in San Luis Obispo, this well-known place is obviously a must for you. Designed especially for the super-curious preschoolers and toddlers, this interactive museum offers tons of hands-on fun activities. Kids can engage in cleverly designed exhibitions demonstrating safety, health, history, science, art, and nature. They are learning effortlessly while having fun, which is the most natural way of perfecting their skills and knowledge.
Dozens of unique attractions spread all over the museum’s three floors – and you should be ready to join your kids too, because exploring this place is pretty enjoyable for the small and big ones alike! It’s a great way to spend your time, especially if the weather is not cooperating with your outdoor plans. And what’s even better, it can be found directly in the SLO’s downtown, which means it’s a perfect last-minute option too if your original plans got halted for some reason.
Stretch your legs by climbing the Bishop Peak
The Bishop Peak, towering above San Luis Obispo city up to 1,546ft above sea level, is the highest one of “Nine Sisters” – the distinct volcanic mountain range hugging the city just like some kind of rocky giants. But don’t let its status of the highest one intimidate you. It takes about 50 minutes to reach the peak from the trailhead, and though it’s a relatively steep climbing, this hike is absolutely suitable for any averagely fit enthusiast.
Thanks to many lovely oaks and other trees lining the path, there’s plenty of natural shadow along the way. Just take some proper shoes and a large bottle of water, since there are no refreshment possibilities once you step your foot on the trail. What you get by reaching the peak is absolutely worth the effort. Locals state it’s the best viewpoint in the area offering a breathtaking 360° panoramic views – and who are we to argue?
Take a step back in time in the Fremont Theatre
Beautifully restored Fremont Theatre is one of the greatest attractions in the San Luis Obispo downtown. This tasteful architectonic gem was built in the famous Streamline Moderne style, mimicking gracious architecture of the greatest European theatres and concert venues, while its interior is decorated in joyous Art Deco.
The theatre was opened on Memorial Day in 1942 in the presence of various celebrities including famous comical tandem Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Today this magical venue hosts a wide range of cultural events ranging from the latest blockbuster releases to sold-out shows of music A-listers. Visit this place and explore its wonderful character and ambiance. You’ll surely realize here that places like this can never be fully replaced by generic multi-screen cinemas of our time.
Enjoy freedom and adrenaline on a zipline tour
Not one, not two, not even three, but six amazing zip lines is what you get when you head to the Margarita adventure park, just 9,7 miles from the San Luis Obispo downtown. This action-packed place offers many thrilling ways to enjoy your day out. How about grabbing your friends and race in the Double Barrel zipline tandem? Fun, thrills and wonderful sights are all guaranteed as you fly right above lovely vines, majestic pines and old oaks in the adjacent park.
If you doubt that these ziplines are enough to make you experience an adrenaline rush, maybe you will at least be impressed by the 300-foot suspension bridge crossing the deep canyon which stands in your way between the ziplines. After you finish the route, you can unwind on the premises sipping on local wine and learning about the sustainable viticulture which local team puts in practice.
Walk the Whale Trail for some quality whale spotting
Central Coast of California is an unbeatable place to be if you can appreciate marine life. If you’re able to plan your visit around the whales’ migration schedule, you should definitely check out the great Whale Trail, which runs along the Highway 1 north of Morro Bay and offers incredible opportunities for catching a glimpse of grey whales, blue whales, humpback whales, Bryde’s and Minke whales, but also plenty of more common sea creatures such as dolphins, sea lions and sea otters.
Bring your binoculars, sunscreen, water and your favourite snacks. You can visit just one or two spots and call it a day, or you can undertake the whole trail and enjoy a wonderful day exploring the coastline and its magnificent marine inhabitants. So, when’s the best time to go? It depends. While there surely are some whales maneuvering their way through the bay all year round, locals and experienced visitors claim that you best chances are either in spring or autumn. Check out the official page of Highway 1 Discovery Route for some useful tips.
Visit San Luis Obispo’s mysterious pyramide
Never been to Egypt? Well, if you’re attracted to pyramids, you can actually see one right in San Luis Obispo too. This curious sight has a very sad story to it. It was erected in 1905 by Fred Adolphus Dorn, wealthy lawyer who studied and lived in the area for some years. The structure is most probably mimicking famous Free Masonic symbol rather than the original pyramids of Giza. Nevertheless, just like the ancient Egyptians, Dorn built this mesmerizing structure to commemorate lost lives of his loved ones – his wife Cora and their newborn son who both died shortly after a complicated childbirth.
The entrance of the tomb is marked by the heartbreaking inscription “DISTURB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH”. Tragic character of this place is highlighted by the tomb’s solitude – constructors had a hard time finding a suitable place for such heavy structure on the premises of SLO’s cemetery. As Mr. Dorn insisted, the tomb’s opening was left uncovered with a set of enclosing stones lying nearby, waiting for the time when all of the Dorns would rest side by side inside. However, the tomb was not closed even after Fred Adolphus Dorn died 35 years later, fueling numerous fantastic rumors and urban legends.
Pamper your ears attending music festival with a 50-year history
If you’re lucky enough to visit San Luis Obispo county in peak summer season, you surely can’t miss the largest and most beloved cultural event in the area. Festival Mozaic was found in 1971 and its mission remains pretty much the same throughout all of these years – bringing high-quality classical music to people right in the magical surroundings of Central California.
Just imagine listening to live performance of Mozart’s masterpiece right in the middle of vines or historical gardens. It’s an experience you must enjoy even if you don’t necessarily consider yourself a die-hard fan of old music. The festival lasts about 12 days and consists of various smaller and bigger concerts. Pick one or even all of them and let the spirit of art enrich you.
Soak your bait and catch a big one
Fancy fishing? San Luis Obispo county is a place to be for all avid fishermen. If you like the idea of spending your day by the water and possibly even catching your own dinner, rest assured that your options in this area are pretty much endless. SLO county has more than 80 miles of the Californias best coastline. All you have to do is gather your equipment, get you fishing license ready, and find your perfect spot at basically any of local beautiful beaches.
Would you rather like to try some deep-sea experience? There are many professional boating companies around that will happily fulfill your dreams and expectations. Of course, we cannot forget about freshwater fishing, which is just as good in the area. The best spots can reportedly be found around Santa Margarita Lake and Lake Lopez. Some of the most common local catches include catfish, largemouth bass, bluegill, trout, redear, and crappie. Yum.
Meet the history in Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Much of the San Luis Obispo history is related to its mission, the fifth California mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772. Although named after French bishop, Saint Louis of Toulouse, this place was established by Spanish missionaries, who chose this location carefully for its generous natural resources, lovely weather, and friendliness of local Native Americans.
Today this place is mostly sought after due to its unique and beautifully preserved architecture. Even though this church still serves its original purpose providing masses, weddings and funerals to local community of Catholics, it’s also open for visits every day of the year. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably be happy to learn that there is no admission fee. However, small donations are highly appreciated and smartly used to maintain and improve the mission. You can explore its collection of historical artefacts in the local museum, explore the premises including lovely garden and plaza, or join a guided tour with passionate commentary by one of the local docents. Either way you are sure to be amazed by this charismatic place.
Kick back in the good old-fashioned drive-in cinema
Had enough of tiring adventures in nature, never-ending exploring museums, and dizzying wine tasting? There’s no better way to end the day full of activities than relaxing in an old-fashioned drive-in theatre, just like back in the day. San Luis Obispo has wonderful car park cinema called Sunset Drive-In Theatre.
For just $10 per person you can enjoy a double portion of movies. Add $5 and you will also get a bottomless bucket of popcorn. Take off your shoes, enjoy your movie and breathe in the refreshing air of a gently cooling evening breeze. It’s so easy to see that life is goon in San Luis Obispo, nicknamed the America’s Happiest Place.