On the central coast of California, laid-back San Luis Obispo sits halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its robust craft beer and wine scene alongside its plethora of outdoor activities make it an ideal destination for enjoying the California sunshine. Here’s how to spend 24 hours in San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo (SLO) was founded by the Spanish Franciscan priest Junípero Serra in 1772, who named it after the Bishop of Toulouse, Saint Louis of Anjou. However, by far the earliest human inhabitants of the local area were the Chumash Native American people, who created a network of tribal villages along the bays of the Central Coast. Today, San Luis Obispo is home to more than 180 historic buildings, three of which have been designated as California Historic Landmarks, including the mission set up by Junípero Serra.
SLO is the home of California State University San Luis Obispo, which means that for most of the year, roughly 26,000 of its 46,000 census-counted residents are under the age of 25. This youthful, student-led energy blends with the San Luis Obispo community charm to offer a welcoming, family-friendly and laid-back atmosphere.
The easiest way to explore SLO in its entirety is by car, since different parts of the city are too spread out to reach on foot and are often not connected by any public transportation. Downtown San Luis Obispo itself is a walkable area and offers many activities like shopping at local boutiques and dining at family owned and operated restaurants. There are also a high number of craft breweries and wineries in the San Luis Obispo area.
SLO’s moderate Mediterranean climate means there are about 310 days with clear skies per year, with an average temperature of 72 degrees (22°C). Many of the best activities in SLO take advantage of the great outdoors, such as hiking and mountain biking. In the spring, the hills turn into a green, lush rolling landscape, and in the summer the drier temperatures turn the hillsides a golden brown.
Things to Do
SLO offers many hiking trails with incredible vistas of the Pacific Ocean and nearby valley vineyards. A few of the local favorites include a short but steep 3.4-mile (5.5-km) climb up to the top of Bishop’s Peak (Trailhead: 98-88 Brittany Cir or 861-865 Patricia Drive) which tops out at 1,559 feet (475m). This hike has free parking at the trailhead, but offers little shade, so be sure to wear sunscreen on a sunny day. The total trip up and down should take about two hours, and is a moderately strenuous trek that involves scrambling up rocks at certain points.
A more moderate and centrally located hike would be Cerro San Luis (1183 Fernandez Road). There’s ample free parking in a parking lot at the trailhead for this two-hour, 3.9-mile (6.3-km) climb which tops out in elevation at just over 1,000 feet (305m). Views from the top of Cerro San Luis include glimpses of the Pacific Ocean on a clear day, and of the rolling hills of SLO, below. During the holiday season, locals decorate the top of Cerro San Luis with a Christmas tree, and during Lent anyone driving through SLO at night can spot the enormous cross that lights up the top of the mountain in celebration of Easter.
The short and sweet hike to the “P” sculpture on the hill behind the dormitory buildings at Cal Poly’s campus is an easy climb. This 1-mile (1.6-km) roundtrip trek will only take about 30 minutes total, there’s onsite parking on the Cal Poly Campus (1 Grand Avenue). The history of the “P” dates back to the early 1900’s and was rumored to have started as a way to present Cal Poly university pride to the surrounding community. Although the P is usually white, it’s painted various colors in celebration of holidays such as red for valentine’s day and green for Christmas.
If you’re especially brave, put all three of these hikes together in one day and hike them back-to-back in any order to conquer a ten-mile (16-km) hike called “The Tri Tip Challenge.” This combination of three separate hikes put together will take you the whole day to complete, and requires driving between the three different trailheads. It’s named the tri tip challenge because hikers are trekking three separate peaks in one day which locals use as an excuse to reward themselves at the end with a hearty signature “Tri Tip Sandwich” at Firestone Grill (1001 Higuera St), downtown.
While downtown, take advantage of how walkable this neighborhood is and wander over to the mission. Downtown SLO is centered around the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401). This mission was the fifth California mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. It is now an active museum site with docent-led tours and a peaceful garden open to the public. There’s also a parish onsite that holds a regular Catholic mass.
On the Cal Poly campus, Poly Canyon Village (Poly Canyon Village, 1, Grand Ave) which is also affectionately referred to as ‘Architecture Graveyard’ offers the remnants of the architecture students’ projects past, alongside structural creations designed and built by Cal Poly scholars. It’s a tranquil place in SLO that’s off the beaten path, and can be explored by parking on campus and walking along Poly Canyon Road and the adjacent Brizzolara Creek which flows through campus and into the canyon.
If you’re feeling especially active (even after that Tri-tip challenge hike) you can bike with your picnic basket along the flat, paved Bob Jones Trail to the sands of Avila Beach for a seaside sunset. Afterwards, if you’re not too full, try your hand at twilight surfing in waves of Pismo beneath the recently restored Pismo Beach pier.
Where to Stay
For a quirky, historical experience, check out the Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Road), which feels like a fairy-tale-cottage-style resort that dates back for decades, with 110 whimsically themed rooms and suites each decorated differently to suit a variety of individual tastes. From the “Caveman” room or the “Lovenest” room you could stay here every night for months and never experience the same room twice. The Madonna Inn also offers a scenic hilltop terrace with a bar, a heated infinity pool, two hot tubs and a 45-ft (authentic!) waterfall, plus a gym, tennis and basketball courts, and a spa. There’s an onsite steakhouse lounge and bakery that creates iconic “pink champagne cake” which has been a beloved local and visitor sweet treat for decades. For holidays, this inn goes all out on decor to celebrate by adding thousands of lights and trimmings on nearly every surface.
After a day of exploring the best this coastal city has to offer, freshen up at one of San Luis Obispo’s comfortable accommodations. Local B&B Garden Street Inn (1212 Garden Street) is the idyllic vision of San Luis Obispo charm, nestled in the vibrant historic core district of downtown SLO. This 8,000 sq. ft, 1887 Italianate Queen Ann Victorian-Inspired Mansions has recently renovated its design and delivers a modern take on the classic Victorian aesthetic, with inspiration taken from the natural Central Coast environment. Since it’s a B&B, guests receive a market basket of personally curated goodies delivered to their room with breakfast in a mason jar each morning.
A more traditional-style hotel accommodation would be newly opened boutique hotel, Hotel Cerro (1125 Garden Street), which features a rooftop patio bar with views of the rolling hillsides and bustling downtown SLO activity below. Hotel Cerro was designed to emit a modern aesthetic, blended with the 19th century industrial and Mission influences of SLO’s history and specifically built to be environmentally sustainable. There’s even an edible garden onsite, elements of which the onsite restaurant Brasserie uses in its cocktails and culinary creations.
Hotel SLO (877 Palm Street), located just a few blocks away across downtown, is steps from the Mission and hosts a rooftop bar alongside 78 luxurious guest rooms and suites showcasing views of the surrounding mountains and hotel gardens. This property has an onsite restaurant, a full-service spa, garden courtyard, pool and gym, as well as a plethora of activities to help visitors to engage with the local community.
Beer & Wine
For wine connoisseurs, SLO has a plethora of wine tasting options in the Edna Valley wine country. Popular spots include the Baileyana, Tangent & True Myth tasting room (5828 Orcutt Rd) with its expansive outdoor space, friendly service and incredible views of the adjacent vineyards. The property’s tasting room is inside the redesigned “Historic Independence Schoolhouse” which was built as a one-room schoolhouse in 1909 for the local farming community. There’s seating space behind the schoolhouse with a full-sized bocce court if you’re one of those people who gets extra competitive when you’ve had a glass of wine.
Across the valley, Tolosa (4910 Edna Rd) is named after the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa downtown. Founder and Vintner Robin Baggett graduated from Cal Poly in 1973. After a brief stint running cattle, he realized his land was better suited for another kind of enterprise: winemaking. Robin and his business partners Bob Schiebelhut and Jim Efird began planting vineyards in 1988 and together they formally founded Tolosa in 1998, when their journey finally took off. Tolosa’s property offers an expansive outdoor patio area to taste the wines as well as an indoor tasting room.
There’s also the quintessential Edna Valley Vineyard (2585 Biddle Ranch Rd). This winery’s modern day history began in 1973, when the winery’s founder, Jack Niven, planted Paragon Vineyard. For over three decades this winery was dedicated to expertly crafting Chardonnays before expanding to offer a variety of limited production wines onsite such as Malbec, Meritage and Reserve Cabernet. There are impressive views of the vineyards from both inside the building’s all-glass wall interior, as well as the courtyard area outside.
Not into wine but still like a tipple? You’re in luck, SLO hosts dozens of local craft breweries such as SLO Brew Rock (855 Aerovista Lane), which serves SLO Brew beer, one of California’s longest standing brew pubs dating back to 1988 and specializing in hand-crafted micro brews.
The Libertine (1234 Broad St,) is an outpost that hosts 76 taps of beer and wines from all over the Central Coast including a wide variety of their own homebrewed wild ales, kombucha and cold brew coffee.
There’s also the downtown SLO location of Barrelhouse Brewing Co. (1033 Chorro Street, Basement Level), a modern underground speakeasy placed directly beneath an authentic and traditional barber, Mike’s Barber Shop, and features draft specialties and a shuffleboard court in a leather lounge setting that will truly transport you back to the 1920’s era of American prohibition.
Restaurants and Cafes
San Luis Obispo offers options for sit-down dining and deli-sandos to go. The Carrisa (736 Higuera Street) in downtown SLO is equipped with heated outdoor seating, fire pits and warm market lights spaced over an enormous 2,200 square feet deck, with views overlooking the San Luis Obispo Creek and historic Mission de Tolosa. This restaurant hosts the largest collection of antique games in San Luis Obispo and is offering a new Creekside Cantina menu from Chef Thomas Fundaro. It combines the comforts of traditional street food with artisan tacos, lime shrimp ceviche and crisp fries covered in slow-roasted pork chile verde. The best pairings include a variety of specialty cocktails, the entire house lineup of locally brewed SLO Brew craft beer and Porch Pounder canned wine, and SLO Stills spirits.
Novo Restaurant & Lounge (726 Higuera Street) nearby is a classy dining experience offering global cuisine, craft cocktails and an award-winning wine selection paired with creekside views. The restaurant’s dreamy decor and string lights paired with sounds of the babbling SLO creek below will be enough to set the tone for a romantic weekend.
Alternatively, if you’re seeking to stay active and explore all SLO has to offer without stopping for a dine-in dinner, grab a handmade sandwich from local favorites High Street Deli (350 High St) or Lincoln Deli (496 Broad St) and bring it somewhere to admire a colorful SLO sunset such as the flat and perfect for picnicking Terrace Hill, or to one of the many nearby beaches such as Pismo Beach or Avila Beach down south, or Morro Bay to the North.