There's a reason this place has been called America's happiest city. Situated almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the county of San Luis Obispo—or SLO—boasts miles of pristine California coastline, sunshine year-round, and major attractions like Pismo Beach, Hearst Castle, and Paso Robles.
The city of SLO can often be overlooked on a trip to the surrounding area, but is itself a worthy destination. Home to Cal Poly University and a vibrant downtown, it has the energy of a college town but the elevated trendy restaurants, chic boutique hotels, and town traditions (including its famed weekly farmers market, one of the largest in the country) that land it on our radar now. SLO is more than a place, it's also a mindset focused on slow living (no pun intended) and fresh food. This dynamic town is the perfect getaway for the next time you're looking to escape the city hustle.
Where to Stay
The living room in SLO Brew lofts.
(Courtesy of SLO Brew)
SLO Brew Lofts
These chic urban lofts are located right in the heart of downtown on the second floor of SLO Brew, a brewery, restaurant, and intimate music venue that holds concerts nearly every night of the week. Each of the five suites (ranging from studios to three bedrooms) feels like your very own, gorgeously decorated apartment, complete with brick walls, trendy yet classic furnishings, Crosley record players, electric fireplaces, and stunning kitchens outfitted with Smeg appliances. You'll want to move in for good. // 738 Higuera Street, slobrew.com/the-lofts.
The Butler Hotel
This historic 1950's building was once an auto repair garage but has since been completely redeveloped into a sophisticated boutique hotel by a local architect and art lover who saw its potential. The space maintains its industrial roots but has been updated to feel fresh and new, with mid-century modern furniture and a wide array of art. In fact, art is one of the main draws here—with a large piece situated above the beds in each of the hotel's six rooms with details provided on the artists. The Butler is close to downtown and is walking distance to all the local sights. // 1511 Monterey Street, thebutlerhotel.com.
The charming boutique hotel, Granada, has 17 intimately sized rooms with brick walls, Persian rugs, marble-tiled bathrooms, and original art. Plus, you'll be greeted at check in with a glass of wine before heading to your suite. Located right in middle of downtown, you'll be able to explore everything by foot. Added bonus: a charming on-site bistro with modern French fare that's not to be missed. // 1126 Morro Street, granadahotelandbistro.com.
It's hard to come up with a better way to describe this landmark California hotel other than wild. Built in 1958, it's become famous for its bold, color-infused prints—think Betsey Johnson meets the Victorian era. Each of its 110 themed rooms have their own unique flair: the Caveman is built with solid rock and covered in animal print; Krazy Dazy is plastered with giant daisies and pink shag carpet; and the Wilhelm Tell room boasts "bright apple red decor" aka a velvet red duvet. You will never, ever experience anything else like the Madonna Inn. // 100 Madonna Road, madonnainn.com.
If you're looking for a quieter place to unwind, head to Apple Farm, a quaint country inn just outside of downtown. Rooms are cozy and intimate, with fireplaces and nooks perfect for slo-ing down with a glass of wine and a book. Explore the hotel grounds, which include lush gardens, a gift shop and an authentic mill house. // 2015 Monterey Street, applefarm.com.
Only six months old, this casual and stylish eatery serving Latin American-inspired dishes is already winning fans in SLO. Opened by a husband-and-wife duo who ran restaurants in the Phoenix area for 20 years, the couple made a move to the Central Coast to open the Vegetable Butcher. While the menu is veggie-focused, there is a range of tasty meat options. In addition to a variety of small plates (get the forbidden sesame cauliflower) you can also choose from a selection of six gourmet tacos, including sweet potato and corn, braised short rib, and Tennessee hot fried chicken. // 712 Marsh Street, vegetablebutcherslo.com.
Order a glass of sangria and chill on Luna Red's lush, sunny patio right along the Mission Plaza. In the summer, it's a perfect spot to catch the Friday night concerts, and it's always ideal for people watching. This iconic SLO restaurant is a community favorite, with a globally inspired menu of simple yet rich dishes that use locally sourced ingredients, from paella to tacos and small plates. // 1023 Chorro Street, lunaredslo.com.
Novo Restaurant & Lounge
After a long day of exploring, head to Novo to treat yourself for a relaxing and delicious meal in true Central California style. Sit on the picturesque, creekside patio under the magical glow of twinkling lights, cozied up under heat lamps. The global menu captures local, fresh flavors and offers something for everyone, with dishes including curries, salads, seafood, and classic American dishes (splurge on the ribeye with a red wine glaze.) Novo is also a good place for lunch with sandwiches like pork belly sliders and the Novo BLTA. // 726 Higuera Street, novorestaurant.com.
This tiny, cozy restaurant is a bit difficult to find: it's located in a small side pocket of downtown called the Creamery. But it's worth the journey with easily the best sushi in SLO. For this reason, it's also a hot spot, so be prepared to wait if you don't have reservations. If you can, grab a seat the counter to watch the chefs in action as they handle, slice and prepare dishes with the finest fish available along the Central Coast. Ask for the chef's special to get the freshest catch of the day, and don't miss the light and crispy tempura. // 570 Higuera Street #155, goshislo.com.
Santa Maria-style BBQ is a big deal in SLO, with an overwhelming number of highly rated places to choose from. The star of the show is the tri-tip sandwich, with tender cuts of meat served on a soft yet crispy French roll; other solid eats include the giant hamburgers and the shredded pork sandwich. Firestone is a favorite for college students, townies, and visitors alike; so if it gets too crowded, hit up some of the other local tasty bbq joints: Old San Luis BBQ Co., the Rib Line, and Mo's Smokehouse BBQ. // 1001 Higuera Street, firestonegrill.com.
Big Sky Cafe
Though it's been around since the mid-1990s, Big Sky Cafe has a newness about it, likely due to its lively nature—the place is always packed. The menu offers a little of everything, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, and dishes that range from the healthy to downright indulgent. One of the best brunches and breakfasts town is served here, with classics like omelettes and more speciality entrees like Mexican pozole and lentil stew with poached eggs. You'll get a warm jalapeño cornbread and coffee cake while you're waiting for your meal. // 1121 Broad Street, bigskycafe.com.
Mint + Craft Cafe and Mercantile
This fast-casual, modern eatery is the little sister of other SLO favorites Novo and Luna Red, debuting last year with fresh and healthy quick bites downtown. For breakfast, choose from sandwiches, granola and yogurt, and a variety of delicious "toasties"—get the ricotta berry—while lunch options include salad, sandos, and bowls. The charming interior also has a small shop that sells more than 300 products from over 60 artisans. // 848 Monterey Street, mintandcraft.com.
Sidecar Cocktail Co.
As its namesake, the classic sidebar cocktail—a concoction of cognac, orange curacao, lemon juice served up with a sugar rim—is done to perfection here. But that's just one of the many sips offered on a sophisticated cocktail menu that's billed as "thoughtfully-sourced California craft" using the bounty of ingredients available along the Central Coast. Sidecar is also a great spot for lunch, dinner, and especially brunch (the Bloody Mary's are raved about.) // 1127 Broad Street, sidecarcocktail.company.
With brick walls, pretty wallpaper, abundance of plants behind the counter, this is the local Instagram-worthy coffee shop that you'll want to hang out in all day. This place goes beyond just pretty space though; the seasonal coffee menu stands on its own with their own roasting company called HoneyCo. The almond milk is made in house, the latte art is on point, and the honey tea bowl—best described as a magical cloud—is divine. Treat yourself to a house made pastry—we're loving the bacon cheddar chive scone. // 1127 Broad Street, scoutcoffeeco.com.
Another local favorite, Ascendo, has a large, open, industrial-vibe with lofted ceilings, brick walls and artwork-filled walls that makes for a spot that's dually solid for working or chilling with friends. There are plenty of outlets for those who need to plug in, but also a designated, no-tech community space in the back that encourages socializing and offers various board games. The team at Ascendo makes their pastries on site every day, as well as their syrups, chai, and almond milk. // 974 Monterey Street, instagram.com/ascendocoffee.
Here is yet another coffee spot, but as it's a college town, there's bound to be many worth noting. Kreuzberg is definitely not to be missed, founded in 2010 by a couple of Cal Poly grads and roommates who wanted to mirror the cafe culture they saw in Berlin hood, Kreuzberg. This space is both a coffee shop that roasts its beans in house and a cafe serving a full menu of breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, and snacks, as well as draft beer and house wine. The space itself is filled with murals and beautiful wood decor, as well as nooks and crannies to get cozy in. // 685 Higuera Street, kreuzbergcalifornia.com.
Central Coast Brewery
There is a growing number of award-winning breweries to choose from on the Central Coast, and just in downtown SLO. One of the most popular choices is Central Coast Brewery, known for its hand-crafted, signature ales, lagers, IPAs, and sours. Try the Fruit A LA Tart for something funky and delicious. Enjoy a pour or two here and then take a walking tour to hit up the many breweries downtown, including Libertine Brewing Company, BarrelHouse Speakeasy, and SLO Brew. // 1422 Monterey Street, centralcoastbrewing.com.
Boo Boo Vinyl Room.
(Courtesy of Boo Boo Vinyl Room)
Letter + Grain
Whimsical and well-curated, Letter + Grain is a fantastic place to stop by to pick up a gift or a little something for yourself. Filled with a white-grey-gold color palates, the store sells candles, mugs, plants, and home decor, all at a reasonable price. They also hold hands-on workshops on creating their own hand-crafted chalk painted signs. // 1019 Morro Street, letterandgrain.com.
A gem in the heart of downtown, this quirky shop sells a variety of unique vintage and recycled goods that the owners curate from scouring flea markets, thrift stores, and estate sales along the West Coast. They bring back the best of the treasures they find to sell. The store features everything from clothes to home decor and books. // 1235 Monterey Street., rubyrose805.com.
Every town has its beloved book store, and Phoenix Book takes the cake here. The musty smell of old paper in stacks and stacks of used and vintage books fill nearly every corner from floor to ceiling, and lining the staircase to the second level. Come ready for a treasure hunt. // 986 Monterey Street, yelp.com.
A staple in SLO for more than 40 years, this storied shop has been called one of the best record stores in America by Rolling Stone. Inside, it's small but holds in a huge collection of both vintage records and CDs, and the walls are packed with memorabilia. Discover unique finds you may not see anywhere else. // 978 Monterey Street, booboorecords.com.
Edna Valley Vineyards
(Via Huffington Post)
Ah, bubble gum alley—one of the strangest, most disgusting, and most popular attractions in downtown SLO. Located off of Higuera Street between Broad and Garden Streets, this alley stretches 15-feet high by 70 feet long, packed with used wads of gum. This town landmark was evidently started by teenagers back in the 1950s and has grown in the ensuing decades as visitors made their own contributions. Now, it's a must-see spot for tourists who want to take a picture or add their own piece. It's worth a stop; just try not to think too hard about all of the bacteria surrounding you. // yelp.com.
The SLO Farmers Market is no ordinary exchange—it's more of a weekly street fair that the entire community shows up for. Running every Thursday from 6pm to 9pm, the sheer size of the market is impressive especially for a relatively mid-size town—stretching along Higuera Street between Nipomo and Osos Streets. More than 120 vendors line the streets, selling produce from the region and the smells of BBQ, Asian eats, and caramel popcorn fill the area. This event represents the best of what SLO has to offer, so don't miss it. // downtownslo.com/farmers-market.
Art after Dark
Every first Friday of each month, downtown SLO opens up art exhibits and galleries after hours (6pm to 9pm) to feature the work of local and internationally acclaimed artists. More than 20 galleries and non-traditional art venues (restaurants, boutiques, and salons) partake in the affair. // See a full list at sloartscouncil.org.
Just 15 minutes from downtown, you'll find one of California's most prized wine regions, Edna Valley. It's so close, you can easily Uber to the vineyards (Uber even has an "Uber Wine" feature here where you can hire a driver for however long you'd like at an affordable price). Spend at least a half day sampling pinot noir and chardonnay—what the region is known for—at one of the dozens of wineries in this area. Two of our favorites include Edna Valley Vineyards with sweeping views and delicious food pairings, as well as Baileyana, Tangent & True Myth Tasting Room, located in a historic schoolhouse originally built in 1909.
Hike Cerro San Luis Mountain
Get outdoors with a challenging but beautiful hike just minutes from downtown at Cerro San Luis Mountain. Part of the chain of peaks called the nine sisters, a trip to the summit offers sweeping views of downtown SLO, and even the Pacific Ocean and Morro Rock on a clear day. // alltrails.com.