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 itself can often be overlooked on a trip to the surrounding area, but it's 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 enclave is the perfect getaway for the next time you're looking to escape the city hustle.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo
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 Butler Hotel
This historic 1950s 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.
Hotel San Luis Obispo
Opened this year, Hotel San Luis Obispo boasts spacious rooms with laid back, California cool decor including white oak floors, handmade rugs, and a calming color palette. Despite its downtown location—Hotel SLO is just steps away from the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, plus endless restaurants and shops—rest assured that you'll find plenty of places to soak up the SLO sun at Hotel San Luis Obispo—enjoy a bottle of wine from a nearby winery from your room's private balcony or terrace, take a dip in the 50-foot outdoor pool, or play a game of bocce and sip cocktails from High Bar on the rooftop terrace. // 877 Palm Street, hotel-slo.com.
Best Restaurants in San Luis Obispo
Order a glass of sangria and chill on Luna Red's lush, sunny patio right along the Mission Plaza. While Luna Red is always ideal for people watching, be sure to stop by on Sunday afternoons for paella and live music. 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. (670 Higuera Street.), the Rib Line (2256 Broad Street #110), and Mo's Smokehouse BBQ (1005 Monterey Street). // 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.
Opened by popular SLO Brew in September, the Carrisa's stylish, brick-walled dining room is the perfect place to kick back and relax with cocktails, craft brews from SLO Brew, and casual California fare—think poke, salads, guac, and most importantly an endless selection of tacos. Stop by for brunch for classic breakfast favorites including waffles, chilaquiles, and steak and eggs, plus healthyish eats including avocado toast, açaí bowls, paired with Bloody Marys and mimosas. // 736 Higuera Street, thecarrisa.com.
Farmhouse Corner Market
This gourmet market meets farm to table eatery has been serving up weekday and Saturday brunch, plus dinner Thursday through Saturday since its opening in June. While the fresh dishes—think salmon sandwich with kimchi and ginger lime aioli; heirloom tomato salad with whipped ricotta; and bucatini pasta with fennel, clams, and prosciutto—are best enjoyed from the large communal table designed to look like a cheery yellow truck overlooking the nearby SLO airport, you can also pick up ready made meals on the go. Don't forget to grab a scoop or two of Farmhouse's made in-house, seasonally changing ice cream. // 1025 Farmhouse Lane, farmhouseslo.com.
Where to Grab a Drink in San Luis Obispo
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. // 1130 Garden Street and 880 Foothill Boulevard, 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 at the Monterey Street location and then take a walking tour to hit up the many breweries downtown, including Libertine Brewing Company (1234 Broad St.) and BarrelHouse Speakeasy (1033 Chorro St.). // 1422 Monterey Street and 6 Higuera St., centralcoastbrewing.com.
San Luis Obispo Shoppping
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 and throughout the Southwest. 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. // 990 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.
Stop by Ambiance's San Luis Obispo shop—not to be confused with Ambiance San Francisco—for stylish pieces that exude California cool. Open since 1973, this airy boutique stocks laid back, beachy brands perfect for your SLO getaway including Free People, Show Me Your Mumu, and Wildfox, plus designer finds from Rag and Bone, Ulla Johnson, and Rails. // 737 Higuera Street, shopambiance.com.
Whether you're in search of the perfect pair of minimalist, wear every-day earrings; a CBD bath bomb; or some handmade ceramics, you'll find it inside Len Collective's aesthetically pleasing, brick-walled space. In addition to selling her own label, Len Designs Jewelry, owner Shannon Len stocks the gift store meets apothecary with a combination of California crafted goods—think floral inspired jewelry from Oakland based label, Alchemilla—and items sourced from around the world—including leather clogs from Swedish brand, Moheda; beach towels from Pendleton; and stone tableware crafted in Honolulu, Hawaii from Fine Spells. // 715 Higuera Street, lencollective.com.
Things to Do in (and Around) San Luis Obispo
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. // 7335 Higuera Street, 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. // Higuera Street between Nipomo and Osos Street, downtownslo.com.
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. Roughly 30 galleries and non-traditional art venues (restaurants, boutiques, and salons) partake in the affair. // See the full list at artsobispo.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 (2585 Biddle Ranch Road) with sweeping views and delicious food pairings, as well as Baileyana, Tangent & True Myth Tasting Room (5828 Orcutt Road), 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.