There's a reason this place has been called America's happiest city.
Situated almost halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the county and town of San Luis Obispo—or SLO—is notable for its miles of pristine California coastline, mellow climate, and attractions like Pismo Beach, Hearst Castle, and the world-class wines of Paso Robles AVA and its sub-regions.
The town of just over 47,000 full-time residents is a worthy destination as well as one of California’s oldest communities. While SLO’s heritage as a late 18th century mission and farming and ranching hub are still evident, it’s now best known as the home of California Polytechnic State University. SLO has the energy of a small college town, but the vibrant downtown is also home to elevated eateries, stylish boutique hotels, and a slew of arts and cultural events.
SLO is more than a just a destination; it's also a state of mind celebrating slow living (no pun intended), small-scale agricultural heritage, and outdoor recreation. This dynamic enclave is the perfect getaway the next time you're looking to escape the hustle of city life.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo
(Courtesy of SLO Brew Lofts)
The SLO Brew Lofts
These urban lofts are located right in the heart of downtown on the second floor of SLO Brew, which includes The Rock brewery and tap room, restaurant, and event space. Each of the five rustic-mod luxury rentals, which range from studios to three bedrooms, feels like your own hip apartment with exposed brick walls, Crosley record players, electric fireplaces, and cool kitchens outfitted with Smeg appliances. You'll want to move in for good. // 738 Higuera St., slobrew.com
The Butler Hotel
This historic 1950s building was once an auto repair garage but has since been 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 within walking distance to all the local sights. // 1511 Monterey St., thebutlerhotel.com
This charming boutique hotel has 17 intimate 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 French-inspired fare that's not to be missed. // 1130 Morro St., 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 famed for its 110 themed rooms: the Caveman room is built with solid rock and covered in animal print; Krazy Dazy is plastered with giant daisies and has pink shag carpet; and the Wilhelm Tell room has bright apple-red decor. You will never, ever experience anything else like the Madonna Inn. // 100 Madonna Rd., madonnainn.com
Apple Farm Inn
If you're looking for a quiet place to unwind, head to Apple Farm Inn, a quaint inn just outside of downtown. Rooms are cozy with fireplaces and nooks perfect for enjoying a glass of local wine and a book. The hotel grounds include lush gardens, a beloved restaurant (don’t miss the pancakes), and an authentic mill house. // 2015 Monterey St., applefarm.com
Hotel San Luis Obispo
This self-described modern resort has spacious rooms with laid-back, California-cool decor comprised of white oak floors, handmade rugs, and a soothing palette. Hotel SLO is just steps away from the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa as well as numerous restaurants and shops. 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, hit the Sol Spa, hop on one of the complimentary bikes, or sip cocktails from High Bar on the rooftop terrace. // 877 Palm St., hotel-slo.com
Hotel CerroAlthough it opened literally weeks before the pandemic hit, the break in business hasn’t hurt this luxurious, 65-room downtown property. Airy, comfortable rooms complement the hotel’s ethos of sustainability, which includes expansive onsite gardens that supply the hotel’s restaurant, Brasserie SLO, and a living wall. There’s also a distillery (the copper Holstein still is front-and-center in the lobby) and an ample assortment of local wines. Kick it at the rooftop pool or unwind at the spa before sauntering downstairs to tuck into the acclaimed fare from executive chef Derek Brooks. // 1125 Garden St., hotelcerro.com
Best Restaurants in San Luis Obispo
(Courtesy of Luna Red)
Hotel Cerro’s enchanting take on the traditional brasserie yields modernized classics augmented by the property’s edible gardens and those abundant coastal waters. From garden-grown artichoke dip to roasted carrot-coconut soup and lamb chops, the menu marries the flavors of Central California with those of rural France. Psst, breakfast means fresh-pressed juices from produce grown on-site. // 1125 Garden St., hotelcerro.com
Order a glass of sangria and chill on Luna Red's lush, sunny patio overlooking San Luis Obispo Creek, adjacent to the historic mission. 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 small plates. // 1023 Chorro St., lunaredslo.com
“San Luis Obispo’s most exclusive dining experience” may invite eye rolls, but Park 1039’s exquisite contemporary French fare hits the mark and celebrates the region’s finest family farms, ranches, and fisheries. Foraging is also a big part of the restaurant and adjacent marketplace’s ethos, so expect hyper-seasonal botanical delicacies, even seawater-derived sea salt, on the menu. If that’s not enough to convince you, the wine cellar is more than 2,000 bottles strong. Reservations are required. // 1039 Chorro St., park1039.com
This tiny 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 for easily the best sushi in SLO. It's also a hot spot, so be prepared to wait if you don't have reservations. If you can, grab a seat at the counter to watch the chefs in action. 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 St. #155, goshislo.com
SLO Public Market
Located on the historic Bonetti Ranch, SLO’s first public market(3845 South Higuera St.) opened in June 2021. It’s a beautifully conceptualized space that offers an elevated one-stop dining, drinking, and shopping experience. There are delectable dishes to be found at takeaways like Bing’s Bao Buns and Thai street food spot Baht; Kitchen & Vine does a localized sit-down dining experience. Beverages come in the form of local beer and wine tastings and retail at Bottlecraft (pair it with some cheese from Central Coast Creamery); craft cocktails at Rambling Spirits distillery's tasting room; and local favorite Kraken Coffee. Check the market's online events calendar for live music, standup comedy, tastings, and more.
Santa Maria–style barbecue is a big deal in SLO, with a number of highly rated places to choose from. The star of the show is the tri-tip sandwich, with tender beef served on a soft yet crispy French roll; other solid eats include the giant hamburgers and shredded pork sandwich. Firestone is a favorite for college students, locals, and visitors alike, so if it gets too crowded, hit up some other tasty joints: Old San Luis BBQ Co. (670 Higuera St.), the Rib Line(2256 Broad St. #110), and Mo's Smokehouse BBQ(1005 Monterey St.). // 1001 Higuera Street, firestonegrill.com
What a glorious and delicious way to acknowledge the agricultural delights of SLO and neighboring counties. This all-day takeaway (dine-in is also available) and specialty food retailer does rotisserie meats (think porchetta with arugula, preserved lemon vinaigrette, and house-baked crusty bread), family-style dinners, salads, and baked goods. Consider it one-stop shopping for breakfast, lunch, picnics, and souvenirs. // 1255 Monterey St., sloprovisions.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 healthy to downright indulgent. One of the best brunches and breakfasts in town is served here, with classics like omelets and specialty entrees such as shakshuka 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 St., bigskycafe.com
Mint + Craft Cafe and Mercantile
This fast-casual, modern eatery is the little sister of other SLO favorites Novo and Luna Red, offering fresh and healthy bites downtown. For breakfast, choose from sandwiches, a variety of delicious bowls, granola parfait, and more. The charming interior also has a small shop that sells artisan food and home décor products. // 848 Monterey St., mintandcraft.com
Where to Grab a Drink in San Luis Obispo
(Courtesy of @sidecarslo)
Sidecar Cocktail Co.
The namesake cocktail is done to perfection here, but that's just one of many sips offered on a sophisticated menu billed as "thoughtfully sourced California craft," utilizing the bounty of ingredients available along the Central Coast. Sidecar is also a great spot for lunch, dinner, and especially brunch (the Bloody Marys are raved about.). // 1040 Broad St., sidecarcocktail.company
There’s a growing number of award-winning breweries to choose from on the Central Coast. One of the most popular choices is Central Coast Brewery(1422 Monterey St. and 6 Higuera St.), known for its hand-crafted signature ales, lagers, IPAs, and sours. 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 Brewing Co(1033 Chorro St.).
With brick walls, pretty wallpaper and an abundance of plants, Scout Coffee (1130 Garden St. and 880 Foothill Blvd) is the IG-worthy spot where you'll want to hang out all day. Beans come from sister roastery HoneyCo; the latte art is on point; and the honey tea bowl—best described as a magical cloud—is divine. // Ascendo Coffee (974 Monterey St.,) is a local favorite with a lofty industrial vibe. There are plenty of outlets for those who need to plug in, but also a designated no-tech space with various board games on hand. The team roasts their own beans and makes their pastries, syrups, chai, and almond milk onsite daily. // Founded in 2010 by a couple of Cal Poly roommates inspired by cafe culture in Berlin, Kreuzberg Coffee (685 Higuera St.) serves 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 for getting cozy.
Things to Do in + Around San Luis Obispo
(Courtesy of @ednavalleyvineyard)
Edna Valley Wine Tasting
Just 15 minutes from downtown, you'll find one of California's most prized AVAs: the Edna Valley. It's so close, you can easily Uber to the vineyards—the ride share even has an Uber Wine feature so you can hire a driver for however long you'd like at an affordable price. Spend at least a half day sampling the region's pinot noir and chardonnay among dozens of wineries. Two of our favorites include Edna Valley Vineyard(2585 Biddle Ranch Rd., reservations recommended) with sweeping views and delicious food pairings, and the Baileyana tasting room (5828 Orcutt Rd.), located in a historic 1909 schoolhouse.
This alley, which is 70 feet long with 15-foot-high walls, is packed with chewed wads of gum. It is one of the strangest, definitely the most disgusting, and probably the most popular attractions in downtown SLO. This town landmark was evidently started by teenagers back in the 1950s and has grown in the ensuing decades as visitors make their own contributions. We recommend not touching the, er, art. // 7335 Higuera St.
Hike Cerro San Luis Mountain or Bishop’s Peak
Get outdoors with these challenging but beautiful hikes just minutes from downtown. Part of the chain of peaks called the nine sisters, their summits offer a panoramic view of downtown SLO and, on a clear day, en the Pacific Ocean and Morro Rock. // hikespeak.com
A Bit of Shopping
Don't just eat and run when you're at SLO Public Market. Much like Sebastopol's Barlow or San Francisco's Ferry Building, there are a variety of merchants here (you can even get your hair done). Swing by certified B-Corp Parker Clay to peruse leather goods made in Ethiopia, and SLO General Store where you can pick up edible souvenirs and novelties from small local businesses. // Every city has its beloved indie bookstore. At Phoenix Books(986 Monterey St.), the musty smell of old paper and stacks of used and vintage books woo us from every corner, from floor to ceiling. Come ready for a treasure hunt. // Boo Boo Records(978 Monterey St.) has been a mainstay in SLO for over 40 years and has even been called one of the best record stores in America by Rolling Stone. The small shop holds a huge collection of both vintage records and CDs, and the walls are packed with memorabilia.
Downtown SLO Farmers Market
This Thursday market is more of a weekly evening street fair and the entire community shows up. Its sheer size is impressive, with more than 100 vendors selling regional produce and treats ranging from caramel popcorn to Asian eats. // Higuera St. between Nipomo and Osos streets, downtownslo.com
The first Friday of each month, downtown SLO opens up a self-guided tour of art exhibits and galleries after hours (5pm to 8pm) to feature the original work of local and internationally acclaimed artists. Nonprofits, boutiques, and other small businesses also partake in the affair. // artsobispo.org
Stop off in Morro Bay
On your way back to the Bay Area, stop in coastal Morro Bay, an authentic California fishing village that serves up seaside adventures from fresh seafood to world-class whale watching, beachcombing and kayaking. Don't miss the Morro Bay Kite Festival (April 30 through May 1, 2023), which brings together kite flyers of all ages to enjoy that legendary kite-flying wind.
Thank you to our partners at Visit Morro Bay.