The 8 Best Things to Do, Eat, and See in and Around San Luis Obispo, California

From feasting on pastries at the Madonna Inn to sipping chardonnay at Chamisal Vineyards, these are some of the best things to do in and around the Central Coast city.

An overlook of the Pacific Ocean near San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is the perfect base from which to explore California’s Central Coast.

Photo by AntonioFernandez/Shutterstock

Located roughly halfway in between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of California’s best kept secrets: the Central Coast—and the perfect enclave to explore it from, San Luis Obispo.

Home to some 47,000 people as well as the California Polytechnic State University (also known as CalPoly), San Luis Obispo is certainly a college town but it’s much more than that. It’s a former outpost of the Spanish empire, home to a thriving weekly farmers’ market, and in the middle of Central Coast wine country. Its convenient location makes it the perfect jumping off point to explore the area’s wineries, its ocean bluffs and state parks, and the nearby coastline.

These are the 8 best things to do in and around San Luis Obispo.

A view of the Lone Cypress on Highway 1 in California

Highway 1 is one of the most beautiful highways in the state, if not the country.

Photo by Lynn Yeh/Shutterstock

1. Enjoy the drive on Highway 1

One of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo is simply to enjoy the ride into town. If you’re coming from either the Bay Area or L.A., chances are that you’ll take Highway 1 into SLO. Highway 1 has been repeatedly heralded as one of the most beautiful drives in the country. The route hugs the coastline and drivers are flanked by farmland (or redwoods, if you’re passing through Big Sur, which is temporarily closed for road repairs) on one side and the Pacific on the other. Pro tip: If you’re coming from the south, be sure to stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery to observe the seals resting in the sun.

Alternatively, the other popular route from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo is historic Highway 101, aka the Camino Real. It’s known for the bell markers along the 700-mile route. This highway will also take travelers past Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, a fine place to stop and picnic mid–road trip.

I borrowed a Mercedes S580e, which had ergonomically designed seats that made the three-hour trip feel like a breeze. The S580e is a plug-in hybrid and is able to run on purely gas if need be, but is more fuel efficient when its battery is charged. There are plentiful places to plug in along both Highway 1 and Highway 101, but most charging stations are Tesla Superchargers, so bring an adapter if you’ll need one. Google Maps marks charging stations on its maps, but apps like EV-specific apps and websites like PlugShare can also be helpful.

People sitting outside of Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern was once a stagecoach stop along the San Marcos pass.

Photo by Francisco Blanco/Shutterstock

2. Eat at Cold Spring Tavern

Location: 5995 Stagecoach Rd., Santa Barbara | Find on Google Maps

For travelers heading up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. or Santa Barbara, a stop at Cold Spring Tavern, located just outside of SB, is a must. Cold Spring Tavern dates back to the mid-1800s, when the structure that now houses the restaurant was used as a stagecoach stop along the San Marcos pass, an important route that connected Santa Barbara with farms in the Santa Ynez Valley. In 1941, Adelaide Ovington, a former actress and writer, purchased the property and transformed it into the tavern and restaurant that it is today—it’s still family owned.

Besides its idyllic location (Cold Spring Tavern is next to a creek in the mountains surrounding Santa Barbara), the restaurant is known for its generously portioned Santa Maria-style tri-tip sandwiches. Don’t forget to order the beer-battered onion rings as a side. Fun fact: Cold Spring Tavern was the first restaurant to ever serve Hidden Valley Ranch dressing (its inventor, Steven Henson, lived nearby). It was an instant hit and is still served there.

The pulpit of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Mission located in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra.

Photo by Paul R. Jones/Shutterstock

3. Check out the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Location: 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo | Find on Google Maps

Founded in 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was the fifth mission founded in the state of California and remains active today; it’s a can’t-miss for traveling history buffs. The building’s walls are more than 50 feet high and were once covered in tiles to protect it from flaming arrows fired by the original inhabitants of the land, the Salinans and the Chumash people. The mission museum, next to the gift shop, details its history as well as the history of the Chumash tribe and Spanish and American settlement. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.

The very pink dining room of the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo

The Madonna Inn is arguably one of the most eccentric hotels in California.

Photo by Paul R. Jones/Shutterstock

4. Visit the Madonna Inn

Location: 100 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo | Find on Google Maps

There’s perhaps no more iconic landmark in San Luis Obispo than the Madonna Inn, which first opened for business in 1958. The outside of the Madonna looks relatively tame, with an exterior that feels Swiss Alps–inspired. Inside, however, guests will find a raucous mix of designs—each of the property’s 110 guest rooms are unique with themes ranging from the “Caveman Room” to the “Love Nest.” And that’s to say nothing of its dining room, which is decidedly . . . pink. Besides its wild decor, the Madonna Inn is also well-known for its house-made pastries and sweets—try a slice of one of its generously portioned cakes or pies.

The wine grape fields of Chamisal Vineyards

Chamisal Vineyards is in the picturesque hills of Edna Valley.

Courtesy of Chamisal Vineyards

5. Have a sip at Chamisal Vineyards

Location: 7525 Orcutt Rd., San Luis Obispo | Find on Google Maps

One of the best things to do around San Luis Obispo is to explore the Central Coast’s wine country. There are over 250 wineries within San Luis Obispo County, 50 of them certified as Sustainable in Practice by SIP. Chamisal Vineyards, located about 15 minutes from downtown SLO among the rolling hills of Edna Valley, has been SIP-certified since 2010. Here, wine enthusiasts will be able to sample pinot noirs, chardonnays, and the winery’s signature sparkling wine and can tour the winery’s grounds. Keep an eye out for the hotly anticipated annual Lobster Fest, where diners are able to feast on steamed lobsters and prawns while enjoying Chamisal’s wines—but be forewarned that tickets sell out quickly. If you’d like winery-hop in a sustainable fashion, consider checking out the self-guided SLO Sustainable Wine Trail, which follows 70-miles of Highway 101, from San Luis Obispo County to Paso Robles.

A bunch of carrots at the San Luis Obispo farmers' market

The Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market takes over five blocks of the city each week.

Photo by Lori Bonati/Shutterstock

6. Shop (and taste) the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market

Location: Higuera St., San Luis Obispo | Find on Google Maps

Every Thursday from 6 p.m. to roughly 8:30 p.m., San Luis Obispo’s weekly farmers’ market takes over Higuera Street downtown. There, shoppers will be able to stock up on pantry essentials, from meat and eggs to dairy and veggies. But it’s not just about the produce. Take time to peruse the foods and drinks available at the farmers’ market; there are stalls devoted to everything from Santa Maria–style barbecue to bubble tea.

The indoor tiled blue Roman Pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon

Hearst Castle was once known as La Cuesta Encantada and its pricey construction contributed to William Randolph Hearst’s bankrupcty.

Photo by gnohz/Shutterstock

7. See Hearst Castle

Location: 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon | Find on Google Maps

Admission: Starting at $30 per person for the Grand Rooms Tour | Purchase Tickets

Hearst Castle, about a 50-minute drive from downtown San Luis Obispo, is well worth the trip. It was constructed between 1919 and 1947 by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who established the Hearst Communications newspaper empire. At its height, the Hearst estate encompassed more than 250,000 acres, but the crowning jewel of the property is, of course, the castle, which architect Julia Morgan designed.

Sited high on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle was largely inspired by Hearst’s travels around Europe, and much of the property is adorned with antique statues and accents that he imported. To see it, visitors will need to purchase tickets to a tour with California State Parks. The most popular tour is the Grand Rooms tour, which takes guests through the assembly room, refectory, morning room, billiard room, and movie theater and ends at the famed indoor Roman Pool, decked out with brilliant turquoise and gold tiles.

Cerro Peak in San Luis Obispo

Hiking around San Luis Obispo is one of the best ways to get familiar with the area.

Photo by Nick Fox/Shutterstock

8. Take a hike

There’s no shortage of places to hike around San Luis Obispo. One of the most popular and accessible hikes is the Montaña de Oro Bluff Trail, which is perfect for getting a bird’s-eye view of the city and seeing the Pacific Ocean. Pro tip: Go in the spring to walk among fields of blooming wildflowers. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, consider Reservoir Canyon Trail, which offers adventurers dazzling peeks of the Pacific and takes them past waterfalls and an old bell tower. Bring plenty of water and sun protection—the trail has 1,350 feet of elevation gain.

Where to stay in San Luis Obispo

White interior of a two-bedroom suite at the San Luis Creek Lodge

The design of the San Luis Creek Lodge is inspired by the area’s beaches and vineyards.

Courtesy of San Luis Creek Lodge

San Luis Creek Lodge

  • Location: 1941 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
  • Why we love it: A bed-and-breakfast with a boho farmhouse ambiance
  • Book now
  • Starting at $194 per night

Sited on the edge of downtown SLO, this attractive bed-and-breakfast offers 25 rooms spread across three unique buildings. All rooms were designed by Nina Freudenberger and are decorated with bohemian, contemporary farmhouse–inspired design; most are also equipped with fireplaces. Fresh coffee and breakfast pastries are delivered directly to guests’ doors every morning.

Hotel SLO

  • Location: 877 Palm St., San Luis Obispo | Find on Google Maps
  • Why we love it: A prime location in the heart of San Luis Obispo
  • Book now
  • Starting at $372 per night

Hotel SLO is located smack dab in the middle of the middle of downtown San Luis Obispo near historic Chinatown making it easy to get to all the best restaurants, bars, and attractions that the town has to offer. However, this 78-room hotel has a resort-like ambiance and doesn’t feel busy, despite its location. Hotel SLO offers two on-site restaurants, Ox + Anchor and Piadina, a bocce ball court, three bars (including a rooftop lounge), a full-service spa, and pool and Jacuzzi area.

White interior of guest room at the Pacific Motel

The Pacific Motel is located in the underrated Central Coast beach community of Cayucos.

Courtesy of the Pacific Motel

The Pacific Motel

  • Location: 399 S. Ocean Ave. | Find on Google Maps
  • Why we love it: Cute-as-a-button motel in California’s “last” surf town
  • Book now
  • Starting at $199 per night

The Pacific Motel is located just a block from the ocean in nearby Cayucos. Some 20 minutes from SLO, Cayucos calls itself the “the last great California beach town.” Formerly known as the Dolphin Inn, the Pacific Motel reopened in October 2022 after it was purchased by Cayucos locals Ryan and Marisa Fortini, who gave the property a down-to-the-studs renovation. The Pacific Motel has 13 guest rooms and six 1920s bungalows that were originally used as military barracks at Camp San Luis Obispo. Inside, guests will find impeccably designed rooms that have a clean, coastal vibe. Cayucos is a tiny town, so it’s totally possible to walk anywhere within its boundaries, but should travelers need to get somewhere fast in a pinch, the motel has bikes available to borrow. There are a number of outdoor firepits for those who want fresh air while staying cozy.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at Afar. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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