Your guide to San Luis Obispo, California

21 Best things to do in San Luis Obispo, California

San Luis Obispo, or SLO, as locals call it, is tucked between the green hills of Santa Lucia Mountains along California’s Coast. It boasts year-round sunshine, buzzing cultural scene and tons of recreational opportunities. 

When you spend a bit of time in San Luis Obispo, you understand why it has been nicknamed “The Happiest City in America.”

If you want visit this Central California town, I’m here to tell you about all the fun things to do San Luis Obispo!

Central California places to visit

Where is San Luis Obispo located?

If you plan a road trip along California’s Coast, SLO is a perfect halfway stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

San Luis Obispo is about 190 miles north of Los Angeles and 170 miles south of the iconic Big Sur. However, this town should be treated as more than just a pit stop along your itinerary. It’s a perfect place to relax and have a great time before hitting the road again.

PRO TIP: San Luis Obispo sits 106 miles north of Santa Barbara, a glamorous town known for its wineries, colonial architecture and celebrities who live there. 

While Santa Barbara is one of the most popular places along California’s Central Coast, I suggest visiting both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, because these two cities are different and have so much to offer! 

Find Your Rental Car

Driving to San Luis Obispo

If you want more freedom and want to explore some of the best places to visit near San Luis Obispo and check other incredible destinations along Central California Coast off your bucket list, consider renting a car. I recommend Discover Cars, one of the best car rental companies that has thousands of vehicles and very reasonable prices.

How to get around San Luis Obispo

If you want to explore the area beyond downtown SLO, hop on the RTA bus which stops across from the Government Center at Palm Street and Osos Street. 

From there, you can get to several nearby towns such as Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay. And don’t forget to bring cash, because this bus doesn’t accept credit cards! Most of the time, you can’t get change either, so prepare 5 or 1-dollar bills for your trip. 

You can also check the RTA bus schedule online. 

How far is San Luis Obispo from the beach?

If you decide to stay in downtown San Luis Obispo, it will take you about 15 minutes to get to the beach by car or 30 minutes by bus that stops in the city’s downtown.

Shell Beach is nine miles away from downtown San Luis Obispo and it takes about 10 minutes by car to get there. Avila Beach is 10 miles and Pismo Beach is 13 miles from downtown San Luis Obispo.

Best hotels in San Luis Obispo

Located in the middle of the major travel route in Central California, San Luis Obispo boasts many hotels for many tastes and price points. Here you can find eclectic luxury hotels and modest inexpensive stays that are perfect if you only need a basic accommodation.

Check out this article to learn about the best hotels in San Luis Obispo for any type of traveler.

best hotels in San Luis Obispo
Photo courtesy Hotel San Luis Obispo

Hotel San Luis Obispo

One of the best hotels in San Luis Obispo, according to guests’ reviews, Hotel San Luis Obispo is a stylish boutique property that has a restaurant, a lounge, and a gorgeous garden in San Luis Obispo. Breakfast is available at the property and you can enjoy great views right from your balcony.

The hotel is located near some of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo in the city’s downtown, only 4 minutes away from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, as well as other popular landmarks.

Best hotels in San Luis Obispo
Photo courtesy The Cliffs Hotel and Spa

The Cliffs Hotel and Spa

Located along the bluffs, The Cliffs Hotel and Spa in Pismo Beach is an amazing 5-star property with the ocean view. The Cliffs has a restaurant, bar and a huge pool, and the gorgeous beach right nearby. It’s also within walking distance to several restaurants and stores.

Quality Suites Downtown San Luis Obispo

If you are looking for a convenient stay, Quality Suites is one of the best places. It’s located right off the highway and other amenities of a typical mid-range hotel. 

Best things to do in San Luis Obispo

Downtown San Luis Obispo

1. Stroll along downtown San Luis Obispo

Starting your trip with a visit to the historic downtown San Luis Obispo is an excellent idea. This is the best way to learn the city and one of the best FREE things to do in San Luis Obispo.

The heart of the city was built around Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and today it boasts a bunch of landmarks along the beautiful tree-lined streets. 

Walking along Higuera Street, the busiest street in downtown is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo if you want to get a taste of the city and its culture. Here you will find vintage stores, restaurants, and cafes with a good variety of food.

PRO TIP: If you don’t have a car rental, you can get on the Old SLO Trolley on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings to make your way around downtown San Luis Obispo.

Grab a bite and sit down at the SLO Creek Wall, a venue with cool public art that provides a nice atmosphere for a quick picnic. 

To get more detailed information, stop at San Luis Obispo Visitor Information Center at 895 Monterey Street.

Bubblegum Alley San Luis Obispo California

2. Pop some bubbles at Bubblegum Alley

Located right off Higuera Street, this accepted act of public nuisance is one of the most fun places in downtown SLO. 

Like it or not, but Bubblegum Alley is a draw for many tourists who come here to snap a shot in front of one of the walls plastered with thousands of pieces of chewed-up bubble gum. 

Visiting the famous Bubblegum Alley has become somewhat of a rite of passage, so get some gum and join the ranks. If you are looking for a fun and quirky place, visiting this spot is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo!

San Luis Obispo History Center

3. Learn history at San Luis Obispo History Center and Museum

Want to learn about the history of San Luis Obispo and San Luis Obispo County? Head to the history center that houses a gallery, a bookstore and a research room dedicated to the history of the region. 

Address: 696 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

4. Go for a walk in San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden 

Home to a collection of drought-resistant plants from several Mediterranean climates, SLO Botanical Garden sits in the hills of El Chorro Regional Park, between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.

If you are visiting San Luis Obispo from May through September, it’s better to visit in the morning, as it gets a bit hot here. The garden is also a great example of sustainable water use and species conservation, and you can learn a lot about these efforts by visiting this place.

The greenhouse and nursery located on-site provide plants for the gardens and parks throughout San Luis Obispo. Admission is free, but to enter El Chorro Regional Park, you need to pay $3 per vehicle. 

Address: 3450 Dairy Creek Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

5. Sample local food

If you are a foodie, taking part in the Walking Food Tour aka Taste of SLO is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo. This experience allows visitors to learn everything about the city’s culture and history while enjoying food and drinks from local restaurants and cafes. 

It’s a perfect way to interact with locals and support small businesses that are so important to the city’s economy. You can book tickets online ahead of your trip to SLO.

Top places to visit in California

6. Admire Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

San Luis Obispo de Tolosa that was founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra. It’s the fifth California mission that was established to bring the Catholic religion to the native people of Alta, California. 

If you are a history buff, it’s one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo, and you can easily spend a few hours here, so make sure to set some time aside.

Part of the city’s heritage, San Luis Obispo Mission offers group and individual tours  where visitors can learn about the history of San Luis Obispo. It also has a beautiful garden, museum, and a gift shop that sells jewelry and artworks. 

The museum is free and is open from 9 p.m.-5 p.m.

Address: 751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

7. Find The Bells of El Camino Real

If you are a history buff, learning about the history of the Bells of El Camino Real is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo.

El Camino Real is a historic route linking 21 missions, pueblos, and four presidios from San Diego to Sonoma. 

Back in the day, a coalition of Spaniards and Mexicans established outposts up the California coast. The first mission was built in 1769 in San Diego when they established a fortress and a Franciscan mission. 

The El Camino Real was created to connect the outposts, or missions that were constructed later. The outposts were typically built in areas where large populations of Natives lived and were primarily used to convert them to Catholicism.

Over time some of the original bells of the 700-mile route were stolen or lost however many have been restored in the 1900s.

PRO TIP: Highways 101 and 82 have several bells on the side of the road, so keep your eyes peeled. The California Highways website also offers a useful map of the full route and a list of the Missions. 

The road begins at Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego and ends at Mission San Francisco Solano in the town of Sonoma.

Top places to visit in California

8. Watch a movie at Fremont Theater

Another prominent landmark in SLO is the pink-colored Fremont Theater, one of the oldest movie theaters in the United States that opened in 1942. You can still come here to watch a movie in a cool setting, so come grab your tickets and mingle with the local crowd.

Address: 1035 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

9. Shop at SLO’s Farmer’s Market

Staying in San Luis Obispo for a couple of days? Stop by Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market that is open every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is open year round. Visiting this long-time staple is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo, if you want to try fresh produce from local vendors and taste delicious snacks.

The market is located on five blocks of Higuera Street approximately between Osos Street and Nipomo Street in Downtown San Luis Obispo. 

10. Go on a wine tasting tour in San Luis Obispo Wine Country

San Luis Obispo might not be as famous as Santa Barbara or Napa Valley for its wine, and yet, it’s home to over 250 wineries spread across Paso Robles and the San Luis Obispo wine country – two major wine grape-growing regions in Central California. The area offers great wine tasting opportunities where you can sample locally made wine in specialized tasting rooms and many wine trails.

If you want to visit some of the best wineries in San Luis Obispo County, take a tour of Paso Robles with The Wine Line that includes stops at five wineries where you can samples some of the best wine from Central California!

The best thing about this tour is that your guide will pick you up at your hotel and help you to choose from dozens of wineries in the region.

Here you will find everything from small boutique wineries owned by local families to bigger producers, but no matter what you choose, you will have a great experience, because you will be able to enjoy a relaxing experience amid the green rolling hills and small country roads.

PRO TIP: For best experience combine a tour of Paso Robles’ wine country with a stop at the historic Hearst Castle, one of the most popular places to visit in Central California.

Best places to visit in California

11. Enjoy contemporary art at San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Located in the middle of downtown, San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (or SLOMA for short) offers free admission and has several galleries where you can find a variety of artworks produced by contemporary artists. The museum also offers art classes for adults and youth, as well as events and concerts.  

Address: 1010 Broad Street in San Luis Obispo on the west end of Mission Plaza. 
Cerro San Luis Obispo

12. Hike Nine Sisters

San Luis Obispo is a hiker’s dream.

The famous “Nine Sisters,” a chain of volcanic mountains stretching from SLO to the iconic Morro Bay provide tons of opportunities for recreation such as hiking, mountain biking and running. 

Besides offering recreational heaven, these dormant volcanic plugs of magma are a true sight to behold. And thanks to the mild coastal climate in San Luis Obispo with plenty of sunshine, you can enjoy these natural wonders year-round.
Nine sisters San Luis obispo

13. Enjoy the sunset from Bishop Peak

One of the most popular hikes in SLO is the Bishop Peak. 

It’s a 3,5 miles round-trip hike with an elevation of 1,000 feet. Although the hike is considered to be moderate, you can do it even if you are not an advanced hiker. Bishop Peak is especially famous for its sunrise and sunset views, and while a lot of people try to make it to the peak to catch the sunset, sunrises are typically less crowded.

Get your hiking boots on, to check out the best things to do in San Luis Obispo!

14. Hike Cerro San Luis Obispo for some workout

I hiked a smaller mountain called Cerro San Luis Obispo (or Madonna Mountain) from where you can get a pretty good view of the Bishop Peak (See the above photo). 

Hiking the 4-mile loop trail takes about 1,5-2 hours and opens a sprawling view of the city. And the best part is that you can access Cerro San Luis Obispo on foot right from the downtown. 

Speaking from personal experience, this was one of my favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo, when I visited the city in mid-January, and I suggest you do the same, especially if you like staying active on your trips. 

Best hotels in San Luis Obispo
Photo courtesy Madonna Inn

15. Spend a night at Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn, is one of the most popular stops in San Luis Obispo, and while many visitors come here to take pictures, I recommend you spend the night at this hotel, because there’s no other place like it!

This candy-colored hotel is not only an awesome place to stay at, it’s also one of the most popular landmarks in this Central California city.

The hotel features pink decors and is known for its Madonna champagne cakes. Each room at Madonna Inn is decorated with a whimsy theme. Staying in Madonna Inn is an experience in yourself, and you should not miss out on it!

Address: 100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

16. Visit California Polytechnic State Graveyard Architecture 

Cal Poly State Graveyard is perhaps one of the most unusual places in San Luis Obispo located just a mile away from the school’s campus.

The graveyard boasts a collection of sculptures and structures created by former students and has a bit of a buzzard look to it. Here you will find arches, shell houses, various types of equipment, and a whole lot more! 

Wandering through this area is a lot of fun and one of the best free things to do in San Luis Obispo as you can enjoy art and gorgeous landscapes at the same time since the exhibit is located outside.

Beaches near San Luis Obispo

17. Have a lazy day at one of San Luis Obispo beaches

SLO isn’t on the coast, but it offers a quick access to several beach towns where you can relax and catch the wave. 

Whether you crave a lazy beach day, or want to explore the Oceano Dunes, the only state park in California where vehicles can be driven on the beach, visiting the Central California coastline is one of the most fun things to do in San Luis Obispo. 

Avila Beach, California

18. Learn to surf at Avila Beach

The town of Avila Beach has a quaint downtown with surf shops, organic cafes, and restaurants along the waterfront. 

Protected by the hills of SLO Bay which spare it from the big waves, Avila Beach is a good place to learn how to surf and paddle board. It is about 15 minutes away from downtown SLO by car and 30 minutes by bus, if you take one from the SLO’s Government Center. 

Shell Beach, California

19. Enjoy wildlife at Shell Beach

Another small coastal community, Shell Beach is part of Pismo Beach between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean. 

Right in the heart of Shell Beach, you will find an amazing set of cliffs covered by the lush vegetation. It’s a beautiful place to sit down, soak up the sun and listen to the ocean breeze. What makes Shell Beach special is its secluded shoreline that is home to nine sandy beaches hidden below the craggy cliffs. The biggest draw of Shell Beach is the picturesque tide pools where you can spot cool marine wildlife. 

How to find Shell Beach

Shell Beach sits just north of downtown Pismo Beach and is easily accessible via Price Street.

If you want to explore the area, head to Dinosaur Caves Park and Margo Dodd Park for wonderful scenery and wildlife sights. 

It’s not uncommon to spot sea lions and otters in Dinosaur Caves Park. And if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a whale! When you stop at Shell Beach, don’t forget to pay a visit to Joy Shell Beach, a good place to grab an acai bowl and other vegan goodies!  

Pismo Beach, California

20. Spend a day in Pismo Beach

When you get to Pismo Beach, you might think for second that you are in Southern California. There’s little surprise in it because Pismo Beach is a relaxed, unpretentious town with a slow pace of life that offers wide sandy shores, a photogenic pier and a vibrant downtown lined with shops, cafes and restaurants for all tastes. 

Things to do in Pismo Beach

While there many restaurants in Pismo Beach, don’t forget to stop at Old West Cinnamon Rolls for some delicious vegan cinnamon rolls. I promise you will not be disappointed! If you want to get around between several beach towns in the Sun Luis Obispo area, consider hopping on the trolley, a small bus that goes from the stop at Pismo Beach Outlets to Avila Beach. 

21. Explore California Highway One Discovery Route

Besides being one of the most beautiful places in California, San Luis Obispo also boasts a strategic location along the famous Highway 1.

Travelers traversing between Los Ángeles and San Francisco on California’s Highway One Discovery Route pass through San Luis Obispo County, home to San Luis Obispo as well as many small towns and historic landmarks.

But the entire Discovery Route boasts more than 40 attractions spread across the road hugging the Pacific coast. These attractions range from seaside villages, small cute towns, state parks, lush wine yards and so much more! Whether you love nature, history, art, or culture – there’s something for everyone here.

Best day trips from San Luis Obispo

Not only San Luis Obispo is a beautiful town with plenty of scenic views and culture, but it also provides access to some of the best places to visit in Central California. Many of these places are located under 1,5 hours from San Luis Obispo, which is why renting a car makes so much sense.

With the number of cool day trips from San Luis Obispo, plan at least a week for your trip to this region of California.

Paso Robles

Before you plan your trip to San Luis Obispo, consider sparing a day for a trip to the nearby Paso Robles, a unique California town famous for its wineries scattered along the rolling hills and lush olive groves.

But it’s not just wine and pretty landscapes: The City of Paso Robles boasts a great dining scene, museums, galleries and a charming downtown square to keep you busy all day long! If you are short on time, consider booking a tour of Paso Robles to see one of California’s top producing wine regions. 

Morro Bay

It’s pretty tough to run out of cool things to in San Luis Obispo, if you want to enjoy a quick getaway, hop in a car and head to Morro Bay, a small coastal town about 15 minutes from SLO that is easily recognized by the huge Morro Rock, the last of the Nine Sisters along Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo.

Located about one hour away from SLO, Morro Bay offers a quiet retreat from the bigger San Luis Obispo, as it has a gorgeous white sand beach and abundant marine life.

Montana De Oro State Park

Located just 15 minutes away from San Luis Obispo by car, Montana De Oro is one of the most scenic state parks in California. It is one of the best places for hiking near San Luis Obispo thanks to many trails in the area that are suitable for hikers of all levels.

For best experience spend at least half a day at this state park. Some of the most popular trails in the area are the 3.4-mile Bluff Trail that takes you along the rugged coastline, bluffs, and pools; Valencia Peak Trail, a demanding hike that offers spectacular panoramic views of the area from the 1,347-feet peak, one of the tallest points of Montana De Oro State Park; and Hazard Peak Trail, one of the most popular hikes in Central California that has a gradual ascent.

Although Montana De Oro is a great place to visit during any time of the year, spring is one of the most popular times in the park thanks to the booking wildflowers that blanket the green rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Lopez Lake

A hidden gem near San Luis Obispo, Lopez Lake is one of the best spots near San Luis Obispo for outdoor lovers. This gorgeous lake spans over 22 miles and boasts campgrounds, cool hiking trails, and scenic vistas. Many locals come to Lopez Lake for a quiet getaway where you can enjoy many outdoor activities and disconnect for a few days.

If you want to spend the night here, there are many rental cabins available on Lopez Lake, so you can spend the night here after a day of kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, and hiking.

Los Padres National Forest

Portions of Los Padres National Forest are located within San Luis Obispo County and are easily accessible from several towns, which is great if you are continuing your road trip along Central California Coast and want to visit more areas in the region.

The Field of Light at Sensorio

One of the most unusual places to visit near San Luis Obispo is the spectacular Feld of Light at Sensorio, a 15-acre field dotted with more than 60,000 artificial lights which make for an incredible spectacle. Although this is a relatively new spot near San Luis Obispo, it has gained a lot of popularity primarily due to its social media fame.

Hearst Castle in California

Hearst Castle

One of the major stops along Central California Coast, Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark that was built by William Randolph Hearst, a publishing magnate and designed by California’s first female architect Julia Morgan.

This opulent mansion was finished in 1947 and today it is one of the most popular places to visit in California. The true grandeur of this place can be seen in 165 rooms, fountains, pools, and lush gardens that overlook the Pacific Ocean from the hill.

Best tours of Hearst Castle

You can also take one of Heart Castle’s Daily Tours to visit this place and visas your visit at Hearst Ranch Winery, where you can savor locally produced wine amid the rolling hills before continuing your journey to Big Sur.

The tour of the castle will take at least a few hours, so you might want to stay in nearby San Simeon.

Best road trips from San Luis Obispo

Big Sur

California’s iconic Highway 1 is one of the most famous roads in the world. 

From wide sandy beaches of Southern California and the magnificent Big Sur in central part of the state to wine country and redwoods in the north, this coastal drive is one of the most beautiful parts of California.

This rugged stretch of Central California Coast from San Simeon to Carmel Highlands is characterized by its unspoiled coastline with tall redwoods, gorgeous hiking trails, and eco-friendly rustic resorts. If you decide to visit Big Sur, make sure to spend at least a couple of days there before continuing your trip north.

I recommend spending at least one night in Big Sur so you could enjoy one of the most beautiful places to visit in California!

Some of the highlights of Big Sur are McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pfeiffer Beach. Other popular things to do in Big Sur are Sand Dollar Beach, Garrapata State Park, and Andrew Molera State Park.

And if you are looking for a place to stay in Big Sur, check out these awesome glamping options!

Why visit San Luis Obispo?

San Luis Obispo is one of the best places to visit in Central California! It offers a laid-back atmosphere, gorgeous scenery, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and close distance to the famous Big Sur.

Although some tourists skip San Luis Obispo when traveling around the coastal part of the state, San Luis Obispo deserves a spot on your California itinerary, and you can easily spend a few days here enjoying everything that this city has to offer.

What is the best time to visit San Luis Obispo?

When planning a trip to Santa Barbara, keep local weather in mind. San Luis Obispo has a slightly cooler climate compared to Southern California. But the difference is not significant: the best time to visit San Luis Obispo is from March through May when it’s not too busy and from September through early November before the cold spell rolls in the area. 

Summers bring hot temperatures and can get busy, since a lot of kids are on school break. July and August is the most expensive time to visit San Luis Obispo when travelers from all over the country flock to this part of California.

Best things to do in San Luis Obispo: final word

San Luis Obispo is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Central California. From the history and culture to spectacular hikes and some of the best California beaches, there are plenty of cool things to do in San Luis Obispo that make it a worthy stop on your California itinerary.

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