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If you plan to visit San Luis Obispo, one of the best cities in Central California, I’m here to tell you about all the fun things to do San Luis Obispo!
San Luis Obispo, or SLO, as locals call it, is tucked between the green hills of Santa Lucia Mountains along California’s Coast. The town boasts year-round sunshine, buzzing cultural scene, great hiking and surfing.
Once you visit, you will understand why it has been nicknamed “The Happiest City in America.” It has a small-town charm, a close-knit community, year-round recreational opportunities and postcard views that make you want to spend more than just a few days in the area.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN LUIS OBISPO: AN OVERVIEW
From exploring the vibrant downtown SLO to enjoying wine and surfing along Central California beaches, these are some of the best activities in 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.
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.
What to do in San Luis Obispo downtown
Walking along Higuera Street, the busiest street in downtown is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo at night or during the day. Here you will find vintage stores, restaurants, and cafes with a good variety of food.
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.
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.
To get more detailed information, stop at the Visitor Information Center at 895 Monterey Street.
2. Go on a wine tasting tour
San Luis Obispo might not be as famous as Santa Barbara or Napa Valley, 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, a tour of Paso Robles with The Wine Line includes stops at five wineries.
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. Sampling local wine is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo for couples.
BEST WINE TASTING TOURS FROM SAN LUIS OBISPO
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.
👉 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.
3. 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.
4. Take a trip to Morro Bay
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.
If you don’t have a car, join one of the best guided tours to Morro Bay that offer some of the highlights of the area.
BEST TOURS OF MORRO BAY 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.
5. Learn history at San Luis Obispo History Center and Museum
Want to learn about the history of the area?
Head to the history center that houses a gallery, a bookstore and a research room dedicated to the history and culture of the region.
Address: 696 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
6. 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 from May through September, 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 the city.
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
7. Sample local food
If you are a foodie, the Walking Food Tour aka Taste of SLO is a must! This experience allows visitors to learn everything about the city’s culture and history while enjoying food and drinks from local restaurants and cafes.
BEST FOOD TOURS OF SAN LUIS OBISPO
It’s a perfect way to interact with locals and support small businesses that are so important to the city’s economy.
✅ Book tickets online ahead of your trip to SLO.
8. Relax in Mineral Hot Springs
If you aren’t sure about what to do after a day of activities, check out some of the best mineral hot springs in the city.
Sycamore Mineral Springs Spa and Resort is one of the most popular resorts in the area.
Here you can also have a nice dinner and enjoy spa services. Another option is Avila Hot Springs, where you can enjoy a naturally heated pool with mineral water.
The nearby Avila Hiking Trails are perfect for getting some exercise later.
Address: 250 Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach, CA 93424, United States
9. 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.
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
10. Find The Bells of El Camino Real
El Camino Real is a historic route linking 21 missions, pueblos, and four presidios from San Diego to Sonoma.
Back in the day, Spaniards built outposts along 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 with large populations of Natives 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 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.
11. 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, so grab your tickets and mingle with the local crowd.
Address: 1035 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
12. Shop at SLO’s Farmer’s Market
Staying in San Luis Obispo for a couple of days?
Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market takes place every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is open year round. Visiting this long-time staple is the best way to get fresh produce from local vendors and taste delicious snacks.
The market is located on five blocks of Higuera Street between Osos Street and Nipomo Street.
13. Grab fresh produce at Avila Valley Barn
The family-owned Avila Valley Barn is a local’s favorite spot where you can buy fresh produce, delicious pastries, and sweet treats like fudge and chocolates. Here you can also feed and pet farm animals and stop for a quick lunch at Smoke House before going to Avila Beach.
Avila Valley Barn is one of the most popular places among locals in SLO. Grab some tasty treats and stop by the gift store to grab some souvenirs for your friends and family.
Address: 560 Avila Beach Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, Phone: 805-595-2816
14. 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 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.
15. Hike Nine Sisters
The famous “Nine Sisters,” a chain of volcanic mountains stretching from SLO to the iconic Morro Bay provide opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and running. These dormant volcanoes are a true sight to behold. And thanks to the mild coastal climate with plenty of sunshine, you can enjoy these natural wonders year-round.
16. 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.
17. Hike Cerro San Luis Obispo for some workout
I hiked a smaller mountain Cerro San Luis Obispo (or Madonna Mountain) from where you can get a pretty good view of the Bishop Peak.
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.
This hike was the highlight of my trip when I visited the city in mid-January, and I suggest you do the same, especially if you like staying active on your trips.
18. 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, spend the night at this hotel.
This candy-colored hotel is not only an awesome place to stay at, it’s also one of the most famous historic landmarks in San Luis Obispo.
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
19. Visit California Polytechnic State Graveyard Architecture
Cal Poly State Graveyard is 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 since the exhibit is located outside.
20. 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.
Catching a bus to San Luis Obispo beaches
You can get to several nearby towns such as Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay from downtown San Luis Obispo. 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.
21. 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.
22. 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 accessible on foot 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! Visiting this places is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo for families.
23. 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.
Why is Pismo Beach famous?
Pismo Beach is known for its relaxed lifestyle, sand dunes and excellent surfing. It’s also known as the Clam Capital of the World as it’s how to many clam digging spots and Clam Festival.
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.
If you want to get around between several beach towns in the Sun Luis Obispo area, hop on the trolley, a small bus that goes from the stop at Pismo Beach Outlets to Avila Beach.
24. Leaning Pine Arboretum
Taking a walk around Leaning Pine Arboretum is one of the best free things to do in San Luis Obispo if you want to get off the beaten path and learn about various plants native to the Central California Coast.
The arboretum is home to a 5-acre tree garden on the northern side of the Cal Poly University campus where you can find native plants and those from various around the world in different sections.
Many people come to the Arboretum to enjoy the sprawling views of the coastal mountains surrounding San Luis Obispo. In addition, you can take a quick tour of the university campus.
Address: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
25. Explore California Highway One Discovery Route
San Luis Obispo also boasts a strategic location along the famous Highway 1, so if you are in town, it’s time to start planning your Big Sur road trip.
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.
26. Visit San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden makes for a perfect mini-day trip from the city.
Home to several gardens inside the El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.
You can start in the Preview Garden, which boasts an impressive five acres with plants from each of the five Mediterranean climate zones. There’s also a nursery and greenhouse where you can purchase plants grown on the spot.
Address: 3450 Dairy Creek Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, Phone: 805-541-1400
27. Stop by San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum
The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum offers a glimpse into the railroad history of California, specifically the Central California Coast. Here you can find a wide range of artifacts related to the Southern Pacific, Amtrak, the Pacific Coast Railway, the Santa Maria Valley, and Union Pacific.
Some of the displays inside the museum are still being developed. The museum is in the Historical Railroad District.
Address: 1940 Santa Barbara Avenue, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, Phone: 805-548-1894
28. Enjoy outdoors on Lopez Lake
A hidden gem, 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.
Best day trips from San Luis Obispo
Not only San Luis Obispo is a beautiful town with plenty of scenic views and phenomenal culture, but it also provides access to some of the best places in Central California. Many of them are under 1,5 hours from San Luis Obispo, so 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.
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.
Los Padres National Forest
One of the most popular days trips from San Luis Obispo, Los Padres National Forest has some of the best outdoor opportunities in the area.
This huge reserve stretches from Ventura to Monterrey and includes many coastal areas as well as the mountainous inland terrain that is home to some of the highest mountains in the region. Throughout the area, you can also find waterfalls, hot springs, and spectacular vistas. Since Los Padres National Forest is so huge, you can spend a week and even more exploring everything that it has to offer.
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 best things to do in San Luis Obispo at night is visiting 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.
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.
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!
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.
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 and you can enjoy great views right from your balcony.
The hotel is located in the city’s downtown, only 4 minutes away from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, as well as other popular landmarks.
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.
✅ Looking for more options? Find out where to stay in San Luis Obispo for any budget
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN LUIS OBISPO: FAQ’S
What is San Luis Obispo known for?
San Luis Obispo known for colonial architecture, outdoor opportunities like hiking and surfing and some of the best vineyards in California. This city is a popular destination along Central California Coast, and home to California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly.
Where is San Luis Obispo located?
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, historic landmarks and some of the best surfing beaches in California.
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!
How to get 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, rent a car. I recommend Discover Cars, that has thousands of vehicles at reasonable prices.
Is San Luis Obispo walkable?
Downtown San Luis Obispo is perfectly walkable and you can reach most places on foot or by taking a quick Uber ride. If you want to explore SLO beyond downtown, hop on the RTA bus which stops across from the Government Center at Palm Street and Osos Street.
How far is San Luis Obispo to the ocean?
Downtown San Luis Obispo is about 15 minutes from the beach by car and 30 minutes by bus. Shell Beach is nine miles 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.
Is San Luis Obispo worth visiting?
San Luis Obispo is one of the best cities in Central California. It offers a laid-back atmosphere, plenty of history and year-round mild climate. It’s also within driving distance from the famous Big Sur. The town 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?
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 when travelers from all over the country flock to this part of California.
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, San Luis Obispo boasts plenty of attractions that make it a worthy stop on your California road trip itinerary.