San Luis Obispo is a college town that is often a brief stop on Highway 1, for those driving down the coast. Personally, it’s one of my favorite coastal towns in California, with its small town charm, the slower pace of life (SLO Cal is a common local slogan), and scenic views. It’s about 1 hour and 40 minutes away from Santa Barbara, but should not be overlooked by its flashier neighbor to the south, since it has plenty of good food, a highly walkable downtown area, and Pismo Beach is just 15 minutes away. Here’s a list of memorable things to do in San Luis Obispo.
Located in Downtown San Luis Obispo at the corner of Chorro and Palm, this neighborhood was the home of one of the largest Chinese settlements in the area. Chinese immigrants worked in this area building the roads, railways, and tunnels. Now the only thing that remains from this neighborhood is the lone Ah Louis building that used to be a general store. It’s worth it just to wander around the area and check out this well-preserved building that looks just like it did when it was first built in the 1880’s.
This eccentric hotel is known for its 101 themed rooms with names like Showboat and Desert Sands, where no two rooms are alike. You can have dinner in the formal Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse, a snack at the Copper Cafe, or just stop by, walk around, and soak in all the over-the-top decor. Whatever you do make sure to stop by the downstairs bathrooms, where the women’s is decked out in pink and the men’s has a waterfall in the urinal. There’s also a gift shop downstairs by the bathrooms, where you can get a postcard of one of the decked-out rooms as a souvenir.
Downtown has a creek running through it, which adds an unexpected natural beauty to the area. You can walk alongside it starting at the Mission Plaza, which connects to the creekwalk via a footbridge, and then follow the short path that is parallel to downtown. Along the creekwalk (on the street level) there are the History Center of SLO and SLO Museum of Art at the corner of Broad and Monterrey Street. Later on you can even dine at one of the many restaurants overlooking the creek, including Old San Luis BBQ Co. for their addictive tri-tip.
Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa
As the fifth mission of the California Missions, a unique feature is the L-shaped chapel. It was one of the first missions to use tiles on the roof, replacing flammable thatched roofs. On the grounds is an operating chapel that has daily mass, and also a museum where you can learn about the history of the mission and a beautiful garden that is filled with cacti, roses, oak trees and succulents. If you want to take a guided tour there are docent tours most days starting at 1:15 pm (Sunday at 2pm) that meet in front of the gift shop at the Mission Plaza doors. Best of all admission is free.
History Center of San Luis Obispo County
A great little museum located right next to the Mission, in a historic building that used to be a Carnegie Library. There are informative special rotating exhibits as well as permanent exhibits on local history. The museum also hosts public events and talks on various topics relating to San Luis Obispo and its history. Admission is free, with donations accepted. The Dallidet Adobe & Gardens, a few blocks away, are also owned by the History Center, and are worth taking a tour of if you have the time.
Thursday Farmers Market
If you’re in town on Thursday night, stop by this weekly farmers’ market that takes place downtown. There is fresh produce from nearby family farms, BBQ, and live entertainment along the streets. It’s a favorite hangout spot for both locals and tourists, and is a great way to truly experience the vibrant local community. The market takes place on a five-block stretch of Higuera Street, between Osos and Nipomo Streets, and runs from 6-9pm. The morning counterpart is on Saturdays on Madonna and Dalidio that runs from 8-10:45pm.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
This is a great spot to check out (and purchase) Contemporary California local art, including paintings, jewelry and ceramics. Make sure to check out the SLO Museum of Art’s website for events like adult art classes, concerts, lectures (including popular ARTalks and Art At High Noon for people to drop in on their lunch break), and film screenings. There are also guided tours available. Hours are 11am to 5pm, except Tuesdays from Labor Day to Fourth of July. The small museum is located next to the mission and is free of charge.
Set among rolling hills, this is one of the largest college campuses in the country, with over 9,000 pictureque acres. This school is known for it high rankings in departments like engineering and is affiliated with the other Cal Poly in Pomona. Hike up to Poly Canyon to see the school from above (and really take in how spread out it is), attend a performing arts show at the PAC or cheer on the Mustangs at a sports event. Don’t forget to stop by the bookstore to buy some school merch. Fun fact: students need to declare their major before attending due to the competitiveness of some of the departments.
For a retro throwback, head to this outdoor movie theater and enjoy a double feature of new releases from the comfort of your own car. There’s a fully stocked concession stand with items like hot dogs, popcorn, and the like, but the beauty of drive-in theaters is that you can bring your own food (including local BBQ) if you want. There are radio rentals available if your car radio cannot pick up the sound. The parking spaces are situated on a slight incline to allow for prime viewing. Ticket prices are $9 per person.
One of my favorite things to do is wander around the downtown area. There are so many interesting sights to see, and for those who are not adverse to germs the Bubblegum Alley is a fun spot to stop at and check out walls filled with pieces of colorful gum. You can definitely smell the sugary scent of the alley when you step inside, especially on a hot day. If you want to make your mark, don’t forget to bring your own gum and try your hardest to avoid touching the other pieces when applying it to the wall.
Where To Stay In San Luis Obispo
Staying in and around the walkable downtown area is ideal, and there are lots of mid-range hotel options a few minutes drive from the center of town.
For a reasonably priced stay, this remodeled hotel is centrally located in downtown, being only three blocks from the main streets where all the stores and restaurants are located, but far enough for some peace and quiet. Clean spacious rooms, with plenty of on-site parking.
A great mid-range hotel that is located in a quiet area of town and is a quick drive to downtown. Amenities include an an outdoor pool, a restaurant, a fully-stocked bar, and seating with fire pits that are the perfect place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.
This historical 3.5 star hotel is over-the-top in the best way possible, where each room has a unique theme (fancy a safari room?). On-property highlights include two restaurants, an outdoor pool, a full service spa, and outdoor tennis courts. A free airport shuttle is also available.