Located a few miles inland from the Central Pacific Coast, where the “101 (Highway) meets the 1,” the city of San Luis Obispo is a mecca of history, education, artwork, cuisine, and culture perched midway between the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. From either direction, the three-and-a-half hour trip flies by with the abundance of scenery and interesting stops along the way. In the spirit of SLO, you may choose to take your time by riding the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner or Starlight train after flying into one of the larger airports. American Airlines also offers an easy direct flight out of DFW into San Luis Obispo, just perfect for a few days of “SLO-ing” down.
This college town (and county seat) dating back to the 1700s is filled with both historical and academic vibes. Home to both Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and California Polytechnic State University, SLO balances out the old and the new. Due to the central location and proximity to many of the best spots in town, Hotel SLO offers ideal lodging with a cosmopolitan feel. From here, you can walk (or bike) over to one of several local coffee shops, wine tasting rooms, eateries, and myriad of shops.
Inside Hotel SLO, you will discover an oasis of relaxation with food and beverage options that may leave you wanting to stay awhile. The inviting fireplace welcomes you into their modern space complete with a full bar in the lobby. The attached Piadina restaurant offers an Italian and coastal-inspired farm-fresh menu including daily breakfast, perfectly wood-fired pizzas, crispy fries with house-made Meyer lemon aioli, and hot goat cheese croquettes drizzled in lavender honey. Pair your favorite pizza with a glass of Pinot Noir from nearby Tolosa Winery for a most warm welcome.
Take advantage of Hotel SLO’s thoughtful filtered water stations (located on each floor), including both still and bubbly options to rehydrate throughout your stay. With strong values in sustainability, Hotel SLO provides a glass water carafe for unlimited refills to chill in your en suite refrigerator. You can BYOB (bottle), or pick up a reusable bottle at the hotel’s adorable gift shop. Ample windows throughout your room conserve energy with plenty of natural light, nicely complementing the property’s lush vegetation and florals. With a pool for laps or lounging and the well-lit patio for dining at Piadina, Hotel SLO eagerly lures guests to breathe in the fresh coastal air.
Day 1: “Wining Down” in SLO
Should you decide to think outside the glass and go for a wine tasting at Tolosa, you should also consider stopping at neighboring Edna Valley Vineyards and Autry Cellars to experience a few of the Edna Road’s beautiful wineries and vineyards. You may also stroll into downtown SLO and duck into Higuera Street’s Ragtag Wine Co. tasting room (opened in 2021), featuring small batch wines and service that’s just as stellar as the ambiance and liquid poetry poured into your glass. The Albarino, pinot noir, petite syrah, and malbec are a few of their vino heroes. In addition to Pacific pinot noirs, this region is well-known for what wine lovers sometimes refer to as “big reds.” Be sure to prepare your palate for plenty of pleasing cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels, tempranillos, malbecs, and beyond.
Day 2: SLO Cycling
Head to Hotel San Luis Obispo’s valet station to check out an easy-riding, complimentary bicycle cruiser for the day and start exploring. The bike lanes in San Luis Obispo are well maintained, providing a safe and pleasant means to discover some of the city’s best highlights.
Ah Louis Store
Begin by riding just across the street to the Ah Louis Store, dating back to 1874, when a Chinese-American known by the name “Ah Louis” began this anchoring business. Pivotal in helping organize other Chinese Americans who constructed the Pacific Coast Railroad, Ah Louis opened the original mercantile and raised his family in a home just above the store. Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this business has also served as a pharmacy and a bank and remains family-run by the great grandson of Ah Louis himself.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Make your way down to Scout Coffee shop for a cup of hot Joe or tea, before making your way over to the Mission. Take in the early architecture of this historical campus and fifth California Spanish Mission founded in 1772. Named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France, the Mission invites you to step back in time and imagine how SLO may have appeared in her earliest days. Guided tours begin at 1:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. The Mission gardens are open to everyone and provide the perfect spot for relaxing, reading a book, or just taking in the peaceful surroundings. Check the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa website for daily and weekend Mass schedules.
With 70 pieces of unique public art, SLO is filled with interesting installations around just about every corner of the city. You will find everything from highly Instagrammable murals, stained glass sculptures, utility box art, and more as you ride beneath the canopy of trees lining the streets of SLO. From city-owned art, to private art in public places, SLO is sure to stir the right side of your brain. Be sure to find Canned Pineapple Co.’s “Archway to Happiness” mural, located just off Marsh Street, between Morro and Chorro Streets. They will be “Slow Happy” you made it to this warm and welcoming city archway. The Mission Plaza features artwork from fountains to sculptures, and you can find a comprehensive list of public art displays on the City of SLO’s website.
Lunch at The Madonna
Ride on over to the most iconic mid-century motel and “pink” establishment in town at the historic Madonna Inn. Founded in 1958 by the Madonna family (no relation to the pop star), this Swiss-alps inspired Inn is known as a landmark located directly off Highway 101, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. You don’t have to stay in one of the lavishly appointed, uniquely themed rooms to sneak a peek of the inn’s grandeur. After parking your bike and sitting down for a delicious lunch (breakfast all day) with beverages poured into colorful vintage glassware at the Copper Cafe, explore the property’s 1000 acres including plenty of uphill trails, where you can hike or bike off the calories…especially if you sample any decadent sweet treats from their world-famous bakery, which would be a shame to miss. If you can’t handle a piece of their mile-high cake with pink icing, we suggest sharing a cupcake for “just a taste.”
Stop by Central Coast Brewing
As you head back toward Hotel SLO, stop into Central Coast Brewing (CCB) (Higuera Street location) and try some of the best craft beer in town. Grab a flight of CCB’s wide variety to find your favorites and still be ready to ride. We recommend The Cervantez amber lager, El Hef (Hefeweizen), Cocoa Diablo American Stout, and GABF (Great American Brew Fest) ‘15 and ‘17 Gold Medal winner, Monterey Street Pale Ale. IPA fans will hop for their New England style Pulp Francis and Double New England Moon Buggy. Pro-tip: Watch for the new Monterey Street location slated to open in 2023.
Other stops which may pique your interest: Bubblegum Alley, the Children’s Museum, and California Polytechnic State University’s Architecture Graveyard. This is where students in the school of architecture experiment with various designs and structures, which remain open to the public, following their annual competition. Cruising by the 1942 downtown Fremont Theater may take you back in time, but this art-deco styled beloved movie house continues to screen first-run films and host top live performances. Check out their website to see what’s playing while you’re in town.
Day 3: SLO Hiking
After spending the day exploring all of the sights of San Luis Obispo on a bike, it’s time to put on your hiking shoes, and see the scenic views from one of SLO’s many spectacular hiking trails.
For a panoramic view of the city, and to get a moderately challenging hike, head to the Cerro San Luis Nature Reserve. Here you can take the Madonna Mountain hike, leading you to a large “M,” leaving no doubt that you have arrived at your destination.
Take in a romantic and picturesque sunset by working your way up to the Perfumo Canyon Road. Here you will be treated to a view of rolling hills which frame the sun gently falling down slowly in the Western sky of SLO. You may even witness an engagement proposal. . . a helpful hint for the lovestruck in search of that one special spot.
Just a short drive to the California coast, the Montana de Oro State Park is for hikers of all levels. Find your perfect trail fit offering scenic overlooks of the Pacific ocean views and ideal spots for photographers to capture memorable landscape shots. No matter the trail, you are sure to be physically challenged yet rightfully rewarded with unforgettable views of the surrounding land and sea.
SLO Festivals and Events
Each April, San Luis Obispo hosts the San Luis Obispo Film Festival. Over six days, films from all over the world will be screened at theaters like the classic Fremont, to venues spread across Paso Robles. The 2023 SLO Film Festival will take place from April 25th through the 30th, with an encore week extending to May 7th. For a list of featured films, ticket information, and other important film festival details, visit the SLO Film Festival website.
Every Thursday the weekly SLO Farmers’ Market takes over five blocks where you will find fresh fruit, baked goods, and even barbeque. The market first began in the 1970s, when the Downtown Association shut down Higuera Street and invited shops to set out tables for shoppers. Then when local farmers were invited to participate in 1983, the event officially became a farmers’ market.
San Luis Obispo is clearly one of the most charming and diverse cities located along California’s central coast. However you decide to make your way to SLO, you are sure to leave feeling restored and fulfilled, with thoughts of a fast return!
Cover Photo Brian Maass
Brian and Dana Maass live with their dog “Chester” in Round Rock, Texas. When not working their day jobs, they can be found traveling, writing, capturing scenic photos, exploring the Hill Country, and serving the community. Follow them on Instagram at @Dana_Maass_Adventures and @Brian_Maass_Adventures.