For many, a stop in San Luis Obispo is a happy accident while driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A lesser known Central Coast gem, the quaint college town sits just off Highway 101, 11 miles from the Pacific at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains. An agricultural community at heart, you'll find farmers, tradesman, and students live what locals refer to as the "SLO life"—a laidback lifestyle known for hiking, biking, fishing, wine tasting, meandering through shop-lined alleyways, and of course kicking back with homegrown food and brews.
Downtown SLO is laid out in a grid, so it's easy to navigate through the streets of student-filled bookstores and coffee houses. In the heart of town, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sits adjacent to SLO Creek in Mission Square. Founded in 1772, the site is open for tours of the historic structure and its serene gardens. Nearby, tucked down an alleyway by the creek, The Secret Garden Organic Herb Shop is a tiny outdoor tea garden with floor to ceiling shelves crowded with mason jars full of organic teas and herbs. Ask for a special concoction of herbal remedies and the shop owner will create a heady mix of teas for you. One of the many coffee shops in town, TK GERMAN CAFE is lined with shelves busting at the seams with books and is regularly packed with caffeinated coeds on laptops. The Firestone Grill always has a line out the door and is known for their tri-tip sandwiches and ABC (avocado, bacon, and cheddar) burgers, while Big Sky Cafe serves up fresh creations sourced from local farms. Each Thursday, farmers set up shop along Higuera Street, where you'll find special restaurant offers and street performers along with farm fresh produce. At night, SLO's cozy pubs are brimming with students and young professionals. Mother's Tavern is home to "honkey tonk Tuesday," and Frog and Peach Pub has a hearty selection of brews and live music.
The city has a long history of healthy, outdoor living. For thousands of years, the Chumash people thrived on the area's marine resources, explored the verdant terrain, and soaked in nearby hot springs—favorite pastimes kept alive by locals and visitors in the know. With the ocean a short jaunt from downtown, Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay are the spots to catch fish and waves. Beach bonfires and walks along the pier are favorite activities on warm summer days, and when the fog rolls in (which it often does at these west-facing beach communities), cozy cafes serve up hot beverages and barking harbor seals echo from shrouded waters. Avila Beach is home to the area's natural artesian springs, discovered in 1907 by oil seeking drillers. Avila Hot Springs Resort has a naturally heated pool with water slides as well as separate soaking tubs, and just down the road Sycamore Springs Resort offers day passes to enjoy a private tub under the oak groves. Active visitors will be glad to know that scenic trails traverse throughout the Nine Sisters—ancient volcanic mountains that stretch from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. Of the Sisters, Madonna Mountain (Cerra San Luis) and Bishop Peak the most popular and moderate treks, which reward hikers with views of the area's bucolic expanses.
Whether you plan a trip to SLO or you're lucky enough to happen upon the city, take some time to enjoy its cozy shops, fresh fare, natural resources, and friendly population.
333 Madonna Road
1215 Avila Beach Dr
726 Higuera Street
Highway 101 Grand Avenue