Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

BY Kristi Eaton | July 5, 2023

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a guide, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in San Luis Obispo?”

In the American mind, California exists in two pieces: NorCal, the home of the foggy, tech-laden Bay Area with San Francisco as its epicenter, and SoCal, the bleach blonde home of smoothies and Hollywood, surfers and TikTok hype-houses. This guide is about neither. We are going to the middle of the state, the flyover part of California (if the state were to have one), to the central coast. In landscape, the central coast is as mediterranean as the United States gets, an arid green with brush, beaches, mountains and an emerging vineyard scene. In temperament, though, it’s still California, but in a small-town way, the way it was in the rest of the state before the bombardment of celebrities and elite app guys. And one of the Central Coast’s crown jewels, one of the best places to soak it all in, is San Luis Obispo.

About a decade ago, San Luis Obispo was deemed “the happiest place in America.” (Move over Disneyland.) It was founded in 1772, serves as the county seat for San Luis Obispo County and is home to California Polytechnic State University, better known as Cal Poly. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, known as SLO by locals (pronounced “slow”), is the quintessential central coast community, with delectable food, savory wines, funky stores for shopping, and a small walkable, bikeable city. There’s also a big emphasis on locally-sourced food and sustainability here, which we love. Read on to head into the hills of San Luis Obispo.

YOU’RE HERE TO SIP WINE AT COASTAL VINEYARDS

If San Luis Obispo looks like Italy, its wines taste like Burgundy, grown in valleys with limestone in the soil. However, you’ll get a more volcanic and coastal influence on this patch of the central coast than in inland France. There’s hundreds of wineries to pick from in and around San Luis Obispo County, and, wherever you go, make sure to call ahead to book an appointment.

Saucelito Canyon
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Saucelito Canyon

Saucelito Canyon

Saucelito Canyon Vineyard & Winery, Saucelito Creek Road, Arroyo Grande, CA, USA

California is known for its Zinfandels, but Saucelito Canyon doesn’t make your average jammy red. The vines here were the first Zinfandel vines in the area, planted in the 1880’s then abandoned during prohibition. In the 1970s, Bill, the Greenough family patriarch, restored the vineyard by hand from its roots, which were still just barely fruiting. It took years, but now these three acres in the Arroyo Grande Valley produce a restrained, complex Zinfandel that The New York Times’s Eric Asimov described as “a singular Zin” that “represents what can be great and what can be romantic about Zinfandel.” Even with all that high praise, the tasting room at this family-run operation is unpretentious. Get a flight here for as cheap as $20 and pair it with the typical wine accouterments like cheese, duck salami, and dried fruits. 

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Baileyana
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Baileyana

Baileyana

5828 Orcutt Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Another child of the 1970s surge in California viticulture, Baileyana now has four brands, Tangent, True Myth, Zocker and Balieyana. Its tasting room used to be a school house for the farming community that lived in the area over 100 years ago. Today, it’s a great place in the Edna Valley to sit on a patio and try what this wine producer is known for, chardonnay and pinot noir. The patio has great views of the Saint Lucia Mountains, and the servers are sharp, able to explicate a glass with gusto. Though not organic, this was one of the first vineyards in the area to get its Sustainability In Practice, or SIP, certification. Tastings are $25.  

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Sidecar Wine Tours
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Sidecar Wine Tours

Sidecar Wine Tours

6238 Orcutt Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

If your goal with wine tastings is to rack up ‘em fast, hop in one of these motorcycle sidecars and get moving. Yes, a sidecar. On a motorcycle. Hold on tight as these sidecars barrel through the streets and take you right up to the wineries for your next tasting. You’ll hit a total of three tastings. 

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HIT THE BEACH

Pismo Beach, California, February 15, 2018: View of cliffs, Pacific Ocean, business district, and Pismo Beach Pier. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Pismo Beach, California, February 15, 2018: View of cliffs, Pacific Ocean, business district, and Pismo Beach Pier. Photo via Shutterstock.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, CA, USA

San Luis Obispo County has 90 miles of beaches and you’ll get a good sample of them at Pismo, Avila and Morro Rock Beaches. The waters in the middle of California are cooler than those lapping at the Los Angeles shore, but the surfing around here is good enough to host competitions like the SLO CAL Open. You can walk the pier at Pismo Beach, harvest some kelp and, if you come during the winter months, see the elephant seals congregating on the shores. We could say more, but as soon as you see the sands, you’ll know what to do. 

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TRY SANTA MARIA STYLE BBQ

Despite what all the techies moving south might tell themselves, California isn’t Texas. Unlike that panhandled mega-state, people don’t come to California, which is in fact bigger than Texas, looking for barbecue. Maybe they should, though. Santa Maria Style BBQ is somewhat of a local secret, but those who know of it swear it’s some of the best barbecue in the country. Developed on the Central Coast south of SLO in Santa Maria, it’s traditionally made with prime rib or tri-tip, a cut of beef invented in the 1950s by a one armed butcher in Santa Maria, and cooked on a rod over a fire made with red oak wood native to the area. There’s a certain finesse to the cooking of it that’s far more complex than just adding garlic, salt and pepper, one that’s been hard to translate outside of the region, to say nothing of the state. For the best example of Santa Maria BBQ, you’ll have to go to Elks Lodge in Santa Maria, but San Luis Obispo has some quality joints. 

Rib Line
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Rib Line

Rib Line

12308 Los Osos Valley Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Rib Line was a top vote getter in the local newspaper’s best BBQ poll. The menu includes tri-tip sandwiches, baby back ribs, burgers, mojo wedges and more.

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Old San Luis BBQ
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Old San Luis BBQ

Old San Luis BBQ

670 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Opened in 2010, this is Santa Maria BBQ standout offers menu highlights like pulled pork sandwiches, sliders, and “pit plates,” which include hand-trimmed Angus tri-tip, pulled pork and chicken. 

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EAT LOCALLY-SOURCED FOOD IN THE SUNSHINE

Fun fact about SLO: there are no drive-thru restaurants in town. You’ll have to sit down (or get take out) at the restaurants below, all of which champion the food that grows in the area and could be categorized as “globally-inspired.”

Novo Restaurant
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Novo Restaurant

Novo Restaurant

726 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

The food at this downtown restaurant is good, award-winning good, but, similarly to High Bar, the reason to make a reservation here is the patio. It overlooks the creek and is shaded by huge, bushy tree branches. Order the Creekside Sangria, a light mixture, and the Thai Green Chicken Curry, which we hear is to die for. A delicious meal enjoyed in the waning pacific sun and mild coastal breeze is quite literally why people come to California. And that’s what you get at Novo. 

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Luna Red
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Luna Red

Luna Red

1023 Chorro St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Located in the heart of downtown SLO just next to the San Luis Obispo Mission de Tolosa Bell Tower, this charming Spanish restaurant specializes in shareable plates and unique cocktails. Try the signature paella, a flavorful dish with a layer of caramelized, crispy rice on the bottom of the pan called socarrat. All of the paellas are made with sofrito (onion, tomato, sweet pepper, herbs) and salsa criolla, and are served with grilled lemons and parsley. 

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Brasserie SLO
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Brasserie SLO

Brasserie SLO

1119 Garden St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Hotel Cerro’s main restaurant is good for any meal. It calls itself French, but you can expect standard American hotel fare like pizzas, burgers and fried chicken sandwiches in addition to brie en croute and beef bourguignon. Like all of the restaurants on this list, Brasserie SLO has outdoor seating and excellent seafood. While Hotel Cerro is upscale and Brasserie is similarly well-appointed, the vibe here is laidback. No one will judge you if you have a wine hangover. 

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ROTATE IN SOME MEZCAL COCKTAILS

Because there is such a thing as too much wine, even in California.  

Sidecar Cocktail Co.
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Sidecar Cocktail Co.

Sidecar Cocktail Co.

1040 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Sidecar Cocktail Co. is a boundary pusher in the local cocktail space, once adding 10 mezcal cocktails to the menu. Yet, the bar, which has no obvious relation to the tour group of a similar name, has won its fans in town over the years. The drink menu is still full of mezcal drinks like The E.P., made with mezcal, lemon, ginger, LeftyBitters cacao, cayenne tincture and Laphroiag mist, but is more varied now. Inside, the space looks like a hipster’s library, one that cares more about exposed brick, dark wood, leather couches and swishing drinks in short glasses than books. The food menu is mostly an upscale take on comfort food trends like brussel sprouts and fries — and, for some reason, escargot. If you’re in town on a Thursday, pop over for Tiki Thursday and see if you can snag a SPAM Slam, a fruity light rum drink served in a SPAM can. 

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High Bar
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High Bar

High Bar

877 Palm St, San Luis Obispo, California, USA

You go to Hotel SLO’s rooftop for the drinks and small plates, of course, but you’re really here to take in the stellar views over the rolling hills. If you’re not in the mood to lounge, bocce is always an option. Try the featured cocktail, Love Potion No. 9 with Nosotros Mezcal, Amaro Angeleno, Aperol and Lemon and the Mushroom Pizza. For the more adventurous, nosh on the Smoked Salmon and Caviar Pizza.

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Nightcap
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Nightcap

Nightcap

130 Morro St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

When done right, there are few places more furtively romantic than a hotel bar. Nightcap at the Granada Hotel & Bistro is one of those hotel bars. It’s elegant yet scene-y, and does the standard drinks well. Outfitted with red velvets, leather seating and a marble bar, come here to converse under dim lights and at a manageable noise level. Order a Oaxacan In The Park, tequila, mezcal, lemongrass jalapeño coriander syrup, gusano, and pair it with a small plate like borracha shrimp or duck fat cornbread. 

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EXPLORE THE CITY

Amongst the white walls and red roofs of colonial Spanish architecture, there’s lots of palm trees, lots of friendly people, and lots of shopping in SLO. Spend an afternoon ambling through the streets. 

Downtown SLO
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Downtown SLO

Downtown SLO

Downtown, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Take in the Instagram-worthy street art in downtown SLO. At the corner of Monterey and Morro Streets, located outside the Chamber of Commerce, is a colorful parklet with bikes on display and brightly hued planters. Sit among the flowers to take in the street scenes or snap a quick pic to post on socials. 

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SLO Farmers Market
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SLO Farmers Market

SLO Farmers Market

Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

If farmers markets get you excited, SLO’s has been around for years, and is a Thursday night staple in the area. Head downtown for people watching, fresh ingredients and live entertainment with over 100 vendors spanning five blocks. 

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SLO South
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SLO South

SLO South

San Luis Obispo Public Market, South Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

This is an up and coming part of town that has some of the city’s best liquid experiences — coffee, wine, beer. A new local favorite gathering, dining and shopping spot in this neighborhood is the SLO Public Market.

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RECOVER WITH COFFEE

Vineyard visits aren’t always easy to recover from the next morning. These cafes might be the pick-me-up you need.

Scout Coffee
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Scout Coffee

Scout Coffee

1130 Garden Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Scout Coffee is a locally-owned favorite known for its house roasted beans and counter brimming with pastries made from scratch. The style here is California Bohemian with exposed brick, unfinished wood and dried plants as decor. Order whatever looks good — you can’t go wrong — but please, please get a carb, any carb, to go with your coffee. Then, eat it slowly next to the huge windows as you watch the city of San Luis Obispo go about its day. 

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Kreuzberg California
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Kreuzberg California

Kreuzberg California

685 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

This art-inspired cafe has a cool vibe. They offer house-roasted coffee in the morning, along with breakfast bites and flip to adult beverages later in the day. There’s even an open mic from 7-9 pm on Wednesdays. The funky cafe opened its doors in 2010 as an experiment combining the vibrant cafe scene of the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin with the laidback lifestyle of SLO. The idea, the owners say, was to create a place where you could grab a cappuccino in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, and then close up your laptop for cocktails with friends at night.

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HIKE THE HILLS OF SLO

Cerro San Luis. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Cerro San Luis. Photo by Shutterstock.

Cerro San Luis

Cerro San Luis Obispo, California, USA

Also known as Madonna Mountain, Cerro San Luis can be a strenuous uphill climb with stunning views of San Luis Obispo or a gentle one-hour trek. Early in the hike, you can veer off to the right – following the lemon icons – for the 1.5-mile Lemon Grove Loop that will take approximately one hour. If you are feeling ambitious, the four-mile trail stays left and showcases views of the entire city. 

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Art’s Cyclery
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Art’s Cyclery

Art’s Cyclery

3988 Short Street, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

If you are in the mood for something faster, head over to Art’s Cyclery and rent a mountain bike. 

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SLEEP IN CALIFORNIA STYLE

The funky doesn’t stop in the streets in SLO. 

Madonna Inn
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San Luis Obispo, CA. U.S.A. December 8, 2017. Madonna Inn. Built circa 1958. Beautiful unique rooms. Photo via Shutterstock.

Madonna Inn

100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

This place is a trip. The vibe here is very much “I think the hotel’s designer was high,” but it all works in glorious fashion. Madonna Inn, named after founders Alex and Phyllis Madonna, first opened in 1958 and is considered a central coast landmark these days. Each of the 110 rooms has a different theme (each room!) — like “Bridal Falls,” “Jungle Rock,” “Romance,” “Antique Cars,” “San Francisco” and 105 others. Before going you should also know that pink is their thing and the result is ample use of the color throughout the hotel. This isn’t just a stripped-down motel that’s been given a fresh coat of paint, though. The on-site amenities include a spa, bakery, two restaurants and, naturally, pink-colored tennis and hoops courts.

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Wayfarer Inn
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Wayfarer Inn

The Wayfarer San Luis Obispo

1800 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

Close to Cal Poly, this is the place to stay to maximize convenience and minimize cost. The rooms here aren’t ornate or overly luxurious, but they are cute with photo walls and plaid carpet. There’s a fitness center, an onsite restaurant and free parking. Combine that with a comfortable bed and The Wayfarer San Luis Obispo checks off everything you need from a hotel. 

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San Luis Obispo Creek Lodge
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San Luis Obispo Creek Lodge

San Luis Creek Lodge

1941 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA

For a little bit more mainstream luxury, check out the San Luis Creek Lodge. It’s more expensive than the Wayfarer Inn, but generally still runs for less than $350 a night. The rooms are more farmhouse chic, full of neutral tones, organic materials and trendy, geometric textiles from Blockshop, and you’ll be right in the heart of downtown. 

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