San Luis Obispo – one of the amazing touristic gems of California’s Central Coast region. With a population of just over 47,000 people, SLO has plenty of things to do as you visit it.
You can find this city right between the Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles and it was founded in 1772 by the Spanish. The name means St. Louis the Bishop in Spanish, and the Latin inheritance is present all over town.
Things to do in San Luis Obispo
We put together a list of things you absolutely can’t miss while you are here!
1. San Luis Obispo’s Historic Downtown
The historic downtown area is very attractive. You will find this area in the same region as the mission, and it stands as a witness of Spanish culture. On these streets, there are impressive buildings of Spanish architecture, tall trees that are even more amazing when they are in bloom, and green spots to relax and catch your breath.
On Higuera Street, the most popular area of the historic downtown, there are restaurants, shops, and entertaining centers. You will also find many cafes where you can have a delicious coffee. Some of the restaurants are in romantic locations such as right next to the San Luis Obispo Creek. Also, if you travel with children, make sure to stop at Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab. They will see how ice cream is made and they will have the chance to taste innovative flavors during the tour.
The Visitor Center, on 895 Monterey Street, will help you find maps, guide books, and brochures with info about the area. Also, here you will find the RTA bus terminus that connects SLO to nearby destinations you might want to visit too.
2. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
It is the most fabulous mission in California. Father Junipero Serra founded the mission in 1772 and offered it to San Luis, the Bishop of Toulouse in France. He founded the mission here thanks to the abundant freshwater, beautiful sites, and mild climate but also thanks to the friendly nature of the Indian tribe known as Chumash.
You will feel a divine peace as soon as you enter the mission’s church as it is charming in its simplicity. The walls are painted with different flower motifs, and the altar area is crowned by a statue of Jesus Christ on the cross.
On the same property, you will find a small but rich museum that celebrates the Native American culture and Spanish history in this area. And to not leave the mission empty-handed, you can check out the gift shop. Here you will find interesting and unique pieces of artwork, and handmade nativity sets that you can purchase as souvenirs.
Finally, there is a serene garden to admire while you are here, with oak trees, roses, and grape wines as well as the pure San Luis Creek.
3. Thursday Night Farmers’ Market
The city is famous for the Thursday Night Farmers’ Market. The market offers fresh local produce but also interesting dishes that you can only find here. You will even find restaurants, promoting their dishes outdoors and they have everything from sushi to pizza and specialties of the local cuisine.
Besides the good food and cheerful people, there is always live music to enjoy with your favorite food. The local bands play here every Thursday.
The farmers market takes place weekly, on Thursday from 6.00 pm to 9.00 pm, the exception being during holidays and when the weather does not allow it. There is also an official website of the market, where you can find even more information about it, should you decide to join the event.
4. San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
If you are an art lover, you can’t miss the Museum of Art in San Luis Obispo. Here you will find the creativity of local artists but also international ones. There is a multitude of artistic genres, including historic ones and contemporary ones that you can admire as you visit the museum.
The museum collection is updated monthly, but some pieces remain part of the foundation of the institution too.
Here you will also be able to join different cultural events, meetings, and film screenings. All the information you need regarding the schedule of such events is available on the website of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
5. Bishop Peak Hikes
Bishop Peak is the most notorious mountain in the area and hiking it can be a real adventure, with a 1,500 feet summit.
If you want to go on the two-mile hike that leads you straight to the top of the mountain, you can expect to spend about two hours on such a trail. Once you get on top, you will be charmed by the beautiful views of the coastline and ultimately the entire city. But the hike to the top of the mountain might be more suitable for experts. If you want an easier trail, the Felsman Loop might be a better choice. This round trip is a 2.7 miles hike and it can be quite relaxing and entertaining. To access the trail, you can go to Patricia Drive.
6. San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
When you travel with young children, the Children’s Museum in SLO is a must-see on your list. It is a perfect place for children from one year old to ten years old. Your little ones will be able to touch the exhibits, and the entire adventure will be a lot of fun for parents too.
Here you will find an intense center of all kinds of activities that stimulate the children’s curiosity, creativity, and agility. The museum has three floors and each one of them is stuffed with things to do and explore. All the interactive play and all the new things your child will discover will keep them busy and entertained for hours. So, take into account that this is not a fast visit. You will easily spend an entire afternoon exploring this fabulous museum. If you want to know more about the Children’s Museum, check out their website.
7. Railroad Museum
The Railroad Museum tells the history of the Railroad District in San Luis Obispo. You will find interesting images, exhibits, and artifacts that are representative of this part of Central California Coast history.
Maybe the most fascinating section of the museum is the collection of vintage railroad cars. This collection includes unique pieces. Each car is displayed in an attractive environment that will take you back in time to its era.
There is also a gift shop where you can get different souvenirs to bring home. The Pullman La Cuesta Café/Observation Car area offers you a great relaxing spot as well as a fancy dining area.
Check the website for all the information you need.
8. Bubblegum Alley
The Bubblegum Alley is a unique attraction that you will love to see while you are in town. It is a 65 feet alley so is free to check out when you are taking a walk around town and maybe snap some fun pictures.
The alley is covered with chewed chewing gum and this peculiar tradition started in the 1950s. The tradition continues today as visitors keep sticking chewed gum on the walls and the street.
The origins of this tradition remain unknown but the urban legend says that it started as a competition between the students of San Luis Obispo High School and the students of California Polytechnic State University.
Even if in the 1970s, authorities cleaned the alley twice, the bubblegum reappeared as the tradition continues and people love to do that as part of their exploration of the city. There was another attempt to clean the alley up in the 1990s but the locals were against it.
9. Madonna Inn
Madonna Inn is one of the most famous hotels and restaurants in town. The hotel was built in 1958 by Phyllis and Alex Madonna under the inspiration of the Swiss Alps.
The Inn has 109 rooms available for guests from all over the world so you could even stay here as you visit the city. Each room has its theme and name. The decorations and furniture are not for everyone as they have a very unique style. Some might even find the place to be decorated poorly but no one said it is not an interesting building altogether. Among the room names, you will find Jungle Rock, Floral Fantasy, or Whispering Hills and each one of them is an experience by itself.
Among all the other colors you will find at this Inn, pink stands out, in various shades. Every room has something pink in it.
Also, on the property, you will find a tennis court, a theatre, a steakhouse, a bar, cafe a well as a pool, and a bakery.
10. Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard
Maybe you wouldn’t expect to see a graveyard on the list of attractions but the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard stands out for many reasons.
This graveyard is stuffed with fascinating statues, structures, and constructions that spread over its nine acres surface. The area is used as an experimental laboratory by the students of California Polytechnic State University.
Here you can find constructions that students of architecture, design, and engineering left over the last decades.
11. The Bells of El Camino Real
You will find the Bells of El Camino Real all around the road and they bring a great historic vibe to the city. El Camino Road is also known as the Royal Road or the King’s Highway. This road was built to connect all the missions in the area and dates back to the Spanish Colonial times.
The first bells on the road date to 1906 and they were used by locals as marking points along the road. Over the years, many of them were destroyed or stolen. Some of the bells were restored and even rebuilt in the 1990s.
El Camino Real is a beautiful road to take when you want to enjoy a walk around town.
12. History Center
The museum is a center of the culture and heritage of the area.
You will find several thematic exhibitions that you can check out to get a flavor of different historic eras. The Pecho Coast is a particularly popular area as it displays items from the native people of the Diablo Canyon. It also contains the history of Pech Coast and its development from Point San Luis to the Montana de Oro area.
If you like photography, at this museum you will find images dated 1840 that cover key moments in the local history.
13. Sunset Drive-In Theatre
If you want to watch a movie outdoors in San Luis Obispo, the Sunset Drive-in theatre is the best spot for you. Such an experience will get you back to the good old retro days and it could be a great idea for a romantic date.
There is also a concession stand that has popcorn and drinks as well as other snacks to enjoy as you are watching some of the best movies. On top of that, the screen is big enough to be visible from Highway 101 along with a catchy neon sign that, again, completes the retro atmosphere perfectly.
Note that the Sunset Drive-in theatre only takes cash and you can find it near the Madonna Inn.
14. Botanical Garden
Are you a fan of flowers and plants? If so, you shouldn’t miss the Botanical Garden in town. There are several gardens inside this Botanical Garden that you can check out, each one of them with its specific theme and type of plants.
The Preview Garden area, for instance, spreads on a surface of five acres and it displays plants from five climate zones of the Mediterranean area. Furthermore, the Life Celebration Garden is a beautiful section that allows you to get memorial engravings in the memory of the loved ones who passed away.
In the greenhouses available for visitation, you will be able to learn a lot of valuable information about gardening and even purchase some plants to bring home with you.
15. Leaning Pine Arboretum
The Leaning Pine Arboretum is not only one of the most magical places in San Luis Obispo but also one of the most beautiful places in the country. The Arboretum covers a surface of five acres and it belongs to the campus of California Polytechnic State University.
This natural oasis offers a great place to relax and admire not only the campus of the university but also the surrounding mountains. Plus, here you will find hundreds of different plants as the area is also a sort of natural reservation for the regional flora.
It is free to visit and you can always bring your friends or family to have a picnic here.
16. The Dorn Pyramid
If you are in San Luis Obispo, you have to check out the Dorn Pyramid. The pyramid is 25 feet tall, and it is made from granite, dating back to 1905. it is an actual masonic tomb that marks the area with its uniqueness and imposing nature.
Fred Adolphus Dorn, a successful lawyer, made the Dorn pyramid after his wife and son passed away. The pyramid is a way to celebrate their lives and honor their memory. You can find this tomb in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, isolated from the other tombs. On the front of the construction, you can read the message “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH”. It is unclear how Dorn made this pyramid but he definitely added a print of nostalgia and history in the city.
17. Join a hop on- hop off Wine Tour
Go to Paso Robles to join an entertaining wine tour that will add some flavor to your stay in this area. The Wine Line offers a complete tour that stops at five different local wineries and it takes around five hours.
You will have the occasion to taste unique Californian wines and even purchase some to bring home. Your guide will pick you up at your hotel or accommodation and allow you to choose five out of 60 wineries to visit.
Some of the most notorious vineyards in the area are Edna Valley Vineyard, Chamisal Vineyards, Wolff Vineyards, Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards, and Kynsi Winery. Also, your guide will offer you information about the history of each winery and valuable information regarding the wine-making process.
18. Pismo Beach
If you want to explore the surroundings of the city, Pismo Beach is only 25 minutes away by car. This town is a full day trip as you will find it charming and you will want to check it out in detail. So, leave early in the morning and get ready to return late in the evening.
The city is boarded by a shoreline of 23 miles that is packed with surfers and people sunbathing, especially during the hot summer days. However, the temperature is welcoming all year round.
Pismo Beach is home to several events you might want to join such as the Kite Expo, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival, or the Art in the Park.
19. Avila Beach
Temperatures are typically higher here, compared to Pismo Beach, so it is a more appropriate place for sunbathing and water sports.
The ocean is also calmer here which makes the water ideal for those who want to learn surfing. The downtown area is also filled with restaurants and relaxing walking paths where you can still feel the breeze of the sea.
Among the most popular festivals, you can join the Avila Beach Blues Festival, Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, or the Festival Mozaic.
Getting to Avila Beach takes just a 15-minute drive. You can also get a bus ride to Pismo Beach and a trolley ride from there to Avila Beach.
Besides the fabulous attractions in this guide, don’t be surprised if you discover some interesting spots by yourself. San Luis Obispo is an oasis of culture, and it offers plenty of adventures tourists will enjoy!