Things to do in San Luis Obispo, California

By Kay S
Last Updated

In the very heart of California, San Luis Obispo – also called SLO CAL – is the perfect destination for anyone who wants to have a relaxing urban getaway still stay near the coast. San Luis Obispo’s central location makes it almost equidistant from the northern as well as the southern cities along the Pacific Coast Highway. 

The city is located in close proximity to beaches, vineyards, and even a historic castle. The city center itself has splendid energy, lots of cultural attractions, and a mixture of small-town charm with a relaxing vibe. And yet, at its heart, SLO is a college town with abundant things to do for millennials and the young at heart. 

Explore the colorful yellows and greens of the California countryside while you breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the spectacular weather, and make the most of your time in this wonderful place.

Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Whether you enjoy beach life, downtown centers, old buildings, Southern California cuisine, or drive-in theatres, this town has something for you to experience and never forget. While San Luis Obispo is one of the prettiest parts of California, it is relatively unknown among the travel community. 

Finding information about what to do and where to go can be difficult. We put together the list below to make sure you get the best out of your vacation in this awesome town and county. 

Historic Downtown

What would a small-town US travel destination be without a little history in its downtown? SLO is no different. The downtown here is a popular spot among locals and tourists to take a stroll, find events, shop in boutiques, visit local museums, and try out restaurants. 

For more information about the history of the town try taking one of the guided tours they have available. Some of the popular attractions are the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, the Thursday night Farmers Market, Giussepe’s Cucina Rustica, and Fremont Theatre. 

Also, don’t forget Bubblegum Alley and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, but we’ll talk more specifically about all these places later. While you’re here don’t miss the Old SLO Trolley; a budget public transport system that is perfect to explore the downtown. 

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a Spanish frontier mission founded all the way back in 1772. It has been converted into a historic site and museum for the enjoyment of visitors and is a must-visit while in San Luis Obispo. 

Located in the famous Mission Plaza – one of the most popular town squares in SLO – the mission has beautiful architecture. You can visit the old building to learn about its fascinating history and relevance to the town as well as admire the bell tower and grounds. 

Tours here are free and take you around the building. Visitors can learn about old Spanish colonial civilization and the spread of Christianity in the Americas. Then you can head back to the Mission Plaza for some shopping or a bite to eat.

San Luis Obispo Coastside History Museum

Located in SLO’s famous Carnegie Library, this museum is the perfect place to go and learn about the history of the county. The museum has a bookstore, research room, and gallery which is home to multiple exhibits that change throughout the years. 

The exhibits they are currently featuring include a historical overview of the Pecho Coast, an exhibit about classical schooling called “Chalk and Chores,” A history of street names, and a few other sections with their own intriguing subjects. The museum also has several events and workshops throughout the months so be sure to check their calendar to coincide with your vacation. 

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is a funky and well-reviewed museum that is a must for art enthusiasts and connoisseurs. Along with preserving art collections, the museum has made it a priority to be the beacon for spreading art and creativity among the youths of the SLO community. 

While a lot of the exhibits change frequently, the one permanent collection they have there pays homage to the Central California Coast and the art that emerged here. Complimentary tours of the museum are available for any age group, to book it you simply need to visit their website. The museum is also known for holding festivals and concerts so be sure to check their calendar as well. 

San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

Most urban museums can be boring for kids – the long, slow walks seeing historic art and exhibits can be overwhelming for their tiny attention spans. If only there was an SLO museum that was fun and interactive to keep them engaged… But there is! 

The San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is located close to downtown. It is a fun-packed place to bring the kids for some giggles and learning at the same time. The museum has three floors full of crafts workshops and exhibits like “Wildflower Super Blooms,” “Facts about Space,” and “Explore the Deep Sea.” Tickets are cheap at $8 for adults and children and it’s even possible to organize birthday parties here. 

San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum

Did you know that the railroad is how many immigrants from the Eastern United States made it to the West Coast? Are you a fan of historic locomotives and model railroads? Then the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is the place for you! 

They have displays, models, and artifacts showing a wide range of trains from places and companies like Santa Maria Valley, Southern Pacific, Amtrak, Port San Luis, the Pacific Coast Railway, Orchard Express, Union Pacific, and more. The museum is also working on a 1200 square foot model railroad that is supposed to set the scene where local railroads operated. 

The Monday Club

The Monday Club of San Luis Obispo is a historical landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. The building has beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and arresting features including terra cotta roof and intricate ironwork details. The building was designed in the 1930s by Julia Morgan, who also designed the famous Hearst Castle. 

The building was built to house a non-profit club that has been serving the SLO community since 1924. They raise funds and donations to support local women and children. Today, the clubhouse is mostly used for private events like weddings and graduations. It also hosts public events like yoga and book club meets. You can visit the building every Monday from 2 pm to 5 pm for a free tour.

Local Cuisine

Because of its reputation as a college town catering to the young population, SLO is full of delicious meals, satisfying cocktails, and tasty treats. The first place we want to recommend is Ember. This rustic-style pizza kitchen has really unique topping options like Kale and Sausage and menu items like the Ahi Tuna Crudo. 

Another great place to visit is the Foremost Wine Co. The food there is great, but the wine list makes it a must-visit. If there is a particular type of California wine you’re curious about or enjoy the odds are they’ll have it. It’s also the best place to sample local wines. 

Finally, if you’re looking for something sweet then stop by the SLO Donut Co. to get a delectable and soft pastry that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The city also has many bars and pubs where you can listen to music and party with the locals. 

Bishop Peak Trail

If you are an outdoor enthusiast and looking to get away from all the cultural attractions, then hike the fun and easy Bishop Peak Trail. The 3.4 miles round trip trail starts from Patricia Drive leads up to Bishop’s Peak, one of the most iconic mountains near SLO. 

The trail gets its name from the triple peak at its top which looks a bit like a bishop’s miter. From the top, you will be able to look down into the SLO valley along with views of surrounding peaks and landscapes. The full hike is about 4.2 mi long and has an elevation change of 1,175 ft. 

Felsman Loop Trail

If you’re looking for an easier hike with an equally pretty view of Bishop’s Peak, then try the Felsman Loop Trail. Located inside Bishop Peak Natural Reserve, this trail takes you up the mountains and along a ridge from where you have awesome views of the peak, surrounding valley, and other nearby mountains. 

The trail is only 2.7 miles with an elevation change of 525 feet. One of the defining characteristics of this trail is the red-violet soil that borders the path as you walk. It is beautiful in spring when wildflowers bloom along the route. 

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn is located 5 minutes from downtown SLO. This pretty stone and wood motel is an icon of SLO. It will make you think you’re walking into a fairy tale with its pretty pink roses, murals, and a peaceful garden.

The property has a lot more to offer to guests than just a bed to sleep in. For eating you can get something casual in the Copper Cafe, or a succulent steak in Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House, or even a beverage at either Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge or the Pool Bar. 

There is also a bakery with fresh baked cakes and pies. If you’re exhausted then take a trip to the Spa where you can be massaged with everything from bamboo to hot stones. Also, feel free to do some shopping in the boutique for some locally made clothes and accessories.

Bubblegum Alley

This unique tourist attraction is really something! Right next to downtown, there is an alley where thousands of tourists and locals have stuck their used chewing gum to the walls. The walls of the Alley have only been cleaned twice since the 1970s, so if you decide to stick your gum here you may be leaving a little piece of you in SLO forever. 

Farmers Market

Southern California produce is some of the highest quality in the United States due to the ideal climate and the farmer’s effective techniques. If you want to sample some of this produce then the local Farmers Market, which takes place in SLO every Thursday night, is the perfect place to do it. 

The organization works with local small-scale farmers to keep them in business and provide healthy alternatives for local residents. Choose from a wide range of vegetables and fruits like spinach, asparagus, carrots, strawberries, apricots, celery, and whatever else is in season. You can also buy some preservable products like some locally produced artisanal honey.

Avila Valley Barn

Want to see where all that Farmer’s Market produce comes from? Then hop in your car to Highway 101 and visit the real deal. Avila Valley Barn has several stands selling products grown right there on the property. 

The farm is open to the public during business hours so you can check out the grounds and see where the food is grown. The barn also offers pony rides and hayrides for children. If you’re feeling famished at the end of your visit then grab a seat for some fresh California-style BBQ, served Friday – Monday from 9:00 am – 18:00 pm. 

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

The SLO Botanical Garden is one of its kind in this part of California. The 150-acre garden has plants and ecosystems from the 5 Mediterranean climates around the world. You will find paved trails, demonstrations, a greenhouse, and nursery from where you can purchase plants. 

They also have different event gardens as well including the 2-acre Preview Garden, Life Celebration Garden, and a Children’s Garden. Other highlights include opportunities to see the propagation of thousands of drought-tolerant plants and the largest Chilean wine palm grove outside of Chile. 

Sunset Drive-in Theatre

Remember the drive-ins? During the golden age of cars in the US, these places were extremely popular because you could see a whole movie without ever leaving the driver’s seat. Nowadays, very few remain across the country and SLO’s Sunset Drive-in is one of these classic icons. 

Seeing a movie here is quite fun. The massive screen makes it easy to see from any point in the lot and kids love it because they can stretch out with a blanket in a truck bed or on the hood of a car and watch the latest children’s movies from a perspective they’ve never seen before. 

Lopez Lake

Water activities in the SLO area aren’t only based around the Pacific. This scenic reservoir just 25 minutes away from downtown is a great place to come for some outdoor water fun. The shoreline of the lake is over 22 miles long and in the summer the lake temperature climbs up to a cozy 70 degrees. 

Once there, you can do some hiking, picnicking, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, mountain biking, and even ziplining. The wilderness around the park is abundant and home to over 175 species of flowering plants and more than 150 species of birds, making this an awesome location for any lover of the outdoors. 

Day trip to Hearst Castle

While in the area, consider a trip to the magnificent Hearst Castle. This gigantic building is the former home of famous American Mogul William Randolf Hearst. Among other things, Hearst was famous for owning a monopoly on both newspaper companies and the lumber mills that supplied them with paper. 

Today, his former residence stands as a museum and exemplary symbol of wealth and the American dream. The castle has hundreds of rooms, multiple swimming pools and is decorated with decadence so profound you’ll feel like royalty walking through its halls. 

Currently, the property offers a few different types of tours where you can see the grand rooms, upstairs suites, cottages & kitchens, and a Julia Morgan tour about the architect who designed the mansion and estate. 

Surf at Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is one of the closest beaches to SLO, just 15 minutes away. This is a famous surfing spot because it has consistent large waves. Pismo Beach hosts many surfing contests and is a great place to learn the sport 

The beach is about 1,250 ft long and has a massive pier which is lit at night. It makes nighttime surf sessions a possibility if the moon is right. If you’re looking to get away from tourists then head to the southern end of the beach where you can find some solidarity to work on your moves. But even apart from surfing, Pismo Beach has many attractions and is a delightful coastal town to spend a day or two. 

Tour the wineries

The San Luis Obispo wine region is one of the popular ones along central California. You can visit either Edna Valley, Paso Robles, or the Arroyo Grande region and tour the wineries.

The Edna Valley AVA is just 10 minutes outside of SLO and a great place to sample premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This valley has the longest growing time of anywhere in California and the wines benefit from those extra days on the vine by developing complex flavors. 

Next up is the Paso Robles Valley which is more well-known and defined as one of the best in the region. There is also Arroyo Grande which has its own distinct flavors to offer. 

For the best experience, we recommend visiting Edna Valley Vineyard or Chamisal Vineyards. Edna valley has been in business for over 30 years and is best known for its chardonnay. Chamisal has an excellent rosé on tap in Malene Wines right next to their tasting room.

Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

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Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
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