How to take the ultimate trip to San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, surrounded by wineries, volcanic mountain peaks and pale, velvety hills on California’s Central Coast, likes to take things nice and easy. Locally (and appropriately) known as SLO, the city basks in its location.

Which is perfectly understandable. Compact, walkable SLO is halfway between San Francisco and LA, less than 10 miles from the nearest coast, at quirky Pismo Beach, and filled with cute galleries, cocktail joints and innovative restaurants that make the most of the area’s abundant produce. And did we mention the wineries?

It’s long been a popular stop along the classic Pacific Coast Highway road trip and a whispered secret among regular weekenders. But its popularity is growing, with new hotels moving in to meet demand – Hotel SLO, with two restaurants, a spa and gardens, is downtown’s biggest property since it opened in August 2019, while Hotel Cerro, from the team behind Richard Branson’s Necker Island, followed in September.

We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.

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What to do

Hang out at the farmers’ market

The year-round Thursday night Farmers’ Market is more like a party, with a stretch of Higuera Street overtaken by street food vendors, stalls selling local honey and avocados, and musicians, from local crooners to brass quintets. 

This bustling outdoor event is free, but take some cash for spiced elote (Mexican-style corn on the cob) and sizzling BBQ tri-tip beef sandwiches.

Sip your way through the Edna Valley

The town is surrounded by invitingly striped hillsides, which means one, brilliant thing: wine. The Edna Valley AVA has around 30 wineries. Let someone else do the driving on a guided tour: Breakaway Tours runs small-group day trips for $119, visiting four wineries with a picnic lunch included.

The Edna Valley is especially known for pinot noir and crisp, mineral-forward white wines, though it also has a burgeoning rosé scene. Sip unusual pinks made from Mourvedre and Grenache at Malene, where tastings are poured in a super-cute vintage Airstream trailer.

SUP with sea otters

There are several pretty, off-beat beach towns a short drive from SLO, and Morro Bay is one of the best for wildlife spotting. It’s home to a distinctive volcanic rock peak, stretches of honey-hued sand, and adorably laid-back sea otters. 

They’re easy to spot around the harbour, floating on their backs and sometimes cuddling pups to their bellies. And you can get even closer on a stand-up paddle board. Join a two-hour Nature Tour with SUP Morro Bay, paddling around the estuary and sand spit, for $25.

Take a photo in Bubblegum Alley

Either side of this 70ft-long alleyway is decorated with masticated, multi-coloured balls of gum. Find it between Garden and Broad just off Higuera Street. It’s a little disgusting if you chew over it for too long, but makes for a fun snap.

Eat cake in a pink palace

A riot of pink and Flintstones-esque architecture, the Madonna Inn may not be to everyone’s taste. But this iconic hotel, just on the edge of downtown SLO, is too kitsch to ignore. Celebrities who’ve stayed in the eye-popping themed rooms range from Debbie Harry to Kim Kardashian, but you can just swing by for a whopping wedge of cake in the Copper Cafe. Do use the facilities – the ladies’ loo is blazingly pink and red, while the men’s comes complete with boulders and a waterfall.

Where to stay

There are several big chains off the Highway 101, but stay downtown to experience the best of the city’s food and nightlife scene. 

It doesn’t get more heart-of-the-action than SLO Brew Lofts, which has five generously sized suites (more like apartments, really) tucked above the SLO Brew pub, popular for live music. The Castaway, with four-poster bed and a separate lounge/kitchen area is cosy for couples, while the three-bed Voyager, complete with private roof terrace, is perfect for groups. All have record players, cocktail kits, and fridges crammed with the craft beers and surprisingly delicious tinned wine produced just downstairs. Doubles from £275, room only.

The Kinney SLO is close to Cal Poly university, whose Performing Arts Center often hosts concerts. Colourful rooms – plastered with posters and art – communal areas with games and sofas, and a sociable outdoor pool complement the college vibe. Doubles from £70, room only.

The Butler Hotel is a quieter option that’s still walkable from downtown attractions. Each of the six rooms has custom-made furniture, local artwork and cosy touches like waffle robes and pillow-top beds. Doubles from £180, room only.

Where to eat

SLO was doing slow food before it became a thing. Dinner crawls are a popular way to experience several restaurants in one night (with so many great places, it makes perfect sense).

You could begin with a cheeseboard and maybe some balsamic glazed brussels sprouts at hip Granada Bistro, perch at Luna Red’s twinkly outdoor bar for some zingy tacos, and head to late-opening Batch for ice-cream cookies.

You might want to linger a little longer at the Vegetable Butcher, though. Veggies are the star of the menu, showcased in sharing dishes like Mexican mole street corn, shot through with notes of smoke and chocolate, steak with kale chimichurri sauce, and the ridiculously pretty spring vegetable shishito, with gossamer-thin tempura batter and edible petals.

Or taste one of the area’s specialities: Santa Maria–style BBQ, the star of which is tender beef tri-tip grilled slowly over oak. Try it at Old San Luis BBQ, which serves its soft, well-seasoned meat in a no-frills spot with a range of Central Coast craft brews.

Prepare your tastebuds – and eyes – before entering Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab. It’s a flourish of fanciful colours and flavours from birthday cake to merlot raspberry truffle, made with wine.

Where to drink

Taste a variety of vintages from Edna Valley and nearby Paso Robles at snug Luis Wine Bar, with monthly rotating wine flights and a creekside patio. 

The Station SLO, a sleek bar in a converted garage, goes against the grape by specialising in European wines.

Craft beer here is as varied and terroir-driven as the wine. Seek out Central Coast Brewing to sip unusual infusions like chai lager and hear live music surrounded by fermentation tanks. 

Sour fans will adore Libertine, which specialises in lip-smackingly tart ales fermented with wild yeast and sharp fruits.

Or try Cider Bar, with around two-dozen taps to choose from and an indoor/outdoor seating area.

Finish an evening at Nightcap, the latest addition to the Granada Hotel and Bistro. Bartenders at this tucked-away cocktail lounge shake, stir and swizzle drinks like the Gilded Lily, a potent concoction of vodka, gin, vermouth and St-Germain.

Where to shop

Downtown’s shopping scene is a mix of high street names, indie boutiques, vintage shops and stores selling local artisan crafts. Monterey Street has a stretch of cool one-off shops including JunkGirls, with cute home decor items, art and jewellery made with recycled materials. Nearby Boo Boo Records has racks of new and used vinyl and buttery soft T-shirts featuring its rooster logo. The store also hosts intimate gigs.

When in California, check out the surf shops. Small regional chain Moondoggies Beach Club has a store here, filled with all the artfully faded hoodies and baseball caps you could ever need.

Cynically (but perhaps accurately) named Just Looking Gallery has a selection of pieces by local artists. Check out the vintage-style travel posters featuring Central Coast landmarks – you might actually be tempted to buy.

Architectural highlight 

The 18th-century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of 21 Spanish missions dotted along California’s coast, looms elegantly above the banks of San Luis Creek, just on the edge of downtown. The porticoed, bright-white building has a small museum and daily docent-led tours, both free.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars (USD).

What language do they speak?

English.

Should I tip? 

Around 18-20 per cent is standard in restaurants and $1 per drink in bars. For tour guides, $5-10 is expected.

What’s the time difference?

Eight hours behind the UK.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Around 11 hours to LAX, plus around a 3.5-hour drive or one-hour connecting flight to San Luis Obispo.

Transport

Downtown SLO is very walkable, though a rental car is handy for exploring the nearby attractions and beaches.

Best view

Hike the dirt paths that spiral to the top of Madonna Mountain for views over the city to a string of volcanic peaks known as the “Nine Sisters”.

Insider tip

Catch one of the free Concerts in the Plaza, every Friday evening from mid-June to mid-September in Mission Plaza.

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