Set in the “Salad Bowl of the World,” San Luis Obispo (referred to by locals as “SLO”) offers some of the freshest, vegetable-forward cuisine in the state, not to mention world-class wineries and a unique selection of alternative lattes.
But SLO is not just an underrated destination for health-conscious foodies, with its year-round sun, warm Mediterranean marine climate and thousands of acres of protected open space, it provides endless outdoor activities too. With trailheads within walking distance from downtown, several hiking trails wind you up the surrounding verdant rolling hills for scenic views of the region. Relaxation awaits afterwards at one of the few spas in town, which offer everything from traditional massages to more innovative technologies like light therapy.
While the population nears 50,000, a quaint downtown core and friendly hospitality gives SLO a distinct small-town feel. With a laidback pace of life, SLO surely lives up to its name. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it makes for an easy weekend getaway, sure to leave you rested and recharged.
While San Luis Obispo has many accommodation options (thanks to the influx of parents that come to visit its large student population) there aren’t many luxury hotels to choose from. Hotel Cerro is one of the latest to join downtown. The intimate 65-room hotel prioritizes sophistication and sustainability, with its sleek rooms, natural skincare products in refillable containers and edible garden. The garden provides the fresh herbs featured in dishes at Brasserie SLO, the onsite restaurant worth visiting even if you’re not staying here. Same goes for Spa Cerro next door, which offers a wide range of body treatments, facials and massages. Relaxation is also found on the hotel rooftop, where poolside cocktails are served with panoramic views of the surrounding hills.
If Hotel Cerro is the place for intimate luxury, SLO’s other luxury hotel is the place to see and be seen. On weekends you’ll find locals mingling with visitors here at popular S.Low Bar on the ground floor and High Bar upstairs on the rooftop. The hotel is also a local hotspot for dinner at modern steakhouse Ox + Anchor and brunch at farm-fresh Piadina restaurant. Bright and spacious rooms exude a laidback California vibe with white oak floors, colorful hand-made rugs and balconies for lounging with views of the surrounding hills. Fitness fanatics will appreciate the onsite fitness center, complimentary bikes and rooftop yoga twice a week, while those seeking some R&R can find it at the 50-foot swimming pool and Sol Spa.
What the Apple Farm Inn lacks in convenience (it’s slightly removed from the downtown core), it makes up for in charm. Take your pick of deluxe rooms at the inn or the quaint motel offerings at the Trellis Court surrounded by flower gardens and lush trees. For the most relaxing experience, wake up to the sound of flowing water from the century-old, 6,000-pound white oak water wheel located at the Millhouse. From weekly wine tastings to farm tours to the heated pool and hot tub, there is something for the whole family to enjoy here.
When it comes to fusion, arguably no restaurant in town does it better than Mistura. Honoring the blend of cultures that have influenced Peru over the centuries, Chef Nicola Allegretta combines native Incan and Pre-Columbian culinary heritage with Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese flavors resulting in a menu that ranges from modern takes on Peruvian staples like ceviche and lomo saltado to inventive creations like short ribs braised in Peruvian cacao. From the pisco made from local grapes to the chocolates hand-painted by Italian pastry chef Florencia Breda to the restaurant design symbolizing the Andes mountains, no detail is left forgotten.
If you’re looking for fresh California takeaway, this light and airy eatery is a must. From family-style dinners to speciality sandwiches to rustic-style baked goods, they’ve got something for everyone. You’ll want to stay awhile to peruse their selection of provisions from small-batch purveyors and local brands. Located at the corner known locally as ‘MOJO’—the intersection of Monterey and Johnson Street—friendly service and a commitment to supporting local businesses makes a visit here a taste of SLO culture.
This ice creamery prevents the unwanted freezer burn and ice crystals commonly found in ice cream by infusing liquid nitrogen into each scoop. The process also minimizes the air content whipped into the ice cream resulting in a creamier, more indulgent texture. Equally as impressive as the insta-worthy show created by the use of liquid nitrogen is the unique flavor combinations on the menu. From the ‘Dolce & Banana’ which layers banana slices and caramel drizzle on caramel ice cream to the ‘Saturdays Cereal’ which tops Captain Crunch ice cream with frosted flakes, there’s a delicious creation for every taste.
With a spacious patio set on the edge of a creek, Novo Restaurant arguably offers one of the most peaceful dining settings in town. It’s no surprise then that it’s grown to become a local favorite in the near twenty years since it opened in 2003. Translating to “new” in Brazilian Portuguese, Novo applies a global perspective to local ingredients. From lettuce wraps filled with with pickled daikon and sweet chili sauce to ahi poke piled on wonton chips to king salmon zested with truffles, familiar flavors are presented with a unique twist. Don’t miss the dessert menu which ranges from a light vanilla bean crème brulee to a rich salted caramel chocolate tart.
San Luis Obispo takes their sandwiches seriously, and this deli is home to some of the best in town. They offer an extensive selection of hot and cold sandwiches, and an even more lengthy build-your-own menu. You’ll want to linger a while to check out their speciality groceries and curated gifts, and play your hand at their arcade corner. With a spacious patio set on a quiet corner in a residential part of town, it’s a neighborhood joint frequented by locals and visitors alike.
Set across the street from the railroad, what began as an organic breakfast spot in 2009 has grown into a local favorite. The breakfast and lunch menu here is a mix of California classics, like avocado toast and breakfast burritos, and unique vegetable-forward dishes like the ‘Beet Around The Burrata’ which combines hydroponic arugula with beets, spiced pepitas and burrata. No matter what you pick, almost everything is organic, sourced locally and made in-house. Even their coffee is homegrown—it comes from Cacti Coffee Roasters, a small-batch roaster based in Santa Margarita.
While San Luis Obispo is known for producing high quality wine, its lesser known for its café culture. But with a large student population craving a caffeine buzz and the health-conscious California vibe of the town, it’s no wonder SLO takes their coffee, and alternative lattes, seriously. One such example is Skipper’s Brew Coffee House, a quaint café tucked away on Monterey Street. What they lack in size, they make up for in flavor, and friendliness—they pride themselves in being a LGBTQI+ safe space.
From hojicha to matcha, the newest coffee shop to join SLO’s coffee scene is a mecca for those seeking an alternative latte. The menu is as energizing as it is creative with drinks like the ‘Taking Back Monday’ which combines Thai tea with cinnamon, vanilla and maple. If you like coffee, they’ve got some of the best brews in the region, with beans sourced form Cacti Coffee Roasters in Santa Margarita. The dark, intimate space is brightened with plenty of greenery and patient, friendly baristas who welcome questions and indecisive customers with a smile.
Nestled just off Higuera street across from Hotel Cerro, this bright and airy café has been a local favorite since opening eight years ago. Craft roasted coffee is best paired with their scratch made pastries, and sipped in the creative space. Not craving coffee? Try the ‘Honey Lattes’ (especially the pumpkin rendition if you’re a PSL lover)—a rich and creamy tea latte lightly sweetened with honey.
In 2006, the founder moved to Berlin and fell in love with the café culture he witnessed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Today, he brings a piece of that neighborhood to San Luis Obispo with the aptly named café. By day it attracts studying students in need a pick-me-up, at night, it transforms into a lounge inviting guests to unwind. Black décor sprinkled with greenery and the occasional bike make this one of the hippest joints in town.
With a balcony patio set among the tree canopy, this cocktail bar makes for a relaxing spot to unwind at the end of the day. Inside, you’ll find a date-worthy bar with serious speak-easy vibes. The food menu is made up of modern takes on classic comfort foods like jumbo soft pretzels served with beer cheese and salted orange butter. But you’ve come here to taste the cocktail list which includes creative concoctions like the ‘Banger’ which combines fig leaf-infused vodka with pear liqueur and prosecco.
Wine tour via sidecar
With a unique climate that cools down at night and maintains moderate temperatures year round, the Central Coast is a dream for wine lovers. Driving down Highway 227 toward Edna Valley is one way to reach the many wineries of the region, but why not take the stress out of determining a designated driver by travelling via Sidecar Tours instead. The first and only motorcycle sidecar tour in the region, your driver will have you zipping up and down the Central Coast’s rolling hills with breathtaking views of Edna Valley. But more importantly, the tour shuttles you between some of the best wineries in the region like Wolff Vineyards, a family-owned winery home to 53 acres of chardonnay and 34 acres of pinot noir grapes, and Tolosa Vineyards, a sustainable winery known for their pinot noir.
Yoga at The Center SLO
What was once a dance studio has been transformed into a yogi’s paradise in the past seven years since opening their doors as The Center SLO. With three spacious studios spread between two floors, The Center SLO has a class for everyone—from aerial yoga to barre to hot yoga. They even have a wheelchair accessible studio on the ground floor. As a local hotspot, attending a class here offers a window into the local culture. Don’t miss the extensive selection of gifts, athleisure and yoga equipment in the giftshop.
Get pampered at Vibe Wellness Lounge
The latest spa to join San Luis Obispo, this wellness center is quickly becoming a local go-to for their healing therapies. Traditional treatments like massages and facials get a wellness glow-up with the addition of crystal gemstones, organic oils and natural herbs. For those who prefer touchless treatments, the ‘Lucia No.3 Light Experience’ and ‘Vibroacoustic Crystal Healing Bed’ feature non-invasive technologies that deliver stress relief either as a standalone treatment or add-on to other therapies involving touch. The distinctive experience is topped off with healing foods from local vendors in the spacious lobby lounge area.
Hike the surrounding mountains
With rolling verdant hills in every direction, nature calls visitors and locals alike to hike the many trails that are easily accessible from the city. One of the most popular is Cerro San Luis, also known as Madonna Mountain, which provides either a gentle one-hour trek—the ‘Lemon Grove Loop’—or more strenuous four-mile trail, both offering views of the city. For those looking to venture further afield, The Poly Canyon Design Village is home to a 2.5-mile hike with 300 feet of elevation while another moderate hike is the 3.7-mile loop at Johnson Ranch Open Space located off the 101 Freeway.
While the student population here attracts chains like Victoria Secret and Sephora to downtown SLO, there are countless homegrown shops to explore too. On the same street as these two big name brands—Higuera—you’ll find more local fashion and accessories at Blackwater and Ambiance. If your style is less boho chic and more surf and skate-oriented, you’ll want to check out Moondoggies Beach Club on Monterey Street. Take a trip down memory lane a couple doors down at Boo Boo Records, named by Rolling Stone as one of the best record stores in the country. Around the corner, you’ll find another cute shop with a historic feel—Ah Louis General Store. Vintage lovers will also want to stop by A Satellite Of Love, located just west of the main drag.
Check out the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market
If your trip coincides with a Thursday evening, this Farmers’ Market is a must. On a weekly basis for over 30 years, SLO has converted Higuera Street into the second largest farmers’ market in the western United States. With countless produce vendors, there are healthy eats at every turn, while those looking to indulge will appreciate the down-home barbecue. The six blocks are also filled with flowers, handmade creations and entertainers, making it an event for the whole family.
Explore the city’s history
If you’ve had your fill of hiking in nature, downtown SLO is ripe for exploration. Take a self-guided history walking tour that traces back to SLO’s roots. History buffs also won’t want to miss the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a mission that dates back to 1772 and still operates as a parish church today. Take a stroll around the mission to enjoy the gentle sounds of the San Luis Creek, the original water source for the mission and later the city, which winds through Mission Plaza. If travelling with children, a visit to Bubblegum Alley is a must. Featured on National Geographic’s Strange Planet and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, the 70-foot alley lined with bubble gum is arguably the funkiest attraction in town.
Peruse SLO’s Arts District
From murals to mosaics; sculptures to a skate park—over 100 unique pieces of public art are on display in SLO’s art district. Celebrating 32 years of public art, downtown SLO showcases both local and international talent. Indoors, you’ll find creative works on display at the SLO Museum of Art and in the many galleries that fill the downtown district. For those hoping to catch a performance, SLO Repertory Theatre has garnered national acclaim for their productions.