If there’s one California “weekend getaway” spot that I frequent the most, it’s hands down San Luis Obispo in the Central Coast. Located just about 3 hours north of LA and about 3 hours south of the SF Bay Area, San Luis Obispo is an ideal and easy-going place to get a change of big-city pace – no matter which part of the state you live in. SLO is one of those city’s that has a way of making a relatively big town feel so small, sweet, and quaint. Lett’s just say SLO runs at a slower pace – no pun intended. If you could use a little escape from reality with no major fancy fluffs and frills – fantastic wine, amazing food, outdoor activities, and friendly folks included – take that trip up the Historic Highway 1 and make a stop in San Luis Obispo. Here’s what’s in it for ya:
- Many people refer to San Luis Obispo as “SLO” for short.
- Fun fact: San Luis Obispo is touted as one of the “happiest places in America”.
- There is an airport in San Luis Obispo, but it is TINY. Your best bet is driving in from LA – or even taking the train!
- Once you get to SLO it’s best to get around town by car, but once you’re in the downtown area biking and walking is a breeze – some hotels in the area even offer bikes for loan.
- One of the city’s main attractions is the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa which dates back to the 1700s.
- SLO is home to one of California’s best winegrowing regions; there are many great reasons to visit SLO, but their wine culture is definitely one of the best.
- Most of the wineries in SLO are within very close proximity to each other, so while planning don’t worry too much about the distance to travel.
- SLO is a college town! Cal Poly is located here in the heart of town and makes up for a large part of the city’s culture.
- Generally speaking, SLO is a very pet-friendly city – you’ll see dogs just about everywhere you go. Restaurants, bars, wineries, you name it – furry friends welcome and very much so embraced.
- SLO is very confused as to where their sports allegiance lies. You’ll see SF fans and LA fans living in almost harmony here. It’s worth observing.
WHERE TO STAY.
Quite possibly the most beloved and famous local institution in SLO… the ever adorable and vibrantly eclectic Madonna Inn has been in business since 1958 and has garnered a cult-like following and appreciation since. The Madonna Inn is known for its kitschy decor that can be seen on every single inch of the property. The Inn consists of 110 rooms – all with completely different and unique themes. If you cant stay at the hotel, be sure to at the very least drop in for breakfast at the Copper Cafe, dinner at the Gold Rush Steak House, drinks at the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge, or grab some sparkly baked goods or a pink cake from their award-winning bakery.
Quite possibly SLO’s most charming little hotel, you can pretty much smell The Apple Farm’s home cooking and sense of warm n fuzzies from a mile away. Between the wine country hospitality, the old fashioned restaurant and bakery, and the overall warm decor, The Apple Farm just screams “cozy”. It’s a little “old lady” ish, but in the sweetest way possible. I’ve stayed here many times and always feel at home. Don’t sleep on that hot cider or those baked goods!
The Kinney SLO is one of SLO’s most recent hotels to open and boy was it time! SLO hadn’t had a new hotel open for about 10 years, and the Kinney gives the city a new breath of fresh air it was due for. It’s geared towards a bit of a younger and more hip crowd, but it’s a great option to consider under any travelers’ circumstances. It’s an affordable option, the rooms are comfortable, the entire design is very well done, the bar/restaurant is great, and hey – there’s a pool!
The Granada Hotel is one of SLO’s most central hotels as it is located in the heart of the Downtown area. It’s a smaller boutique hotel, but it’s one of the city’s best and slightly more higher end. The Granada consists of 17 stunning rooms and an absolutely gorgeous indoor/outdoor classic French bistro. I have spent many-a-hours at this bistro sipping wine, getting work done, snacking, and people watching – it’s easily one of my favorite places in the entire city.
Hotel San Luis Obispo is officially the most recent hotel to open in SLO and boy is she FAAAAANCY! Especially as far as SLO as a whole goes. That said though Hotel SLO is absolutely stunning, and very much so welcomed in the community. This hotel is now the largest in the area, as well as one of the most central. SLO has clearly been working on upping their “cool factor” and Hotel SLO, with its sleek and modern design and fancy new eateries, is definitely helping with that. They’ll even have a spa! My inner “bougie LA girl” is here for it, and I can’t wait to stay someday.
Greengate is a special place as it’s part winery, part wedding venue, part vacation rental. It’s a gorgeous “rustic chic” style property and their guest houses are an absolute joy to stay in. During peak wedding season the guesthouses are usually booked, but if you can snag one – do it. They’re all beautifully decorated farm style houses essentially, and really great if you’re traveling with a group. I stayed in one about a year ago and since then it has become my first choice in SLO accommodations.
WHERE TO EAT.
A coffee shop with an Angeleno’s stamp of approval! Now if that’s not enticing I don’t know what is, but in all seriousness, Scout is SLO’s most beloved coffee shop. They have two locations, both boasting bright and design-forward accents, curated boutiques and most importantly – damn good coffee.
It’s old school, it’s sweet, and it’s comfort food to a T. The Apple Farm’s “farm fresh” breakfast has been a favorite amongst locals for decades. They have their serious strengths (mostly in the baked goods and sweet treats department), they keep things classic, and there’s nothing not to love about that.
Similar to the Apple Farm, the Copper Cafe at the Madonna Inn has been a favorite in the area for decades. There’s nothing quite like that quirky decor, but the menu itself is quite familiar and straightforward – something to respect. Whichever way you order, just make sure you get a biscuit. Note: if you’re planning to attend on a weekend make sure you make a reservation ahead of time, this is a popular joint!
Big Sky Cafe is open almost all day long, but what I know and love them for is their breakfast. Big Sky is known for being one of the more “healthy” options around town but what they offer in “healthy” options they make up for in flavor and creativity. This is a great local spot with fresh and locally sourced ingredients – they are in a prime area for that after all!
For a quick but delicious meal, SLO Provisions is an awesome option. They offer both takeaway and dine-in options and are known for their “rustic yet refined” approach to their offerings which include classic breakfast items, baked goods, sandwiches, house-roasted rotisserie meats, and signature drinks. This is a total “all day everyday” local spot, so no matter what time you find yourself here, you’ll find something delicious to enjoy.
If there’s one place in SLO that I cannot and will not ever miss visiting, it’s Firestone Grill (not to be confused or associated with Firestone Brewery). Trust me when I say you’ve never had a better tri-tip sandwich in your life, I’d go far as to say that Firestone is worth driving to SLO for alone. We’re talking LIFE-CHANGING sandwich people!! Don’t skip the basket of fries with their housemade ranch dressing either – if you’re going big you better do it right. Firestone gets packed on a daily basis, and while they’re pretty damn quick with orders we always prefer going early – or, pro tip, if you’re 21+ you can sit at the bar inside and order from there.
I may or may not have ordered a few “post wine tasting” pizzas in my day, and if there’s a pizzeria in town to order from – *since they deliver and all* – it’s Woodstock’s! You can also dine in at Woodstock, it hasn’t changed in years and they have a great beer selection, but either way you slice it – it’s a solid local pizza joint.
SLO is no stranger to the art of the deli sandwich, and in this town, you either pledge allegiance to Gus’s or you pledge allegiance to High Street, but since I’m not from SLO I’m allowed to promote both. Secretly though… since my significant other who went to Cal Poly is on “team Gus’s”… this is the sandwich spot I end up frequenting the most. Simple, classic, affordable, consistent – Gus’s really is all that and a bag of chips.
Ask most people what deli team they’re on and most will actually probably say High Street. I mean I get it! Much like Gus’s, High Street is again “simple, classic, affordable, and consistent”. I say give them both a try, you can never have to many sandwiches.
SLO Brew Rock is a relatively new spot located out by the airport, which means it’s close to all the wineries – which means if you need a break from wine and a snack to slow you down, this is the place to go! I loved SLO Brew Rock so much the last time we visited that we ended up going twice in two days. They have a huge space with tons of outdoor seating, they have great beer (goes without saying), and their pub-style food is fantastic. It’s a great casual spot for kids, dogs, big groups, and everything in between.
I would never have guessed that some of the best pizza in California could be found in San Luis Obispo, but here we are! All thanks to Flour House! Flour House is a super cute and modern restaurant located in the heart of SLO’s Downtown area and is known for their fantastic Neapolitan style pizzas and house-made pasta. This is arguably one of SLO’s “cooler” and more hip spots to dine at in town, and it’s become another one of my “can’t miss” restaurants when I’m in town. It’s worth noting that they do not take reservations so plan accordingly!
For one of SLO’s more “classic” dining institutions, I’d head to Buona Tavola for some seriously delicious Northern Italian fare and a bonus beautiful dining patio. Buona Tavola has been in business in Downtown SLO since 1992 and isn’t showing signs of slowing down. This is a fantastic spot for a date, a night out with the parents or the family, or just an excuse for a big plate of pasta!
Guiseppe’s has been a central coast mainstay since 1988 and they pride themselves on being early adopters of the farm-to-fork philosophy. They actually own a local farm in the Edna Valley where they grow beautiful heirloom fruits and vegetables that they use at both of their restaurants. Similar to Buona Tavola, Guiseppe’s is another local classic that offers unforgettable Italian fare in a beautiful setting and for many folks, it’s their absolute favorite spot in town.
If you’re going out for a “fancy” dinner in SLO, or you’re craving seafood for that matter, you’ll more than likely end up at Ciopinot. I will never get tired of going to Ciopinot – it’s dim, warm, cozy, they have a fantastic wine program and a consistently killer seafood-centric menu. In their endearing “old school” approach to dining, they note that “from the time you enter you are greeted with warm welcomes, no split plate charges, no automatic tip charges for large parties and NO corkage fee!” It’s a family restaurant through and through, which seems so fitting in a town like San Luis Obispo.
I find myself craving sushi on just about every trip I take, and if you were worried whether or not San Luis Obispo would have decent sushi, I’m here to tell you that they do! Yanagi is my personal favorite as its authentically located in a “strip-mall-esque” setting, it’s relatively casual, it’s relatively affordable, and the sushi is pretty good. It gears more towards non-traditional “California style” sushi, but there’s always a time and place for that.
WHERE TO DRINK.
Probably SLO’s crowning achievement in terms of craft cocktail bars, Sidecar is in a league of their own. With their inventive cocktails, vintage-inspired design and decor, delicious food, and cool vibe, Sidecar is definitely Angeleno approved.
Formerly SLO Brew (same ownership, new concept), The Carrisa seems to be the slighter more elevated older sister from its last iteration. With an expansive space – both indoor and outdoor – their gorgeous modern yet cozy design, a fun “street-food inspired” menu, and an awesome cocktail menu, The Carrisa is a low-key gorgeous spot to sit down and hang around for a bit.
Cider Bar was one of my favorite discoveries on my last trip to SLO. It’s located in The Creamery which is a cute new development in the Downtown area that features boutiques, a coffee shop, restaurants, an ice cream shop, and of course Cider Bar. Cider Bar is pretty much exactly how it sounds – a bar with quite a number of cider options (plus beer and wine) – mostly on tap, and all crazy delicious. I’ve personally never experienced a bar dedicated to cider and I loved the experience as much as the concept.
If you’re not sick of wine tasting and hoping to find a bar in which to sit and relax and sip on another glass, Luis Wine Bar is a great spot in town. It’s cozy, casual, and of course, stocked with locally sourced wine and beer.
My personal favorite place to grab a snack and a glass of wine is at Granada Bistro at the Granada Hotel. It’s cozy, it feels like “vacation”, it’s chic, so well decorated, they have an amazing little patio, a great bar, and most importantly fantastic wines and bistro-style dishes. The Granada Hotel is also home to Nightcap – a cozy and intimate cocktail bar that offers some of the best cocktails in town.
Located inside the newly opened Kinney SLO hotel, Leroy’s is a fun, young, vibrant bar/restaurant with great cocktails and local beers and wine. Leroy’s is here to entertain you beyond delicious adult beverages though, and here you will find a number of games to engage in and an ideal setting in which to keep the party going with friends.
Central Coast Brewing has been producing the best hand-crafted beers in the area for the past 20+ years, and with two locations in SLO, CCB has become an integral and prided upon fixture in the community. Cheers to delicious local beers!
Hands down my favorite winery in SLO is Chamisal, I cannot visit the Central Coast without stopping in for a sip of something delicious. In fact, most of the reason I travel to this area is specifically to go wine tasting! I belong to more wineries in SLO than I do any other region. I have been a Chamisal wine club member for over 5 years and visiting their tasting room/winery never gets old. They have a beautiful patio, an ideal vineyard setting, and of course – incredible wines. If you’re a fan of Pinots or Chardonnay, definitely make Chamisal a priority.
Another one of my absolute favorite wineries – and another winery that I’ve personally been a member at for years – is Tolosa. Tolosa airs on a slightly more expensive price point than many of the wineries in the area, but the craft that goes into their wine and sustainability program is not to go unnoticed or unappreciated. Much like Chamisal, Tolosa makes fantastic Pinot Noir’s and Chardonnays (they produce other varietals as well, those just happen to my favorites) and their tasting room has a great outdoor patio that is great for snacking, picnicking, and of course sipping.
Biddle Ranch is kind of the cool new kid on the block, and what they offer in a gorgeous modern setting they double in the quality of the actual wine itself. Biddle Ranch feels a bit more Napa Valley to me with its more urban and hip design, and this is definitely a spot not to miss in the area! It might be my new favorite!
Malene has got to be the “cutest” wine tasting experience in SLO. Could be because they’re known for their rosés, could be because their tasting room is an airstream trailer, could be their beautiful outdoor seating area, or could just be their adorable branding. Either way, Malene just “gets it”, and if you’re a fan of chilled, refreshing wines, this is the spot to hit. Not to mention they’re located right next door to their big sister vineyard: Chamisal. Make it a 2-fer!
Balieyana is one of those wineries/tasting rooms that will appeal to just about everyone. Whether you’re new to wines, well versed, 21 or 81, everyone loves Baileyana. The tasting room itself is in a historic schoolhouse (it’s so cute.) and offers great wines and a fun setting in which to enjoy them – a gorgeous manicured lawn and bocce ball included. Bring a picnic and hang for a bit!
Talley is one of the Edna Valley’s more traditional and well-respected wineries, and they offer what Id consider to be a more “classic” wine tasting experience. Talley is one of those Central Coast wines you’ll start noticing pop up on a lot of wine menus around California, keep your eye out and give them a try!
Wolff is a family-owned and run winery in SLO and one of my absolute favorite wineries I’ve ever visited because of that. You really feel the love and care they put into every aspect of their business, and even outside their wonderful product, visiting the winery is an experience all on its own. There’s a good chance owner Jean Pierre will be there – or a member of his family – and I highly suggest you say hello. There are not many wineries these days that “feel” like Wolff, and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that is simply not to be missed.
Saucelito Canyon is another more “traditional” SLO winery and offers the best Zinfandels in the area. Their tasting room is situated outdoors and is another one of those more casual and cool spots where you can sit back, relax, and sip.
WHAT TO DO.
On your leisurely stroll through SLO’s quaint little downtown area, it’ll be kind of hard to miss the historic landmark that is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. You can visit the mission’s museum if you’d like to get a better sense of their incredible history, or you are welcome to take a peek inside the parish that is still being used today for services.
Bishop Peak is one of the more popular local hikes in the SLO community. It offers sweeping 360 views from the top of the peak, it’s about 3 miles round trip, an hour up and down (give or take), and a great way to get a fun workout in – and to see SLO from a different perspective!
I sound like a broken record but the Madonna Inn is an absolute MUST if you find yourself in SLO – even if you don’t plan on staying at the property. Whether it’s just to take a look inside the lobby, to pick up some baked goods, or to stay and enjoy a meal, this is just one of those places you will never see or experience anywhere else in the world.
Should you find yourself in SLO on a Thursday night, make sure you check out the famed and beloved SLO Farmers Market that happens along 5 blocks of Higuera Street from 6 – 9 pm. The Central Coast is at the center of an incredible and vast amount of agriculture, so you can only imagine the goodies you might be able to find here.
The absolutely stunning piece of architecture that is The Fremont Theater in downtown SLO has been open since 1942 – and it happens to be my personal favorite place in town, especially for photo purposes. It’s been beautifully preserved and when those theatre lights come on at night (if there’s a show) it’s pure magic. Today the Fremont Theater is a concert venue with a history of incredible guests, entertainers and artists. While you’re in town be sure to check out the concert calendar or at the very least walk by to see it!
Cal Poly SLO makes up for a huge part of the community, so it’s kind of fun to check out their big college campus. You can drive around it relatively easy if you just want to take a peek, but you are also free to wander around – or take a student-led tour!
Yes you read that right – DRIVE-IN! Sunset Drive-In is one of the only drive-in movie theaters left in existence! They’ve been open since 1950 and are still to this day privately owned and run. I can’t think of a more fun and interesting way to spend an evening in SLO, be sure to check the movie schedule on their Facebook page!
Another popular and fun hike to take in SLO is through Cerro San Luis, also known as the “Madonna Mountain” hike. There are a few different trails you can take, it seems most of which are about 4-5 miles, I’d recommend checking out this site to get a feel of which trail suits you best – or just get to the trailhead and get to walking! There should be plenty of other hikers/walkers in the area to join you.
Enter at your own risk! This one personally grosses me out a bit but Bubblegum Alley – literally an alley filled with an insane amount of pieces of gum stuck to the wall – is indeed an attraction!
OTHER PLACES TO EXPLORE IN THE AREA.
Pismo Beach is about a 20-minute drive from SLO and offers some amazing low key *albeit chilly* beaches in California. Pismo is great to go for a bite, they have some great beachfront hotels, and a number of beach activities to partake in like riding Dune Buggies through sand dunes!
Most of the time I am in the Central Coast area, I actually stay in Avila Beach. It’s about 15 minutes from SLO’s downtown, and Avila is home to one of my favorite hotels in California – Sycamore Springs. It’s a tranquil and relaxing hotel that offers access to natural hot springs, a cute little restaurant, cozy rooms, and a spa. Avila Beach itself is a great little beach town and a great spot to enjoy some seafood. I’m personally a big fan of restaurants Custom House, Mersea’s, and the Old Port Inn.
When people think of Central Coast wines, more likely than not they actually think of Paso Robles first. And there’s some validity in that because it really is an incredible area for wine, and also incredibly expansive (let’s just say its a whole lot bigger than SLO wine country). I love visiting Paso but I usually stay in SLO and then day trip up to that area (Paso is about 30-40 minutes north) – mostly because Paso doesn’t really have that many hotel options. If you’re looking to day trip up to Paso, my favorite wineries in the area (where I am also a member!) are Justin, Eberle, Niner, Tablas Creek, and Daou.
Located about 30 minutes south of SLO is one of my absolute favorite small towns in California, Los Alamos. Los Alamos is like a little western town going through a bit of a renaissance, and here you’ll find some incredible restaurants, bars, and of course wineries. I wrote a “mini-guide” to Los Alamos in a recent Instagram post, I highly recommend you check it out HERE! It’s a great town to stop in on your way into SLO or your way home to LA.
If there’s one landmark in the Central Coast that is prided upon by all, it would be Hearst Castle, which is actually located about 40 minutes north of SLO in an amazing and cozy little beach town called Cambria. If you haven’t visited Hearst Castle – it’s an absolute must! I’ve been a dozen times and it never gets old. After your tour of the estate, stick around and explore downtown Cambria a bit!
Another casual and low key beloved beach city in the Central Coast is Morro Bay. You might know Morro Bay because of the famous “Morro Rock”, but it’s a great way to spend an afternoon in the area. Visit the local aquarium and say hello to the seals they have rehabilitating there!