Domestic Travel, Itineraries & Trip Planning

Exploring The Best of San Luis Obispo

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When the Danish flavors of Solvang drew us to California’s Central Coast earlier this year, we chose to make San Luis Obispo our home base. It was the perfect choice as there are so many fun and free things to do in San Luis Obispo and in nearby cities.

Affectionally called SLO, this college town is also incredibly walkable and dog-friendly, perfect for our excursions with Kokomo.

I’d been to SLO once or twice before, but most of our Central Coast explorations previously had been in the Monterey area. We were determined to make the most of our time there and check out as many of the unique things to do in San Luis Obispo County as possible. Here are our favorites.

The best things to do in San Luis Obispo County

The best things to do in San Luis Obispo

I’ve mapped out this list so you can also use it as a one-day San Luis Obispo itinerary if that’s all the time you have in the actual city.

1. Scout Coffee

Start your day at the hippest coffee shop in town: Scout Coffee.

Their downtown location is housed in an airy space filled with natural light, artisan goods, and delicious aromas. Try one of their seasonal coffees, paired with a made-in-house-from-scratch pastry. I really liked their Sunshine Bun.

If you need something a little more substantial to start your day (especially if you’re going on the Bishop Peak hike below), check out Big Sky Cafe for its fresh, healthy options.

2. Bubblegum Alley

Once you have your food and caffeine in hand, take a quick detour to Bubblegum Alley.

It’s exactly as it sounds, an entire alley of people’s chewed bubblegum stuck on the walls. Funky? Disgusting? You decide.

san luis obispo bubblegum alley

3. Bishop Peak

I always like to get in something active in my trips, and Bishop Peak offers the most elevation change in SLO.

The tallest of the Nine Sisters range, Bishop Peak providesapproximately 1100 feet in elevation gain in its 3.4-mile out-and-back trail. Rock climbers will find plenty of options for them here as well.

If you’re lucky, you may even get a visit from Moose, a grey Great Dane who apparently leaves his backyard and climbs Bishop Peak on his own rather frequently. Spare him some water and give his owner a call if you see him — the number is on his collar.

bishop peak san luis obispo

4. Madonna Inn

On your way back to downtown SLO, take a detour to the famous Madonna Inn.

Known for its themed guest rooms — from the Austrian Suite to the Love Nest — this eccentric little spot off the freeway brings guests from all over. It’s not dog-friendly so we did not stay there, but it was still fun to look around and explore the property.

5. Flour House

For lunch, head to Flour House for an authentic slice of Neapolitan pizza. Owned by an Italian/Italian-American couple, Flour House serves up a rotating menu of pizzas baked in wood-burning pizza ovens built in Italy, along with pastas and tasty cocktails.

Not feeling pizza? Old Slo BBQ Co. is another great choice for lunch!

6. Downtown SLO

After you’re all filled up, walk it off by exploring downtown SLO by foot. Compact and walkable, yet packed with more than 100 stores.

Don’t forget to search for the cows of the Cow Parade! This one is #6: Cow-cu-lations. We were lucky enough to also meet #60 Marilyn Mooonroe, #8 Gladys, and #55 Moo-nipero Serra during our time in the San Luis Obispo area.

san luis obispo cows

7.San Luis Obispo Chinatown

While you’re exploring downtown SLO, don’t miss Chinatown. And yes, you’ll need to keep your eyes wide open to avoid missing it.

While SLO used to have a much bigger Chinatown, today it is just one mere city block. The Ah Louis Store, the Mee Heng Low Chop Suey house, and a few plaques are all that remains. It’s still worth viewing them though to learn and understand what was here before racism and exclusion pushed the community out.

Mee Heng Low is also still an operating chop suey and noodle house, so you can also grab a bite there to experience a little bit of SLO’s old Chinatown history.

san luis obispo chinatown

8. SLO Brewery

When you’re ready for an afternoon happy hour, grab a car and hop over to The Rock to enjoy the beers of the hometown SLO Brew. The taproom is approximately 10 minutes away from downtown and frequently has live music and other events.

SLO Brew has a rotating list of beers along with a few staples, so every visit offers up something new.

9. The Creamery

For dinner, come back downtown and head to The Creamery.

Despite the name, there’s more than just a creamery there. This marketplace offers a variety of restaurants and shops. Goshi for sushi, Bear & the Wren for pizza, Mama’s Meatball for Italian, and more. My favorite is getting nitrogen-crafted ice cream for dessert at Nite Creamery. Make sure to save enough room so you have space for the entire cone!

If none of that strikes your fancy, another good dinner spot is Luna Red. It’s a bit of a Latin-Spanish fusion, with plenty of tapas, tacos, and paella for sharing under a gorgeous courtyard built for open-air dining. For even more international options, Novo’s menu is diverse enough to make sure everyone has something they like.

10. El Chorro Regional Park

Bonus: If you have a dog, check out El Chorro Regional Park! It’s home to a large dog park that we took Kokomo to almost every weekday.

There are also miles of hiking trails and options for camping and picnicking.

The best day trips from San Luis Obispo

Outside of city proper, there are countless options for day trips from San Luis Obispo. We made sure to pack our weekends with them.

Once you’ve taken these day trips, let me know which one is your favorite!

1. Explore the Danish influences of Solvang

As I mentioned at the beginning, Solvang’s European flair is what drew us to spend time in SLO in the first place, so we definitely had to make a trip there.

One day is ample for exploring all the Danish things to do in Solvang, though if you have two days to spare, you can tack on visits to the vineyards and olive groves of nearby Santa Ynez and Los Olivos.

2. Pismo Beach

Our first day trip while living in SLO, though, was to Pismo Beach.

pismo beach sign

You can easily spend the entire day on the boardwalk and at the beach, which is where most people head to when in Pismo Beach.

If crowds aren’t your thing, however, head to one of the city parks. Pismo Beach has about a dozen parks that offer great views. The funnily-named Dinosaur Caves Park, for example, has 11 acres of ocean-front, bluff-top trails to explores.

My favorite, though, was the Monarch Butterfly Grove. While we visited in-season, the butterfly numbers were extremely low on the day we visited. There were purportedly around 2,000, though we only saw a few dozen. It was still an incredibly cool sight.

In the 2021-2022 season, the grove is counting upwards to 22,000 — yes, a 10x improvement!

monarch butterfly grove pismo beach

3. Avila Beach

Next to Pismo Beach is the community of Avila Beach. While it is significantly smaller than Pismo Beach, there are plenty of things to do in Avila Beach. I also prefer it over Pismo Beach. 

For an active day, hike the Ontario Ridge Trail, which offers expansive views of Avila Beach. Explore Pirate’s Cove along the way if you wish, as long as you don’t have any never-nudes in the group — this secluded beach is clothing-optional. 

avila beach ontario ridge trail view

For a more relaxing day, head over to the beach itself. Take a dip during the warmer hours and then enjoy the boardwalk at night. This little community is packed with wine tasting rooms and restaurants. 

And if you’ve got your canine family member along with you, Avila Beach is also home to a very busy dog beach. 

4. Morro Bay

Continuing to head up the coast, you’ll hit Morro Bay. It’s home to what I consider the best dog beach in the area. Morro Bay Dog Beach is bigger than most beaches are to begin with, and it’s completely off-leash! Kokomo had the most amazing time there bouncing in and out of the water and playing with dozens of new friends.

morro bay dog beach

For the human folks, if watching tons of joyous dogs isn’t enough, Morro Bay also offers a ton of active options.

The calm waters of Morro Bay are perfect for paddleboarding and kayaking, whether to see the eponymous Morro Rock or the hoards of sea lions that call the bay home. There are also many hiking opportunities in the area, most famously at the gorgeous Montaña de Oro State Park.

5. Cayucos

Truth be told, I’d never heard of Cayucos before we arrived in San Luis Obispo. It’s just north of Morro Bay, a small unincorporated town of less than 3000 people.

There’s not a ton of specific things to do in Cayucos, though it’s an absolutely idyllic place to spend a day just relaxing. It’s a funny town, too, at once a beachside resort and an Old Wild West relic.

Stroll through the main strip, dotted with cute boutiques and thrift shops. Look up for the Old West West murals. Relax on the dog-friendly beaches (on leashes, please).

Cayucos doesn’t offer too much in terms of spectacular food now that smoked fish tacos from Ruddell’s Smokehouse are about to be a thing of the past (closing at the end of 2021). If you happen to be hungry before 5 p.m. though, head to the deli inside the Cayucos Gas Mini Mart. Yep, at the gas station that has some of the best food in town. Otherwise, drive over to Morro Bay.

cayucos mural western cowboys

6. Cambria & Harmony

Probably my favorite day trip from San Luis Obispo! And yes, as you may have guessed, these towns are further north up the coast.

While a lot of the Central Coast is similar in landscape, there’s something about Cambria and Harmony that is just incredibly adorable and charming. From gorgeous beach views to idyllic farms, don’t miss these gems!

Harmony California

7. San Simeon

San Simeon is about as north as I’d go on the central coast and still call it a day trip from San Luis Obispo. Beyond that, you are in the great expanse that is the Big Sur Coast.

Approximately a 45-minute drive from San Luis Obispo, San Simeon is home to the stunning yet ostentatious Hearst Castle. If you like castles, European architecture, or the glory of the 1920s, you’ll like Hearst Castle. It’s a little bit of Europe on the California coast!

8. Paso Robles

The fantastic thing about SLO’s location is that it’s smack dab in between a bunch of coastal towns and many wine hotspots inland. Now that we’ve hit all the beach spots, it’s time to talk about wine. I won’t go through all the wine options there, just Paso.

Paso Robles is arguably the area’s most famous wine region.

There are more than 200 wineries in Paso Robles, so feel free to make this a multi-day trip at any point. My suggestions: JUSTIN, Chronic Cellars, and Adelaida Vineyards. They all have plenty of outdoor seating and are all dog-friendly wineries.

Justin Paso Robles winery outside seating
Outdoor area at JUSTIN

Where to stay in San Luis Obispo

We lived in a long-term Airbnb that I would not recommend, but SLO does have amazing Airbnbs and VBROs. (Unfortunately, I can no longer remember the exact ones I stayed at previously.)

Hotels-wise, I would absolutely stay at the Madonna Inn to experience it if we visit SLO without Kokomo in tow. For a spot right in downtown, I would suggest the Granada Hotel & Bistro.

Want to stay in one of the adjacent towns? Check out vacation rentals like this cute little cottage in Harmony or one of many boutique hotels available.

What’s your favorite thing to do in San Luis Obispo? Got a gem that I didn’t include here? Let me know in the comments.

Pin this for a future trip!

The best things to do in San Luis Obispo County

4 thoughts on “Exploring The Best of San Luis Obispo

  1. I would love bringing my Golden Retriever puppy to play at these beaches. We would hike everywhere you suggested. I am very intrigued! Great post.

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