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The 11 best things to do in San Luis Obispo

Laidback vibes, awesome surfing, scenic beauty and local artistry pack our list of best things to do in San Luis Obispo

Clara Hogan
Written by
Stephanie Breijo
Clara Hogan

This is the life. Sandwiched between beautiful Big Sur and spectacular Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo is a stunning combination of beach culture and city living. The unofficial center of the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo is a student city of activity that knows when to down tools and relax. It knows exactly how to do that, although some might not consider catching waves the most relaxing of endeavors.

The best things to do in San Luis Obispo celebrate all that makes this place unique. With a bustling downtown area surrounded by some of the best farmland on the continent, SLO represents a thrilling marriage of history and innovation. This is one of the oldest communities in the state, after all, but there is always something new and exciting cooking in this proverbial kitchen.

RECOMMENDED: Guide to exploring California

Best things to do in San Luis Obispo

An iconic surf destination with great breaks at high tide, warm waters, and a solid swell direction that's ideal for all skill levels, Pismo Beach is one of California's premier surf spots. Even if you're not hitting the waves yourself, the 17 miles of shoreline and sun-dappled cliffs are enough to make you consider diving into the water—or at least a move to SLO. Enjoy a romantic stroll on that picture-perfect pier, where you can usually spot the surfers bobbing around and under it between rides.


Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande
Photograph: Courtesy Talley Vineyards

2. Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande

Nearby Paso Robles may get all the attention, but San Luis Obispo is home to not one but two excellent wine regions of its own. Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande produce more than 40 grape varieties, thanks to that crisp marine air, the rolling hills and shaded valleys, and the year-round Mediterranean climate. The scenery is worth the drive alone, but you'll be rewarded with stops at wineries like Talley Vineyards, home to live music, picnic lunches, berry picking, and some of the region's best chardonnay and pinot noir. There is also Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, which hosts grape-stomping parties, a wine club, and live bands.

  • Movie theaters
  • Independent

When the lights go down and the neon flips on, downtown's Art Deco movie house draws cinephiles for classic and contemporary screenings. This 1942 historic theater packs out for showings and live music daily in one of the city's coolest settings: between the retro pink exterior, the vintage palm carpet, and the hand-painted ceilings and walls, the theater almost steals the show from the entertainment at hand—almost. 


  • Restaurants
  • American creative
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If you're anywhere in the San Luis Obispo region, you're surrounded by miles of farmland—and this is one of the best restaurants to taste the fruit of the land. Chez Panisse alum Brian Collins packs his wood-fired, New American restaurant with hand-formed pizza dough, local produce, ethically raised meats, and Central Coast wines. You'll find rotating items such as ricotta gnocchi with artichoke chips and wilted spinach, but the full experience is found by ordering a pizza or three and enjoying them outdoors on Ember's stellar side patio.


  • Museums
  • Art and design

This small but well-curated museum focuses on contemporary pieces, often shining a spotlight on living and contemporary makers from across the state. Make the most of your visit with one of the museum's tours, the monthly donation-based documentary screenings, and more. Looking for a more hands-on experience? Whether you're looking to take in some paintings, sculptures, printmaking, film, or photography, the chances are good that you'll find it here. 


With more than 22 miles of shoreline and 4,200 acres of wildlife, campgrounds, trails, and prime picnic spots, Lopez Lake is one of SLO's best ways to experience the great outdoors. Families grill out on the shore while others windsurf, kayak, jetski, and fish in the reservoir. Offering more than 350 campsites—and even cabins available for rent—this is one of your best bets for roughing it in nature. If you need to stock up, stop by the nearby marina for supplies at the general store, equipment, vehicle rentals, a laundromat, and even a bar and grill (because you can't hit the trails hungry, obviously).


Hotel San Luis Obispo is one of the city's trendiest hotels, and a great spot to stop by for a meal, drink, or some self-care. On-site restaurant Ox + Anchor offers a modern take on a classic steakhouse with an impressive menu, while Piadina serves casual Cal-Italian fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Grab a bite or drink and lounge in the stylish lobby or outdoor terrace, then head to Sol Spa, a modern space that offers a full menu of treatments, an indoor-outdoor relaxation lounge, salt sauna, pool, jacuzzi, and meditation room. 

  • Hotels
  • Boutique hotels

One of the world's kitschiest hotels is also one of San Luis Obispo's most colorful landmarks; welcome to the pink-and-white Madonna Inn, where over 100 uniquely themed rooms await. Standouts include the hunting lodge, gold glitter, Old Mexico, and the magnificent Jungle Rock, decked out in faux tree branches and vines. The grounds and activities include a scenic pool, trail rides, live theatre, and a hot-pink tennis court. If you're just stopping by (more fool you), you should visit the all-pink steakhouse, the copper-accented café and bakery, and the rose-tinted Silver Bar for a bite and a drink. Yes, it is kitschy, but what else do you expect? Embrace it.


Every Thursday night from 6-9pm, blocks of downtown shut down to make way for more than 120 stalls of locally grown produce, jams and jellies, to-go foods like hummus and baguettes, live music, fresh-pressed juice, pizza, poke, handmade pasta, BBQ—you get the idea. As long as it isn't raining or a major holiday, you'll find SLO's finest farmers, fishers, chefs, and other vendors in full force. 

  • Attractions
  • Public spaces

Definitely one of the weirder roadside attractions in all of California, this near-hidden alleyway between Broad and Garden streets is its own sort of graffiti wall. It's impossible to say how many pieces of gum now stick to the 15-foot-high and 70-foot-long walls, but residents and visitors have been sticking globs of multicolored gum onto this alleyway since the early '70s. Grab some ammo from the nearby SLO Sweets (formerly Powell's Sweet Shoppe), then add to it yourself. Be sure to grab a photo once you do—just don't lean too far back.


A breezy but uphill hike of 1.7 miles and back down again, Bishop Peak Trail lets you conquer a volcano... well, sort of. One of the tallest Morros (also called "the nine sisters"), this landmass was formed by volcanic magma more than 20 million years ago. Today, it's one of SLO's top hiking destinations. Once you're up in the clouds, you've got killer views of the city's peaks and valleys. It's a hiking dream; a few rigorous (but not strenuous) switchbacks, a short scramble, and even optional climbing walls.


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