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Wide sandy beach at sunset, golden hills, and beautiful cloudy sky on background. Pismo Beach sunset, California
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best things to do in San Luis Obispo

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

Written by
Stephanie Breijo
&
Clara Hogan
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Wedged between Big Sur and Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo is the unofficial center of the Central Coast, a mix of beach culture, metropolitan sensibilities, and some of the country's best farmland. You might catch Cal Poly students trading books for a board and some waves at the start or end of their day, or local artists setting up an easel on a street corner in SLO's charming downtown. With a long history of laidback vibes and scenic beauty, this is one of the oldest communities in the state—but there's always something new going on. Want to make sure you're ahead of it all? Just follow our handy guide to the most amazing things to do in San Luis Obispo.

Best things to do in San Luis Obispo

An iconic surf destination with great breaks at high tide, warm waters, and 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 getting in the waves yourself, the 17 miles of shoreline and sun-dappled cliffs are enough to make you consider a dive into the water—or at least a move to SLO. Take a stroll on that picture-perfect pier, where you can usually spot the surfers bobbing around and under it between rides.

  • 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 are on offer. Some standouts: the hunting lodge, gold glitter, Old Mexico, and "jungle rock," which happens to come 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. But if you're just stopping by, 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.

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Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande
Photograph: Courtesy Talley Vineyards

3. 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, and Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, which hosts grape-stomping parties, a wine club and live bands.

Hotel San Luis Obispo is one of the city's newest and 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. 

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  • Restaurants
  • American creative

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, and the burrata-stuffed prosciutto, but you'd better be ordering a pizza or three and enjoying them outdoors on Ember's stellar side patio.

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).

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  • 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 just 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 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.

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. 

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  • 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 the house 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. 

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, complete with a few rigorous (but not strenuous) switchbacks, a short scramble, and even optional climbing walls.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

Get to know California through its artists. This small but well-curated museum focuses on contemporary pieces, often shining a spotlight living and contemporary makers from across the state. Make the most of your visit with one of the museum's phone-audio or docent-led tours, the monthly donation-based documentary screenings, and the "ArtWays" series, a free, monthly talk through the museum's exhibits and history. 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 you'll find it here. 

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