San Luis Obispo: the perfect pitstop on your California road trip
There’s nothing like an American road trip, and the coast road between Los Angeles and San Francisco offers one of the best.
Hitting the wide open road between these two cities, you’ll encounter ocean views, historic sites, wineries and pretty towns. These attractions merge neatly in San Luis Obispo on California’s Central Coast, making it the perfect place to take a break.
If you only have one day to stop over in San Luis Obispo (known as ‘SLO’ to the locals), arrive on a Thursday. Every Thursday evening throughout the year, Downtown plays host to the Farmers Market. This colorful collection of stalls spreads along Higuera Street, an attractive stretch of low-rise businesses with a small-town feel.
At the top end of the market the focus is on local produce, so it’s a good place for travelers to pick up fresh fruit. At the opposite end are stalls serving hot dishes, including corn on the cob, quesadillas, and a local specialty, barbecued tri-tip, a cut of beef. Join the locals in the friendly street party vibe and tuck into some top Californian cooking.
History on a mission
SLO has retained and treasured its historic heart – though it was a close call when postwar planners wanted to concrete over the San Luis Obispo Creek for parking. Luckily that plan was overturned, and instead Monterey Street was pedestrianized between the creek and the Spanish-era Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth of its kind built by pioneering priest Junípero Serra.
The resulting Mission Plaza is a pleasant shady place to stroll in the center of the city, with pedestrian bridges giving views of the creek below. Around the plaza are several public buildings worth a visit, including the Museum of Art and the History Center (historycenterslo.org).
SLO food – and tasty drinks
SLO is a big student town, hosting the 20,000 students of the California Polytechnic State University during term time, so there’s plenty of variety in restaurants, cafes and bars.
One of the best examples of the casual dining scene of the city is SLO Brew, a combined restaurant, brewery, bar and music venue on Higuera Street. The deep, lofty interior is lined by booths on one side and a bar along the other. The pub-style menu ranges from standards like burgers and pizza, to more regional dishes such as chicken and waffles.
Another good place to dine is Cafe Roma (caferomaslo.com), opposite the train station and serving up classic Italian dishes, with a local wine or two to wash them down with. There’s a pleasant outdoor terrace facing the railroad tracks. Or book a table and pile up the small plates at acclaimed local restaurant Luna Red, before finishing off with a nightcap at Luis Wine Bar.
For your coffee needs, there are good cafes Downtown. Kreuzberg evokes the eponymous Berlin neighborhood via its grungy rock and roll interior with mismatched furniture and art-filled walls. Scout (scoutcoffeeco.com) is more of a hipster hangout, with a slick light interior of bare bricks and white tiles.
Vines and wines
Wineries are scattered across the countryside near SLO, and visiting them can make for a refreshing day trip. Lying to the north of the city, one of the most impressive options is Barton Family Wines (bartonfamilywines.com), where the tasting room has views over the company’s vineyard. Beyond offering the usual try-before-you-buy tastings, the property is also home to the Krobar Distillery (krobardistillery.com) and the Kitchen Window eatery, where casual but hearty meals like pulled pork sandwiches and mac & cheese steak help soak up the vino.
If you’d like to enjoy the wines of the region and leave the driving to someone else, check out the Ultimate Wine Experience tour.
Another worthwhile stop north of SLO is Atascadero (visitatascadero.com) and its City Hall. Built a century ago, it’s an extravagant Renaissance-style structure with a grand dome. Thoroughly restored after a 2003 earthquake, it has a beautiful interior that you can visit during weekday office hours.
Nearby Paso Robles is also worth a visit. The area around its central City Park is home to various murals and other public art, and the former library here houses the exhibitions of the El Paso de Robles Historical Society (pasorobleshistoricalsociety.org). Just across the road, the Paso Robles Inn is an atmospheric and historic hotel. Have a drink in its saloon-style bar, or down a craft beer on your way out of town at the popular Firestone Walker Brewing Company.
West from San Luis Obispo is the Pacific coast and popular seaside destinations such as Pismo Beach and Avila Beach. Further north, the fishing town of Morro Bay is dominated by the dramatic Morro Rock, a volcanic formation jutting from the ocean.
Beyond Morro Bay, the town of San Simeon is the jumping-off point for a visit to one of the region’s stand-out attractions, Hearst Castle. This spectacular hilltop mansion, a grand confection of Spanish-inspired architecture, was built in the 1920s for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and has been open to the public since 1958.
Visitors have to park at the Visitor Center from where they are bussed up the winding road to join a tour of the interiors. You’re taken by a guide through spaces where famous guests such as Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill once mingled, passing through a vast lounge, a lofty dining room and a spacious theatre where guests watched movies with their host. After that, you can wander the beautiful terraced gardens before heading back to the bus.
Sleeping and moving on
To stay the night in SLO before resuming your road trip, there’s a cluster of hotels and motels along the northeast end of Monterey Street; comfortable options here include the Holiday Inn Express and the more upmarket San Luis Creek Lodge. An attractive budget alternative near the train station is the HI Hostel Obispo.
Speaking of the Amtrak station, it’s possible to swap your road trip for a train trip and visit San Luis Obispo by rail. The city is served by two Amtrak services: the Pacific Surfliner train, which runs from SLO via Los Angeles to San Diego; and the Coast Starlight sleeper, which heads north to Oakland, Portland and Seattle.
If you’re driving on from SLO, however, you’re in good company. As Jack Kerouac, a man who knew a thing or two about road tripping in California, wrote: ‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’
Tim Richards' visit was assisted by Visit California (visitcalifornia.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.