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SLO County: 10 reasons to love the California Central Coast

San Luis Obispo county is truly a slice of paradise: off the beaten track, it offers the best of California central coast.

They say SLO County, slow life: imagine long, white, deserted beaches, sheer rocky cliffs, sea otters and whales; combine it with a beautiful countryside, great wine festivals, picturesque towns with an old-fashioned feel…and no tourists in sight.

A dream, right?
San Luis Obispo County, on the Central Coast, is California’s best kept secret. And there are plenty of destinations to discover here if you’re driving from LA to San Francisco.

Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, SLO county is usually just a crossing point for tourists who drive by on their way to the big city, are on a road trip from San Fran to L.A., or stop by for a Starbucks break before heading to Monterey, the VIP and more known destination on the central coast.
This is the reason why San Luis Obispo (SLO) county has retained its charm, and it’s a hidden gem.

I have lived here for a whole year in 2007, and keep returning every time I go back to the States, so trust me when I say I’m almost reluctant to reveal the top 10 reasons to love San Luis Obispo county and California’s central coast!

Anyway, here they are.

01 | The Beaches

Do you like white and soft sand? They’ve got it!
You prefer deserted, rocky coves? Check!
The 84 miles of coast mean that San Luis Obispo county’s beaches are really for anyone.

Avila beachIn the north you have Cayucos and Cambria, with wild landscapes that are as good as the more famous Big Sur; driving south you encounter Morro Bay, with Morro Rock sitting in the ocean. Keep driving south and you’ll find the laid-back coastal towns of Avila Beach, Shell Beach and Pismo beach.

Walk on the pier, surf, kayak, or simply get tanned on the beach.
And for your lunch break, don’t forget to have some of the mouth-watering clam chowder Pismo Beach is famous for:believe me, it’s the best I’ve ever tried.

02 | The Surf

Surf, California’s national sport, is widely practiced: keep in mind that the water here is cold (well… FREEZING!), so make sure you pack a good full-length wetsuit, or rent one while here, if you plan on surfing.

surfer in pismo beach

Pismo Beach, with smaller waves, is the best place to try if you are a beginner, and it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the sun afterwards.
On the other hand, Cambria, San Simeon and Morro Bay are rocky and a great place to surf if you know what you’re doing.

03 | The Wine

Paso Robles, located in the northern part of the county, has recently become a very popular destination between wine lovers: home to more than 200 wineries, most of them offering tasting tours, it’s not difficult to understand why.
But even if you are not so much into wine, you will love the striking landscape made of green and golden hills, the boundless spaces, the western feeling and the gourmet local cuisine.

grapes paso robles

04 | The cute little towns

Cambria is one of my favorite little towns EVER. The salty air, the ‘oh so relaxed’ feeling, the family owned tiny little shops, the boardwalk for a sunset stroll along the ocean…it’s not hard to understand why this place is so famous for senior citizens as a retreat place. Just so charming.

If you’re looking for something a bit more rural, check out Harmony, population 18.
It is tiny, but manages to host an art gallery, a glassblowing studio, a winery, a music studio, a cafe…curious?

Harmony, town board

Image: aj_jones_iv

05 | The wildlife

The unspoiled region is home to a wide array of wildlife: sea otters, pelican, deers, Monarch butterflies live in the county.

One of my favorite places is Piedras Blancas elephant seals rookery, just north of San Simeon, where it’s possible to spot literally hundreds of these mammals which come here to breed. They’re so funny while they play, fight and clumsily move on the shore!

Elephant seals in Piedras Blancas , CA

06 | Quirky castles

William Randolph Castle, one of the world’s richest men, in 1919 decided San Simeon was going to be the perfect spot for his dream castle, and I honestly cannot blame him.
Hearst Castle feels like an optical illusion in the desert: overlooking the ocean in an exquisite way, it’s huge, white, contains 58 (!) bedrooms and on the grounds around the castle wild animals such as zebras and tigers roam free.
Take one of the guided tours… and dream.

07 | The hiking and the back roads

SLO county offers great opportunities for outdoor lovers: Montana de Oro State Park is a paradise for hikers and mountain bikers, while Bishop peak is the tallest of nine volcanic ‘morros’ and a hike up there will be compensated by the view.
In Oceano, near Pismo Beach, 8 miles of sand dunes are the perfect set for camping trips and adventurous quad rides.

montana de oro state park, CA

If you’re feeling lazy, just take your car and meander around the 1200 miles of backroads for stunning sceneries from coasts to mountains.

08 | San Luis Obispo

If you want to shop and party, SLO is where to go. Most of the population here is made of young, university students of Cal Poly, so the town is the liveliest in the area. Head to the Firestone Grill for a tri-tip sandwich with fries, this place is a favorite between college students!

09 | The Atmosphere

You won’t find snotty people here: the atmosphere is relaxed, quite country-like, people are laid-back and very friendly, and it’s very easy to approach someone and ask advice on where to go and what to do.
The locals are very proud of their little slice of paradise and will be eager to recommend you the places you cannot miss.

10 | The Festivals

Bull riding at California Mid State FairEvery Thursday night the streets in downtown San Luis Obispo host the Farmers’ Market that draws people from all over the county: downtown fills with local fresh products, a giant bbq, and live music exhibitions.

Paso Robles in the north county every spring hosts the Paso Robles Wine Festival, a tribute to the fertile region, while in the summer the California Mid State Fair literally invades town.
The Fair boasts concerts of artists of the caliber of Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and Aerosmith  who have performed here in the past, a cattle drive, cowpokes and buckaroos.

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Only 4 hours away from both Los Angeles and San Francisco, SLO County is easily accessible.
US Airways and United Airlines fly from L.A., San Francisco and Phoenix to San Luis Obispo County regional airport, but for a more sustainable choice you can easily get here by train or bus.
It’ll be cheaper, eco-conscious and a great photo opportunity, as you’ll pass through breathtaking sceneries.

Public transportation throughout the county exists but it’s limited, so if you’re considering renting a car, you can rent a car at the airport.
However, the county CAN be explored without a car: check out the SLO Car-free project and all the possible itineraries.

There’s a vast choice of accommodation in the county: if you’re going car-free, you are entitled to discounts in many hotels.
For a unique experience, you could stay at the quirky and fascinating Madonna Inn, close to San Luis Obispo city.[/dropshadowbox]

  • Stefania Guglielmi

    Stefania Guglielmi is the founder of Every Steph. Originally from Bologna, Italy, she's been traveling full-time since 2016 and has visited over 50 countries across 6 continents. She believes sustainable travel and luxury travel can go hand in hand and has been advocating for responsible tourism since 2014. Stefania's advice and travel experiences have been featured in important publications such as Business Insider, Refinery29, and Yahoo Money.

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Thursday 18th of August 2016

Great post, thanks for sharing!

Monday 20th of July 2015

I LOVE SLO!! Perfect summary of everything to do there. It’s really one of the most beautiful parts of California and perfect for a weekend escape.


Thursday 23rd of July 2015

So true Raymond! Perfect for a romantic or simply relaxing weekend :)

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Wednesday 18th of February 2015

[…] thing is, Los Angeles (and California in general) culture is so carcentric that most of the locals have never taken the bus once in their […]


Thursday 12th of February 2015

Love these tips! And wonderful reasons, to keep Cal on my list :-) #LoveandTravelHugs


Wednesday 19th of November 2014

Oh this looks awesome! I need to plan a longer trip to California to check out LA, SF and this little gem! All those beaches and not many tourists.. what more can one wish for, right? :) And thanks for the reminder about the freezing water! It's good to not forget about that ;)