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18 Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, CA [2024]

Wondering what are the best things to do in San Luis Obispo? The Californian city has plenty to offer, and in this post you’ll find the utmost activities to do when you visit!  

San Luis Obispo, located on the Central Coast, is one of California’s gems. It’s not a widely-known destination as are its neighbors Los Angeles and San Francisco, so it offers that special charm of being a bit off the beaten path of most tourists

From miles of white-sand beaches to fantastic water activities, world-class wine, delicious food, and quirky attractions, there’s nothing you’ll be wanting in San Luis Obispo. 

Image of San Luis Obispo from above, surrounded by green fields, trees, and hills, inserted in a post about the best things to do in San Luis Obispo

In this post you’ll find the best things to do in San Luis Obispo, California to enjoy a spectacular trip!  

How to Get to San Luis Obispo from Los Angeles

Starting off your trip from Los Angeles? These are the best ways to get to San Luis Obispo from LA

▶ The drive from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo takes a little over 3 hours, so you can perfectly get there by car. The fastest route to get there is US-101 N highway. Also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, the drive itself offers fantastic scenery, so you’ll feel the vacation mood right away.  

▶ If you’re traveling by public transportation, you can take the Amtrak train which takes around 5 hours to arrive. The routes that get to SLO are the Pacific Surfliner or the Coast Starlight.

Another option is taking a bus to San Luis Obispo, which will take approximately 5.5 hours to arrive. Keep in mind that most services only offer one journey per day, so you may have to plan in advance. Greyhound and Flixbus have a morning and noon service respectively. 

Finally, you can get there by plane; it’s the fastest option, although the most expensive one. The closest airport to San Luis Obispo is San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP), located 3.2 miles (5 km) from the city. The flight from Los Angeles takes 1 hour, and once at the airport you can get to SLO by taxi, transportation shuttle, or you can even rent a car. 

How to Get to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco

Coming from San Francisco instead? The following are your transportation options to visit San Luis Obispo. 

▶ Driving from San Francisco will take you around 3.5 hours via the US-101 S highway. This is the fastest way to get there, so if you have a car or are considering renting one it might be worth the extra cost. 

▶ If you’re not driving, Amtrak will take you to San Luis Obispo in approximately 8.5 hours in a two-segment journey; part of the trip is by bus, and the last leg by train. 

▶ You can also travel from SF to SLO by bus, although the services are not too frequent. You should check in advance to plan your travel schedule accordingly. The fastest one is the direct bus by Flexibus that takes 4 hours, and you can also check Greyhound for other options. 

▶ You can also fly from San Francisco to SLO. The flight takes approximately 1 hour 15 minutes, and the airport is located 3.2 miles (5 km) from the city. Once you arrive at the airport, you can get to San Luis Obispo by taxi, a transportation shuttle or by a rental car. 

If you’re traveling from abroad, the international airports near San Luis Obispo are Los Angeles LAX, San Francisco SFO, and Oakland OAK

Things to Do in San Luis Obispo

Congratulations! You’ve arrived and are now ready to enjoy the beaches in San Luis Obispo County, the city’s main attractions, and the amazing food. Let’s get started! 

Visit the Spanish Mission

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a Spanish mission founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772.

There’s a museum housed in the original Convento Wing that displays a collection of artifacts. You can also take a tour to learn about how the Mission was built, who is buried in the floors (and walls!) of the church, and all about the art that decorates the building. 

Just outside the Mission is the Mission Plaza, a park facing the shopping district that hosts many community events. These include summer concerts, a monthly Bike Night, and Santa’s House in the holiday season. 

There’s also a Gift Shop that sells books, crafts, art, and jewelry, and the entrance to visit the Mission and its gardens is free. You can also attend the daily mass at the Parish (check the schedule here).

Check out the Farmers’ Market

The Farmer’s Market is one of the top San Luis Obispo attractions. Opening every Thursday of the year, it features five blocks of seasonal fresh produce, meals, and BBQ menus to eat on the go. There’s also plenty of entertainment, with live bands and events. 

Even if you’re not shopping for vegetables, the Farmer’s Market is an attraction in itself. If you’re around on a Thursday you should check it out for the music and food, and make it your evening snack destination! You can check their Facebook page to see what events they’ll be holding or any updates before your visit. 

Opening Hours: Thursday 6 PM to 9 PM (Mar-Oct), 6 PM to 8.30 PM (Nov-Feb)

Stroll Around San Luis Obispo Downtown 

San Luis Obispo Downtown is a charming neighborhood, and you can’t leave without strolling around to find its cutest cafes and most iconic buildings. 

➤The Essential Downtown SLO is a self-guided audio tour that will help you discover this peculiar town and take you to spots even locals don’t know. You’ll have offline access to the audio and maps, and you can do the tour whenever you feel like it. You’ll also learn about its history and even visit the last town of the Wild West. The best part? You’ll get to keep the audio tour forever! ➥ BOOK IT HERE

➤ A great, spooky alternative is joining the Ghost & True Crime Tour in San Luis Obispo. This town has a gruesome past, and you’ll learn all about that in a night walking tour. Add some urban legends and stories about ghost sightings in the area to the mix. Eerie enough for you? ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Take a Selfie at Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo

Image of a woman smiling, and a wall filled with chewed bubble gum behind her. A visit to Bubblegum Alley is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo

One of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo County, and the most popular, is heading to Bubblegum Alley. Yeah, you guessed correctly. The alley is filled (and I mean filled!) with chewed gum left by passersby over the years; it’s believed that the tradition started in the 1950s! 

If you forgot to bring gum to contribute to the walls, you’ll find a machine right outside the alley to get one. Clever, huh? 

The gums are about 2 million now (I don’t know who counted), and the alley has become one of the unofficial San Luis Obispo tourist attractions, so be sure to check it out. 

Join a Food Tour in SLO

For the foodies, San Luis Obispo is practically a paradise; the food is just so good! If you don’t have the time to visit all the traditional restaurants and try all the goodies, join a food tour.

➤ The Taste of SLO – Downtown Walking Food Tour takes you to the best eateries where you’ll be able to enjoy locally made meals and discover the town’s food culture. You’ll sample the region’s wine, artisanal gelato, and other delicacies from 7 unique restaurants and cafes. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

➤ More into beer? Check out the Uptown Mojo Walking Food Tour that visits 5 of the best restaurants in San Luis Obispo. There you’ll try the local specialties, including the famed Clam Chowder, great beer, chocolate milkshakes, and signature cocktails. The tour is not suitable for vegetarians, as most of the dishes are meat or fish-based. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Take a Day Trip to Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a coastal city, home to some of the best beaches near San Luis Obispo and the most delicious Clam Chowder on all the west coast – they even have a yearly competition! 

Pismo Beach has tons of activities to offer besides its gorgeous beaches, where you’ll be able to practice your favorite water sports. 

There are great trails for you to enjoy the best hikes and biking in San Luis Obispo, outlets with over 30 stores for shopping fanatics, and amazing (amazing) cuisine. Splash Cafe serves the best Clam Chowder in the area, and if you have a sweet tooth you’ll be spoiled with the donuts and cinnamon rolls eateries. 

Pismo Beach is one of the best places to visit in San Luis Obispo; try not to miss it!

Sip Wine in Paso Robles 

Are you a wine person? I feel you. There’s nothing like being in a wine county, with countless vineyards waiting for you to drink your way through them. And you’re in one of them! 

Paso Robles is known for its wineries and olive groves, and this is where you’ll be heading for your wine tasting. BUT, there’s no drinking and driving, so unless you have a willing designated driver, you can check out this tour below. 

➤ The Hop-On Hop-Off Wine Tour gives you the freedom of choosing the wineries you want to visit out of 60 options! Once at the winery, you’ll be free to wander around, taste, and buy your favorite bottles. The driver will be back to pick you up and take you to the next winery when you’re done. Lunch is included, and so is round-trip transportation from your hotel. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Check my post about the best Paso Robles wine tours for more alternatives!

Hot Springs in Avila Beach

Avila Beach may be known for a variety of reasons, but nothing beats its hot springs. Discovered by oil drillers in 1907, the geothermal spring that flows from the Earth’s interior is brought to the surface by an artesian well. 

Cool Fact: The geothermal spring has been flowing constantly for over 100 years! 

The water, originally at 130 °F (54 °C), is cooled with fresh water to 104 °F (40 °C) so you can enjoy the warmth and let it work its magic on your whole body

Soaking in hot water has been considered therapeutic for ages, and there’s nothing as efficient for relaxation as a good hot springs pool. At the site there’s also a heated swimming pool with slides, and they have cabins and a camping area if you want to spend the night and discover the other things to do in Avila Beach

➤ The All Day Pass for adults costs 15 dollars at the time of writing, and the Children’s 12 dollars. 

Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 9 PM. Hours may vary seasonally, so check the current times on their website before you go. 

Go ATVing at the Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes constitute the second largest dune system in California, and they’re the setting for the most thrilling adventures. 

You can go atving or buggy driving across the dunes and past the ocean, getting an adrenaline rush and enjoying one of the unique things to do in San Luis Obispo. 

You can hire the vehicles and safety equipment at Pismo Beach, so it’s a good activity to do while you visit this beach town.   

Eat at These Restaurants & Cafés in San Luis Obispo 

Eating is always a good idea when visiting a new place, so let’s find out what are the best eateries and bars in San Luis Obispo. 

High Street Market & Deli 

High Street Market & Deli is a landmark in San Luis Obispo, operating non-stop since 1927. Their specialties are sandwiches, of all kinds and stuffings you can imagine.

There are vegetarian options, and you can even build your own with your favorite ingredients. If sandwiches are not your thing, you can get a salad, sides, or check out the daily specials. 

They have a great patio where you can enjoy your lunch and cold beer (because why not?) or you can ask for takeout. The Deli is located in a residential neighborhood, only a 10-minute walk from downtown, and it makes for a great excuse to go sightseeing in the area. 

High Street Market & Deli: 350 High St.   Opening Hours: Thursday to Monday from 11 AM to 6 PM. 

Sally Loo’s Wholesome Cafe

Craving a hearty, healthy breakfast? Then head to Sally Loo’s Wholesome Cafe early in the morning. You’ll be spending a good amount of time trying to choose between all of their amazingly delicious options! From waffles to pies, yogurt & granola, avocado toast, freshly baked pastries, sandwiches and burritos, you’ll be leaving the cafe full and wholly satisfied

They only use local, seasonal ingredients, and they serve the most delicious smoothies and coffee. It’s the perfect place for a good brunch. 

Sally Loo’s Wholesome Cafe: 1804 Osos St. Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 2 PM 

Novo Restaurant

If the weather is nice, you’ll get to enjoy the best outdoor dining at Novo, an award-winning restaurant. All of their meals use locally sourced, wholesome ingredients and are globally inspired. You’ll find an extensive menu to suit all tastes!

They also have craft cocktails, a phenomenal wine list, and the most mouthwatering dessert menu. If you’re traveling with children, you’ll also appreciate the Kid’s Menu, which has quite a few classic options that they will love. 

Novo Restaurant: 726 Higuera Street Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday from 11 AM to 9 PM, Sunday opens at 10 AM.

Hike Bishop Peak

Bishop Peak is a volcanic plug, the tallest of the impressive volcanic Morros of San Luis Obispo known as the Nine Sisters. 

Bishop Peak is 1546 feet tall (472 meters) and it can be hiked, so put on your hiking boots and get ready for some beautiful panoramic views from the top. 

The trail is demanding, so you should be in good physical shape to attempt it. You can start at the top of Highland Drive for a 3.5-mile round-trip hike. Otherwise, start at the trailhead on Patricia Drive to enjoy a 4.2-mile hike. 

Visit a Museum in San Luis Obispo, California 

One of the best things to do in SLO is visiting museums. Either to learn more about the city, enjoy the local art or entertain your kids, there are several museums you can check out. The ones below are some of the best! 

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Image by MichaelVi vía DepositPhotos

If you’re an art buff you’ll enjoy the visit to the SLO Museum of Art. It displays paintings, sculptures and photography exhibitions by local artists. They also hold weekly docent tours on Saturdays and various events. Free admission.

Museum of Art: 1010 Broad Street  Opening Hours: Thursday to Monday from 11 AM to 5 PM.  

Railroad Museum

The Railroad Museum is a non-profit educational museum, founded to preserve the railroad history of California’s Central Coast. At the museum you’ll find restored historic railroad equipment and all sorts of artifacts and displays. There’s also a Gift Shop where you can get your souvenirs. 

Railroad Museum: 1940 Santa Barbara Ave.  Opening Hours: Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM. 

San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

Visiting the Children’s Museum is one of the most fun things to do in San Luis Obispo if you’re traveling with children. 

There are three floors and an outside playscape with exhibits and games for children ages 1 to 10. Activities and educational programs are scheduled throughout the week, although you should make a reservation in advance before going. 

Children’s Museum: 1010 Nipomo Street Opening Hours: Friday to Sunday from 10 AM to 12 PM and from 2 PM to 4 PM. Monday & Thursday from 10 AM to 12 PM. 

History Center of San Luis Obispo County

The History Center is a museum located within the Carnegie Library, and its public sites include a book store, a research room, and a gallery. Here you’ll be able to tour the history of San Luis Obispo through the self-guided walking tour (which you can get on their website). It’s a great opportunity to learn about the city’s past and witness the changes it has seen

History Center: 696 Monterey Street  Opening Hours: Wednesday to Monday from 11 AM to 5 PM.

Visit the Iconic Madonna Inn

Image by Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn is an icon of the city, and visiting it is one of the things to do in San Luis Obispo, CA that you cannot miss. 

The Madonna Inn is a hotel & resort that offers more than 100 themed rooms. Options include Pony and Floral Fantasy rooms that will delight kids, the Caveman Room that features a waterfall and rock walls, and a cowboy-themed room boasting a bed on wagon wheels. 

The shops, spa, and restaurant at the Inn are equally extravagant and very much pink! 

While you can spend the night at the inn (if you can manage to sleep surrounded by the wacky decor) there are other ways to visit the place. One of the best ones is going for a drink at the Silver Bar.

The stools are pink – as is all the other furniture in the dining areas – and the cocktails are first-class. You can also book one of their body treatments or visit their bakery for some lavishly decorated pies. 

Spend the Day at Morro Bay

Morro Bay takes its name for the famous Morro Rock that’s seated on the beach. One of the Nine Sisters, this lava plug is the backdrop for most of the pictures taken in this city and all the beach activities you can enjoy in the area.

Don’t forget to take your own pic with the Morro Rock. It’s one of the best things to do near San Luis Obispo for an everlasting memory of your trip!

Morro Bay State Park is another outdoor option for you to enjoy nature. It features some of the most popular activities in the area, like hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching or even renting a kayak. There’s also a golf course and a museum of Natural History operated by the park. 

Wanted to go camping in San Luis Obispo? You’ll find a great campground right within the state park! 

If you want some city plans for after dinner, you can catch a movie at the Bay Theater.

Watch a Movie at Sunset Drive-In

Image by Thomas Hawk vía Flickr

Drive-Ins will never get old. There’s just something about watching a movie from the inside of your car that’s magical, so going to Sunset Drive-In is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo. 

This movie theater shows 2 new releases every night, and you’ll find a snack bar to get your movie treats before the show. The drive-in is family-friendly, and you can check what movies they’ll be showing on their Facebook page. 

Stop at Harmony – Population 18

Harmony, town board

The charming town of Harmony is home to a population of around 18 people, and visiting it is like stepping back in time. Back in the day it was home to the Harmony Valley Creamery Association, a dairy cooperative that operated until the 1950s. Today you’ll find its namesake ice cream shop, as well as plenty of artisan shops. 

The town, now turned into a sort of artist’s hub, features Glass and Pottery shops as well as artisan galleries. There’s also the quirky Harmony Chapel & Gardens, Harmony’s quaint wedding venue.

While you’re visiting, you may also consider heading to Harmony Headlands State Park for some hiking or fishing.

Explore Hearst Castle and meet the Elephant Seals at San Simeon

Where you should really head to after visiting Harmony is San Simeon’s Hearst Castle. Since the dairy town is located between SLO and the famous estate, why miss the chance? 

Hearst Castle is a palatial mansion, built in the early 20th century for the renowned newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. It stands out for its opulence and Mediterranean architecture. 

The estate has been turned into a museum, and you’ll be able to tour its rooms, the magnificent library, the kitchen, and the cottage. The Neptune Pool is, however, the main draw of the place, so don’t leave before checking it out. Hungry after your tour? There’s an on-site restaurant that allows you to dine at Hearst Castle. 

When you’re done visiting the estate, it’s time to explore San Simeon, a beautiful village that boasts a perfect, free viewing spot to see the Elephant Seals on the shores. During peak times, you can see up to 17 thousand of them! 

Check out the Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center to find out more about them.

Enjoy the Nature at Montana de Oro State Park

Montana de Oro is one of the hidden gems in San Luis Obispo, and a special paradise for outdoor lovers. It boasts seven miles of shoreline, beautiful beaches, impressive cliffs, streams, hills, and canyons. Add to that fantastic hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails. Talk about adventures!

Montana de Oro means Mountain of Gold in Spanish, and the name comes from the golden wildflowers that bloom in the spring all over the park

Hiking the Valencia Peak all the way to its summit (1347 feet, 410 meters) is one of the best things to do around San Luis Obispo if you’re a sporty person. You’ll be rewarded with astounding views of the park’s shoreline; among the best things to see in San Luis Obispo.  

Check Out the Breweries in San Luis Obispo

Image by Wollertz via DepositPhotos

San Luis Obispo is home to quite a few breweries, and at most bars and restaurants you’ll find local craft beer. Are you a beer person? Good, because running around downtown sampling all the different styles and flavors is one of the most fun things to do in SLO at night. Even better if you’re traveling with friends!

Among the best breweries in the area are SLO Brew Rock, Bang the Drum, Central Coast Brewing, and BarrelHouse Brewing Co.  

Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo

There’s so much to do in this city you’ll probably want to spend a few days and explore it all. Well, I got you covered. Here are the best hotels in San Luis Obispo for all budgets. 

UNIQUE: Madonna Inn – The unique 4-star hotel & resort features 110 themed guest rooms, as well as a luxurious spa, an outdoor pool, restaurants, a bar, and a bakery. Each room is lavishly decorated and different from all others, and they come with free toiletries and bathrobes.

LUXURY HOTEL: Hotel San Luis Obispo – The modern rooms are very spacious and fully equipped, with coffee/tea maker included, and the hotel has a swimming pool, fitness area, restaurant, bar, and a garden. You can also use the jacuzzi and shared lounge for relaxing. 

BOUTIQUE HOTEL: San Luis Creek Lodge – This pretty boutique hotel offers regular and family rooms, all fully-equipped and fitted with a coffee machine, free parking, and a continental breakfast. Being pet friendly, it’s one of the best places to stay in San Luis Obispo if you’re traveling with your fur buddy.  

ON A BUDGET: Sunbeam Motel – The motel’s rooms are big and feature a private bathroom, a desk, a coffee machine, and a microwave. Its location, really close to Downtown SLO, is very convenient. 

Things To Do in SLO FAQ

What is San Luis Obispo known for?

San Luis Obispo is known as the happiest city in America, and it’s popular for its wineries, local breweries and astounding beaches. 

What is there to do with kids in San Luis Obispo?

One of the best things to do with kids is visiting the Children’s Museum in San Luis Obispo, a space with tons of displays and activities for the children to learn and play at the same time. 

Why is San Luis Obispo the happiest city in America?

San Luis Obispo is said to be the happiest city in America because of the relaxed way in which citizens live. They know how to enjoy the pleasures of life, they have excellent wine and fresh produce for their amazing food, and they are pretty much stress-free. The sense of community also contributes to their well-being, according to some of them. 

What do locals call San Luis Obispo?

Locals refer to San Luis Obispo simply as SLO. 

  • Virginia Bello

    Virginia is a writer originally from Montevideo, Uruguay. She left her career as a TV Producer to gain more freedom and never looked back. She's been traveling the world full-time ever since! Virginia has traveled extensively through Latin America, Europe and Asia. You can currently find her gallivanting through Southeast Asia.