A Traveler's Guide to Exploring San Luis Obispo, California

35.2828° N, 120.6596° W

Male biker on a dirt trail in San Luis Obispo, California

EXPLORE OUR TRAVEL GUIDE ON THE BEAUTIFUL TOWN OF SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA - HOME TO CAL POLY, HISTORIC SPANISH MISSIONS, AND LOTS OF OUTDOOR ADVENTURES.

 



Located in the heart of Central Coast California, the lively and scenic town of San Luis Obispo might just be the perfect place to head to for a fun weekend away or long-term adventure. Thanks to its central location within California (it's at almost the exact halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles), San Luis Obispo - or simply SLO - has over the years become one of the best places to base yourself for a wide range of activities. This includes such adventures as mountain biking, hiking, surfing, scuba diving, road biking and wine tasting.


Plus, thanks to it being the home of Cal Poly University (where Luke actually graduated from way back in 2018), the town has a nice hip and exciting atmosphere. This can easily be felt in SLO's colorful downtown, its large array of tasty cafes and its focus on being outside having fun.


Our San Luis Obispo Travel Guide covers everything you need to know about this exciting and beautiful city; including, how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and what hidden gems you need to uncover. So without further ado, here is the ultimate guide to the beautiful town of San Luis Obispo, California.





HOW TO GET TO SAN LUIS OBISPO


San Luis Obispo is located at almost the exact halfway point between the metropolises of San Francisco (in the north) and Los Angeles (in the south). The city is located right on Highway 101, which is one of the major highways that goes north and south across the entire state of California. Similarly, San Luis Obispo is also right at the intersection of Highway 101 and the famously scenic Highway 1. From SLO, it is roughly one hour to the start of the scenic drive along the Big Sur coastline.



SAN LUIS OBISPO TO SAN FRANCISCO: 232 miles, 3.5 hours

SAN LUIS OBISPO TO LOS ANGELES: 189 miles, 3 hours and 20 minutes



While you can easily drive to San Luis Obispo, if planning to visit, you also have the option to fly into their small regional airport or take the Amtrak train up from Los Angeles or down from San Francisco. Both train routes are incredibly scenic and are definitely worth considering if you want to see the beautiful coastline that makes California such a popular travel destination.


Find your train route to SLO here.




📣 PLANNING TO DRIVE FROM SAN LUIS OBISPO TO SAN FRANCISCO?

If you are thinking of doing the absolutely beautiful drive from San Luis Obispo up north to San Francisco via the famous Highway 1, and want to learn more about the natural and human history of the area (including the history of such places as Hearst Castle, Carmel and Monterey) then consider downloading this audio tour from GetYourGuide.


Download the in-depth audio guide here.






THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAN LUIS OBISPO


San Luis Obispo experiences a very mild Mediterranean-like climate - meaning that no matter the time of year, you can likely expect plenty of sun and warm temperatures. During the summer, when the town is quite busy, daily highs are usually in the mid-90s (though over 100° temperatures are not exactly rare). Similarly, between May and September, you are more likely to find mornings slightly foggy thanks to the nearby Pacific Ocean.


If you are looking to visit San Luis Obispo and are hoping to spend a good deal amount of time outside (like hiking, mountain biking or hanging at the beach), then we suggest visiting during the summer months, especially in May and June. Plus, during this time of year, you have a good chance of seeing some late spring wildflowers.




EXPLORE MORE | 7 WAYS TO REALLY SEE BIG SUR IN CALIFORNIA






WHERE TO STAY IN SAN LUIS OBISPO


There are many options when it comes to where to stay in San Luis Obispo. From the high end hotels in downtown, to the iconic Madonna Inn, you can easily find a spot for your needs, style and budget. Below are some of the best hotels and Airbnbs in the town. We have also included a few tips for people looking to van life in the area.



HOTELS

San Luis Creek Lodge: this centrally located and modern lodge features free parking, bicycles to use and high speed internet. It is also pet friendly. | BOOK HERE


Avenue Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo: this recently updated motel is just blocks from downtown San Luis Obispo. It also includes free breakfast and free parking. | BOOK HERE


Madonna Inn: likely the most well-known and recognizable hotel in San Luis Obispo, the historic Madonna Inn on the edge of town is a great place to stay if you want the full, funky SLO experience. Within the hotel complex you will find a heated outdoor pool, a colorful bar and lounge, an upscale restaurant and even a horse paddock (where you can go on horseback rides). They also have a spa, fitness center and easy access to nearby trails. | BOOK HERE




AIRBNB

If you are looking for a bit more privacy or just some more room to spread out, then renting an Airbnb in San Luis Obispo might be the way to go. For the most part, you can choose from a whole slew of places, including smaller apartments in downtown SLO, an entire historic cottage, or even a condo with ocean views out in nearby Morro Bay.


Simple Studio in Downtown SLO: this space is perfect for a couple looking to get away for the weekend and who wants to be in the middle of the action of downtown San Luis Obispo. The studio includes a fully stocked kitchen, free parking on the premises, and quick access to nearby hiking and biking trails. | BOOK HERE


Private Tropical Cottage in SLO: this cute and colorful historic home is located in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown San Luis Obispo. The house is perfect for entertaining and comes with two bedrooms with queen-sized beds, a large deck and a bar area. | BOOK HERE


Spacious Condo Right on the Water in Morro Bay: this sizable condo is literally steps from Morro Bay and the iconic Morro Rock. Within a short walk you can reach a good number of restaurants and cafes within the cute seaside town. This is a great option if you want to be a short drive from SLO (around 20 minutes) but want super easy access to the nearby beaches. | BOOK HERE




VAN LIFING

There are a number of great free camping options near San Luis Obispo if you are looking to van life and explore the area.


One of our personal favorite van lifing camping spots was up on Cuesta Ridge, which is located about 6.5 miles from downtown SLO on TV Tower Road - a mostly dirt road that climbs up from Highway 101 to the top of a wide ridge that rewards you with stunning views of SLO and a few of the 9 Sisters - including, if you are lucky, Morro Rock.


💬 INSIDER TIP: this area is a pretty well-known van life and car camping area, so if you are looking to stay there on a weekend we suggest trying to arrive early in the day to snag one of the better spots.






WHERE TO EAT IN SAN LUIS OBISPO


There is a surprisingly large array of restaurants in San Luis Obispo. From the more upscale restaurants in downtown to the more college-focused (but no less delicious) joints closer to the Cal Poly campus, you can very likely find a spot that will pique your fancy.


Below are a few of the best restaurants to check out during your visit to San Luis Obispo.



Taqueria Santa Cruz | $ / Mexican

This no-frills taco shop has been proudly serving the San Luis Obispo area for many years. Today, they have two locations within SLO: one near downtown and one closer to the campus on Foothill Avenue. Taqueria Santa Cruz is a great spot to stop in at if you want traditional Mexican tacos at a very reasonable price. | EXACT LOCATION



Firestone Grille | $$ / American, Barbecue

Another SLO mainstay is this always busy BBQ joint in downtown. Firestone Grille, while famous for their tri-tip sandwich, also serves up tasty fries, chicken sandwiches and large salads. | EXACT LOCATION



Petra Mediterranean Pizza and Grill | $$ / Mediterranean

Another great restaurant option in San Luis Obispo is this popular Mediterranean grill that focuses on pizza and pita sandwiches. The service is fast, the location downtown is super central, and the outdoor seating is very fun. Plus, the food is delicious. | EXACT LOCATION



SloDoCo | $ / Donuts

A somewhat recent SLO mainstay, SloDoCo has quickly become one of the go-to spots for Cal Poly students and visitors alike. While they are known for their colorful and wacky donuts, they also serve delicious coffee. Plus, they are open 24 hours so you can always get your sweet fix. | EXACT LOCATION



Del Monte Café | $$ / Breakfast

Del Monte Café, in our opinion, is one of the best places to head to for a nice relaxing weekend breakfast or brunch. The American-style joint is located close to the SLO Amtrak station in an old house with a large patio. We suggest ordering the French Toast or the Sweet Potato Pork Hash. | EXACT LOCATION






WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU TO SAN LUIS OBISPO



Long-sleeved hiking shirt

The sun can get pretty intense during San Luis Obispo summers, therefore it would be wise to bring at least one flattering sun shirt along on your trip. This one from Backcountry is stretchy, lightweight and quick-drying. It also comes with a handy little side pocket that can easily hold your keys and wallet. | OUR RECOMMENDED WOMEN'S SUN SHIRT



Mountain bike shorts

These comfortable shorts can quickly transition from the SLO dirt singletrack trails to walking around downtown with a cup of coffee in hand. | OUR RECOMMENDED MEN'S BIKE SHORTS



Surfing swimsuit

Hit the waves in Morro Bay in this colorful and flattering long-sleeved surf swimsuit. The suit is made out of a nice stretchy nylon fabric and includes a long zipper pull to make getting the suit on and off a breeze. | OUR RECOMMENDED WOMEN'S SURFING SWIMSUIT



Sun hat

Don't get caught at the beach or walking around downtown SLO without a fun and fashionable sun hat. In this case, we present the Patagonia Wavefarer bucket hat, which luckily comes in a number of funky patterns (including our personal favorite, Ojai Pixie). | OUR RECOMMENDED SUN HAT



➳ You can find even more awesome outdoor gear at Backcountry.com.







 

TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN SAN LUIS OBISPO

 






1 | Walk Around Downtown San Luis Obispo


One of the easiest ways to get in tune with San Luis Obispo is to spend a couple of hours wandering around their cute and colorful downtown. Some of the town's can't-miss spots are the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which was built in 1772 and today houses a beautiful Spanish-style mission, a large garden and a small museum; Bubblegum Alley, which is a 70-foot long alley covered in colorful (chewed) bubblegum that was started way back in the 1970s; and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, which is a cozy little spot featuring works from local artists.


All three of these spots are within a short walk of each other and could easily be seen within a couple of hours.


But, if you have more time to kill, then we suggest checking out a couple of the town's cute cafes as well. A few of our favorite coffee shops in San Luis Obispo are Scout Coffee (they have multiple locations, including a nice airy one off of Garden Street), Kreuzberg California, which has a delicious chai and a fun eclectic atmosphere, and Linnaea's Café, which serves up not only delicious coffee but also tasty breakfast food. Plus, they usually have live music a couple of nights a week.



💬 INSIDER TIP: the town of San Luis Obispo is pretty walkable, so even if you are staying closer to Cal Poly's campus or a bit farther outside of town, you can probably very easily walk to the downtown area. From the campus, it is roughly 1.5 miles to the heart of downtown.




EXPLORE MORE | 25 WAYS TO BE A MORE SUSTAINABLE VAN LIFER






2 | Head to the Beach


While San Luis Obispo is a very cute town, what makes it extra special is its easy access to many other amazing destinations - including wide sandy beaches, state parks, Eucalyptus forests and popular surfing spots. And in our opinion, some of the best places to explore near SLO are Morro Bay and the town of Los Osos and its neighbor Montaña de Oro State Park.



MORRO BAY


This cute seaside town is perfect if you are looking to while away a sunny day on the beach. Luckily, Morro Bay has two beaches that are perfect for relaxing on, heading out for a quick swim in the ocean or if you are feeling extra adventurous, for a nice refreshing surf.


The two main beaches are Morro Rock Beach and Morro Strand Beach State Park. To reach both (they are right next to each other), head out of San Luis Obispo on Highway 1 until you get to exit 279A (Main Street) in Morro Bay. Get off there and then drive on Main Street towards Beach Street. Turn on Beach Street and then turn again onto Embarcadero. Once on Embarcadero, drive towards the massive Morro Rock until you see a large parking lot on the right. Park there and walk out onto the beautiful Morro Rock Beach.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: we suggest parking in this large lot and then walking around the beaches and/or up to the nearby restaurants on Embarcadero Street. Similarly, this are is a very common spot to see seals and sea otters.



Distance from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay: ~14 miles, 20 minutes




LOS OSOS AND MONTANA DE ORO STATE PARK


Another small coastal town worth exploring while visiting San Luis Obispo is Los Osos and its nearby neighbor Montaña de Oro State Park. In fact, if you are looking to get out in nature and do a bit of coastal hiking, then this is the place to head to. Besides Montaña de Oro State Park - which is massive and full of hiking trails, including some through stunning eucalyptus trees, you can also explore the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve, Morro Bay State Park, and the Elfin Forest.


Besides hiking and mountain biking trails, this area also offers camping (mostly in one of the state parks), some cute coffee shops and restaurants, and just some stunning California coastal scenery.



Distance from San Luis Obispo to Los Osos and Montaña de Oro: ~12 miles, 20 minutes



❔ GOOD TO KNOW: it costs $25 to camp in Montaña de Oro State Park. You can camp at one of the Environmental Campsites (which are more backcountry-esque) or at the Islay Creek Campground. You do need to reserve your spot ahead of time. You can make your reservations here.





Sunny day on the coast of California





3 | Go Mountain Biking


While they might not seem like much to the naked eye, the hills around San Luis Obispo are full of exciting outdoor adventures. And by far one of the best ways to explore those golden hills is via mountain bike.


Below are some of the best mountain bike trails in and around San Luis Obispo:



Poly Canyon Road | Blue / 3.7 miles

This relatively easy dirt road gets you back into the heart of beautiful Poly Canyon. The ride can easily be picked up on the edge of Cal Poly's campus (here), and then ridden up into the hills. And from there, you can link up with various singletrack trails. The main Poly Canyon Road is an entirely dirt doubletrack - though it does have a couple of big hills you need to be ready for as well as a few loose rocky sections.


➳ Find the full mountain bike ride beta here.



Shooters | Blue-Black / 1.2 miles

This is one of the few fun descents back down from the TV Tower Road/ridge area (a 2.8 mile long green route). The Shooters Trail, though short, is a fun, quick descent back down to the Stenner Creek Road trails. This fast ride is a great addition to a longer loop that can begin in San Luis Obispo before heading up to the TV Tower Road (via Old Stage Coach Road).


➳ Find the full mountain bike ride beta here.



East Boundary - Hazard Peak - Manzanita Trail | Blue-Black / 12.5 miles

This full adventurous ride in Montaña de Oro State Park has a good mix of gradual climbs, flowy downhills and beautiful ocean views. This ride - though pretty long - is great for all skill levels and can easily be added to a full day of exploring the large state park.


➳ Find the full mountain bike ride beta here.



Oats Peak Trail | Blue / 11.3 miles

Another fun mountain bike option in the Montaña de Oro State Park area is this slightly shorter ride that takes you up to the top of the highest peaks in the whole state park. One of the main differences between this ride and the one above is that it is mostly an out-and-back trail, meaning you will climb up the same amount of elevation you will eventually get to ride back down (in this case, just over 1,400 feet). At the top of the climb you will be rewarded with stunning views of the golden coastal hills, the Pacific Ocean and nearby Morro Bay.


➳ Find the full mountain bike ride beta here.