26 Things to do in San Luis Obispo, California | Ultimate Bucket List

Reviewed by Mimi McFadden
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The best things to do in San Luis Obispo, California – from hot springs to vineyards and where to eat, stay, and play.

With world-class vineyards, a booming farm-to-table food scene, and a buzzing downtown, San Luis Obispo boasts the best of Northern and Southern California, without the traffic.

Its charming downtown reminds me of San Francisco’s colorful streets, while the nearby beaches have more of a Malibu vibe.

Plus, you can rent an ATV and ride around nearby sand dunes Mad Max-style, which is one of the many activities that cements San Luis Obispo as a must-visit destination for the adventurous at heart. 

Once you’ve visited, you’ll see why San Luis Obispo has been dubbed the “happiest place in America” and why this little big city is perfect for a fun weekend break. 

These are our picks for the best things to do in SLO for every type of traveler. 

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

what to do in san luis obispo

Table of Contents

Top Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Walk the Famous Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum alley

San Luis Obispo’s most famous landmark is a 70-foot long, 15-foot high bubble gum-covered alley. It’s a gross but fun photo spot and perfectly captures the town’s quirky appeal.

You’ll find Bubblegum Alley between 733 and 734 Higuera Street, with a gumball machine conveniently located outside.

No one knows the exact origin of the alley. Some historians believe the tradition started after World War II as a San Luis Obispo High School graduation event.

Another rumor traces the origin to a rivalry between Cal Poly and the local high school students back in the 1950s.

Initially, the city tried to clean up the alley, but after several failed attempts, the town embraced the unique gum graffiti as a local landmark.

Look out for an image of a man blowing bubblegum. It’s a self-portrait by artist Matt Hoffman, who enlisted the community’s help to chew enough gum to create the work.

Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state. 

See Whales on a Wildlife Cruise

Catch whales breaching and spouting on a wildlife cruise all year round from the San Luis Obispo coast.

California gray whales, humpback whales, and the world’s largest animal, the blue whale, can all be seen here. Killer whales, while less common, have also been spotted.

Gray whales are the most frequent visitor to these shores. Up to 20,000 of these graceful creatures swim along the coast in pods between Alaska and Mexico twice annually for the breeding season.

You can catch them on their 10,000-mile journey south between December and February, then back again between March and May.

The blue whale and humpbacks usually arrive in April.

Slo. Tours offers cruises year-round from Avila Beach. Aside from whales, you’ll want to look out for otters, sea lions, seals, and pelicans as well.

Explore the Historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772, showcases Indigenous American and settler artifacts from the area in its museum. 

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was built by Spanish missionaries and the Chumash in this spot because the canyons were full of grizzly bears – a welcome food supply for early European settlers. 

Relax in the mission’s peaceful gardens, attend a service, or browse the museum to learn more about the history of San Luis Obispo. You’ll find the mission in the center of San Luis Obispo, on Palm St.

With the dedication of Mission Plaza in 1970, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was recognized as the center of the city and today is still one of the most popular San Luis Obispo attractions.

Pop-up art events are held in Mission Plaza throughout the summer, keeping the oldest part of town lively and fun.

Fun fact: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is where San Luis Obispo got its name. 

Shop the Thursday Night Farmers’ Market

Shop the Thursday Night Farmers’ Market in San Luis Obispo

The weekend starts on Thursday nights in San Luis Obispo (this is a college town, after all) at the weekly farmer’s market

This foodie extravaganza takes over five blocks on Higuera Street with 120 vendors and is one of the best things to do in downtown San Luis Obispo.

You’ll find fresh produce, including peaches, avocados, and berries (depending on the season), but the crowds also come for the party atmosphere.

Live bands and buskers entertain customers, while kids love the bouncy castle and face painting activities.

The biggest culinary draw is the BBQ stand. The scent of sizzling pork shoulder, beef, and chicken mingles with charred corn and locally grown artichokes, floating enticingly through the night air.

Some of the best restaurants in San Luis Obispo set up tents too, with a variety of cuisines to sample as you stroll around. There’s really something for everyone.

During the summer, arrive in style on the SLO Old Trolley, a vintage streetcar connecting hotels in San Luis Obispo with downtown.

Fun Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Feel Nostalgic at a Drive-in Movie

One of the last remaining drive-in movie theaters in California, the Sunset Drive-In opened in 1950 and is still going strong, welcoming drivers with a neon sign that can be seen from the freeway.

Today, the drive-in is owned and operated by Larry Radke, the son of the original owner, so not too much has changed since the ‘50s.

The theater screens two movies back-to-back, keeping it cheap, family-friendly, and one of the more unique things to do in SLO at night.

Tickets are just $10 for adults and $4 for children, and under four-year-olds go free. Check the theater’s Facebook page for the latest show times.

On Sunday mornings, the lot transforms into a popular flea market, where locals hunt for treasures. It’s a fun weekend spot if you’re looking for non-touristy things to do in the city.

Note: The Sunset closed briefly during the pandemic but is back open for business. It’s a pretty good way of getting back to theaters if you’re still uncomfortable being indoors.

Take a Road Trip on Highway 101 to Hearst Castle

Take a Road Trip on Highway 101 to Hearst Castle

San Luis Obispo is a stop on one of the most legendary scenic drives in the world, the Pacific Coast Highway

Head north on Highway 1 to find Hearst Castle, where stars from Hollywood’s golden era came to play.

The estate was developed by William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper magnate, and designed by famed California architect Julia Morgan. 

Parties at the estate were apprantly legendary during its heyday, with Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo sometimes in attendance.

While you’re at the estate, check out the extensive art collection and the old-world-inspired interior on a guided tour. 

Much of the decor was bought from French towns, selling their treasures to the highest bidder after the first World War.

The Grand Rooms Tour is my pick for first-timers. It covers the home’s fascinating history in one hour and is suitable for all ages. This tour has some steps but is wheelchair accessible. 

If you have two hours, Hearst Castle also has an interesting Julia Morgan tour

The castle’s designer was California’s first female architect, and she worked on over 700 projects over her career, blazing a trail for women in the industry.

After touring Hearst Castle, continue north to experience the wildest part of this route as the road winds between towering cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. 

There are plenty of turn-outs where you can pause to admire the California Coast and pose for a picture.

Local tip: This road is rugged and often battered by winter storms. Sometimes an entire section of the road is washed away by flooding, and whole areas become inaccessible. Check conditions before making a trip.

Hop on (and off) a Paso Robles Wine Tour

Paso Robles Wine Tour

Head over to nearby Paso Robles for a hop-on, hop-off wine tour of the region with The Wine Line

This tour stops at four to five wineries over five hours, giving thirsty guests plenty of opportunities to sample the best of California wine country.

Your local guide will pick you up from your San Luis Obispo accommodation, help you choose which of the 60 vineyards to visit, and provide bottled water.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for something closer to San Luis Obispo, the nearby towns of Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley boast 30 vineyards. 

The mild climate and coastal breezes create the perfect conditions for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Albariño varietals in the area.

The most popular vineyards to visit include: 

Breakaway Tours offers a shared or private winery tour, which stops at the most popular vineyards in the valley and includes a picnic lunch. 

If you prefer to stay in town, take a walk down Higuera Street, where you’ll find several tasting rooms. 

Not a wine person? I hear you. San Luis Obispo also boasts several craft breweries, including SLO Brew Rock, Bang the Drum and Oak, and Oak and Otter Brewing Co., which is also dog-friendly.

Read our full guide to the best California breweries

Take the Kids to a Fun San Luis Obispo Museum

“Learning through play” is the mission of the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

With three floors of interactive exhibitions plus an outdoor play space, there are plenty of fun activities for kids aged 1-10 at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. 

It’s also the perfect place to take little ones on a rainy day.

Exhibits at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum are geared toward younger kids. The fire truck play area and a Dino dig space are especially popular with the kindergartner crowd.

Make sure to reserve a time slot ahead of your visit, as the newly-reopened museum is limiting capacity to keep visitors safe.

 For families, the Children’s Museum is one of the top San Luis Obispo activities.

Get your Heart Pumping with a Dune Buggy Ride

Dune Buggy Ride at Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is the only California state park that allows non-street legal vehicles on the beach. 

It’s a sandy playground for thrill-seekers who want to ride ATVs, dune buggies, or off-road cars.

Rent an ATV from Steve’s ATVs, where you’ll receive all the safety gear and training you’ll need for a fun day zipping over sand dunes.

 Kids as young as nine can drive, while anyone over 46” tall can sit in the back as a passenger.

ATVs not your speed? Take a spin in a hummer with a professional driver at Pacific Adventure Tours, pushing the limits for an adrenaline-inducing thrill ride through the sand.

As one of the biggest coastal sand dune areas left in California, Oceano Dunes is worth a visit even if you don’t get your kicks from speed. 

It’s also a nature preserve where you can go hiking, kiteboarding, surf fishing, clamming, or camping.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is located near Pismo Beach, about 20 minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo.

Local tip: If the Oceano Dunes is on your San Luis Obispo bucket list, don’t delay. Motorized vehicle use will be phased out entirely by 2024 to preserve the delicate ecosystem.

Free Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Track Down Hidden Box Art in Downtown & Visit the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Visit the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

San Luis Obispo’s utility boxes get a glow-up from local artists, who use the boxes as their canvases for colorful artworks.

Launched as an initiative in 2010 to deter graffiti, the project has taken on a life of its own, and now all publicly-owned utility boxes throughout the city have been painted.

As part of a downtown walking tour, you can download a free map from the city and track down all the art.

Additionally, you can see more art from talented locals at San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Admission is free at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, as the organization is entirely supported by donations. The permanent collection is an eclectic mix, all contributed by the community.

Temporary exhibits showcase work from across the world, including paintings, photography, and mixed media.

On the second Saturday of the month, from 11 am until 1 pm, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art holds an art class for all ages on Mission Plaza. Everyone is welcome and the event is free.

Make Your Kids Smile at Sinsheimer Park

Sinsheimer Park has everything kids want in a playground: a zip line, huge slides, a multi-level climbing structure, and shaded areas for a picnic. 

My kids love this park. Their tip: bring cardboard for sliding down the turf slope!

It’s one of the most popular playgrounds in San Luis Obispo and is the perfect outing if you’re looking for fun things to do with kids.

If you still have energy to burn, there’s also a baseball stadium, volleyball court, swimming pool, tennis courts, and a BBQ area.

For extra points, treat the family to ice cream after in San Luis Obispo’s downtown Creamery area.

Check out Nite Creamery, which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze their creations instantly. Trust me, this is the BEST way to make ice cream, and it’s cool to watch too.

Local tip: Combine a trip to the park with a visit to San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum for a perfect family day out.

Relax on a Sandy Beach

Relax on a Sandy Beach - avila beach

A day at the beach is one of the best things to do near San Luis Obispo.

Drive 15 minutes to the coast to find the laid-back seaside towns of Pismo Beach and Avila Beach. 

Both of these areas have beautiful stretches of sand where you can while away a sunny afternoon with a book. 

Tucked into a cove, Avila Beach is one of the safest beaches in the area for swimming.

And the walkable town of Avila Beach has several restaurants to grab a bite to eat, including the Secret Garden, an outdoor bar hidden in the forest. In the summer, this magical spot hosts live music.

For an extra special day at the beach, rent everything you need from Butlerz, from a simple chair and umbrella set to games and even a bonfire pit.

Further south, visit Shell Beach at low tide to discover the hidden aquatic world of tidepools. 

You can also find tidepools at nearby Pirate’s Cove – but beware, this one is a clothing-optional beach.

Welcome Back the Monarchs

Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove

If you’re in the Pismo Beach area between October and February, head to Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove.

At the grove, witness thousands of bright orange monarch butterflies clustered in the eucalyptus trees as they make their annual migration south.

On a sunny day, you can stand in the grove as clouds of butterflies swoop around your head. On cooler days, you can see how they cluster together for warmth, hanging from branches.

These delicate insects fly thousands of miles every year, chasing the sun along the West Coast. 

They make a pit stop to refuel during the winter months, sipping up nectar from the flowering eucalyptus. 

How they do this is a mystery. The western monarchs that visit Pismo Beach in the winter only live for six months, so it’s their descendants who make the return trip, using a kind of genetic homing system.

Unique Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Soak in a Hot Springs Mineral Pool

If you’re looking for romantic things to do in SLO, impress your date by booking a relaxing soak in a naturally heated mineral pool.

Reserve a private hillside hot tub and bathe among the trees on your own deck, or soak in the larger lagoon oasis with its own waterfall at Sycamore Mineral Springs Spa and Resort

Follow up with a spa treatment or a romantic dinner at the resort. You don’t need to stay as a guest of the hotel to book a massage or hot tub. 

Visiting with kids? No need to skip the fun. Family-friendly Avila Hot Springs offers a naturally heated, freshwater swimming pool with a waterslide. 

Avila Hot Springs also has a traditional warm mineral pool, similar to those found in European spa towns. 

Read our guide to the best California hot springs

Discover California’s Native Plants

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is dedicated to the plants of the five Mediterranean climates, including California. 

It’s located in the beautiful El Chorro Regional Park and has several easy trails between the gardens.

The Display Garden is an excellent place to start. As California gets drier and hotter, landscaping with these drought-tolerant plants is becoming increasingly crucial for water-conservation efforts across the state.

If you’re interested in xeriscape gardening, this lush landscape offers plenty of inspiration.

For a longer walk, including signs with information about the area, take the mile-long Discovery hike to discover local flowers, animals, and a volcano. Plus, of course, a stunning view.

Families will also enjoy the Children’s Garden, where kids can learn about edible and useful plants.

Tour the Point San Luis Lighthouse (and Find the Secret Swing)

Point San Luis Lighthouse

The Point San Luis Lighthouse has been guarding the coast for 130 years and is still operating today.

The beautiful red-roofed building is open for tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but don’t attempt to hike down yourself – the private road is closed to the public.

There are three ways to access the lighthouse: booking a docent-led 3.75-mile hike on the Pecho Coast Trail, by van with a lighthouse tour, or kayaking from Avila Beach. During the summer, the lighthouse also hosts concerts.

Rent a kayak from Avila Beach and paddle towards the San Luis Harbor Pier if you want to boat in. Keep going to the lighthouse and pull up on the beach, where you can get out and admire the building.

Just off the beach, near the lighthouse, is a rope swing. It’s a nice spot to relax, meditate and enjoy the beautiful view out to the ocean.

See the World’s First Motel

San Luis Obispo is home to a piece of travel history: the world’s first motel. In 1925, cars were surging in popularity, and architect Arthur Heineman spotted a gap in the market.

He recognized that drivers needed somewhere comfortable to pull off the road and rest for the night. Halfway between LA and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo was the perfect location for his idea – the Milestone Mo-Tel Inn.

The Spanish-style building was upmarket, featuring showers for the guests and garages for their cars. There were even rooms for the chauffeurs – a road trip was a luxury back then.

Heineman had grand plans for a chain of his luxury motor hotels, but the Great Depression scuppered his dreams. 

Rival developers created cheaper, simpler accommodation to match the growing car culture and the motel as we know it was born.

After closing in 1991, the building fell into disrepair, and all that’s left is a facade. 

Still, for road trip fans, it’s one of the hidden gems of San Luis Obispo. Find it at 2223 Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo.

Learn about California’s Railroad Past at San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum

Do you know your boxcar from your caboose? To find out, check out the San Luis Obispo’s Railroad Museum, a unique collection of real railroad cars and a 1,200-square-foot working model railroad. 

Highlights at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum include La Cuesta, a 1926 Pullman observation car, and a Plymouth Diesel Switcher used to supply troops during World War II.

The model railroad celebrates central Californian rail history, depicting life as it was when the railroad was king.

The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is open on Saturdays. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for 4-15 year-olds. Those under four years old go free.

Pet Farm Animals at the Avila Valley Barn

Avila Valley Barn

Food and farming are a huge part of life on the Central Coast, and Avila Valley Barn is one of the best places to sample fresh California produce.

Avila Valley Barn started as a simple roadside farmstand. While you can still buy the family’s pesticide-free fruits and veggies, the stand has grown to be so much more.

Stop by on a weekend and take the kids on a hayride or a pony ride. Buy lettuce and let your kids feed the cute goats, ducks, chickens, and even llamas.

And if you’re looking for an apple farm in San Luis Obispo County, you can pick your own Granny Smiths and Galas at Avila Valley Barn. 

Outside of apple season, you’ll find cherries, peaches, raspberries, and pumpkins growing instead.

Next, check out the old-fashioned sweet shop for souvenirs and the bakery for a homemade fruit pie. 

Finally, sit down to lunch from the BBQ or a fresh-made sandwich from the deli, you’ve earned it!

Avila Valley Barn is located on Avila Beach Drive, just off Highway 101, about a 10-minute drive from San Luis Obispo proper.

Outdoorsy Things to do in SLO

Kayak through Caves in Pismo Beach

kayak through Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach is a local park with an interesting story. In the 1940s, an entrepreneur built a 50-foot concrete dinosaur on the bluffs as a roadside attraction.

Visitors could enter through the head, descend down a tunnel, and exit into an underground sea cavern, one of the biggest in California.

As cool as this sounds, it was not popular with the neighbors, who saw a concrete monstrosity blocking their beloved ocean view. 

Eventually, the city sided with the locals, and the structure was dismantled. Since then, the cavern has collapsed, but many caves and rocks still remain to explore by kayak. 

Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Central Coast Kayaks or book a three-hour guided excursion to learn more about the caves.

Kayaking is an activity best attempted in the mornings before the strong afternoon winds make paddling more difficult. Since the climate is so mild, you can rent kayaks year-round in San Luis Obispo County.

Learn to Surf with a Private Lesson

Learn to Surf with a Private Lesson in san luis obispo county

Soak up the local surf culture with a private lesson in Morro Bay. You’ll get a wetsuit, surfboard, and one-and-a-half hours with an experienced instructor to learn the basics. 

The lesson is geared toward beginners, so instructors look for gentle waves and beaches with sandy bottoms. It’s perfect for first-timers or parents introducing their kids to the sport.

Locations vary, depending on the conditions of the day. Be prepared to drive up to 20 minutes to wherever your instructor tells you. 

Surfing is a year-round sport in San Luis Obispo, provided you have a wet suit.

Take the Reins on a Horse Back Ride

The best way to appreciate the rolling hills of California’s Central Coast is on horseback, with a guided tour.

Central Coast Trailrides takes riders through dry creek beds shaded by towering valley oaks, through vineyards, and to the top of hills for a memorable sunset vista.

Guides can accommodate a range of ages and experience levels. You can also combine a ride with a visit to a vineyard tasting room, where you can sip wine from the grapevines you just trotted through.

Call ahead to book a ride and the team at Central Coast Trailrides can tailor an experience to your skill level and interests.

The ranch is located in Creston, a 30-minute drive north of San Luis Obispo, in the heart of wine country.

Climb Bishop Peak

Bishop Peak

Ready for a challenge? Bishop Peak is the tallest of the nine sisters, a cluster of volcanic hills in California. 

The trail to the 1,559-foot Bishop Peak is demanding, but the reward is an outstanding view of San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.

The mountain is named for the shape of its summit, which looks like a bishop’s miter. A series of switchbacks takes you to the peak, a moderately strenuous 3.5-mile trek, with 950 feet of elevation gain.

The Bishop Peak trailhead starts from Highland Drive and meanders through a shady oak forest before opening out to the mountainside, where the climb begins.

Local tip: Take plenty of water and keep an eye on the weather – there’s no shade on Bishop Peak so it’s best to hike in the morning. There are benches at the summit, so take a picnic and enjoy the view.

If you’re looking for more hikes in San Luis Obispo, here are a few more to check out:

  • Poly Canyon Design Village Trail – also known as the “Cal Poly architecture graveyard hike,” this is a three-mile loop trail starting at the H-4 parking lot on Village Road. The trail goes across a wooden bridge and up to Yucca Viewpoint, just above the Cal Poly “P” and has incredible views of San Luis Obispo. 
  • Railroad Recreation Trail – this two-mile round trip trail is rated easy and follows the Union Pacific Railroad tracks through rolling hills.
  • Reservoir Canyon Trail – close to town, this 2.5-mile round trip trail starts at the 50-foot Reservoir Creek Falls and follows the creek past smaller waterfalls through a shady forest.

Perfect Your Swing at a Golf Course

Perfect your Swing at a Golf Course at Morro Bay Golf Course

With a sunny Mediterranean climate and stunning scenery, it’s no surprise to find several top-quality golf courses within San Luis Obispo County.

Play at Dairy Creek, home to an official bird sanctuary, or under the oaks at Chalk Mountain, a Robert Muir Graves championship course.

Or tee-off at Morro Bay Golf Course, located in Morro Bay State Park, which players compare to the famous Pebble Beach, at a fraction of the cost.

Morro Bay Golf Course also offers classes to golfers, including one-on-one, group, and free lessons for beginners in the summer.

Otherwise, beginners and families should check out Laguna Lake Municipal Golf Course, a fun ten-hole course located a few minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo. 

Find Your Catch of the Day

Find your Catch of the Day, fishing at pismo beach pier

Try your luck fishing in the freshwater lakes around San Luis Obispo or in the Pacific Ocean.

Head to Lopez Lake, ten miles east of Arroyo Grande, for redear sunfish and smallmouth bass, or to Santa Margarita Lake, where you can find trout.

If you prefer ocean fishing, no license is required to cast from Harford Pier at Avila Beach or Pismo Beach Pier.

You can also rent a boat and fishing tackle from Pismo Beach Surf Shop

Alternatively, charter a deep-sea fishing expedition if you’re looking to reel in a big catch. Patriot Sportfishing will take you out for a day chasing rock cod, or albacore if it’s around.

Surf fishing from the beach is also permitted with a license. The clams at Oceano Dunes are considered a local delicacy and can be hunted with a license. 

Where to Eat & Drink in San Luis Obispo

where to eat and drink in san luis obispo, splash cafe

Coffee & Tea




Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo

madonna inn in san luis obispo

Interested in camping? Read our guide to the best campgrounds in Morro Bay.

Best Time to Visit San Luis Obispo

Best Time to Visit San Luis Obispo, California

With a sunny, mild climate, San Luis Obispo is a year-round destination. 

The average high temperatures are between 64 and 80 F. Summer is typically dry with very little rainfall.

San Luis Obispo is close enough to the Pacific Coast to benefit from the cool ocean breeze in the summertime but far enough inland to escape the fog.

Most of the activities on this list are available throughout the year (except for seeing the monarch butterflies, which visit in the winter). 

How to Get Around San Luis Obispo

how to get around san luis obispo

San Luis Obispo is a very walkable city. Hop on Amtrak’s Surfliner from Los Angeles and walk the ten minutes to downtown, where you’ll find the historic mission, hotels, bars, restaurants, and the farmers’ market.

If you decide to go car-free, register here for a 20% discount on your Amtrak train ticket and discounts on businesses throughout San Luis Obispo.

On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, take the Old SLO Trolley around downtown. It’s a fun way to get from your hotel to dinner or the Thursday farmers’ market for only $0.50 a ride.

There are seven bus routes around San Luis Obispo, which connect downtown with the local airport and train station.

You can also rent a bicycle from Wally’s Bicycle Works or an electric bike from Bolt About

Uber, Lyft, and local taxi firms all operate in the area as well. To get to vineyards, book a tour so you can sample safely without arguing over who drives.

If you’re driving, you’ll need to pay for parking in the heart of downtown, but surrounding neighborhood streets are free. Parking in the structures on Palm Street is free for the first hour.

San Luis Obispo is located just off Highway 101, the freeway that connects a bunch of coastal California cities.

Tips for Visiting San Luis Obispo

Tips for visiting San Luis obispo, California
  • Pack light layers – although the sun is warm, the sharp coastal breeze can be chilly. I like to take a lightweight waterproof jacket that keeps the wind out but doesn’t make me too hot.
  • Take (or rent) shade for the beach – that breeze can make you feel cool, but the sun is strong and you can quickly burn on the sand. On the same topic, don’t forget sunscreen!
  • Make reservations for anything you want to do ahead of time – especially wineries, which can quickly get booked out during the summer months.
  • Cell service can be spotty outside the city – if you’re using a rideshare app to get around, bear in mind that areas outside downtown San Luis Obispo may have little or no cell coverage. Have the number of a local taxi firm on your phone to avoid getting stranded.

What to Pack for San Luis Obispo

FAQs About San Luis Obispo

FAQs About San Luis Obispo, California

What is San Luis Obispo known for?

San Luis Obispo is known for its college, California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly. 

The school is consistently ranked as one of the West’s best public universities, and the 20,000 students keep the town lively.

The city is also known as “the happiest place in America” by Dan Buettner in his 2010 book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way

San Luis Obispo earned the title with its close-knit community, healthy lifestyle, and blissful natural setting.

Popular places to visit are the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the nearby beaches, the Thursday Farmers’ Market, bubblegum alley, and Bishop Peak.

How far is San Luis Obispo from the beach?

The beaches in San Luis Obispo County are approximately a 15-minute drive, or 30-minute bus ride, from downtown.

Shell Beach is closest, at a distance of nine miles from the center of town, or 12 minutes by car.

Pismo Beach is a distance of 13 miles, while Avila Beach is slightly closer at 10 miles and takes just under 15 minutes to drive. 

Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state. 


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Sarah McDonald

Sarah McDonald is a travel writer based in the Bay Area. She writes for the national parenting website Red Tricycle and on her own family travel blog, Tiny Trailblazers. She loves exploring California’s outdoors and has a weakness for a national park gift shop.

Sarah enjoys sharing her Bay Area expertise with readers curious to try popular restaurants and off-the-beaten-path adventures in California. When she’s not writing reviews and travel guides, you’ll likely find her trying to keep up with her kids on a hiking trail or deciphering the menu at a new restaurant.

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


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