San Luis Obispo suddenly shot to fame in 2011 when it was dubbed America’s Happiest City on Oprah. It is easy to see this connection between happiness and a place given San Luis Obispo’s abundant natural beauty, miles of hiking and biking trails, year-round great weather, and friendly people. This San Luis Obispo itinerary will highlight the things to do and see in 3 days here.
The city falls in its namesake county in Central California and lies approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The city and county’s acronym SLO is more than just an acronym. It is a fitting name for the relaxed pace and neighborly vibe in this lesser-traveled part of the Golden State.
San Luis Obispo is not only a great city in itself, but it is also a great gateway to the rest of the Central California region with spectacular coastal destinations like Morro Bay, Cambria, and Pismo Beach. While a car offers great freedom, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that SLO’s Regional Transit Authority offers great connectivity in the region with some of the most picturesque bus rides in the country. This allows you to relish the sights of towering peaks, rolling hills, and coastal bluffs while leaving the driving to someone else as well as reducing your carbon footprint.
Here is my suggested San Luis Obispo itinerary to experience America’s Happiest City. I personally prefer not to rush non-stop from one attraction to another but instead leave time in between to savor the experience and allow for serendipity. I’ve tried to incorporate that approach when crafting this itinerary. So you’ll find time for an afternoon power nap and leisurely strolls for a deeper travel experience in SLO. Let’s get started!
Starting your weekend in SLO on Thursday evening is totally worth it! California has some of the best Farmers’ Markets in the country. So it’s no surprise that the Thursday Farmers’ Market on Higuera St in downtown SLO, which started in 1983, is one of the toppers in the state. The vibe is a traditional farmers’-market-meets-street-festival. The street is dressed in string lights with vendors lined up on both sides.
There’s the Harmony Valley Ice Cream truck to start things off. This is followed by vendor stalls showcasing a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits grown under the shining Californian sun. Look out for the rich persimmons (that resemble tomatoes) and boxes of sweet, red strawberries lining up the stands. Grab a cob of spiced corn or cinnamon churro as you walk around the market.
Listen to the live music wafting in the night sky at the intersection streets of Nipomo, Chorro, and Morro. The lineup changes every week but you’ll always see local bands or solo artists putting up a great show with vocals, guitars, violins, and more.
Head further and you’ll see the restaurant stands replete with everything from BBQ to tandoori chicken. Stop to pick up bread, fruit preserves, and baked goods for a late-night snack or breakfast. Besides food, you’ll find tons of cool artisans selling handmade clay and metal earrings, fresh flower arrangements, and dog bows.
The market usually runs from 6 pm – 9 pm every Thursday but closes at 8:30 pm during the winter months. Follow their Instagram to know more about the vendor and music lineup each week as well as any unexpected closures.
The best place to enjoy San Luis Obispo is outdoors. Start the day with a nutritious and wholesome brunch. Head over to Seeds for a healthy meal filled with locally sourced, fresh, and seasonal ingredients. Check out the thoughtfully created menu offerings of toast, paninis, flatbreads, acai and breakfast bowls, and more.
SLO is a dream come true for active travelers with more than 50 miles of hiking trails that are easily accessible. Jump right in with a hike to Bishop Peak, the highest morro or volcanic plug in the region, at 1559 feet with its rocky crown shaped like a Bishop’s miter. This 3.4 miles hike from Patricia Drive is moderately strenuous, especially towards the end, as you climb boulders for sweeping views. There are beautiful views of the city, Laguna Lake, Irish Hills, and the neighboring morro Cerro San Luis with its wavy top not just at the peak but throughout the hike.
If that sounds too challenging, you can opt for the relatively easier but equally rewarding Cerro San Luis Obispo Trail that starts just a short walk from downtown at the Charles A and Mary R Maine Open Space. This is a very wide trail with a gradual incline. It offers incredible views of the neighboring morros. The unique miter top of Bishop Peak rises in the distance followed by the rest of the morros Chumash Peak, Cerro Ramuldo, and Hollister Peak lined up in a row. There are ample views of San Luis Obispo city, Laguna Lake, and Irish Hills along the trail and the wide terrace at the top. This hike can be easily combined with a stop at Madonna Inn to see its eclectic interiors.
Head back downtown after the hike for a relaxing afternoon. If you’re hungry from the exercise, stop to grab a bite at Urbane Cafe centrally located at the intersection of Higuera and Morro. This Californian delight offers a variety of sandwiches, salads, bowls, and soups. The soft, perforated sandwich bread is unique and delectable. My favorite here was the Tofu Banh Mi sandwich with crunchy vegetables and sweet chili aioli in every bite.
Post lunch, enjoy a relaxing time at the super adorable and functional SLO downtown. Begin at the historical Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and Mission Plaza which is the heart of activity in San Luis Obispo. Join a docent-led tour of the Mission at 1:15 pm which informs you about the history, ancient artwork on its walls, and details of who is buried here. This is the fifth Californian mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772 and named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse of France. The Californian missions were established during the period of colonization by Spain. Different structural elements of the mission have undergone additions and renovations over the years. There is also a museum and gift shop next to the active church surrounded by lush gardens.
Mission Plaza is often the epicenter of activity during holidays and year-round events. At the time of our visit, the space was decked in holiday lights with Santa’s house at the center. Kids posed for photos with Santa in front of elves and shared their holiday wish lists. The plaza has public seating open from 11 am to 8 pm and is a great place to relax and soak in the small-town atmosphere in this city.
From there head over to the Visitor Center on Monterey St to stock up on your SLO guide and hiking maps of the region. They also sell local books, artwork, souvenirs, and wine from nearby Edna Valley and Paso Robles. This is also the place to learn about deals and promotions. There was a great Buy Local Promotion running in December at the time of our visit. Spending 100$ on restaurants and retail got you a 25$ gift card from a local business!
Next, walk over to snap a photo at the strange yet famous 70-foot Bubblegum Alley where about 2 million people have affixed their chewed-up bubble gums for posterity. You can continue to explore downtown or head back to your room for a siesta before returning for dinner.
End the day on a high note with a farm-to-table dining experience at Big Sky Cafe owned by Greg and Mirjam Holt. This local favorite serves food all day long from breakfast to dinner. Vegetarians will be equally satisfied as their non-vegetarian companions seeing the local vegetables and fruits featured prominently on the menu. There is a unique combination of dishes, from sirloin steak and hamburger to paella and pozole. The earthy, spiced stews of vegetarian pozole bowl and chili verde tostada that my husband and I ordered were outstanding. So was the attentive service and elevated casual ambiance with walls showcasing local art.
Start your second full day with a simple and filling breakfast at SLO Provisions Eats & Sweets. You’re greeted with juicy, rotisserie chicken rotating in the oven shipped all the way from France behind the counter. This place started by Dwyne Willis and Steve Bland is more than a restaurant. It offers sumptuous baked goods as well as curated provisions like hot sauces, maple syrups, and coffee on its shelves. It is a place of congregation and conversation.
After breakfast, pop in next door to the San Luis Oriental Market to select from a variety of Asian drinks and eats for your beach outing today. Go crazy with the unique chips flavors like Spicy Crayfish and Cucumber and the colorful Kit Kats. Or cool down with matcha and lychee-flavored drinks. If it’s your lucky day, you might even find some fresh baos for sale. You could also gather all the ingredients and advice you need for whipping up a tasty Asian meal at home.
San Luis Obispo is not on the coast but it is in very close proximity. Pismo Beach and Avila Beach are both a convenient 15-minute drive away. RTA runs a great bus service and can get to Pismo in less than half an hour on route 10. Both offer a classic California beach town experience. Enjoy the morning relaxing in the sand on Pismo Beach and walk along the iconic 16th-longest pier in California. You can even go horseback riding on the beach or offroading with an ATV in nearby Oceano if you’d like to infuse more action in your morning.
If you’re looking for a slightly different type of coastal outing, head over to Morro Bay for kayaking with otters and sea lions and gorging on the freshest seafood.
Make your way back to San Luis Obispo in the late afternoon. Don’t worry if you didn’t get a chance to eat at the famous Splash Cafe in Pismo due to the long line. They have a second location in SLO where you can easily grab the award-winning clam chowder and warm bread pudding sans the crowds.
Engage in some retail therapy in SLO downtown after your return. The best part of San Luis Obispo’s downtown is that you’ll find a great mix of local, and small businesses alongside the familiarity of big brands, thereby offering the best of both worlds. There’s Victoria’s Secret and Anthropologie right alongside boutique clothing stores like Cage and Ambiance. There’s a Barnes and Noble not far away from the thrifty Phoenix Books.
One of my favorite stores in all of downtown was the fair trade store HumanKind which houses a variety of accessories, home goods, apparel, and more from all over the globe. There is something for everyone here – from recycled sari flower garlands, handwoven baskets, Christmas ornaments, and Tibetan prayer flags. The unique finds here make for great souvenirs as well as gifts. And you can walk away knowing that your purchase is a force of good in the world.
In the evening, head over to Terrace Hill on the other side of the SLO Amtrak station to watch the sunset against the gorgeous views of the city and its morros. This 499 feet hill offers a large flat, open space at the top giving it the name Terrace Hill. There’s a steep path that goes straight up if you’re feeling adventurous or a trail to the left which gradually ascends the hill. You can get a 360 view here in all directions including the classic SLO view of Bishop Peak and Cerro San Luis. The silhouette of layers of mountains in the distance as the sun makes its way down is a stunning sight.
Dinner today is classic American fare with modern touches at Eureka! on Chorro St. Eureka! features of a scratch kitchen where all ingredients are locally sourced and cooked in-house. The carrot-fed Angus beef burgers here are a big draw but if you’re a veggie lover like me, the Veggie burger with the purple beet and kidney bean patty is a must-try. They also serve great craft beers, small-batch whiskeys, local wines from Paso Robles and Edna Valley, and fun cocktails. This is one of the last restaurants to close at night in the city so you can linger with your companions or socialize at the bar until midnight from Thu – Sat and 11 pm on all other days.
Today is your last morning in San Luis Obispo. Make the most of it by starting the day at the Del Monte Cafe, a family-owned and operated restaurant with a long history. This place offers an old-school diner charm right from the signage at the door to the checkered curtains and black and white vintage tiles. This place originally opened as a grocery store in the early 1900s run by The Robbins Family until the family members passed away. It was spotted by Debbie and Mark Collins in 1980 and reopened as a neighborhood cafe the following year. It brings the offerings of the local farmers’ market, bakery, and fishmonger and serves as a reminder of tradition.
Take the last dip into the beautiful weather and natural surroundings at SLO with a final hike. Head to Irish Hills if you’re looking for a moderate trail or just take a simple walk around Laguna Lake. This guide gives you a deep dive into each of these hiking options.
Finish off the trip with a quick lunch stop at Sequoia Sandwich Co which offers a premium deli experience with sandwiches, paninis, wraps, and more.
From here on, you’re back on the road driving away or heading to San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport to catch a flight home.
There are places that you leave knowing already that this isn’t your first and only trip. San Luis Obispo is one such place for me. My husband and I were already talking about our next trip there even before we had left the city and even after spending an entire month.
Hope this suggested itinerary helps you not just see the highlights but also experience the essence of SLO. If you are wondering where to travel next, check out this step-by-step guide and see if SLO emerges as one of the destinations that align with your interests.
So, would you like to visit San Luis Obispo city and county? Is there anything else you would like to know to help you have a memorable weekend trip? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!