Founded in 1772 by Spanish missionaries, the town of San Luis Obispo is one of the oldest communities in America. Awash with gorgeous adobe buildings, historic storefronts, and elegant churches, Obispo was voted the third best place to live in the whole of the US.
The city has many virtues, surrounded by stunning countryside and is just a stone’s throw from the beach. Due to the town’s fortunate position near the Pacific coast, it receives year-round sunshine without reaching scorching temperatures.
Rumoured to be the happiest town in America, there is something here to please everyone, from history-lovers to gourmets, to beach bums.
Here are the 15 best things to do in and around San Luis Obispo.
1. Explore Bubblegum Alley
This 15-foot high, 70-meter-long alley is covered in a mosaic of pre-chewed bubblegum and may be one of the most bizarre landmarks in the US. If the thought of decades of saliva doesn’t make you gag, make sure you take a stroll down this backstreet.
Nobody’s quite sure how it started, but according to urban legend, sometime in the ‘50s, the first pieces of gum were fixed to the wall. By the 1970s it had become a popular tourist attraction due to the sheer quantity of colorful gum on the walls.
The alley walls have been cleaned at least twice in the town’s history, but the determined gum-chewing natives never gave up adding to the wall.
Grab a pack of gum and add your own contribution. It’s tradition.
2. Discover the Local Farmer’s Market
San Luis Obispo has a phenomenal reputation for food and drink. Every Thursday the best of the region’s produce is on display in the downtown area. This market has a near-mythic reputation for its high-quality range of produce and lively atmosphere.
Most famous for its phenomenal BBQ, you’ll want to eat your weight in smoked meats and charred veg while you’re here.
Come for the food, but stay for the great live entertainment and local music.
3. Climb Bishop’s Peak
San Luis County is well known for the Nine Sisters, a chain of extinct volcanoes. They make for some great hiking and will give you brilliant views over the countryside around Obispo.
Bishop’s Peak is the tallest of these, and it has become a favorite among both casual walkers and serious climbers. At a comfortable 1,559 above sea level, the rocky terrain here requires good quality walking shoes but is overall a gentle and easy hike.
If you’re more adventurous, bring some serious climbing equipment to scale some of the craggy boulders that dot this local titan.
4. Do a Walking Tour of the Old Town
Downtown Obispo is very old for a Californian town, and it has a brilliant wealth of stories to explore. A small team of eight people (three churchmen and five soldiers) founded the city in the 1700s as part of the wider Spanish colonization of California. Grab a map of the town or hire a tour guide to discover the area’s rich history.
Several old adobe buildings, including a church, are still scattered around the town. Check out the Dallidet Adobe in particular for its historic features and lovely wildflower gardens.
You’ll also find the remains of many old convenience stores from the turn of the century, as well as many modern works of art installed by the creative locals.
5. Visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Built in 1772, this old church has a tiny museum filled with artifacts from the town and provides guided tours for visitors. The Franciscan team who built the church included two early Native American converts to Christianity. The church museum explores some of the early interactions between the indigenous people and the Spanish colonizers.
The building itself is simple but beautiful, with a well-adorned catholic altar and some sublime wall art.
When you’ve had your fill of history step outside into the lovely courtyard gardens, popular for their vine-covered trellises and trickling fountains.
6. Browse the Local Railroad Museum
San Luis Obispo was a hive of activity when the Great Southern Pacific Railway was built. The Railroad Museum was built to commemorate this important bit of history, which created the local China Town district and brought renewed trade and prosperity to California.
The detailed model trains are wonderfully constructed and are very popular with kids and train nuts alike.
Check out the old disused train cars, restored by the museum to learn about the evolution of steam power in the US.
7. Sun Yourself on Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach, one of America’s most famous beaches, is on Obispo’s doorstep.
After just a 15-minute drive, you can be sunning yourself on this beautiful stretch of white sand, famous for its connection to Bugs Bunny, and its great local gastronomy.
Many people come here to surf, play in the sand, or take in the glorious views of the Pacific Ocean. The community around the beach is also something quite special.
This is wine country — and the shoreside restaurants here offer some great local bottles along with mountains of freshly caught seafood.
While you’re here, be sure to order some creamy clam chowder served up with lashings of white wine.
8. Explore the Amazing Décor at the Madonna Inn
The Madonna Inn is one of the most extraordinary hotels in the US. Every single room here has a different theme, ranging from medieval-inspired bedrooms to plant-filled jungle caves.
If you can’t afford to stay here you can still visit to explore the décor, or eat at one of the incredible onsite restaurants. The dining room and cocktail bar here are violent pink and decked out with a forest of chandeliers – think Barbie meets baroque.
Alternatively, stop in the Copper café for extravagant champagne brunches and cakes which are as decadent and lavish as the building itself.
9. Explore the San Luis Obispo Art Museum
If you want to get to know the local art scene, this little museum is for you. Well-positioned in the centre of town near many other great museums, it’s well-worth popping in for half an hour while you explore the old town.
Displaying a varied collection of paintings, photography, and sculptures from a range of local and international artists, this adorable gallery space showcases some great modern creations.
The gallery is free to visit, but they survive off donations if you’re feeling generous.
10. Visit Avila Beach
Avila beach is Obispo’s backyard. A sleepier alternative to neighbouring Pismo, this small stretch of sand has many quiet cafes and lots of places to taste the local wines. It’s well sheltered from the winds, hidden away in a cove, and is perfect for sun-worshipers or those who fancy a quiet stroll.
The tiny village on the edge of the beach is known for its hot springs. The superheated geothermal waters here are mineral rich, which means they’re great for your skin and your body.
Hike up to Point San Luis lighthouse on the edge of the beach for some great local history and a birds-eye view over the bay.
11. Try Wine-Tasting at One of the Towns Many Wineries
San Luis Obispo is a great wine region due to its perfect climate. Specializing in smooth Pinot noirs and rich chardonnays, among a host of other greats, there are many wine-tasting establishments in town.
Filipponi Ranch tasting centre in particular has a stellar reputation for quality wines and great service. Situated on the edge of town, the venue is surrounded by rolling hillsides and lush greenery.
Alternatively, try Croma Wines in the heart of the old town. They specialize in Spanish-style blended reds, and their modern tasting rooms are quite lovely.
12. Watch a Film at the Sunset Drive-In
The last of a dying breed, this local drive-in is a great way to enjoy the warm weather while you catch a flick. Watch new releases and vintage movies at this spacious lot which buzzes with activity on weekend nights.
Their super low-price concessions stand serves up popcorn and candy as well as hotdogs and drinks.
Bring a stereo or use your car radio for a fun, nostalgic evening.
13. Make a Daytrip to Hearst Castle
Just 45 minutes down the Coast from Obispo, this mega-mansion was constructed by ground-breaking architect Julia Morgan.
Once a playground for super-rich celebrities in the roaring ‘20s, it was built for Hearst and his family whose extravagant lifestyles were so excessive they served as the inspiration for the billionaire tycoon in Citizen Kane.
Part-medieval castle, part-Grecian palace, each room is more sumptuous than the last. Its most famous feature is its azure, blue Roman-style swimming pool, replete with gold mosaics and marble statues.
It’s well-worth the drive to see this modern masterpiece.
14. Visit the Children’s Museum
This interactive museum is a great place to take the kids while you’re in Obispo. The different themed areas teach children about history, nature, and the arts. Filled with colourful exhibits to play with, you’ll have fun as well while encouraging the little ones to learn.
One of its best features, the dinosaur dig, lets kids hunt for fossils themselves.
Let your kids run riot in the outdoor play area when they’re done learning.
15. Wander the Irish Hills Nature Preserve
These wild meadows on the edge of Obispo give you great views of the Nine Sisters mountains beyond, as well as miles of rolling vineyard.
Bursting with wildflowers and populated with loads of local birds and small mammals, come here to nature watch, or simply follow the grassy trails through the park. Hike the Ocean View Trail in particular to admire the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Alternatively, take a picnic and find a quiet place to lie down while you watch the clouds drift by.