14 Reasons to Drive to San Luis Obispo

SLO down and enjoy all this coastal Cali town has to offer.

San Luis Obispo (also called SLO) is a county of about 300,000 located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Just a three-hour drive from both cities, it makes an ideal road trip destination. And with its close proximity to the coast, new hotel developments, cycling trails, and notable wineries coming out of Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County has become a top-of-mind destination for travelers looking to enjoy all that California has to offer.

San Luis Obispo County, which includes Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Paso Robles, and San Simeon, among other charming towns, is currently in California’s red tier. This means restaurants, museums, aquariums, and retailers can open for indoor service at limited capacity. Over 250 wineries in Paso Robles are also open and hosting outdoor wine tastings with reservations. Whether you want to explore the outdoors, go wine tasting, or enjoy the bounty of California produce at a farm-to-table restaurant, there is no better time to enjoy the SLO life than right now (see what we did there?).

wine glasses
Photo courtesy of DAOU Vineyards

Drink at a Tuscan-inspired winery

There are so many world-class wineries to choose from in Paso Robles including Denner Wine, Niner Wine Estates, Booker Wine, and the female-owned Hubba Wines. But perhaps no other tasting room is more beautiful than DAOU Vineyards. DAOU Vineyards is the highest elevated vineyard on the Central Coast which means epic views. The Mediterranean-inspired tasting room perched on a mountain feels like you’re in the Italian countryside. There is plenty of outdoor lounge seating and a tasting menu that puts the spotlight on the award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon that put DAOU on the map. They also offer a limited food menu with light fare and a housemade mezze plate that is a must! Pro-tip: It can get windy on the mountain so check the forecast before booking and don’t forget to take a jacket. 
How to book: Reserve a tasting experience here

Hotel Cerro pool
Photo courtesy of Hotel Cerro

Sunbathe on the rooftop of a new chic hotel

Hotel Cerro opened just before the pandemic hit so sadly they didn’t have much of a grand opening. It’s one of the first upscale hotels to open in San Luis Obispo and it’s smack in the middle of downtown. The boutique hotel has 65 well-appointed rooms with lots of functional space and a laid-back rooftop pool with views of the rolling hills. Brasserie SLO, the hotel’s main restaurant, has a beautiful fig tree courtyard that sources ingredients from the Edible Garden on-site, and is an excellent choice for dinner. The craft cocktail menu turns out pretty libations garnished with fresh florals that are (almost) too pretty to drink.
How to book: Reserve a room here.

Enjoy fine dining from a Michelin-starred chef

Les Petites Canailles, which literally translates to “the little rascals” is one of the crown jewels of Paso Robles. Chef Julian Asseo, a Michelin-starred chef, brings his culinary talents to the Central Coast in his latest venture, a farm-to-table French bistro in the heart of downtown. The son of a winemaker, chef Asseo uses local ingredients to curate a seasonal menu that celebrates traditional French dishes like steak tartare, duck breast, and moules-frites. Pair your meal with a local or French wine like L’Aventure and if you prefer to enjoy a fancy meal at home, the restaurant also offers takeout during the week. 
How to book: Make a reservation or order takeout here.

Throw back a few Morro Bay oysters

Morro Bay is a small fishing town with a population of 9,000 and it’s most famous for its namesake oysters (you’ll see them on menus across California). Morro Bay Oyster Company and Grassy Bar Oyster Company are the only two farms that supply the oysters and they taste vastly different from one another. Get a taste of both at Tognazzini’s family-owned seaside spot that highlights local seafood and overlooks Morro Rock. The menu is an extensive list of seafood delights including fried oysters, fish and chips, seafood tacos, and heartier dishes like linguini and clams.
How to order: Walk-ins accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

tin city
Photo courtesy of Travel Paso

Sample and shop for artisanal foods and goods in Tin City

San Luis Obispo County is home to some well-known wineries but it’s also where a lot of craft breweries are born. You can find a few local producers nestled in Tin City, an industrial park that showcases independent artisans that specialize in beer, food, and goods. Have a beer in the outdoor garden at BarrelHouse Brewing Co. and then walk across the street to try sheep’s milk ice-cream at Negranti Creamery. You’ll also find smaller wine producers Giornata which focuses on Italian varieties, or French-inspired wine by Union Sacre. Don’t forget to stop by a pasta factory called Etto where you’ll definitely want to stock up on freshly made pasta.
How to order: Check with the specific establishment you plan to visit.

field of light
Photo courtesy of Travel Paso

Check out the Field of Light art installation 

Field of Light at Sensorio is a unique visual experience through a 15-acre field where over 58,000 lit spheres light up and change colors. The family-friendly installation has been extremely popular during the pandemic and after a short hiatus, Field of Light at Sensorio is reopening on April 15. Light Towers, the newest addition to the installation, includes 69 illuminated towers, comprising more than 17,000 wine bottles. Pro-tip: Skip the VIP experience and book a ticket for sunset hour so you can see the installation during both light and dark hours.
How to book: Reserve tickets now for April 15-September 30, 2021.

big sky cafe
Photo courtesy of Visit SLO CAL

Have a farm-to-table lunch at Big Sky Cafe

Big Sky Cafe is centrally located in downtown San Luis Obispo and is the perfect spot for a casual bite. The menu is a hodgepodge of cuisines but the one thing that remains the same is the farm-to-table commitment using only the freshest ingredients in season. Dishes are inspired by flavors all around the world and somehow it just works. You’ll find everything from a Nashville-style fried chicken to a vegetarian pozole bowl, and even a ginger noodle salad with Asian vegetables. The crispy Brussels sprouts and the Tuscan kale salad with fresh citrus are highly recommended for a healthier option. Pro tip: Make sure to check out Blackwater across the street, a hybrid gift and plant shop which offers up some major plant porn.
How to order: Order delivery or pick-up here

Catch an outdoor movie at a drive-in theater

Unlike your typical movie theatre, $8 will buy you a first-run double feature at the Sunset Drive-In. Use all the money you saved to scoop up some treats at the snack bar, like popcorn, chili dogs, and/or mounds of candy. SLO Provisions is your best bet for stocking up on specialty sandwiches, freshly baked goods, and other picnic items.
How to book: Purchase tickets at the box office; cash only

Pick up freshly baked cinnamon rolls

They offer eight delicious takes on the cinnamon roll at Old West in Pismo Beach (frosted, crumb, raisin, almond, walnut, pecan, raisin walnut, and original) but be warned: one is definitely big enough to share. If you’re eating in at the bakery, skip the coffee and grab one afterwards at nearby Steaming Bean Coffee and Tea Company. These freshly baked rolls are also an ideal road trip snack that will effectively power you through several munchie moments on your excursion back to LA or SF.
How to order: Open for takeout or order cinnamon rolls to be shipped directly to your home

Scout Coffee Shop
Courtesy of Scout Coffee Shop

Load up on the caffeine 

Scout Coffee Shop is serving up the best coffee, cookies, and tea in town. Order a California Cold Brew: a cocktail of cold brew, cold brew concentrate, half and half, and vanilla syrup. Make it dairy-free by subbing in Scout’s homemade almond milk if you feel so inclined. If you prefer your caffeine with something to satisfy your sweet tooth, try the nitro cold brew float, which pairs fizzy nitro cold brew with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream. For tea drinkers, the Honey Tea Bowl pairs your choice of loose leaf tea with creamy steamed milk and honey. Scout Coffee Shop also offers a rotating menu of sodas, freshly mixed with house-made syrups. If you see strawberry on the menu, definitely grab one. For food options, this spot’s known for their Scout cookie, which is a triple chocolate cookie with oats and pecans, as well as their bacon cheddar chive scone.  
How to order: Order your coffee for pick-up here

Go on a scenic hike

A slew of trails on Madonna Mountain (aka Cerro San Luis Obispo) are perfect for novices, pros, bikers, and day hikers. There are short and long trails spelled out at the beginning, so you can pick the version that works best for you. The Lemon Grove Loop is ideal if you’re short on time, but be aware: The trail gets way more crowded on Sundays, so plan your hike for earlier in the weekend if you can. Also, all the paths are wide and dog-friendly.

Rent kayaks on the beach or just chill

Pismo Beach offers the best of both worlds: plenty of activities for high-energy beachgoers (ATV rentals, surfing, etc.) as well as a wide, warm stretch of sand for chilled-out sunbathers. Check out Pismo Beach Dive Shop, where you can rent a kayak or embark on a guided kayak or dive tour. Pro tip: Ocean activities are plentiful and fun here, but the water is on the chilly side. For those looking to settle in and watch other people rent kayaks, pack a picnic with smoothies from Virtjuice and some tacos and fries from Papi’s Grill.

Throw back a few beers

The beers at Central Coast Brewing are constantly changing and there’s always plenty on tap, from fresh, hoppy IPAs and bourbon barrel-aged smoked ales to crisp German-style lagers. You can get a tasting-sized serving of any beer available, or go in the opposite direction and fill up a growler to sustain you for (at least the first day of) your trip. Have a few outdoors on the patio, sidle up to the bar, or grab some 16-ounce cans to go. Whatever you do, make sure to sample their award-winning Monterey Street pale ale—a crisp, quenching beer with a heady hops scent and refreshing finish.

Steep yourself in glamour at the classic Madonna Inn

With 110 distinctly designed guest rooms in themes that range from luxurious honeymoon to a jungle dripping with vines to a decked out cave room (rock walls and all) to a glitzy Austrian Suite, Madonna Inn is perhaps the most Instagrammable hotel in the entire state. But don't sleep on the additional amenities. The hotel also features an infinity pool, beach access, trail rides, and a luxury spa. The premises ALSO includes a steak house, a cafe, a bakery, a cocktail lounge, and a pool bar... so, realistically, you could spend your entire trip here—just remember to wear your mask in common areas. 
How to book: Select a room and book here.

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Claire Margine is always down for a summer road trip. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @cmoshenb and check out more of her work at clairemargine.com.
Leila is a huge fan of the SLO-life. Follow her on Instagram at @LeilasList for more travel recs and insider tips in LA and around the world.
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