San Luis Obispo is a county of about 300,000 located roughly in between between Los Angeles and SF. This essentially means it’s only a three hour drive from both cities, making it the perfect place to hit for a long weekend or abbreviated vacation. If you have time, you can even hit Monterey on the way and check out Cannery Row. Once in SLO, however, there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Take in an outdoor movie at a classic drive-in, enjoy a relaxing wine picnic at an award-winning vineyard, relax in a hot tub overlooking the woods, or get adventurous and go for a hike, paddle out, or hop in a kayak and try not to die. Whichever route you take, make sure you first hop on the 101 (it’s the quickest way there).
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Best place to catch a flick
Sunset Drive-In Theatre 255 Elks Lane, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 Unlike your typical movie theatre, $8.00 will buy you a first-run double feature here. Use all the money you saved to scoop up some treats at the snack bar, like popcorn, chili dogs, and/or mounds of candy. Or bring a more sophisticated dinner. Pluto’s is a great takeout option with customizable salads, sandwiches, and sides that you can get to-go. If the curly fries or lemon bars are on the menu when you’re there, be sure you stock up.
Scout Coffee Shop 1130 Garden Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 Scout Coffee Shop is serving up the best coffee, cookies, and tea in town. For the caffeine fiend, 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 more palatable 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.
Best taco in town
Papi’s Grill 1090 Price Street, Pismo Beach, California This is the requisite post-surfing lunch, pre-brewery dinner, or place to get a taco when you really want a damn taco. The halibut and shrimp tacos (get one of each) are piled high with fresh pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, and beans, and then dutifully wrapped in tortillas that they make in-house.Their mouthwatering salsas are bright and flavorful and complement the hot, fresh chips (though we recommend adding some guacamole to the mix). And the crisp, golden chorizo fries -- smothered in spicy chorizo and melted cheese -- will decimate any hangover. Be sure to grab a table outside and soak up some sunshine before running back up to order around around of fish tacos.
Best place to chill out in a hot spring
Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa 1215 Avila Beach Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 A hot spring soak can untangle your knotted muscles, drop your shoulders, and help decluster your busy, busy mind. You can go all out and get a luxe spa package or stay on the premises for nonstop spa time. But a fun way to add a little spa life to your trip without breaking the bank is to rent one of Sycamore Mineral Springs hot tubs by the hour. The rate is $15 per person, per hour on weekdays and $20 per person, per hour on weekends. Depending on the size of your party, you could get a hot tub that accommodates anywhere from two to 30 people. All the tubs are naturally heated, open air, and surrounded by picturesque woods (and a little fence, to protect your privacy from other tub goers while you relax). The tubs are open from 8:00am to midnight, but you’ll want to make a reservation online first -- they fill up fast.
Best breakfast after a long night out
Old West Cinnamon Rolls 861 Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach, CA 93449 They offer eight delicious takes on the cinnamon roll here (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 SF.
Best brewery to grab a pint
Central Coast Brewing 1422 Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 The beers here 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 for 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.
Best vineyard to pick up a bottle of wine
Wolff Vineyards 6238 Orcutt Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 Pack a picnic lunch and select a bottle of wine at Wolff Vineyards. Just a few minutes away from Downtown SLO, this stunning vineyard offers $10 tastings, picturesque scenery, and excellent, award-winning wines. Most notably, Wolff has won buckets of awards for their Petit Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. For your picnic, head to Mint + Craft in Downtown SLO on your way to Wolff and grab their Egyptian sandwich. If you happen to be vegetarian though, go for Ancient Grain + Roasted Pepper salad.
Best hotel to get weird in
The Madonna Inn 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 The decor is definitely on the wild and wacky side, but that’s the touchstone of this classic hotel. Each room looks like a movie set, featuring everything from a decked out cave room (rock walls and all) and a jungle room dripping with vines, to a glitzy Austrian Suite. The Madonna Inn is more than simply odd rooms, though. It 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.
Best place for a day hike
Madonna Mountain (aka Cerro San Luis Obispo) 1183 Fernandez Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 A slew of trails means this mountain is 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.
Pismo Beach Pismo Beach, CA 93449 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 after you grab smoothies at Virtjuice and some tacos and fries from Papi’s Grill.
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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.