Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Looking for all the things you love about California but at a more (well, even more) laid-back pace? Look no further than San Luis Obispo. Located roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this coastal college town is home to (or in easy striking distance of) everything you could want from the Golden State—with a twist. You want beaches? Not only does the region have plenty of beaches, but it boasts the only one where you can (legally) careen across the dunes on your ATV. You want the California wine country experience? Winemakers in nearby Paso Robles craft world-class vintages, but with a signature devil-may-care spirit. You want Golden Age of Hollywood glamour? Look no further than the unrestrained decadence of Hearst Castle. It’s the quintessential California getaway experienced through the unique lens of San Luis Obispo.
From Los Angeles, it’s about a three-hour drive (without traffic) via the 101 North or a (roughly) five- to six-hour Amtrak ride from Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. From San Francisco, the drive is about three and a half hours (without traffic) via the 101 south or a (roughly) five- to six-hour Amtrak ride from the Emeryville station.
Once you’ve reached your destination, there’s no sense in beating around the bush—it’s beach time. Pismo Beach offers a wide, sandy shore great for sunbathing and gorgeous waves perfect for a surf session. The beach also features a 1,200-foot pier built in 1928 that stretches out over the water, offering stunning views of this classic California beach town.
With your freshly worked-up appetite in tow, stop by Firestone Grill for lunch. This barbecue spot is beloved for its tri-tip sandwich—like, really beloved. As in, be prepared to wait in line. But rest assured, once you’re hunkered down with your food and a glass of cold beer you’ll understand why.
Though wine grapes were introduced to the region by the Spanish in the late 18th-century, Paso Robles’ wine industry has boomed over the last several decades with over 200 wineries taking advantage of the unique terroir created by the area’s various microclimates. There are any number of worthy tasting rooms (Paso Robles’ downtown area makes it easy to visit several tasting rooms all in one spot), but for a delicious Cabernet paired with a gorgeous view, a visit to DAOU Vineyards is a must.
Close out your day comfortably ensconced in the welcoming, old school atmosphere of Café Roma. This fixture of San Luis Obispo’s Historic Railroad District serves classic Italian favorites made from ingredients that have been sourced from local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.
The Apple Farm Inn Hotel & Lodging features a restaurant that’s become a favorite spot for comfort food, breakfast staples, and its apple dumpling. Breakfast here is a blissfully straightforward affair (think pancakes, omelets, and benedicts) where ingredients are sourced from Central Coast farmers markets.
Up the coast in San Simeon, atop La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”) sits an estate so measureless in its decadence the fictional version that appears in Citizen Kane was dubbed Xanadu. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst commissioned architect Julia Morgan to execute a vision that would become Hearst Castle. Construction started in 1919 and would take more than 20 years to complete. The result is a 127-acre property outfitted with countless rooms, fireplaces, gardens, priceless collections of art, pools, and a range of architectural styles. The property was donated to the state of California in 1958 and has since become a quintessential stop on any visit to Central California.
Hop on the Pacific Coast Highway and start heading back south for lunch at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant in the impossibly charming beach town of Morro Bay. Dine indoors at the original restaurant or opt for the more casual outdoor location—either way, you’ll find a menu chock full of local seafood that’s as delicious as it is fresh.
Despite the state’s hundreds of miles of coast, there are very few places where it’s legal to drive on the beach. This makes Oceano Beach a must for anyone who’s ever wanted to hop on a dune buggy and cruise along the shore literally just steps from the water. Not much of a thrill-seeker? Oceano is also one of the few California beaches where you don’t have to clamor for one of a few precious cement fire pits if you want to have a bonfire. The only thing you need here is some firewood and a can-do attitude.
For dinner, stop by Novo Restaurant & Lounge. The menu here is inspired by elements of cuisine from all over the world and realized using local ingredients. If you can, snag a table on their outdoor patio which overlooks the verdantly shaded San Luis Creek.
Truly no stop in San Luis Obispo is complete without a pilgrimage to the wondrously kitschy Madonna Inn. The hotel is famous for its top-to-bottom every-shade-of-pink color scheme and baroque maximalist fever dream décor. It’s truly a “seeing is believing” experience, so don your finest cat-print-of-your-choice and order up the hotel bar’s signature drink—the Pink Cloud—and toast to a day well-spent.
Get your morning caffeine fix at Kreuzberg California which takes inspiration from the café scene of Berlin (it also makes a great place to revisit during lunch and cocktail hours). Pair your espresso with a Classic Two Egg Brekky or a San Luis Obispbowl (aka an acai bowl) for a well-rounded start to your day.
Cal Poly’s Design Village (also known as the Architecture Graveyard) looks a bit like the part of The Shire where you’d go to hang out with the hobbits that got really into the counterculture. Nestled against a backdrop of gently rolling hills are experimental structures and sculptures designed by Polytechnic State University’s design, architecture, and engineering students as part of the Design Challenge. During the annual event, competitors assemble structures designed around a theme (such as “Balance” or “Synthesis”) that must be built in 12 hours and shelter the team for an entire weekend. Some of the structures still remain, a unique testament to their builders’ innovation and creativity. Getting there isn’t quite strenuous enough to be a full-blown hike, but it’s about a two-mile round trip walk, so wear a comfy pair of walking shoes.
Pismo Beach is famous for its clams, so you’d be remiss if you left town without sampling some steamed clams or clam chowder from Splash Café. You’ll likely encounter a line outside this no-frills stand but a seafood lunch this satisfying is worth the wait (Note: the Pismo Clam’s numbers have taken a hit due to their popularity, so know that if you have an interest in going clamming for yourself, a saltwater fishing license and a proper measuring fork to ensure the clams are of legal size is required.).
Before you start the trek back home, stop by Piedras Blancas for a chance at glimpsing a beach full of elephant seals as they sun their generously proportioned tummies and occasionally do battle in the surf (bulls will be bulls!). The seals return to this six-mile stretch of shore consistently throughout the year but their peak season is between December and March.
WHEN TO GO
San Luis Obispo’s climate is mild year round and hardly ever too warm or too cold, making it an excellent place for a quick, low-key getaway no matter the season.
WHERE TO STAY
Get the full Madonna Inn experience when you check in for a stay in one of its variously opulent and themed rooms. If you’re looking for a more subdued stay, you can relax at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa where each room comes equipped with a hot tub filled with piped in mineral water. If you’d like to stay situated in the heart of San Luis Obispo proper, The Kinney makes for the perfect base of operations for exploring Central Coast California.