This fertile stretch of the California coast, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has undeniable appeal, with buzz-worthy farm-to-table restaurants, celebrated wine country, historic sites, and welcoming, low-key communities, each with distinctive charms—not to mention drop-dead gorgeous settings. Here, coastal mountains roll into a frothy sea, with whales spouting offshore. Nook-and-cranny valleys cradle farms and ranches, and relaxed tasting rooms invite you to come in and relax. Bright sun mixes with cool fog and sea breezes—great for agricultural, and people too. Shorts are almost year-round attire in the region, especially on students at the campus of California Polytechnic State University (aka Cal Poly), in the hills above the city of San Luis Obispo, also home to a handsome Spanish mission. Beyond the city, adventures and discoveries abound. Look for otters on a guided kayak tour of Morro Bay. Shop for treasures in art galleries in funky-fun Cambria. Tour legendary Hearst Castle, dig for clams in Pismo Beach, or soak in mineral springs in the town of Avila Beach.
Downtown San Luis Obispo's most stately structure rises up from Mission Plaza. Founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, it’s an impressive structure, fronted by an equally impressive beast—a sculpture of grizzly bear. These giant bears, now extinct in California, were once prevalent here, and spurred the name given to the region by the Portola expedition in 1769: La Cañada de los Osos (Valley of the Bears). (Grizzlies also made it onto the state flag.)
From the Plaza, look up to note the three bells suspended in the church façade. Inside, the classic mission design has a twist: a long secondary nave to the right of the altar. For more history and information, visit the mission’s excellent museum and its special focus on local Chumash Indians. Visiting on a Friday evening in summer? Lucky you. Join locals for free, family-friendly concerts featuring quality musicians from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in the beautiful Mission Plaza.
When it comes to beaches along this stretch of the Central Coast, variety is the name of the game. There’s the fun-in-the sun spirit of balmy Avila Beach; stop by Pete’s Pierside Café and Fish Market to check out the local catch. And there are the broad, flat sands at Pismo Beach—one of California’s best strips of coastline for long strolls at sunset—plus there’s Pismo Beach’s signature pier, stretching out some 1,600 feet/488 meters above the waves. There are the rocky coves at Piedras Blancas, home to thousands of enormous elephant seals, making the site an outstanding destination for wildlife watching. Surfing is popular in several locations; check out the scene at Pico Creek near San Simeon.
In springtime, take leisurely hike along the flower-filled coastal terrace of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, in low-key Cambria, or stroll along the boardwalk at lovely Moonstone Beach. Just north of Cayucos, Estero Bluffs State Park offers wide-open ocean views from trails skirting the bluffs—a great place for whale watching, especially December through March. For an unforgettable experience, wind through the surreal shifting landscapes of Oso Flaco Lake, where a boardwalk leads through a section of one of the world’s largest coastal dune systems.
Thursday evenings year-round, (except Thanksgiving or if it’s raining), the place to be in San Luis Obispo is Higuera Street, home to a farmers’ market with the soul of a street party. At this loved-by-locals weekly event, students and families gravitate downtown to pick up containers of Hayashi’s super-sweet strawberries or fresh roasted corn on the cob then catch up with friends. Live music makes a perfect backdrop for perusing all the fresh produce and artisanal foods, and chatting with local farmers.
Other markets abound in this bountiful region. There’s a produce-only farmers' market every Saturday at the San Luis Obispo Promenade shopping center and other gatherings in nearby Los Osos and neighboring communities.
If you love wine, you’ve come to the right place. The San Luis Obispo region ranks as one of the state’s premiere wine growing regions, dating back to the 18th century and the time of the Spanish padres. But even if you don’t know a Cab from a Chardonnay, the wine country still beckons, with relaxed, cowboy-meets-winemaker towns, and vineyards blanketing coastal hills.
"If you love wine, you’ve come to the right place."
South of town, Edna Valley is home to many top wineries, such as Tolosa, Chamisal, and Balleyana. The average distance of Edna Valley vineyards to the ocean is just five miles, bringing mild days and cool evenings that help Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reach their maximum potential. A complex soil profile adds character and complexity too.
To extend your wine-country travels, continue about 30 miles northeast to the Paso Robles region. Here, more than 200 wineries ranging from family-owned boutiques to well-known labels such as J. Lohr and Estrella River welcome visitors to sip and swirl award-winning vintages. Paso Robles’ warmer inland climate lends itself to Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel grapes, which vintners use in innovative blends, as well as traditional vintages. To achieve your own blend of variety, delight, and safety, consider joining a guided tour (group and private options abound, including Breakaway Tours, Alexis Limousines, and SLO Safe Ride).
This community nourishes and promotes its artists in many ways, including a vibrant public arts program and joint events with Cal Poly; check local papers or the San Luis Obispo Arts Council website for details.
But if you only partake of one art-related foray on your visit, aim to be in town on the first Friday night of the month so you can check out the downtown Art After Dark program. Though many shops open earlier, Art After Dark officially starts at 6 p.m., with galleries inviting you to visit, have a glass of wine and a few nibbles, browse, and buy until 9 p.m. On a typical Art After Dark, over 20 galleries and non-traditional art venues (think restaurants, boutiques, and salons) spotlight established and emerging local artists. Many studios are also open, so you can chat with artists themselves.
If you’re in town when Cal Poly is in session, head up to campus to visit the University Art Gallery, in the Dexter Building, to see the latest student creations.
From flittering monarch butterflies as light as a feather to elephant seals that tip the scales at more than 5,000 pounds/2,268 kilograms, San Luis Obispo County has an incredible variety of wildlife—and ways to see it. For starters, head to the rugged strip of coastline known as Piedras Blancas (Spanish for “white rocks”), alongside Highway One roughly 7 miles north of San Simeon. Here, some 17,000 elephant seals, once hunted to near extinction, haul up on the rocky sands to breed, have their young, molt, and rest. From observation areas above the sands, watch bellowing bull elephant seals as large as mini-vans battle for territory, while quieter, smaller females nurture their plump, cigar-shape pups. Knowledgeable docents are usually on site.
From late October into February, visit the remarkable monarch butterfly groves at Pismo State Beach to see these orange-and-black beauties as they congregate in great numbers during the winter. Recently, the population has averaged around 25,000 butterflies but more than 100,000 monarchs have gathered during peak seasons.
At Morro Bay, listen for the banging sound of sea otters using little rocks as tools to open shellfish. Scan the skies and waters for herons and egrets (there’s a lively rookery along the shoreline, near the natural history museum at Morro Bay State Park), as well as a huge number of migratory waterfowl and peregrine falcons (a pair often nests on Morro Rock). Join a guided kayak trip to paddle across the bay with a knowledgeable guide to see diving cormorants and basking harbour seals as well as sea otters, and to learn about local oyster farming. Paddle across the bay to climb tall sand dunes, a great place to look for migrating blue, gray, and humpback whales.
Get ready for a spectacular selection of outdoor experiences. Start with an invigorating leg stretch at Montaña de Oro State Park, 30 miles/48 kilometers west of San Luis Obispo (aka SLO). The name means “Mountain of Gold,” alluding not to the precious metal but to the dazzling springtime displays of golden wildflowers. This 8,000-acre/3,327-hectare coastal preserve has plenty of places to explore—head for trails climbing to the top of 1,347-foot/411-meter Valencia Peak, or peer into tide pools accessed via the Bluff Trail.
Bagging 1,546-foot/471-meter Bishop Peak—one of the region’s nine signature, elegantly rounded coastal mountains—is another popular hike. The 3½-mile/5½-km round trip walk is a workout, but you’ll be rewarded with whopping ocean and land views from the top.
Want to try beach camping? Reserve a spot for your tent at appealing (and popular) Spooner Cove. Or consider North Beach State Campground, about 14 miles/23 kilometers south of SLO in Pismo Beach; romp on more than 20 miles/32 kilometers of unspoiled sandy beaches, and find your perfect spot for digging legendary Pismo clams (permit required; see link below for details). Pismo State Beach is also known for its remarkable Monarch Butterfly Grove, where tens of thousands of the elegant, black-and-orange butterflies stop to rest during their annual migration. Spotting scopes are set up for easy viewing of the butterflies, which hang from trees in tight clusters in the evening to help stay warm through the night. In the morning, watch them flutter and fly as the sun coaxes them awake.
Biking has come on very strong in the region, and local bike shops and the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club can recommend a to match your ability and interests. Morro Bay, about 13 miles/21 kilometers northwest of SLO, has even more diversions for outdoor lovers. Local concessionaires offer fishing trips, as well as kayaking and sailing excursions.
One of the best ways to experience a college campus is through its sports teams, and Cal Poly’s Mustangs don’t disappoint. Throughout the year, the university’s top-level sports teams offer high caliber play in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, water polo, tennis, cross country, swimming, diving, and more. Club sports offer even more ways to cheer on the home team—root for your favorite polo pony, or see who can best navigate the wickets during a croquet match.
The university’s Cal Poly Arts organization also presents a varied mix of performances—including well-known names like jazz trumpeter Branford Marsalis and the quirky Blue Man Group—throughout the year; most take place at the campus’s Performing Arts Center.
For a (literal) taste of the Cal Poly experience, stop by one of the in-season farm stands for the university’s onsite organic farm, a place for hands-on learning of sustainable farming practices.
Although they share a spectacular 50-mile/80-km stretch of California’s Central Coast, each of San Luis Obispo County’s five main beach towns boasts its own unique identity. Here’s a roundup of insider tips and local favorites in each of these unique, edge-of-the-sea communities, listed south to north.
With long, broad sands steps from its vintage downtown and the outstanding Edna Valley appellation just minutes away, Pismo Beach is where wine meets the surf. Pick up a salt-water fishing license, clam rake, and callipers at such local businesses as Gotta Go Fish’n, then hit the beach in search of the legendary Pismo lam, the largest clam along the California coast. Dig for these delicacies (you must use your callipers to make sure clams are the legal limit of 4.5 inches/11.43 centimeters; smaller ones get returned to the sand). Or leave the clamming to the pros and spoon up some acclaimed clam chowder at Splash Café, a favorite in Pismo’s funky downtown since 1989. For a taste of the local wine country, sample Pinot Noirs made with grapes sourced from Edna Valley and Avila Valley vineyards at Pismo Beach Winery.
Hidden a few miles west of U.S. Highway 101, Avila Beach offers some of the county’s balmiest coastal weather and a rebuilt downtown and waterfront. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, join a guided hike following the Pecho Coast Trail to the 1890 Port San Luis Lighthouse (phone reservations required; 805/528-8758). Join a Seaweed Express (offered by Avila Beach Boat Charters) to explore sea caves and look for dolphins. Take in views of San Luis Bay while dining on jumbo coconut prawns and succulent wild California king salmon at the Old Custom House restaurant.
Famous for Morro Rock, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Bay is a classic fishing town with harbor-front restaurants, and outstanding wildlife watching. Paddle the bay and keep your eyes open for sea otters and harbor seals on guided tours from Central Coast Outfitters, or rent your own equipment (consider Kayak Horizons) to paddle the calm waters. Along The Embarcadero, choose from a huge collection of rare seashells and decorative corals at The Shell Shop, then let the kids check out more than 200 skateboards from all eras at the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum. At The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, gaze out on fishing boats and Morro Rock as you dine on entrees prepared with produce grown in nearby Los Osos Valley paired with wild-caught seafood and of course—local wines.
Budget Travel magazine once named Cayucos one of “America’s coolest small towns” and it definitely has a little bit of everything: great food, beaches, and hints of the Old West, thanks to a long ranching history. Ruddell’s Smokehouse is nothing fancy but bite into tacos made with smoked fish, including salmon and albacore, and you’ll know why visitors and locals line up to dine at this Cayucos favorite. For dessert, pick up the shortbread-like sweet-and-salty originals or irresistible espresso cookies at the Brown Butter Cookie Company. Now you have to work it all off, so take a hike with expansive ocean views at Estero Bluffs State Park, featuring 4 miles/6.4 kilometers of dramatic coastline just north of town.
This artsy town, a gateway to Hearst Castle, is known for galleries, sophisticated dining, and a craggy coastline. Discover the creative side of this village as you shop for contemporary works by Cambria and Central Coast artists at The Vault Gallery (it’s in a historic bank building). Find hand-blown pieces by leading glass artists from around the world at Cambria Glassworks, then head across the street for patio and garden dining (don’t miss the classic salmon bisque) at Robin’s Restaurant.
Throughout the year, special events offer a great way to wine, dine, listen, play, and mingle with locals. The summer season kicks off in early May with Flavor of SLO, where local chefs, vintners, and craft beer makers showcase their talents on the grounds of the historic Jack House and Gardens in downtown San Luis Obispo. Summer also brings the annual Roll Out the Barrels celebration, featuring local wines and food pairings at an al fresco event at Mission Plaza (attendance also gets you a two-day passport to visit local wineries). In October, Madonna Inn, the incomparable temple to kitsch, teams up with Firestone Walker Brewing Company to present the Central Coast’s own ranch-country take on Oktoberfest, with delicious brews and classic German fare paired with plenty of live music, dusty cowboy boots, and high spirits.
Imagine a village where fresh-cut flowers and warm-from-the-oven pastries scent the air. Add gingerbread architecture, twirling windmills, and exceptionally friendly people, and you’ve got the Danish hamlet of Solvang. A wine rush inspired by the 2004-bromance Sideways only added to the appeal of this quaint little tourist town in the Santa Ynez Valley. Tasting rooms, hip boutiques, and farm-to-fork restaurants like Root 246 now liven a mix of bakeries, chocolatiers, and kitschy souvenir shops. Founded in 1911 by Danish Americans from the Midwest, Solvang (Danish for “sunny fields”) also boasts an outstanding theater program, with performances in a 700-seat outdoor theater.