Spotlight: San Luis Obispo County
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 breeze - 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.
San Simeon Pier
In the autumn, visitors to this pier are treated to up-close glimpses of migrating humpback whales feeding just off the Central Coast. The pier is located at the William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach, which is protected under the California Marine Life Protection Act, and is home to a sea otter reserve and part of a colony of 15,000 elephant seals that stretches into neighbouring Cambria.
While a lot of visitors pack onto the pier to catch glimpses of the sea life, the best way to explore the area is by kayak. Cubby Cashen, owner of Sea For Yourself Kayak Outfitters, leads guided tours that launch beside or beneath the pier (you can also hire a kayak for self-guided exploration). Cashen, who for the past 14 years has explored and studied the cove, says every outing yields a different discovery. 'Today I saw seals, otters, a sea lion and about 10 different types of birds, from ospreys to pelicans,' he says.
The sights aren’t limited to the ocean either. Hearst Castle, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s estate-turned-historical-monument, sits majestically atop the hillside directly opposite Highway 1.
The single-carriageway road, just off Highway 1, that leads north into Avila Beach winds through a lush oak valley and past natural mineral-rich hot springs until suddenly a panorama of ocean and palm trees appears. This bright, sweeping view includes just a half-mile of beach and a small town centre, but don’t let its size fool you: there’s a lot to do.
The San Luis Obispo County town also feels very traditionally homey thanks in part to its unique geography: sheltered in San Luis Obispo Bay, Avila Beach has calmer waters and warmer air than other towns on the Central Coast.
When you’re not enjoying the beach, stroll along the promenade on Front Street and peruse its shops, bistros and chic tasting rooms, like the one at Peloton Cellars. Then go for a soak in the mineral-rich waters of Avila Hot Springs. Golf lovers can play with a view of the water at the Avila Beach Golf Resort, set in the tree-filled valley you drove through on your way in. (The resort also hosts a blues festival on Memorial Day weekend and a pop concert on Labor Day weekend.) Or crank up the activity level by cycling or walking the Bob Jones Trail, which follows San Luis Obispo Creek. Travelling with children? Don’t miss the interactive exhibits at the Central Coast Aquarium.
Make your home the Inn at Avila Beach, where you can get a front-row seat for the wave action from your ocean-front balcony. Quirky rooms boast features like a swinging king-size bed and themes like a 1930s' theatre. You’ll also find a complimentary continental breakfast on the ocean-front rooftop each morning, as well as pie à la mode every night at 8pm. Not quite two miles inland, Avila Village Inn offers a more country-like setting, where warm tones, king-sized beds and gas fireplaces dial up the romance. Or immerse yourself in the outdoors by staying in a cabin or tent at Avila Hot Springs.
Start your day with a breakfast burrito from Taco Shack; later, tuck into acai and pitaya bowls at Avila Market. For dining with a view, try Custom House, which serves everything from pancakes to fresh seafood on a patio overlooking the bay. Or head to the nearby Olde Port Inn, at the very end of Harford Pier, where you can dine on fresh scallops, prawns and other seafood dishes as the sun makes its slow descent over the shimmering bay waters.
'Last of the California beach towns' is the slogan for Cayucos, a laid-back slice of San Luis Obispo County sandwiched between Highway 1 and the Pacific. And while Cayucos is obviously not the state’s only remaining beach town, it’s been able to maintain an easygoing vibe thanks to its small population (roughly 3,000), miles of white sand beach and iconic public fishing pier.
That 300-metre-long structure first opened in the 19th century, when Captain James Cass sailed here from New England, saw the area’s potential as a shipping port and built the pier. Take a stroll here today—it’s especially dramatic at sunset—and you’re more likely to see birds and surfers than shipping vessels. Or walk along the beach, where at low tide you may spot creatures such as crabs and sea anemones. Then head up to Ocean Avenue for a novel perspective on the 1800s; some of the town’s original buildings from that era still survive. Keep an eye out for the gorgeous murals that now adorn them.
Experience the past in a unique way by staying in the former home of James Cass, which has been restored and converted into a luxurious small B&B called (appropriately) Cass House. Enjoy the complimentary breakfast from its bakery before exploring the beach, just across the street. Or check in at the good-value Cayucos Beach Inn, where rooms have fridges and microwaves, and an ocean-view suite is available. For an optimal view of the pier and the Pacific, book a second-floor room at Cayucos Sunset Inn. There, you can choose from luxurious and romantically inspired offerings such as canopy beds, fireplaces, Jacuzzis and outdoor terraces.
When it comes time to eat, start your day with a prawn omelette or the crab hash at Sea Shanty. Craving fish tacos? Ruddell’s Smokehouse offers tortillas with smoked ahi, albacore, salmon or prawns. For the perfect snack, pick up a dozen or so goodies from local favourite Brown Butter Cookie Company. And in the evening, head to the waterfront for a seat in the garden at Hoppe’s Bistro, where you can tuck into a selection of everything from wild game to vegetarian dishes. Ingredients are sourced locally when possible, even the lobster and shellfish, making for a fresh finish to a magical day on the Californian coast.
It’s impossible to mistake Morro Bay for any other California seaside town. Just off its shore, a massive, ancient volcanic plug known as Morro Rock rises 175 metres from the ocean, adding a dramatic exclamation point to this haven of natural beauty. Fishermen plied their trade in the shadow of Morro Rock for decades; today, the town in San Luis Obispo County maintains its sea-faring charm with a full range of additional activities.
You can’t climb Morro Rock, but you can look for the peregrine falcons that nest there. And it’s not just there you’ll see birds: so many of them love the Morro Bay area that the Audubon Society has dubbed it one of the country’s best places for bird watchers. There’s even a birding festival every Martin Luther King Jr Day weekend. Nature lives in the water, too, of course—check it out by taking a whale-watching cruise or popping into the free Estuary Nature Center, a popular spot for otters and other sea creatures.
The town is an ambulatory paradise as well: beaches stretch north and south of town, perfect for strolling with a view of Morro Rock. Landlubbers can walk the area’s many trails or simply explore the Embarcadero, a waterfront street with shops and restaurants. Or learn more about wheeled transportation by visiting the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum, where you can get a pic of yourself on the 'world’s second biggest skateboard'.
Restaurants in Morro Bay are similarly Instagram-worthy, thanks to a combination of water views and fresh cuisine. Start your day with the crème brûlée French toast at local haunt Frankie & Lola’s. Later, watch as the sun begins its slow descent behind Morro Rock while tucking into 'naked fish' (simple, with sauces on the side) at The Galley, where dishes incorporate ingredients direct from the head chef’s family farm. Or visit the family-owned Dutchman’s Seafood House, which has its own dock—so you can count on just-caught seafood.
Hotels in Morro Bay also take full advantage of the town’s unique geography and geology. Stay in a suite at Estero Inn, where porthole windows create a fitting nautical theme and fireplace rooms have waterfront views. The boutique Anderson Inn offers coastal allure as well; opt for a view of Morro Rock with a room that offers a fireplace and bathtub. And the good-value Sundown Inn is a Main Street institution; located just a couple streets back from the water, it’s been run by the same family for 35 years.
Charming Cambria is a village by the sea—not a beach town. Most people know it as the gateway to Hearst Castle, just 11 miles up the San Luis Obispo County coast. But even without its famous neighbour, Cambria’s creative vibe and its setting—beautiful pine forests and open space along a craggy stretch of the California coast—make it an irresistible destination in its own right.
For such a small community (just 6,000 residents), Cambria has many moods. On the inland side of Highway 1, Cambria’s commercial area is divided into two distinct sections along Main Street. With some buildings dating to the 19th century, its East Village is the oldest part of town.
In the former Bank of Cambria building, The Vault Gallery showcases the art of leading plein air painters, as well as contemporary works by the likes of Billy Zane, co-star of Titanic. Plenty of people stop in Cambria just for a slice of the famous olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant, while the eclectic global cuisine and historic adobe setting have made Robin’s restaurant a Central Coast dining landmark for more than 30 years. A few blocks away, the seasonal menu at the Black Cat Bistro and its intimate warren of dining areas set it apart as a favourite of couples looking for a romantic night out.
Nearby in the West Village, Madeline’s Restaurant & Wine Tasting Room pours top Central Coast wines by day and, in the evening, serves such favourites as lamb shank and a pan-seared duck breast. You can also browse through several galleries in this area—including Ephraim Pottery, where you’ll find pieces by owner Kevin Hicks, as well as handcrafted furniture and lamps.
Across Highway 1, Moonstone Beach is lined with hotels, many offering ocean-view rooms. Walk across the road and you can stroll above the surf on a bluff-top boardwalk that runs for about 1.5 miles—with beautiful views the entire way. For dinner along Moonstone Beach, go to the Sea Chest, which draws long lines (there are no reservations), thanks to an outstanding oyster bar and the popular calamari steak. And nearby, at the 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, an extensive trail network follows the coastline and climbs into serene pine forests 400 feet above the ocean.
Whether you’re driving from the north or south on U.S. Highway 101, there’s an unforgettable moment as you reach Pismo Beach. The coastal hills open up to reveal shimmering turquoise waters and long stretches of the San Luis Obispo County coastline, with glimpses of this vintage beach town hugging the shore. Work your way towards the sands, through streets of beach cottages, surf shops and clam chowder joints.
Don’t miss the historic 1,200-foot-long Pismo Beach Pier. Built in 1928, the pier is the closest thing to a town square for Pismo Beach. Take a walk out over the waves to watch the surfers, or maybe try your hand at fishing (no license required) for red snapper, ling cod or even the occasional thresher shark. From the pier, stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk, or just hike along the hard-packed sands; the broad, flat expanses make this one of the most walkable beaches in all of California.
The broad, flat expanses at Pismo Beach make this one of the most walkable beaches in all of California.
Pismo Beach’s gorgeous setting means that there are all sorts of ways to connect to nature. Saddle up for horseback through the dunes just south of town and all the way to the surf on guided outings with Pacific Dunes Riding Ranch. Tours with Central Coast Kayaks take paddlers into dramatic sea caves tucked into the craggy coastline north of downtown. Or, rent a ‘dune buggy’ or an ATV to ride the dunes at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. And while you might spot 35-ton grey whales from the shores, tiny creatures that weigh less than a gram put on unforgettable displays when the thousands of monarch butterflies arrive at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove from late October to February.
An iconic beach town deserves some traditional beach food and in Pismo you’ll find all sorts of timeless favourites. Spoon up some of the silky, award-winning chowder at Splash Café. Or bite into the black Angus burgers at Wooly’s Beach Bar & Grill, where the deck overlooks the sand.
As the gateway to the nearby Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley wine regions, Pismo Beach also has a sophisticated side to its culinary scene. Discover an outstanding selection of local wines without leaving town at Tastes of the Valleys, which earned honours as one of the top 20 wine bars in America from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Pair gorgeous ocean views with fresh seafood at Oyster Loft (above Wooly’s) or Latin-inspired entrees at the Ventana Grill, two of the best sunset spots in town.
Speaking of sunsets, stay at one of Pismo Beach’s oceanfront resorts or hotels and you won’t even have to leave your room to watch the sky come aglow over the Pacific. At the pet-friendly SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel, open up the balcony door of your airy, contemporary room and fall asleep to the sound of the waves. Or spoil yourself at Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, where the indulgences include hot-stone massages and the five-course chef’s tasting menu at its Lido restaurant.
With its red-brick Carnegie Library anchoring a grassy town square, Paso Robles lies just off US Highway 101 at the southernmost tip of the Salinas Valley. This San Luis Obispo County town first became a tourist magnet in the 19th century, thanks to its mineral-rich hot springs, which you can still experience at the Paso Robles Inn, but Paso Robles (pronounced 'ROH-buhlz', or 'ROH-blays' to some locals) really found its magical elixir as the local vineyards multiplied.
Here in the heart of Central California’s wine country, more than 250 wineries spread across seven different growing regions, each with its own microclimate and terroir. More than 14 wineries have tasting rooms in Paso Robles’ picturesque city centre, but sippers with a taste to explore can roam vineyard-dotted Highway 46, winding west to the Cambria coast.
Expect to find a lot more than Pinot Noir. Take a walk around the beautiful gardens and massive sculptures at Sculpterra Winery or catch a concert at Vina Robles’ outdoor amphitheatre. At Tin City, check out more than 20 emerging boutique wineries—among them Aaron Wines, ONX and Field Recordings—packed together in an industrial-chic warehouse district. Savour the Old West ambience at Tobin James Cellars, where a restored stagecoach stop now serves as a guest house, or tour the wine cave at Eberle Winery. If you want to stay overnight among the vines you can do that too, in a vintage Tinker Tin trailer on Alta Colina Wine's property.
Leftover grape juice from the region’s wine production isn’t wasted. It provides the base alcohol for distilled spirits, which you can sample at various stops along the Paso Robles Distillery Trail. Sip Wine Shine’s mango mule, Krobar’s gin and rye whiskey, Manucci Spirits’s grappa and limoncello, and Re:Find Distillery’s vodka. Most distillery tasting rooms are located within vineyards, 'just around the back' from the wine-tasting rooms.
Beer drinkers aren’t left out of the fun. Firestone Walker Brewery is the biggest and oldest brewery in Paso Robles, but for atmosphere, it’s hard to beat the al fresco beer garden at Barrelhouse Brewing Company (and if you like sour barrel-aged beers, this is your kind of place). Microbrew fans will find their happy place at Toro Creek, Silva Brewing, or Earth and Fire Brewing Co.
With so many drinks options, don’t forget to eat. Savour upmarket Italian cuisine—truffle risotto and osso bucco—at central Il Cortile, or enjoy an authentic Mexican meal at Oralé Taqueria or Habaneros. Perennial favourite Hatch serves up craft cocktails and wood-fired rotisserie chicken, while Thomas Hill Organics specialises in local and sustainably grown ingredients.
Nourish your artistic side at Studios on the Park, an open-studio centre where working artists ply their creative trades. Chat with a sculptor, enjoy a drawing class or buy a painting for your living room. Soak until your fingers pucker at River Oaks Hot Springs spa, where 10 private tubs are fed from springs bubbling up at 42 degrees Celsius. Massages, facials and body wraps are available too. And for those who love steel and chrome, the Woodland Auto Display and Estrella Warbirds Museum share one location, and it’s packed with Second World War planes, antique motorcycles, military Jeeps, beautifully restored Indy cars and vintage roadsters.
When you’re ready to call it a day, rest your head in luxury in one of 16 tasteful rooms at the equestrian-themed Hotel Cheval, a short walk from the city centre’s restaurants and shops (don’t miss the nightly s’mores service), or the dog-friendly Allegretto Vineyard Resort, with its rambling courtyards and Tuscan-inspired terrazzo patios and fountains.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
The town centre of SLO’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.
Beaches in San Luis Obispo County
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.
Farmers' Markets in San Luis Obispo
Thursday evenings year-round, (except Thanksgiving [fourth Thursday in November] or if it’s raining), the place to be in SLO 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 to the town centre to collect 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 artisan 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 centre and other gatherings in nearby Los Osos and neighbouring communities.
San Luis Obispo Wine Country
If you love wine, you’ve come to the right place. The San Luis Obispo region ranks as one of the state’s premier 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).
Arts & culture
This community nourishes and promotes its artists in many ways, including a vibrant public arts programme and joint events with Cal Poly; check local papers or the SLO Arts Council website for details.
But if you only partake in 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 Art After Dark programme. Though many shops open earlier, Art After Dark officially starts at 6pm, with galleries inviting you to visit, have a glass of wine and a few nibbles, browse and buy until 9pm. 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 the campus to visit the University Art Gallery, in the Dexter Building, to see the latest student creations.
Wildlife Watching in San Luis Obispo County
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, malt 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, grey 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 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 wild flowers. This 8,000-acre coastal preserve has plenty of places to explore—head for trails climbing to the top of 1,347-foot Valencia Peak, or peer into tide pools accessed via the Bluff Trail.
Bagging 1,546-foot Bishop Peak—one of the region’s nine signature, elegantly rounded coastal mountains—is another popular hike. The 3½-mile 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 south of SLO in Pismo Beach; romp on more than 20 miles 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 become very popular in the region, and local bike shops and the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club can recommend a route to match your ability and interests. Morro Bay, about 13 miles north-west 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 calibre play in American football, basketball, baseball, football, water polo, tennis, cross country, swimming, diving and more. Club sports offer even more ways to cheer on the home team—cheer for your favourite polo pony, or see who can best navigate the hoops during a croquet match.
The university’s Cal Poly Arts organisation 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 on-site organic farm, a place for hands-on learning of sustainable farming practices.