Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum, or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.