I have always loved the casual vibe and perfect weather in San Luis Obispo, and for years it was a first stop during our family’s drives up the coast to Big Sur. Since our move from Los Angeles to Vancouver, WA and my son’s enrollment in Cal Poly SLO, San Luis has become a more extended stop for a weekend getaway on the way south to LA and I’m here to share my favorite eats and activities with you in the hopes you find it every bit as enjoyable and stopworthy as we do.
History of San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest European-founded communities, formed in 1772 by Spanish Franciscan Junipero Serra and named after the 13th century saint and bishop Louis of Toulouse, France. The earliest inhabitants of San Luis Obispo (known as “SLO”) were the Chumash people whose language, faith and culture was subsumed under the Spanish Empire during its expansion efforts to bring the Catholic faith to the natives of California with the ida of unifying the empire in religion and language.
Spanish explorers first reached the San Luis Obispo area in 1769 and named the area Canada de Los Osos (Valley of the Bears); Fr. Junipero Serra celebrated the first mass on September 1, 1772 and left the next day tasking Fr. Jose Cavaller with building the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa which would later become the actual town of San Luis Obispo and included not just the chapel and related buildings, but also soldiers’ barracks, a grist mill, tannery, water supply system, land for farming and pastures for livestock.
In the 1830s and shortly after the Mexican War for Independence, the territory was secularized. Today SLO is a thriving and vibrant community, home to California Polytechnic State University and Cuesta College, as well as numerous nearby wineries, farms, citrus and olive orchards and of course the third largest employer, the California Men’s Colony Correctional Institute.
SLO is often a refueling stop for travelers driving north or south on scenic Highway 1 which runs along the Pacific Ocean coastline and is home to the world’s first motel, originally the Milestone Mo-Tel and probably the state’s most kitschy hotel, the Madonna Inn. Once named the happiest place in America by Oprah Winfrey, the wonderfully laid-back and casual town with plenty of boutiques, restaurants and historical, cultural. and outdoor recreation attractions should indeed be a destination on its own merits. Since I have a son in graduate school at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo has become a frequent travel destination for long weekends for me and while it’s not easy to narrow down, here are my highlights for a weekend getaway trip to SLO. Grab the map and read on!
Where to Have Coffee
Scout Coffee has been serving SLOers the finest craft roasted coffee and homemade pastries since 2014. Owners Sara and Jon Peterson have created a stylish and inviting space to enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee or tea, and when you’re done you can shop the neat curated goods from ceramics to cards. Scout’s original location is just off the main drag in Old Town on Garden Street but they now have a giant second location closer to Cal Poly on Foothill Blvd.
WithCo is a tiny but beautifully serene and minimalist coffee shop that had its nascent beginnings at Nashville, TN sister company WithCo Cocktails which offers batched cocktail mixes where they’ve done all the prep work for you from measuring, muddling, straining and chopping. Owners and lifelong friends Walker Sotello and Rydian Searless teamed up with WithCo Cocktails to set themselves apart from other coffee shops by infusing their cocktail mixers into the coffee drinks. WithCo roasts single origin coffees which rotate throughout the year. Located in the colorful and fun Creamery Marketplace Courtyard, WithCo is a great option for an early morning coffee and pastry.
Where to Have Breakfast
For an incredible Cali-Mexican breakfast with everything from Egg combos of infinite variety to pancakes to chilaquiles, burritos and omelettes, Efren’s is my choice for a hearty breakfast hookup in SLO. Located on the outskirts of town where you won’t be vying for parking or waiting in brunch lines, Efren’s is a very friendly family run restaurant with delicious food and a comfortable and spacious environment. Breakfast Pick: chilaquiles with chorizo and hot fresh chips with guacamole.
Where to Eat Lunch
Splurge: Old San Luis BBQ Co.
No trip to the Central California Coast is complete without sampling some good Santa Maria style BBQ. Old San Luis BBQ Co. was started by a Cal Poly alum Matt Pearce who wanted to open a “hole in the wall” to serve nearly 100 yr. old family bbq recipes to the local community. Tri-tip, chicken, pulled pork and linguica can be had as a plate with garlic bread and a side (cowboy corn pie, pinquito beans, apple jalapeño slaw, fries) or as a sandwich. Lunch pick: Pulled pork sandwich with fries and a strawberry shake. Bonus: Old San Luis now serves 46 self-serve tap craft beers.
Sandwich: Lincoln Market and Deli
Lincoln Market and Deli is always a must-stop of mine when visiting San Luis Obispo. Serving the community since 1941, Lincoln has an incredibly diverse and creative army of sandwiches, a nice avocado toast and a killer breakfast burrito, as well as kombucha, juices and chips and chocolates and gifts (in the market section). Sit at the giant community table inside or enjoy the outdoors in their recently renovated patio. Lunch pick: Chorizo Chzsteak and Avocado Toast with Sprouts.
Healthy Option: Mint + Craft
Mint and Craft is a cool little place just steps from the Mission in Old Town SLO that serves up bowls (Lomo Saltado), salads, soups, sandwiches, charcuterie, snacks (confit wee potatoes with “granch”) and fresh baked goodies like teacakes and cookies. Also shop the fun mercantile products for home cooks and food enthusiasts. A perfect place for a quick bite in the heart of downtown. Eater pick: Indian Vegan Bowl with yellow lentil dahl, market vegetables, eggplant chutney, and brown basmati rice; ginger teacake.
Where to Eat Dinner
Hidden Gem: La Locanda
La Locanda is that rare small neighborhood Northern Italian restaurant that has zero social media or marketing presence and where the 75 + yr old owner, Sig. Luciano Bardinelli, outfitted in jeans and a nice dress shirt still slings your pizza. La Locanda makes simple and delicious thin crust pizza, wonderful pasta specials, and the best tiramisu I’ve eaten in my life. The pizza was nearly cracker thin and the crust had that strangely wonderful 100% simple flavor of something like a breadstick. Chef Luciano introduced Seattle to non-checkered tablecloth Italian cuisine in the 80s and 90s at his restaurant Settebello. When he moved to the central coast to be closer to family, SLOers got lucky. This place is off the radar even though it is smack in the middle of downtown and across the street from Scout Coffee. Eater pick: Lasagne besciamella, caeser salad, pepperoni or margarita pizza, tiramisu.
Fine Peruvian & Seafood: Mistura
Mistura is a modern Peruvian restaurant that celebrates the multicultural spirit of Peru, combining its native pre-Columbian and Incan gastronomic heritage with the Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences that define the country’s exciting cuisine. The space is modern and stylish and the food is spectacular in its creativity and freshness. Everything from sashimi to ceviche to cold whipped potatoes is delicious and colorful. Dinner picks: sashimi plate; quinoa salad; cold whipped potatoes with crab and avocado; grilled beef heart; sushi grade ahi tuna over rice and beans with quail egg and fried yucca.
Where to Go for Dessert
Batch is a cheerful and colorful tiny nook in the heart of downtown that serves homemade cookies, ice cream and of course, custom made ice cream sandwiches. The smell of freshly baking cookies is irresistible and you won’t be able to pass on at least a cookie and a scoop of ice cream. Don’t pass up a shake or a float if you’re in the mood. Vegan and gluten free options available.
Where to Hike
Bishop Peak Trail is a 3.5 mile long popular out-and-back trail very near downtown SLO. Moderately steep and dog accessible, the trail is open year-round and offers beautiful wildflower viewing and panoramic city views.
Laguna Lake Dog Park is a peaceful and flat recreational area with a 1.4 out-and-back hiking/walking trail that runs through the meadows and along the lake. You can start at the parking lot and cruise through the workout zone stations to get in some fun calisthenics before beginning your walk. The park also offers a full playground and bbq/picnic stations.
Where to Bike
There are so many wonderful bike trails in San Luis Obispo but my favorite is the one that takes you from the city to the sea. It’s an easy 4.9 out-and-back trail located near Avila Beach which is the perfect halfway point for a refreshing dip in the ocean and a visit to the pier for some Clam Chowder.
If you book a trip, stop by in the comments or on social media and let me know about your trip! In addition, here are some other resources for planning a trip to SLO: