By: Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
The city of San Luis Obispo (which everyone calls SLO) is about 3 1/2 hours north of LAX and the same distance from San Francisco, in the wine country near California’s central coast. I has about 300 days of sunshine a year, an average temperature of 72°F, half the average U.S. rainfall for cities, and no snow, making it a true all-season destination (and the weather no doubt helped it earn “the Happiest City in America” title in a 2019 survey).
The list of possible things to do in the county of SLO is dominated by tours of wineries and outdoor activities like hiking, but the city itself could easily keep one busy for a week, with everything from a children’s museum and a nationally-acclaimed repertory theater to a tour of places associated with ghosts and infamous crimes http://visitslo.com/.
We spent a Wednesday through Friday there because every Thursday (except the rare times it rains) there is a hugely popular Farmers’ Market 6-9 p.m. in the historic downtown (many buildings were constructed in the 1890s-1910s), an area full of restaurants, art galleries, and specialty retailers.
We were warned about extensive construction on the 101 coming up from L.A., but managed to make good time until a truck spilled some pipes that punctured one of our tires (thanks to the team at America’s Tires in Goleta who got us back on the road quickly).
Our first of two stops on the way to downtown was San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens
https://www.slobg.org/. Bring your kids for the fun and educational children’s garden, as well as the young of all ages for the Display Garden trail, an easy walk through many examples of plants of Mediterranean climates, from a cork tree (see photo) to a dwarf pomegranate. More ambitious hikers can explore the areas still being developed.
https://www.baileyana.com/ has an unusual location near the coast, where the climate, growing season, and rich soil enable it to make wines that are unusual and have won many awards. The gift shop is in an old schoolhouse and the winery has 2,000 members, so be sure to make a reservation for events. Baileyana also has extensive sustainability practices, including the ability to save water in its processes (wineries use a lot) and using owl boxes to keep down varmints naturally.
We dropped by the SLO Visitors Center at 895 Montgomery St. downtown pick up maps for the self-guided walking tours, discount coupons, and brochures.
It was time to check into the Garden Street Inn
https://www.gardenstreetinn.com/, a charming boutique hotel in downtown, originally a mansion built in the Victorian style in 1887 and fully remodeled and renovated by the staff during the pandemic. Each room has a unique decorative theme and different features, as well as being stocked with a variety of classic books. Read our in-depth review here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/review-garden-street-inn-san-luis-obispo-ca-scott-s-smith/
We had dinner at a nearby Highwater https://www.highwaterslo.com/, which has become very popular since it opened in February 2022 for its fun and food. The artistic and audio themes are classic rock, while the menu includes improbable-seeming dishes that are delicious, like a plate of all kinds of fruits and vegetables that have been pickled, fondue with pretzels, and spicy donuts sprinkled with mushroom powder. Waiter Ethan told us the most popular meat dishes are the fried chicken and beef Wellington. They also have a creative cocktail menu, with or without alcohol.
After breakfast, we thought we would just walk along Marsh St. by the hotel to look for some of the many public murals, but came across Barnes and Noble, popped in and discovered so many intriguing books we had never heard of that we could barely pull ourselves away. This kept happening all day, as we came across all kinds of captivating shops downtown. Some of our faves:
Secret Garden Tea & Herbs Shop
https://www.organicherbshop.com/ (yes, it’s hard to find, so ask)
Boo Boo Records
https://booboorecords.com/, named one of the best record stores in the U.S. by Rolling Stone.
HumanKind Fair Trade
https://www.humankindslo.org/ carries handmade clothing, accessories, home goods, and gifts from around the world.
Phoenix Books has an enormous collection of high-quality used books on everything from martial arts and architecture to the counterculture (but no website: 805-543-3591 @phoenixbooksslo).
Tails https://www.tailsinslo.com/ is a pet store full of unusual items, like complete lines of ice cream and cakes for dogs and travel carriers with windows.
https://uniqueselectionsca.com/ is full of spectacular crystals, jewelry, unusual rocks, and home decor.
SLO Gallery https://www.slogallery.com/ opened in April 2021 and features talented local artists.
We did have time to visit the key local museums:
History Center and Museum of SLO County
https://www.historycenterslo.org/ is packed with surprises about the area’s role in technology and as a one-time center for outlaws.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso
https://missionsanluisobispo.org/ was founded in 1772 and has very good exhibits and artifacts about its history. Take one of the daily docent-guided tours.
Museum of Art https://sloma.org/ has exhibits about artists with local roots (we really liked the work of Alyssa Monks, see photo), some clever interactive and computer-generated media, and ambitious plans.
We had lunch at Big Sky Cafe https://www.bigskycafe.com/, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in SLO when it opened more than two decades ago. We have reviewed hundreds of places which emphasize wholesome foods and were blown away by the Vegetarian Pozole and Vegetarian Beet Reuben Sandwich. Owner Greg recommended the Cubano Sandwich and Chile Verde Tostada, both with pork shoulder. We asked what made them distinctive and it became clear that the experience behind any of his recipe make it impossible for competitors to come even close to imitating the gourmet results.
The six-block-long Farmers’ Market was heralded as the Best in the West by Sunset magazine and in addition to every type of fresh and organic produce there are a lot of ready-to-eat options and entertainment for the whole family (we saw a torch juggler and cheerleaders backed by a band).
Our main lesson: you should spend at least two full days just wandering around downtown SLO.
Hearst Castle https://hearstcastle.org/ an hour north of the city of SLO is the spectacular mega-estate of 20th century newspaper tycoon, movie producer, and art collector William Randolph Hearst. It remains so popular that tours of the Grand Rooms (some of the 165) often sell out well in advance. Be sure to get there early to go through the museum in the visitors center and especially to watch the 40 min. movie “Building the Dream” about how he was inspired to build the estate because of a tour of Europe his mother took him on when he was a child. You will find it inspiring for your own dreams.