25 Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo (CA)

Source: Flickr / two21 | CC BY-SA 2.0

Known as the ‘Happiest City in America’ San Luis Obispo (or simply SLO) is a city on California’s central coast that is blessed with 315 days of sunshine a year. Names after Mission Saint Luis Obispo, the fifth of its kind in California, the historical roots of the city can still be explored to this day.

Offering a seemingly never-ending selection of fantastic trails, SLO draws people in with its raw beauty that can only be witnessed in a few places on earth. So, without further ado, here is our list of the 25 Best things to do in San Luis Obispo.

Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, CA

Source: Map data @2022 Google

1. Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn
Source: Flickr / Rian Castillo | CC BY 2.0

Opened by local construction magnate Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis, this trendy inn has been a staple of SLO ever since it opened in 1958. As you walk into the inn, you will be overtaken by the predominantly pink interior that screams fun and adventure.

Not wanting to settle for a boring hotel, Alex went out of his way to ensure that each of the 110 rooms in the property is unique. The restaurant and bakery attached to the hotel is also an incredible spot whether you are looking for a quick bite to eat or to settle in for a romantic dinner. Make sure you try out their Pink Champagne Cake (don’t worry there is no alcohol involved).

2. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Source: Flickr / Rennett Stowe | CC BY 2.0

This Spanish Mission was established in the second half of the 18th Century and continues to be a central landmark in the city. The unique design of the mission that combines aspects of a bell tower and a vestibule that you can’t find anywhere else in California will draw you in with its beauty.

Located in the original Convento wing, the Museum boasts a stunning collection of Native Californian, Mission Era, and American Settlement history that will give you an unparalleled insight into the history of the area. You will also want to have a stroll through the magnificent gardens where the grape arbor will remind you of the expansive vineyards that once dominated the mission.

3. Bishop Peak

Bishop Peak
Source: Flickr / Jesse Palmer | CC BY-SA 2.0

Bishop Peak is a volcanic plug and is the tallest of the Nine Sisters chain of peaks. It is no surprise then that the 3.5-mile round trip is extremely popular among locals and tourists alike. While the trail is a challenging one, the panoramic view of SLO that will open up at its peak will make the hike well worth it.

Two benches will greet the weary hikers at the top of the trail and you will be able to take a well-deserved rest. If you are looking for even more impressive views, you can make your way further up the peak by climbing the rocks to the east and the west of the trail.  

4. Downtown San Luis Obispo

Downtown San Luis Obispo
Source: Flickr / two21 | CC BY-SA 2.0

Downtown SLO is a trendy location that effortlessly combines the city’s rich history with a vibrant ambiance. Whether you want to get something to eat at one of the farm-to-table restaurants, sip on some of the finest wines in the US or simply want to explore the area, you will find plenty of attractions in downtown SLO.

There are also some amazing programming that takes place in the area such as Light Up the New Year, Buy Local Bonus Programs, and various exhibitions. You may also walk through the historical center of the city and visit the Museum of Art or the Children’s Museum while you are there.

5. SLO Railroad Museum

SLO Railroad Museum
Source: Flickr / James St. John | CC BY 2.0

Opened in 2013, the Railroad Museum provides all railroad enthusiasts with a deep insight into the history of the SLO depot and the local railroad that trace its history back to 1894. The museum boasts a collection of engines and cars steeped in history such as the Plymouth Diesel Switcher, the SP Tank Car, and La Cuesta.

The Central Coast Model Railroad is also a staple of the museum and provides an extremely accurate model of the railroad that once flourished. There are also some amazing events such as the SLO train day, Central Coast Railroad Festival among others.

6. Sunset Drive-in 

Sunset Drive-in
Source: Wikimedia / Mohammad Khodabakhsh | CC BY 4.0

The Sunset Drive-in Theatre has been serving the SLO community for the last 73 years. You can grab a lawn chair, a cozy blanket and catch the latest releases against the backdrop of beautiful SLO. So grab a chair and relax for one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will come across.

Moreover, the theater organizes the Sunset Super Sunday Swapmeet that brings together the community for a huge swapmeet every weekend. Whether you want to find a diamond in the rough, want to get right of needless memorabilia, or simply want to browse, you are sure to have a blast.

7. SLO Children’s Museum

SLO Childrens Museum
Source: Flickr / Quinn Dombrowski | CC BY-SA 2.0

This Children’s Museum is an exceptional place for wholesome family fun that stimulates your child’s curiosity and learning. Three floors full of permanent and temporary hands-on exhibits and an outside playground will ensure that your children will have the time of their lives.

There are unique, stimulating programs every week so there is never a dull moment at the Museum. Some of the past programming have included ice painting, snowstorm in a jar experiment, and gingerbread cutout. It is no secret therefore that the museum is extremely popular for school field trips as well as private events such as birthday parties.

8. Cerro SLO

Cerro SLO
Source: Flickr / Scott Cutler | CC BY-SA 2.0

Another of the Nine Sisters, Cerro San Luis is located just outside downtown SLO and its 2.0-mile trail offers some of the most scenic views of the city. The proximity of the trail to downtown makes it a popular attraction and there are a few variations of the trail offering from 4 to 5.7-mile round-trip hikes.

The panoramic view of the city that will open up at the top of the hike will make your effort worth it as you take in one of the most majestic views you will ever come across. You can either make your way back down the same trail or you can decide to descend along the Backside Trail for a little variety.

9. SLO Museum of Art

SLO Museum of Art
Source: Flickr / Nick Amoscato | CC BY 2.0

This staple of the SLO art scene boasts a permanent collection of 158 pieces of art. Some of the most impressive pieces include the Making of an Etching by native son Robert Reynolds, 14 stunning pieces by Arne Nybak, and Little Fugitives by Mildred Brooks.

In addition to the outstanding permanent collection, the museum holds some amazing temporary exhibits some of which have included Visions of Vietnam, the annual Brushstrokes exhibit, and the Me Is We exhibit. The museum also hosts a wide range of events such as movies and concerts and therefore serves as a cultural hub of SLO.

10. Stephen Ross Wine Cellars

Stephen Ross Wine Cellars
Source: Unsplash / Scott Warman

Opened in 2005, the Stephen Ross Wine Cellars is a local family-owned winery renowned for its incredible quality wines owing to its small production. The winery offers tastings of its limited release Pinot Noirs and their other amazing wines over the weekend and it will definitely be worth it as you take in some of the best wines California has to offer.

Stephen Ross also regularly holds events such as Barrel Adopters Dinner and Winter Wine Club Release that will put your experience over the top. Whatever your taste palate is, you are sure to find your perfect wine at this small winery.

11. History Center of SLO County

History Center of SLO County
Source: Flickr / Ed Bierman | CC BY 2.0

Located in the Carnegie Library built at the beginning of the last century, the History Center maintains five permanent exhibits that give you fantastic insight into the development of the city. When paired with fascinating temporary exhibits, the History Center lives up to its name and gives you the most authentic experience of SLO history.

The History Center also offers an incredibly popular Lecture Series that adds a new perspective to its operations, making it an even more attractive proposition for visitors. After your visit to the center, make sure you spend some time in the Dallidet Garden and marvel at its majestic beauty.

12. Croma Vera Wines

Croma Vera Wines
Source: Flickr / Renee Silverman | CC BY-ND 2.0

The name of this popular vinery roughly translates to True Colors from Latin. Sourcing their grapes from Paso Robles and the Central Coast, the small amounts of production allow for high levels of attention and detail that lead to exceptional wines.

This vinery counts the Tempranillo, Albarino, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and red blends among their staples. If that sounds like you are spoiled for choice, you are, and the best option may simply be to just go for the Sampler Pack that will introduce you to all the flavors of this winery. While it only opened in 2015, Croma Vera is already making waves and is a go-to spot for wine enthusiasts.

13. Mission Plaza

Mission Plaza
Source: Flickr / cultivar413 | CC BY 2.0

Located beside the Mission San Louis Obispo de Tolosa, Mission Plaza is the site of numerous community events held throughout the year. Some of these events include the Concerts in the Plaza, Taste of San Luis, and Children’s Day in the Plaza among others.

Part of the vibrant Downtown SLO, the plaza also offers a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the city as you make your way through your day. Located against the backdrop of the San Luis Obispo Creek and moments away from the SLO Creek trail, there are few better places to unwind and forget about your worries.

14. Laguna Lake Park & Dog Park

Laguna Lake Park and Dog Park
Source: Flickr / Kelly Cookson | CC BY-SA 2.0

This park on the banks of Laguna Lake is a fantastic place for you and your furry friends to enjoy some much-needed R&R. You can engage in a variety of activities such as barbeques among your friends & family.

If you are looking for some outdoor fun, you can try your hand at disc golf, play some volleyball or simply enjoy a leisurely hike along the pedestrian trails. You can even do some fishing at the lake if you have a California fishing license. The off-leash area of the park will allow your furry friends to roam free and have the time of their lives chasing frisbees or a tennis ball.

15. Dallidet Adobe and Gardens

Dallidet Adobe and Gardens
Source: Flickr / Konrad Summers | CC BY-SA 2.0

The former residence of Pierre Dallidet and his family, the adobe and gardens are now a staple of SLO. This adobe is unique in California in that it is constructed half a floor above ground in order to allow for the wine cellars that ran under the structure. Walking through the adobe will transport you back in time and you will get a first-hand look at 20th-century SLO life.

Located next to what used to be the Old Mission Vineyard, the garden served as Pierre’s vineyard and orchard. Strolling through the garden, you will be even more immersed in the history of SLO as you witness a combination of the ‘new species’ imported to the garden and native plants that characterized the area for so long.  

16. Jack House & Gardens

Jack House and Gardens
Source: Wikimedia / Mountmonty | CC BY-SA 3.0

This unique structure is steeped in SLO and the wider California history as it served as the family home of the Jacks whose name is synonymous with California for close to a century. The family played a crucial role in areas such as ranching, politics, banking, and land development so visiting their home that displays much of the original furnishings, dishes, and artwork will give you a glimpse into Victorian Era SLO high society life.

Free tours are offered at the house & gardens once a month so it is will definitely be worth attending one of them if you are ever in town at the same time. Naturally, the house is also a popular spot for corporate and private events such as weddings and dinners.

17. Sinsheimer Park

Sinsheimer Park
Source: Unsplash / Bambi Corro

This park is headlined by its half-acre playground that offers endless fun to children of all ages. Your little ones will absolutely love exploring the 3-story tower, sliding down the 5 slides, and making their way through the zipline. That is until they find the 14-feet high synthetic grass-covered slope that offers them endless fun sliding into the protective surface with impunity.

The park also offers a barbeque area, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and a baseball diamond, thereby offering the whole family a day full of fun that will be remembered for a long time.

18. Central Coast Wines

Central Coast Wines
Source: Unsplash / CHUTTERSNAP

Located in the Network Shopping Center, Central Coast Wines are yet another location for amazing wines in SLO. The store showcases the best wines that the Central Coast has to offer, including vintage wines and those that are hard to come by. The pursuit of the shop to seek out the best wineries in the area leads to a constantly changing selection of fine wines.

You can try those ever-evolving selection of wines in the store’s cozy tasting room and you can even settle in for a glass of wine or beer complemented by an exquisite cheese plate. Moreover, the shop highlights some of the best wineries in the region every Thursday night for the Farmer’s market so make sure you check that out if you are able to.

19. Terrace Hill Open Space

Terrace Hill Open Space
Source: Flickr / Leif Arne Storset | CC BY-SA 2.0

Terrace Hill is somewhat of a hidden gem that offers a 360-degree view of SLO and beyond. However, its amazing wildlife diversity and abundant cultural resources set it apart from sites such as Bishop Peak. The flat surface of the hill also sets it apart from other volcanic plugs in the area as the top of the hill was removed for construction in the 1920s.

There are a number of trails you can use to get to Terrace Hill but none of them are particularly challenging and most are under a mile. Therefore, this may be the best option for those wanting to get a panoramic view of the city but who lack the experience to hike Bishop Peak or Cerro.

20. SLO Botanical Garden

SLO Botanical Garden
Source: Flickr / Steve Corey | CC BY-ND 2.0

The SLO Botanical Garden is a must-visit site for everyone that appreciates the true beauty of nature. This botanical garden boasts a 2-acre Present Garden and a 2-acre Children’s Garden that will bring you up and close with some of the most diverse plants and vegetation you will ever come across.

There is even a 3/4 mile discovery trail along which you will come across the largest Chilean wine palm grove outside of Chile. Moreover, the garden hosts countless community events throughout the year in pursuit of its mission to honor and preserve our connection with nature.

21. San Louis Obispo Creek

San Luis Obispo Creek
Source: Flickr / Dirk DBQ | CC BY 2.0

The San Louis Obispo Creek is an 18-mile-long creek that makes its way through SLO before draining into the Pacific Ocean. This creek plays a prominent role in the SLO landscape as it runs through landmarks such as the Mission San Luis Obispo la Tolosa to downtown SLO before heading to the Ocean passing by Madonna Inn and Sunset Drive-in along the way.

In order to fully immerse yourself in the beauty of the creek, you will want to go little further along the way to the Bob Jones Trail and follow the creek as you take in its natural beauty.

22. Irish Natural Hills Reserve

Irish Natural Hills Reserve
Source: Flickr / Scott Cutler | CC BY-SA 2.0

Located about 3 miles from downtown SLO, the Irish Natural Hills Reserve offers one of the most popular hiking trails among the locals. The 3-mile loop takes you to the Froom Canyon and you will feel as if you were transported back to the Gold Rush making your way up one of the old mining roads scattered along the California desert.

If you are looking for a little more hiking, you can tack on a 1.1-mile loop at the end of Froom Canyon. If that still isn’t enough, you will want to go for the 2.9-mile Old Prospector Trail Loop. Whichever option you choose, you will be able to marvel at some amazing views of SLO and its surroundings along the way.

23. Serenity Swing

Serenity Swing
Source: Flickr / Slava Markeyev | CC BY 2.0

Another one of the relatively unknown trails around SLO, the Serenity Swing offers a 4-mile round-trip hike for the ages. The scenic beauty of the trail itself and the views of Cuesta Grade and Cerro Romualdo are unmatched, especially if you visit the trail during the Spring when the hills are green and lovely.

While you may be exhausted from your 2-hour hike, the Architectural Graveyard located at the beginning of the trail offers some incredible structures that are well worth exploring. Even if you aren’t in the mood for going through it on the same day, it is definitely a site to visit again another time.

24. South Hills Open Space

South Hills Open Space
Source: Flickr / docentjoyce | CC BY 2.0

The South Hills Open Space is an excellent place to get some fascinating views of SLO and the surrounding areas if you are not an experienced hiker or simply have no interest in trekking for hours on end in the unforgiving California sun.

This 1.5-mile round trip hike takes you up 450 feet to the top of the hill just south of downtown SLO. As you begin your hike, prominent signs give you an aerial map of the trail and information on the plants and animals you will want to be on the lookout for as you make your way along the trail.  

25. Novo Restaurant & Lounge 

Novo Restaurant and Lounge
Source: Flickr / Edsel Little | CC BY-SA 2.0

Located in an old cigar factory building along the San Luis Obispo Creek, the Novo Restaurant & Lounge offers the best of Creekside fine dining. In fact, it was voted SLO’s best outdoor dining restaurant in 2020. Operated by Robin Covey renowned for highlighting fresh local ingredients, the restaurant offers an internationally inspired cuisine within a local setting.

Their customers rave about their salmon salads, lobster Benedicts, lamb chops, and halibut so you may want to give one of them a try. Oh, and apparently the ambiance of the restaurant is second to none. The exceptional customer service is simply the icing on the cake.