12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in San Luis Obispo

Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, San Luis Obispo is proud to be called the "Happiest City in America." This small town has a friendly atmosphere, 315 days of sunshine a year, a fun-loving student population, and interesting sites like Pismo Beach and Bubblegum Alley. Go for a stroll along the pleasant tree-lined streets, dine outdoors beside a babbling creek, or listen to crickets chirp in the evenings. Drive just 10 miles outside of town to find beautiful sandy beaches and hot springs. San Luis Obispo is also a popular halfway stopping point on a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

1 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

One of the most beautiful California Missions, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772 and dedicated to Saint Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse in France. The present building dates to around 1793. The Spanish missionaries who arrived here called the area "La Canada de Los Osos" (The Canyon of the Bears) because of the grizzly bears native to the area. Father Serra decided that La Canada de Los Osos would be an ideal place for his mission because of its mild climate, abundant fresh water, and food supplies (including bear meat). Another benefit was that the local Chumash (Indian) tribe was friendly to the missionaries.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a large complex that overlooks the San Luis Creek and the Mission Plaza in a peaceful tree-shaded setting. Typical of Spanish Missions, the building was constructed from adobe and has porticoed arcades. In the back, the courtyard area is planted with a lush garden. The mission's church is one of the most decorative of the historic California Missions. With a simple altarpiece and high ceiling supported by wood beams, the sanctuary has a serene ambience. A brightly painted floral motif along the walls and arches gives the church interior a cheerful look. The mission also has an interesting museum with several rooms that display artifacts and artwork, including a 17th-century Mater Dolorosa painting from Italy. Other exhibits educate visitors about the history of the Spanish missionaries who relocated here from Mexico, and an entire room is devoted to the history and culture of local Indian people of this area. Another highlight is the gift shop, which sells unique gifts such as handcrafted nativity sets, colorful Mexican home decorations, and images depicting saints.

2 Thursday Night Farmers Market

Thursday Night Farmers Market
Thursday Night Farmers Market Sandra Foyt / photo modified

San Luis Obispo is famous for its Thursday evening farmers market, which draws crowds of people from all over San Luis Obispo County. The SLO farmers market is considered one of the best in California. This special event is held on Higuera Street, which closes access to automobile traffic, between Nipomo Street and Osos Street. Locals come to shop for fresh produce, and out-of-town visitors enjoy the street food. San Luis Obispo restaurants bring their specialties to outdoor stands, selling everything from pizza and grilled chicken to delicious desserts. Live music and entertainment add to the festive ambience. The San Luis Obispo farmers market takes place every Thursday evening from 6pm to 9pm, except when it is raining.

3 Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach

This classic California beach town boasts a 23-mile-long stretch of sandy shoreline. The sunny, laid-back town has the feel of Southern California, even though it's in the heart of the Central Coast. Surfers and bodyboarders love Pismo Beach because of its consistent waves. During summertime, the beach is a lively scene of surfers, sunbathers, and volleyball players; and lifeguards are on duty. Other favorite activities include strolling and fishing on the 1,200-foot Fishing Pier, which also has picnic tables with stunning ocean views. Perfect for summer vacation or just a day of fun in the sun, Pismo Beach offers everything visitors need. Many hotels, surf shops, delis, cafes, and fish and chips restaurants are packed into the main downtown area that overlooks the beach.

Pismo Beach has a warm, sunny climate year-round with an average temperature ranging from 68 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. During July and August, the temperature can reach the high 90s. However, the beach tends to be windy, which keeps it cooler and is fabulous for flying kites. Nearby Avila Beach is more sheltered from the wind. Pismo Beach is a 15-minute drive (13 miles) from San Luis Obispo, accessible by the RTA bus from the Government Center. The bus drops off at the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets shopping mall, about a 20-minute walk, partially alongside the highway, to the beach.

Besides swimming, surfing, and bodyboarding, Pismo Beach is a great place for sailing and kayaking. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer. When the conditions are right, scuba diving is possible, and whale watching is popular during the migration season. Another highlight is the Monarch Butterfly Grove, with "Butterfly Trees" (eucalyptus and Monterey pine Trees) where thousands of colorful Monarch butterflies cluster around the branches from late October through February.

Throughout the year, Pismo beach has many activities, including Art in the Park from May through November, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival and "Jubilee by the Sea" Jazz Festival in October, and the Kite Expo in April. The Pismo Beach farmers market is held on the Pier Promenade every Wednesday starting at 3pm in the afternoon.

4 San Luis Obispo's Historic Downtown

San Luis Obispo's Historic Downtown
San Luis Obispo's Historic Downtown | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Because of its historic Spanish-style buildings and attractive tree-lined streets, San Luis Obispo is often compared to Santa Barbara, an elegant town that was also built up around an 18th-century mission. The downtown of San Luis Obispo centers around Higuera Street, a vibrant area full of restaurants, shops, and cafes. Kids will love Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Wonderland, which features exhibits on how ice cream is made and offers tastings of inventive ice cream flavors. On the north-facing side of Higuera, the restaurants have inviting back patios that overlook the San Luis Obispo Creek. The funniest and most famous attraction of San Luis Obispo is Bubblegum Alley (off Higuera Street), a narrow 70-foot long alleyway plastered with countless pieces of already-chewed bubblegum in a multitude of colors.

A great place to start planning a stay in San Luis Obispo is at the Visitor Center, at 895 Monterey Street. Nearby is the main RTA bus terminus, in front of the Old County Government Center at Osos Street and Palm Street. The RTA bus is convenient for getting around the area to top tourist destinations including Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay, and Hearst Castle. Near the mission is a small, historic Chinatown, with shops and restaurants.

5 Avila Beach

Avila Beach
Avila Beach

Avila Beach lies seven miles north of Pismo Beach in a protected cove of San Luis Obispo Bay. This picturesque beach tends to be warmer than nearby Pismo Beach, because the surrounding hillsides shelter it from the winds. Another draw is the palm-fringed boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants featuring outdoor terraces. Avila Beach is an easy 10-mile drive (15 minutes) south of San Luis Obispo. During summertime, it's possible to get here by public transportation - first take a 20-minute bus ride to Pismo Beach Outlets, then a 10-minute "trolley" bus to Avila Beach.

Avila Beach has a wide shoreline, gorgeous scenery, and fine white sands that make barefoot strolls delightful. It's also perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and bodyboarding, or just splashing around in the water. Other outdoor activities include fishing from the pier, paddle-boarding, and kayaking. Avila Beach's gentle waves are too easy for experienced surfers, but it has a surf school. The relatively calm ocean environment helps beginning surfers learn. Throughout the summer, lifeguards are on duty. Families with children will also appreciate the well-maintained public facilities, the small playground, and picnic tables. Pet owners can take their dogs to the beach during the off hours, before 10am and after 5pm. Summer is the best time to visit, however Avila Beach is beautiful in all seasons. If planning to visit in the spring, try to coordinate the timing with the Blues Festival in May or the Oyster Festival in early June.

6 Avila Hot Springs

At Avila Hot Springs, visitors can enjoy a day of relaxation and rejuvenation in an idyllic spot a few miles from the beach. The hot springs are right off the freeway exit on the way to Avila Beach, so visitors could easily drive there before or after heading to the beach. Avila Hot Springs is also accessible by bus, taking the same trolley bus that goes to Avila Beach. Cyclists can take the Bob Jones Bike Trail, a scenic creekside route from San Luis Obispo. Founded in 1907, the springs have a 20 x 20 foot therapeutic soaking pool filled with fresh mineral water from the Avila hot springs source. These spring waters are known to the native Salinan Indians for their ability to cure ailments. Avila Hot Springs also has a vintage game room, a freshwater pool with slides for the kids, a picnic area, and massage treatments. For an outdoorsy overnight stay, Avila Hot Springs offers camping sites and cabin rentals.

Address: 250 Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach, California

7 Shell Beach

Shell Beach
Shell Beach

This quiet, secluded sandy beach is ideal for relaxation. True to its name, the beach has shimmering shells washed up on the shore. Nature lovers come here to explore the tide pools, where they can see crabs and starfish, while kayakers appreciate the gentle waters around the beach. Shell Beach also offers a vantage point for spotting sea lions, dolphins, and migrating whales. Other favorite activities are picnicking and fishing from the cliffs while admiring the spectacular sea views.

8 Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes
Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes is the only beach in California that allows drive-on OHVs (off-highway vehicles). This State Vehicular Recreational Area is comprised of 1,200 acres of unique coastal terrain, including open sand dunes and several miles of sandy beach. Some of the rolling sand dunes are as high as 100 feet. The Recreation Area offers an ATV Safety Certificate course and allows a limited number of vehicles onto the beach every day. Other outdoor activities at Oceano Dunes are hiking, horseback riding, birdwatching, and camping.

9 San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art displays an excellent collection of contemporary works by California artists. Exhibits feature avant-garde paintings, sculptures, and photography. Continually updated, the exhibitions are presented in an insightful way that encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art. The museum offers docent-led tours as well as cell-phone app tours and downloadable MP3 audio tours.

Address: 1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: www.sloma.org

10 Bishop Peak Hikes

Bishop Peak Hikes
Bishop Peak Hikes

A great place to hike, Bishop Peak is the most prominent peak in San Luis Obispo. The moderate to rigorous uphill climb takes one to two hours and rewards hikers with sweeping panoramic views from the top. Two favorite hikes on Bishop Peak include the Foothill Trail that begins in town and the Highland Trail that begins at Highland Drive, where the street ends in a cul-de-sac.

11 San Luis Obispo Children's Museum

Families with young children will have a fantastic time at the San Luis Obispo Children's Museum. Designed for children aged one to 10 years, the hands-on exhibits are fun for children and families to explore. This extensive museum has three floors of indoor exhibits as well as an outdoor play area. For preschoolers, The Thinkery encourages curiosity, imagination, and creativity through interactive play. The museum also has educational programs and special activities.

Address: 1010 Nipomo Street, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: www.slocm.org

12 San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum

At this museum, visitors can learn more about San Luis Obispo's historic Railroad District. The exhibit hall displays artifacts that tell the story of railroading on the Central California Coast. Realistic scaled Railroad Models depict the Pacific Coast railway from Avila Beach to San Luis Obispo and the Southern Pacific railway from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara. Other highlights of the museum are the children's play area, the Train-Watching Platform, and a vintage 1926 Pullman Passenger Car.

Address: 1940 Santa Barbara Avenue, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: http://slorrm.com/

Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo for Sightseeing

We recommend these highly-rated hotels in San Luis Obispo with easy access to restaurants, shops, and attractions downtown:

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