12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, CA

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated Jun 23, 2021

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Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains in Central California, San Luis Obispo is proud to be called the "Happiest City in America." This cheerful town has a friendly atmosphere, 315 days of sunshine a year, a fun-loving student population, and amusing attractions like Pismo Beach and Bubblegum Alley.

San Luis Obispo has the inviting ambience of a small California community with its laid-back atmosphere and lovely Spanish-style architecture. There are a handful of noteworthy sights in and around the town, and outdoor activities draw tourists to the area year-round.

Visitors will enjoy strolling along the pleasant tree-lined streets, dining outdoors beside a babbling creek, or listening to crickets chirp in the evenings. The local farmers' market also makes San Luis Obispo a worthwhile destination for visitors.

Just 10 miles away are gorgeous sandy beaches, rejuvenating hot springs, and a picturesque rural landscape. San Luis Obispo is also a popular halfway stopping point on a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Discover the best places to visit in and around this charming Central Coast town with our list of the top attractions and things to do in San Luis Obispo.

See also: Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo

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 California's most beautiful 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. Father Serra chose this idyllic site because of its mild climate, abundant fresh water, and the friendly local Chumash (Indian) tribe.

The mission is a large complex overlooking the tranquil tree-shaded San Luis Creek. The typical Spanish missionary adobe building features porticoed arcades and a courtyard garden planted with oak trees, grape vines, and roses.

The interior of the mission's church is exquisitely decorated with a brightly painted floral motif along the walls and arches. The simple altarpiece and high ceiling supported by wood beams lend a serene ambience. Mass is held here daily and several times on Sundays.

Housed in the former residential quarters is an interesting museum. Exhibits focus on the history of the Spanish missionaries and the culture of Native American people of this area.

Another highlight is the gift shop, which sells jewelry, artwork, books, and unique items such as handcrafted nativity sets.

2. Thursday Night Farmers' Market

Thursday Night Farmers Market
Thursday night farmers' market | Sandra Foyt / photo modified

San Luis Obispo is famous for its farmers' market, which is considered one of the best in California. Crowds flock to this weekly event on Higuera Street (between Chorro and Osos streets).

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 to sushi. Live music adds to the festive ambience.

The farmers' market is held on Thursday evenings from 6pm to 9pm, except in bad weather and on major holidays.

Official site: https://slocountyfarmers.org/

3. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach

The laid-back town of Pismo Beach has the feel of Southern California, even though it's in the heart of the Central Coast. This classic beach destination has many hotels, surf shops, cafés, and fish & chips restaurants packed into the main downtown, which is backed by a lively oceanfront scene around the Pismo Beach Pier.

Surfers and bodyboarders favor this expansive 60-acre stretch of shoreline because of its consistent waves. During summertime, the sandy beach is a lively scene of sunbathers and sports enthusiasts. Things to do include beach volleyball and fishing on the Pismo Beach Pier.

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.

Pismo State Beach is also 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.

Facilities at Pismo State Beach include public restrooms and showers, water fountains, and a parking lot. The Pismo Beach Pier has benches so that visitors can relax and admire the ocean views. There is also a children's play area on the beach.

Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo State Beach
Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo State Beach

Another highlight at Pismo State Beach is the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of vibrant Monarch butterflies cluster around the branches of eucalyptus trees from late October through February.

Throughout the year, the city of Pismo Beach hosts many cultural events, including the Kite Expo in April, Art in the Park at Shell Beach from May through November, the long-running annual Pismo Beach Clam Festival in October, and the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea music festival in late October.

The Pismo Beach farmers' market is held near the Pismo Beach Pier's South Promenade every Wednesday from 3pm until 7pm in spring and summer and from 2pm until 5pm in fall and winter.

Families with kids will have fun at the Dinosaur Caves Park, an 11-acre oceanfront park located about two miles from the Pismo Beach Pier. This unique recreation area includes a whimsical dinosaur-themed playground along with picnic tables and hiking trails.

Pismo Beach is a 15-minute drive from San Luis Obispo or a 30-minute bus ride 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.

4. San Luis Obispo's Historic Downtown

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

Centered around the old mission, the historic downtown of San Luis Obispo delights visitors with its tree-lined streets and handsome, traditional Spanish-style buildings. The most happening area of the town's historic center is Higuera Street, which is lined with restaurants, shops, and cafes. On the north-facing side of Higuera, the restaurants have inviting back patios that overlook the San Luis Obispo Creek.

Kids will love Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab. A Creamery Tour gives visitors the chance to see how ice cream is made and offers tastings of inventive ice-cream flavors. Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab also creates fudge, which can be sampled during the tour.

Another amusing 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.

On Palm Street near the intersection with Chorro Street are hints of the city's old Chinatown, although little evidence remains except for the Mee Heng Low Noodle House (a Chinese restaurant specializing in "chop suey") and the Ah Louis Store. Built in 1874 and listed as a Historical Landmark, the Ah Louis building was once a general store for a vibrant Chinese immigrant community in the 19th century.

Tourists can find guide books, maps, and tourist brochures at the Visitor Center (895 Monterey Street). Nearby is the main RTA bus terminus, in front of the Government Center at Osos Street and Palm Street. The RTA bus is convenient for getting to top tourist destinations in the area, including Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Morro Bay, and San Simeon (the location of Hearst Castle).

5. Avila Beach

Avila Beach
Avila Beach

In a protected cove of San Luis Obispo Bay, this picturesque beach tends to be warmer than nearby Pismo Beach because surrounding hillsides shelter it from winds. The beach has a wide, sandy shoreline ideal for sunbathing and recreational activities.

The relatively calm ocean environment is great for bodyboarding or learning to surf. Other outdoor activities include fishing, paddleboarding, kayaking and sailing. Families will appreciate the small playground and the pleasant picnic area.

Overlooking the beach, the tiny downtown area of Avila Beach features a palm-fringed plaza and pedestrian promenade, as well as many restaurants with outdoor terraces. All the shops and eateries on the promenade cater to beachgoers, giving the place a resort feel.

Summer is the best time to visit, however Avila Beach is lovely in all seasons. Cultural events take place throughout the year, such as the Avila Beach Blues Festival in May, the Festival Mozaic (a series of summertime classical music concerts), the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival in July through August, and the Open Studios Art Tour (with hundreds of participating local artists) in the fall.

Avila Beach is a 15-minute drive from San Luis Obispo or a 30-minute bus ride from the Government Center (to Pismo Beach Outlets and then a 10-minute "trolley" ride to Avila Beach).

6. Avila Valley Hot Springs and Hiking Trails

Avila Valley Barn
Avila Valley Barn | dkastner01 / photo modified

A few miles from the beach, the rural Avila Valley is prized for its natural mineral-water hot springs, believed to have therapeutic health benefits.

With its 20- by 20-foot thermal soaking pool in a relaxing outdoor setting, the historic Avila Hot Springs caters to visitors seeking rejuvenation. Families with kids love the outdoor swimming pool, waterslide, picnic area, and BBQ facilities. Guests can spend the night here at tent camping sites, RV sites, or cabins that sleep up to four people.

Tucked away in 100 acres of woodlands, the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa offers upscale accommodations, healing arts classes, yoga sessions, a thermal mineral pool, and pampering spa treatments. The Sycamore's restaurant serves seasonal cuisine prepared from locally sourced ingredients and fresh produce grown at the resort's organic vegetable garden.

The Avila Valley is right off the freeway exit on the way to Avila Beach, so visitors can easily drive here before or after heading to the beach. It's also accessible by bus, taking the same trolley bus that goes to Avila Beach.

Another way to arrive at Avila Valley from San Luis Obispo is by taking the Bob Jones Bike Trail, a three-mile biking and hiking route that meanders alongside the San Louis Obispo Creek. Three other hiking trails allow visitors to explore the Avila Valley's luxuriant creekside landscape, dense forests, and coastal scrublands.

For those who love old-fashioned farms, a favorite destination in the area is the Avila Valley Barn. This charming small farm has a rustic-chic country store that sells fresh-grown fruits and vegetables, a bakery, an ice-cream and sweet shop, and a BBQ chicken shack. Visitors can also feed the farm animals and pick berries, apples, peaches, and pumpkins based on seasonal availability.

7. Shell Beach

Shell Beach
Shell Beach

This secluded shoreline offers an unspoiled coastal environment that is truly inspiring. Hidden below cliff sides within sheltered coves are nine separate sandy beaches.

Nature lovers come here to explore the tide pools, where they can see crabs and starfish, while kayakers appreciate the gentle waters. It's also a great place for spotting sea lions, dolphins, and migrating whales.

Other favorite activities at Shell Beach are picnicking, watching the sunset, and fishing from the cliffs or just admiring the spectacular ocean views.

8. Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes
Oceano Dunes

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area allows visitors with OHVs (off-highway vehicles) to drive right on the beach. However, the recreation area limits the number of vehicles each day, and ATV safety training is recommended.

This unique state park is comprised of 1,200 acres of pristine coastal terrain, including open sand dunes and over five miles of sandy beach. Some of the rolling sand dunes are as high as 100 feet.

Outdoorsy types appreciate Oceano Dunes for its recreational opportunities including surfing, horseback riding, fishing, bird-watching, and camping.

9. San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art | Nick Amoscato / photo modified

At the heart of downtown on the western end of the Mission Plaza, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art familiarizes visitors with the breadth and creativity of California artists. The permanent collection includes both historical and contemporary works, representing a variety of artistic styles.

Updated frequently (usually on a monthly basis), the temporary exhibitions are presented in an insightful way that encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art. The museum also hosts film screenings, discussions, and other cultural events.

Address: 1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: https://sloma.org

10. Bishop Peak Hikes

Hiking trails leading up to Bishop Peak
Hiking trails leading up to Bishop Peak

With a summit over 1,500 feet, Bishop Peak is the most prominent mountain in San Luis Obispo. A great place for hiking, Bishop Peak has several trails ranging from a moderate walk to a rigorous uphill climb.

The two-mile hike to the top takes around two hours (for those who are in good physical fitness) and rewards with sweeping panoramic views, including vistas of the city and coastline.

For those who prefer a more gentle hike, the 2.7-mile, round-trip Felsman Loop is a good choice, with less challenging elevation gain. Access to the trails is on Patricia Drive in San Luis Obispo.

11. San Luis Obispo Children's Museum

San Luis Obispo Children's Museum
San Luis Obispo Children's Museum | Quinn Dombrowski / photo modified

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 learn-by-doing activities that encourage curiosity, imagination, and creativity through interactive play.

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. Through its display of artifacts and exhibits, the museum tells the story of railroading on the Central California Coast.

A highlight of the collections is the assortment of vintage railroad cars, including Southern Pacific Boxcar (circa 1926) and the Pullman La Cuesta Café/Observation Car (with an elegant dining area).

Not to be missed is the museum's Central Coast Model Railroad, a 1,200-square-foot model that depicts the historic Southern Pacific Railroad and Pacific Coast Railway that once ran along California's Central Coast. Adding to the realistic effect, this model train is operating.

Visitors can purchase souvenirs from the museum's gift shop, which sells T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, and other railway-themed items.

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

Official site: http://slorrm.com/

Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo for Sightseeing

The historic downtown of San Luis Obispo, the several blocks radiating around the Mission Plaza, is the best choice of location within easy walking distance to the main tourist attractions, restaurants, and shops. For those who prefer more resort-like accommodations and beachfront hotels, Avila Beach and Pismo Beach are great places to stay. We recommend these highly rated hotels in San Luis Obispo, as well as outside the city in the countryside.

Luxury Hotels:

  • A short walk to Mission Plaza, the Granada Hotel & Bistro provides upscale boutique accommodations in a beautifully maintained 1920s brick building. The contemporary-style guest rooms feature hardwood floors, Persian rugs, marble-accented bathrooms, fine Italian bed linens, and plush down comforters. The hotel's French bistro-style restaurant serves hearty gourmet meals for brunch, lunch, and dinner.
  • The 3-star Madonna Inn captures the youthful, fun-loving spirit of San Luis Obispo. Each of the themed guest rooms is embellished in a whimsical, over-the-top style. The hotel is tucked away on 1,000 acres of rolling hills and ranch lands; the property includes a garden, equestrian center, tennis courts, swimming pool, spa, hiking trails, a restaurant, café, bakery, gift shop, and fashion boutique. A half-mile path leads from the property to the historic downtown.
  • The San Luis Creek Lodge treats guests to luxurious accommodations in a quiet residential area near the peaceful San Luis Creek. The spacious rooms feature sophisticated California beach-house decor, fine bed linens, and marble-accented bathrooms. Accommodations include local coffee and freshly baked pastries. The hotel is a half-mile walk (or quick trolley ride) from the historic San Luis Obispo downtown.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Just a few blocks from the restaurants and shops of Higuera Street, the Quality Suites Downtown San Luis Obispo offers the convenience of a central downtown location along with modern amenities. The 3-star hotel has a fitness center, swimming pool, and stylish guest rooms with refrigerators and microwaves. Accommodations include complimentary breakfast.
  • The Garden Street Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo is a quaint boutique hotel just steps away from Bubblegum Alley and the restaurants of Higuera Street. Brimming with old-world charm, the 3-star bed-and-breakfast hotel occupies a lovely Victorian house (circa 1887) decorated with cheerful decor and antiques. The hotel has a sunny "morning room," where a gourmet breakfast is served, and an inviting library, where guests may socialize.
  • An oasis of tranquility in the lush Avila Valley (10 miles from San Luis Obispo), the 3-star Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa is renowned for its rejuvenating thermal mineral-water pool and naturally heated hot tubs. Other amenities include an award-winning spa and a restaurant that serves seasonal garden-fresh cuisine. Guest rooms feature minimalistic contemporary-style decor and views of the surrounding woodlands and rolling hills.
  • Combining country charm with modern amenities, the Apple Farm Inn is found in a peaceful setting near downtown San Luis Obispo. This 3-star property has a swimming pool, garden, gift shop, and free parking. The cozy guest rooms feature fireplaces and little seating nooks. A favorite locals' eatery, the Apple Farm Restaurant & Bakery specializes in local, seasonal farm-to-table cuisine and is famous for its homemade pies.

Budget Hotels:

  • The Avenue Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo offers stylish accommodations at an affordable price, just a few blocks from the historic center of San Luis Obispo's downtown. This 2-star hotel provides free parking and complimentary breakfast. Guest rooms include refrigerators and microwaves.
  • On a quiet residential street near the historic downtown, Los Padres Motel is a good choice in the budget category. This 2-star hotel has stylishly decorated guest rooms with microwaves, refrigerators, and coffee makers, as well as updated bathrooms. Accommodations include free parking.

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imageVacation Getaways near San Luis Obispo: Pristine nature sites, beautiful beaches, and historic towns abound in the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. Among the top day trips from San Luis Obispo are Morro Bay, a destination for water sports, fishing, and boat tours; the historic village of Arroyo Grande and nearby Lopez Lake; and the lively beach town of Cayucos.

Less than a two-hour drive or train ride is the glamorous beach town of Santa Barbara. Perfect for a summer vacation, romantic getaway, or just a day of fun in the sun, Santa Barbara is distinguished by its elegant Spanish-style architecture and gorgeous sandy beaches.

imageCentral California's Coastline: California's most spectacular stretch of coastline is just a one-hour drive from San Luis Obispo. Breathtakingly beautiful Big Sur, where mountains plunge into the deep-blue Pacific, ranks among the best places to visit in California. North of Big Sur is the enchanting seaside resort village of Carmel, which delights visitors with its storybook cottages, superb sandy beach, and European ambience.

imageA Marvelous Castle above the Sea: On the way to Big Sur, travelers can admire Hearst Castle on its hilltop perch overlooking the coastline. Hearst Castle is one of the top day trips from San Luis Obispo, as well as one of California's best off-the-beaten-path destinations. This unique architectural masterpiece was created for William Randolph Hearst, the San Francisco newspaper baron who had exquisite taste in European art. The castle is open to the public for guided tours.

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