San Luis Obispo's Carrizo Plain

The landscape is naturally colorful. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Enjoy 3-Days of the SLO Life in San Luis Obispo, California

Spend an hour or so wandering around the peaceful college town of San Luis Obispo, California, and you’ll understand why residents plaster “Live the SLO life” stickers on the bumpers of their cars. That laid-back ethos has served them well. By prioritizing simple pleasures and a no-rush lifestyle, SLO has made itself into a city with an easy mix of sophisticated activities and rural pleasures.

Home to California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), the city has a youthful, forward-thinking style that pairs well with its expansive wine region. And the natural surroundings are easy on the eyes, too. The city is bordered by the sloping vineyards of the Edna Valley and the green-peaked Nine Sisters (a volcanic mountain chain).

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Bop Around Downtown

Fuel up with huevos rancheros and espresso at Big Sky Café — a place where vegans and meat eaters can peacefully coexist — then meander through downtown San Luis Obispo. Start at the shade-dappled Mission Plaza, where San Luis Creek gurgles past and stroll along flower-lined sidewalks and tiled courtyards, passing umbrella-dotted cafés and stylish boutiques.

Check out the local shopping scene in and around Higuera Street. Browse Junk Girls for hand-stamped metal art, lamps built from found objects and artisan jewelry. Stop by Finders Keepers for vintage and consignment treasures. Drop by Park 1039 to ogle the cheese and charcuterie. Shop for surf and skate gear at Central Coast Surfboards and dig through the shelves at Phoenix Books.

The most significant landmark is the whitewashed Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded by Spanish missionaries in 1772. This still-active church has five-foot-thick adobe walls, a distinctive red-tile roof and three massive mission bells weighing between 800 and 1,000 pounds.

Unlike at California’s other missions, these bells aren’t automated — local volunteers ring them by hand at noon and 6 p.m. daily.

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw
A pulled pork sandwich is the perfect comfort food. (Photo: Marriott International)

After hearing the noontime bells, head to Firestone Grill for a taste of its famous tri-tip sandwich (or other barbecue dishes). Then it’s time for a history lesson.

Stop into the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, housed in a 1905 brick Carnegie building on Monterey Street, to learn about SLO’s original inhabitants, the Chumash people. You’ll also see collections of early European settlers’ ephemera, including Victorian clothing, wreaths made from human hair and circa-1800s kitchenware.

And just around the corner, downtown SLO has offbeat, eccentric landmarks, too, including the Instagram-famous Bubblegum Alley. The narrow pedestrian passageway is covered in an estimated 2 million pieces of already-chewed gum. You’ll be amazed by the sweet scent emitting from all that candy. Add your own wad if you dare.

For dinner, get a seat on the deck of Novo Restaurant & Lounge for shared plates of ahi nachos and Korean short ribs served with an enchanting view of San Luis Obispo Creek. Then have a nightcap at the Library Lounge, known for its late-night dancing scene.

Saturday: Go Coastal

San Luis Obispo looks and feels like a beach town, but it’s actually 12 miles from the Pacific.

Grab some fresh pastries at Splash Café (also known for its award-winning clam chowder) and drive to the coastal Montaña de Oro State Park to admire wind- and wave-carved sea arches at Spooner’s Cove or watch surfers tackle the swells at Hazard Canyon Reef. Peer into tide pools at Corallina Cove and Quarry Cove (consult a tide table to time your visit for low tide).

The surf here is too unpredictable for swimming, so go for a coastal hike instead. The nearly level Bluff Trail winds along the top of shale and sediment bluffs, offering nonstop views of colorful rock cliffs and arches and the endless Pacific.

In spring, the coastal hills come alive with sunny wildflowers — California poppies, goldfields and fiddleneck — and it’s easy to see how this 8,400-acre park got its Spanish name, “mountain of gold.”

Morro Rock in California
Morro Rock is a natural wonder. (Photo: Getty Images)

While you’re in a Pacific state of mind, watch pelicans dive head-first into the bay while you eat local oysters at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant. Then visit Morro Bay and its wildlife-rich estuary, part of a federally protected nature preserve. Gaze at monolithic Morro Rock, an extinct volcanic peak that rises 576 feet above the bay.

Get eye-to-eye with coastal birds, seals, sea lions and whales on a paddle trip with Central Coast Outdoors.

At day’s end, return to San Luis Obispo to toast your oceanfront adventures with creative cocktails and seafood-rich paella at Mission Plaza’s Luna Red. Don’t pass up the pistachio cheesecake for dessert.

Sunday: Sample Local Wines

Start the day by dawdling over espresso in the back garden at Linnaea’s Café. Once the caffeine kicks in, join the locals on a steep tromp up Bishop Peak, one of the Nine Sisters — a series of volcanic plugs (or morros) that dot the coast from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay.

Morro Rock is the most famous of the Sisters, but Bishop Peak’s rocky summit is well worth the trek. The 3.5-mile hike will get your heart pounding thanks to the 950 feet of elevation gain — an effort rewarded with breathtaking views of the city and coastline.

Vineyard in San Luis Obispo
Be sure to visit a vineyard while in town. (Photo: Getty Images)

Replace burned calories with a trio of sliders at Taste Craft Eatery, then spend the afternoon visiting local vineyards. Although nearby Paso Robles is a more famous wine destination, SLO has three appellations of its own and 30-plus wineries.

Visit Filipponi Ranch for rosé and chardonnay, Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards for zinfandel and dessert wines and Deovlet Wines for pinot noir. Wine-tasting in SLO is a pretension-free experience, so go ahead and wear your jeans, T-shirt and flip-flops. The person filling your glass in the tasting room is most likely the winemaker.

When the sun drops low on the horizon, make your way back to Mission Plaza and downtown’s babbling creek. Clink glasses to celebrate the SLO life with an artfully crafted cocktail at Sidecar followed by a few small plates — maybe fried Brussels sprouts or Baja fish tacos.

For a memorably grand finish, walk over to Flour House to sip brandy and spoon into a decadent tiramisu.