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San Luis Obispo is a fantastic underrated Central California destination that boasts lots of activities perfect for a weekend getaway or road trip stop. You may be surprised at all the incredible San Luis Obispo things to do.

One point of clarification as you read is that San Luis Obispo is both a city and a county. The city is only 13 square miles with 47,000 residents, but the county is 3,616 square miles with a population of 283,000! The county includes other cities like Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, and San Simeon. Don’t worry, I’ll share things to do in both the city of San Luis Obispo and the county.

These are the best things to do in San Luis Obispo including ideas like visiting the California Mission San Luis Obispo, the Creamery Marketplace, downtown SLO farmers' market, Hearst Castle, and more!

Map of what to do in San Luis Obispo

Fun things to do in the city of San Luis Obispo

1. Sunset Drive In

Drive-in movie theaters never get old. I used to go all the time growing up, but they’ve gotten harder and harder to find. Luckily there’s a great one in San Luis Obispo — Sunset Drive In is a classic double feature, one screen, drive in theater.

Tickets are $12 per person and they only take cash so come prepared. They have a full snack bar with popcorn, candy, nachos, and drinks.

Since movies are typically shown as double features, check their Facebook page for which movies will be playing and at what time (it’s sunset time dependent). They update it weekly.

When we visited, we saw Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which was the only movie shown given how long it was and how late the summer sun set.

Some tips for the logistics of a drive in — if you have a large group, you’ll likely need to sit outside of the car because you can only really see the screen through the windshield, which isn’t fully visible in the back of the car.

If you have a larger car or truck, you can back in to the parking spot, so your trunk or bed is facing the screen to sit in the rear. If you need to sit outside your car, bring camping chairs, lots of blankets, and dress warmly as it can get quite chilly, even in the summer. It hit the high-50s when we were there.

The other thing to be aware of is that the sound will be played on an FM radio station, so you’ll need to leave your keys in your car to play the sound. If sitting outside the car, just roll the windows down and sit adjacent to your car. Alternatively, you can bring a handheld radio.

  • Price: $12 per person (cash only), $5 for children
  • Address: 255 Elks Ln.
  • Hours: open every day at 7:30pm, first movie is at 8:30pm
View of a drive in movie screen with cars in front.
The Sunset Drive-In will take you back decades while you watch a modern movie!

2. BA Start Arcade and Taproom

I love unleashing my inner child at arcades and pinball museums (like the ones in Asheville and Chattanooga), so when I found BA Start Arcade and Taproom, it was an immediate yes.

Not only are they an arcade and bar, but there are actual rewards for getting high scores like drink discounts! They have a full food menu, game tournaments, lots of drink deals.

And you gotta appreciate their name in reference to the old cheat pattern of “up up down down left right left right B A start” aka the Contra Code, which gave players 30 extra lives in the game Contra for using the code. It was used in a number of video games for other cheats, too.

  • Price: free to enter, games take tokens (25¢ = 1 token), and food and drinks vary by item
  • Address: 647 Higuera St.
  • Hours: closed on Mondays, open 3pm-12am weeknights, 11am-12am weekends
Bar during the day time made with repurposed arcade game banners where the closest to the camera is Frogger
How fun is this repurposing of arcade game banners?!

3. The Creamery

Located in downtown SLO, there’s a collection of restaurants and shops, known as The Creamery Marketplace. It’s a great spot to grab some lunch, spot local murals, and even a cow from the CowParade (number 11 on this list!).

We tried Quesadilla Gorilla and they were delicious! You can customize your quesadilla with cilantro lime chicken, black beans, veggies, so many salsas, and even soyrizo! Yum!

Other spots that looked great in the Creamery were HellaHot, a hot chicken spot, and Mama’s Meatball, a homemade Italian restaurant.

  • Address: 570 Higuera St.
  • Hours: open to the public, each shop/restaurant varies
The Creamery Marketplace restaurants include Quesadilla Gorilla where a soyrizo quesadilla is shown with sides of two salsas, rice and beans
It might look ordinary, but there’s some delicious soyrizo in there!

4. High Street Market & Deli

For a little vintage charm and stellar sandwiches, check out High Street Market & Deli. They were established in 1927 in the railroad district of San Luis Obispo and started as a deli and general store where they sold sandwiches and things like milk and chewing tobacco.

Now, they serve up the most incredible sandwiches in the original 1927 corner building.

I had the turkey pesto and am still thinking about it, and I’m not even typically a sandwich person! They also have a stock of local beer and a high-quality, artisan soda machine.

You can eat there at the tables out front, or venture around back for a more intimate patio setting.

Budget tip: their sandwiches are are only $8.50 from 4:20 pm to closing!

  • Price: sandwiches are ~ $13 each
  • Address: 350 High St.
  • Hours: 11 am – 5:30 pm
High Street Market and Deli sandwich with turkey, lettuce, and salami
BRB drooling…

5. Madonna Inn

One of the most iconic landmarks in San Luis Obispo is the Madonna Inn. This spot was opened in 1958 and aside from their 110 unique hotel rooms, they have a café, steakhouse, wine cellar, boutique shops, a bakery, equestrian trails, tennis, a pool, spa, and hiking on their property!

Even if you don’t stay there, you can dine there, hike the trails, try a slice of cake from the bakery, and wander in the shops. It’s worth it to check it out.

  • Address: 100 Madonna Rd.
  • Hours: vary by experience
Interior of pink kitschy steak house with pink booths and chairs, a floral chandelier, and candles
This is the steakhouse at Madonna Inn!

Related read >> Madonna Inn Hotel Review

6. Bubblegum Alley

Similar to Gum Alley in Seattle, there’s a Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo. It’s a small street where the walls are lined with chewing gum. Kinda cool, kinda gross. You be the judge.

Hint: watch where you walk, there’s gum on the ground in these here parts.

Also if you want to take a photo blowing a bubble, opt for bubblegum, not mint gum. Don’t forget to bring hand sanitizer if you’re adding your gum to the wall!

  • Address: between 733 and 737 Higuera St. (southeast side of the street)
  • Hours: open to the public
Wall covered in hanging gum

7. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

If you didn’t go through elementary school in California, you may not know the history of the missions here. That’s because in 4th grade, every Californian learns about the missions, gets assigned to one, and has to build a model of it to bring to class. Just one of the those random unifying California kid things.

Anyway, back to the history. Between 1769 and 1830s, Franciscan missionaries built 21 missions with the goal of converting Native Americans to Christianity as part of the Spanish colonization of California. Once the Spanish arrived in California, they changed the environment that forced Native Americans to seek help from mission communities. Once they arrived, they were prevented from leaving. Native Americans were forced to go to school, grow crops, and help with other labor and ultimately live life as the padres at the missions saw fit and were otherwise corporally punished. A sordid history, but important to learn about when visiting California.

The missions are scattered all over the state and you can visit the one in San Luis Obispo, which is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. It was built by the Chumash Native Americans.

It is still in religious operation, but you can also visit the museum and tour the grounds. Now, they house collections of art with lovely gardens, and truly beautiful architecture.

The missions often glaze over their history if they even address it at all, so please keep in mind that these were sites of Native American colonization and upheaval.

  • Price: not disclosed on their site, however, typically there is a small entrance fee for visitors
  • Address: 751 Palm St.
  • Hours: Tours are at 1:15 pm Monday through Saturday and 2 pm on Sundays, year round
California mission exterior with trees to the left on a sunny day
This is the exterior and look at that architecture!

8. San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (the best free thing to do in San Luis Obispo)

I love an art museum and I especially love a free one!

SLOMA has some great art exhibits showcasing local artists including paintings, murals, photography, light sculptures, and even knot sculptures!

  • Price: free!
  • Address: 1010 Broad St.
  • Hours: Thursday through Monday 11 am – 5 pm

9. Thursday Farmers’ Market

Every Thursday at 6 pm, you can enjoy SLO’s Farmers’ Market, which takes up 5 blocks on Higuera St.

They’ve got everything from fresh produce, entertainment including live music and even acrobats, food trucks and vendors, and crafts!

Put your travel budget back into local businesses with this one.

  • Price: free
  • Address: Higuera St.
  • Hours: starts at 6pm
view from the side of a vendor's booth of a farmers market of booths of produce.
Downtown SLO’s farmers’ market is a great way to spend a Thursday evening.

10. Fremont Theater

What better way to spend a night on the town than at a show! Fremont Theater opened in 1942 and served two prominent local military camps at the start with movies. They even had a bond drive for WWII raising $750,000!

Now, they host all kinds of performances including comedy (Rob Schneider, Leslie Jones, and David Cross are all coming this year), concerts (like the Struts), and DJ performances!

  • Price: depends on the show
  • Address: 1035 Monterey St.

11. Find the Cows by CowParade

CowParade is hailed as the “world’s largest public art event.” They travel to cities all over the world and work with local artists to design fiberglass cows to put around the city.

They populated SLO with cows in 2016 and 2017 and you can still see them all over town.

Among all the others, you can find one at The Creamery (number 3 on this list) and the Madonna Inn (number 5 on this list)!

Pink cow with Madonna Inn roses on it
This new art piece is a fun photo opp!

12. Wineries

SLO is known for having some fantastic wineries. After all, these Central California hills are perfect for agriculture.

Some wineries to visit and have a tasting at are:

israeli wine region
Cheers to wine tastings!

13. Breweries

On the other hand, San Luis Obispo has great breweries with lots of local craft brews.

Some popular ones are:

Flight of four beers
Flights of beer are the best way to taste a bunch!

14. Hiking trails

San Luis Obispo is surrounded by mountains so it’s no wonder that the hiking is plentiful.

The most popular trail is to Bishop Peak, which is a 3.3-mile out-and-back trail with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s considered a moderate trail, and gives some breathtaking views of the surrounding area! Or try a hike on the neighboring mountain, Mount Madonna, which has a number of trails.

For an easier option, check out Johnson Ranch Loop Trail, where there the short loop is only 2.2 miles with 300 feet of elevation gain. The views are still beautiful, so no worries there!

View of San Luis Obispo from above on Bishop Peak on a sunny day
This is the view of SLO from Bishop Peak.

Related read >> How to plan a foolproof hike

15. Tour the Monday Club

The Monday Club is both an organization and a place. The building is an architectural jewel in San Luis Obispo that was constructed in 1933 and acted as a home for a local community service organization, called The Monday Club, which was founded in 1925.

It was designed by Julia Morgan, the same architect of Hearst Castle (number 21 on this list!).

To see the building, you can take a docent guided living history tour of The Monday Club on every 2nd and 3rd Monday from 1 – 4 pm.

  • Price: free
  • Address: 1815 Monterey St.
  • Hours: 1 – 4 pm on 2nd and 3rd Mondays each month

16. Avila Valley Barn

If you’re looking for a fun, rustic experience in SLO, Avila Valley Barn is a great choice. They have farm animals you can interact with, fresh produce, pies and baked goods, ice cream, and even a Smoke House and Chicken Shack.

In the fall, Avila Valley Barn has even more festivities like a pumpkin patch and hay maze.

  • Price: varies by season and activity
  • Address: 560 Avila Beach Dr.
  • Hours: varies by season
A small black and tan pig in grass
Avila Valley Barn is home to a range of adorable farm animals!

17. San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Take a stroll through these gorgeous gardens and reconnect with nature. At the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, there are top notch collections as well as ongoing horticultural research that supports local history and Indigenous culture!

Don’t miss the Fire Safe Garden, which has plants designed to stop wildfires from reaching properties. This is an interesting and unique idea to help prevent the destruction caused by California wildfires.

  • Price: $10 for adults, $8 for students
  • Address: 3450 Dairy Creek Rd.
  • Hours: open daily during daylight, gift shop closed Monday and Tuesday
Close up of California poppy in a poppy field
Yes, the SLO Botanical Garden has California poppies, the state flower!

San Luis Obispo things to do in the county

18. Hit the beach

The county of San Luis Obispo actually includes the coastline, and some of the best in California!

For a classic beach, visit Pismo Beach. Here, you can have a beach day with volleyball, waves perfect for boogie boarding, and tide pools to explore.

Shell Beach is great if you’re looking for scenic rocks. You can go kayaking and surfing here!

San Simeon is a bit north, but offers some of the most beautiful rugged coastline.

Avila beach is best for a family-friendly picnic day because they have fire pits, barbecues, and picnic tables.

For a unique beach visit, try Oceano Dunes, which is a beach, but also has incredible sand dunes that are great for off-roading adventures.

Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo county during sunset with purple mountains, and an orange sky
Pismo Beach is truly beautiful during sunset.

19. Sensorio

Tucked away in Paso Robles is Sensorio, a light exhibit by artist Bruce Munro. Complete with 4 outdoor exhibits, food trucks, lawn games, and an outdoor terrace, Sensorio is a must visit if you’re in the area.

I recommend getting there around sunset to experience the magic of the lights appearing to get brighter as the sun goes down.

  • Price: $43 per person
  • Address: 4380 CA-46, Paso Robles
  • Hours: Thursday – Sunday 7 pm – 10:30 pm
field of lights in Paso Robles Sensorio Bruce Munro
This is Sensorio’s Field of Light exhibit!

Related read >> Your guide to Sensorio

20. Try sheep’s milk ice cream

Also in Paso Robles, there’s a small foodie adventure to have. While the region is known for wineries and seafood on the coast, you can also find a unique delicacy and that’s sheep’s milk ice cream.

Yepp, it’s actually made from sheep’s milk and the big draw for many people is that it’s inherently free of lactose, so those with lactose intolerance have a much better time digesting it!

The place to try it is at Negranti Creamery in Paso Robles. They have a few locations.

I had the peanut butter and chocolate and it was so creamy! I also have a mild lactose intolerance and had no problems at all!

  • Price: $5 for a scoop
  • Address: 1211 Pine St., Paso Robles (downtown location)
  • Hours: 11:30 am – 9 pm weeknights, 11:30 am to 10 pm weekends
outstretched hand holding a scoop of sheep's milk ice cream in a cup with a waffle cone chip in it and a sign in the back that reads "Scoops and cheers y'all"
It looks like regular ice cream, but it’s really sheep’s milk based. Yummy either way!

21. Visit Hearst Castle

A day trip to Hearst Castle is always a fun activity in SLO County. Hearst Castle is an entire estate that was built over decades in the early to mid-1900s, was owned by William Randolph Hearst, and largely designed by architect, Julia Morgan. Not only does it house true works of art, but the building and gardens are works of art in and of themselves.

You can take tours of various sets of rooms in Hearst Castle for $30 each. Alternatively, you can book longer, more extensive tours like the Julia Morgan tour for $100. Because there are so many tours, I recommend reading the overviews of each one so you can see which looks best for you.

  • Price: $30+ for tours
  • Address: 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon
  • Hours: open at 9 am, last tour at 4 pm unless a twilight tour
View of the exterior of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California
Yepp, this is just the outside 🤯

22. Day trip to Solvang

Another fun day trip if you don’t want to drive as far as the next suggestion is to the town of Solvang, which is about halfway between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles, so only an hour and 15 minute drive.

Solvang is a Danish-style town with antique shops, Danish pastry shops, and odes to Hans Christian Andersen across town. Plus, just outside of town is Ostrichland USA, where you can socialize with ostriches!

In Solvang, be sure to see the Little Mermaid fountain, try a Danish pastry like Kanelstang (a cinnamon twist), and check out their Motorcycle Museum. They also have museums on Hans Christian Andersen, a history and art museum, and a “wildling” museum, which showcases nature-centric art.

Windmill behind large table umbrellas at a restaurant in Solvang, California
Solvang is the cutest Danish town!

23. Day trip to Los Angeles

From San Luis Obispo, you can also take a day trip to Los Angeles as it’s only 3 to 3.5 hours away. There’s a lot you can do in Los Angeles in a day, but some of my favorites are visiting Griffith Observatory, eating your way through Grand Central Market, or checking off a once-in-a-lifetime LA activity!

wide angle view of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades with long Roman pool in the center, topiaries surrounding and long tiled hallways adjacent.
The Getty Villa is housed in a Roman summer home and it’s stunning!

How to get to San Luis Obispo

While there is a small regional airport in San Luis Obispo (SBP), the most common way to get there is by driving.

The nearest international airports are in Los Angeles at LAX and in San Francisco at SFO. Each airport is about 3 hours and 15 minutes from San Luis Obispo, if you drive the fastest route. Alternatively, you can take Pacific Cost Highway, California’s most scenic route.

You can rent a car from the airports for around $30 per day.

Where to stay in SLO

While there are lots of boutique hotels, I highly recommend one of two historic stays: the Madonna Inn or Apple Farm Inn.

The Madonna Inn has 110 unique rooms with some insane decor like rock showers, waterfalls, rose carpet, spiral staircases, and more! On their property, they have restaurants, shops, a cocktail bar, and more to keep you entertained while you’re there!

Rooms will run you around $219+ per night, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime California stay, so it’s worth it!

The Apple Farm Inn is a quaint and charming hotel with beautifully curated gardens and grounds. They have a restaurant on site with lots of apple-inspired meals. I had the apple pie pancakes and they were super!

Rooms here are more affordable at $109+ per night.

Green hotel room with red chairs, a leather couch, and over the top decor.
This is the Imperial Family Suite (room 109).

How much time do you need to see San Luis Obispo attractions

I’d say a good weekend is the perfect amount of time to experience the city of San Luis Obispo. That gives you a couple days to get a feel for downtown, try some of the great food the city offers, and experience some of San Luis Obispo’s attractions.

As for exploring San Luis Obispo county, this will take more time. I recommend a weekend for San Luis Obispo, a day for Paso Robles (wineries in the day, Sensorio at night), and any time you can spare for the beach cities. You can easily spend full weekend getaways at Pismo Beach and San Simeon.

vintage painted sign on a brick wall that says The Creamery Marketplace San Luis Obispo Entrance
The Creamery is a must when visiting San Luis Obispo!

The best way to get around San Luis Obispo

Because the city of San Luis Obispo is pretty compact, at least for the attractions visitors would be going to, you can get by pretty well on public transportation.

Bus routes A go in clockwise directions and routes B are counterclockwise.

Route 1 goes between the airport and downtown. Route 2 travels between the Madonna Inn (among other places) and downtown.

There’s also an historic Old SLO Trolley that travels between Monterey Street and downtown on Thursday evenings only for the Downtown Farmers’ Market.

A one way fare for all public transport is $1.50 and there are day passes for 1, 3, 5, and 7 days. You can buy tickets on the Token Transit app.

Of course, you can also drive around San Luis Obispo where there is ample street parking downtown. To get around the county, driving is necessary.

Higuera Street in downtown SLO with tall California trees
Downtown SLO has street parking and a few lots so you can get around easily when driving.

Overall, San Luis Obispo is a fantastic destination in Central California with lots to do covering a range of interests including food and drink, history and culture, and the outdoors!

boats in San Diego ocean with hill in the background
San Diego is full of boats so even if you don’t ride on one, you can watch them all day!

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These are the best things to do in San Luis Obispo including ideas like visiting the California Mission San Luis Obispo, the Creamery Marketplace, downtown SLO farmers' market, Hearst Castle, and more!
These fun San Luis Obispo things to do will kickstart your travel planning to SLO. With ideas like visiting Mission San Luis Obispo, the greater San Luis Obispo County, and checking out the SLO Museum of Art and SLO Botanical Garden. | San Luis Obispo California | San Luis Obispo California things to do | San Luis Obispo California restaurants | San Luis Obispo downtown
These are the 23 top things to do in San Luis Obispo, California including visiting Avila Valley Barn, Central California wineries, Hearst Castle, San Luis Obispo California county beaches, and more!
These are the 23 most fun things to do in San Luis Obispo California. Whether you're visiting San Luis Obispo county or the city, this travel guide to San Luis Obispo has everything you need to know when planning your Central California road trip. Some of San Luis Obispo attractions are Bishop Peak, Hearst Castle, the Creamery, Sunset Drive In, and more!

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Recent PhD graduate and hyper-planner of Periodic Adventures, my goal is to share travel inspiration, budget tips, detailed guides, and fun travel stories!


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