Livability: Need a break? Try a weekend getaway in San Luis Obispo, California

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San Luis Obispo is often referred to as SLO, and it’s not just a catchy name — life actually does move a little bit slower in this gorgeous California city. 

This city on California’s Central Coast, home to roughly 50,000 residents, is halfway between sprawling Los Angeles and the bustling Bay Area. But here, in SLO, traffic is practically nonexistent and everyone has a friendly, laid back attitude. 

The chill vibe and slower pace make SLO the perfect place to spend a relaxing long weekend tasting wine, hiking and shopping at the farmers market (since the weather is mild all year round, you can visit any time!). And if you have some extra PTO, it’s worth staying a few more days so you can visit other charming cities within San Luis Obispo County, including Paso Robles, Atascadero, Avila Beach and San Simeon.

For inspiration, here’s how to make the most of your “me time” in San Luis Obispo.

Where to stay

For a front-row seat to all that downtown San Luis Obispo has to offer, check into Hotel Cerro, a brand new boutique hotel with 65 rooms and suites.

You’ll feel yourself relax instantly when you walk through the doors of the lobby, located inside a lovingly restored 1920s building on San Luis Obispo’s popular Garden Street (side note: keep your eyes peeled for the dogs of Garden Street, who like to hang out in front of their owners’ shops!). Guest rooms and suites are cozy yet sophisticated, with views of the sun-drenched central terrace.

Hotel Cerro has its own edible garden where hotel chefs grow vegetables and herbs for on-site restaurants like Brasserie Slo, and aromatics for the spa (when you stay in a garden suite, you can walk right out the door into the garden and start munching!). If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll be happy to know the hotel makes a wide selection of homemade pies and tarts at Sweet Life of Pie and you can order plenty of tasty cocktails and small plates on the Mission Fig Patio. 

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You’ll relax even more after a visit to Spa Cerro, a luxurious 4,000-square-foot spa with a full menu of treatments incorporating natural elements like beeswax, lavender, kelp and green tea. After your treatment, be sure to head to the rooftop terrace for sparkling wine service to continue your day of rest.

What to do

Head downtown to check out Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the gorgeous Spanish mission founded in 1772. You can take a docent-led tour, held every afternoon, to learn more about this historic site and wander through the adjacent museum to see various mission artifacts. Keep in mind that this is an active Catholic church, so wander the grounds quietly and respectfully. Depending on the timing of your visit, you might catch live music or a festival at the adjacent Mission Plaza.

Wander down Higuera Street, SLO’s main downtown street, to snap a photo in the infamous Bubblegum Alley, which is exactly what it sounds like: an alleyway covered in (chewed) bubble gum. It’s a little quirky, but the bubble gum tradition has been around since the 1970s, so it’s a must-visit spot in San Luis Obispo.

For a few hours of calm, pencil in a trip to the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, a lovely spot for a leisurely walk and the chance to learn about the unique drought-tolerant plants that grow here. The garden hosts regular classes and events covering everything from mushrooms to birding to meditation, so check out the calendar to see what’s on tap while you’re in town. Two other peaceful spots to explore are the Dallidet Adobe and Garden and the Historic Jack House and Gardens.

If your idea of unwinding involves spending time outdoors, there are tons of mountain hiking and biking trails to explore here, thanks to the city’s extensive open space program. One of the most popular hiking areas is Bishop Peak, which sits 1,559 feet above sea level and offers stunning views of the surrounding Los Osos valley and the city below. There are 6 miles of trails at Bishop Peak, ranging in difficulty, so even if you don’t want to hike to the summit, you can still enjoy the fresh air. Another rewarding hike is Cerro San Luis, which offers both a loop and an out-and-back trail that start just a few blocks from downtown. 

If you’re able to venture outside the city a bit, the SLO County Farm Trail is a collection of local farms, ranches and gardens that welcome visitors and host hands-on workshops like cheesemaking 101, goat yoga, sausage classes and tomato festivals.

Where to eat and drink

Prepare yourself for a lot of eating and drinking because there are so many yummy options here.

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A sign directs visitors to the numerous wineries around Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County.

The broader San Luis Obispo County is home to some incredible wineries, which means you could pretty much spend an entire weekend doing wine tastings at spots like Malene, which specializes in rose and uses a converted 1969 Airstream as its mobile tasting room, or Tolosa, where you can sip Pinot Noirs on the colorful terrace.

Wine aside, you’ll also be able to taste some delicious craft beers, spirits and ciders in SLO. Central Coast Brewing and Rod & Hammer’s Slo Stills are good places to start, followed by a trip back to Hotel Cerro for a craft cocktail made with spirits distilled in the custom copper still in the lobby. Sidecar Cocktail Co. is also a great place to grab a cocktail and a bite to eat.

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In San Luis Obispo, you can’t go wrong with eating on the patio alongside San Luis Obispo Creek at restaurants like The Carissa, Novo Restaurant and Lounge or Luna Red.

On the south end of downtown, you’ll find Creamery Marketplace, a collection of renovated creamery buildings from the early 1900s which now house tons of tasty food and drink options, as well as shops. Stop into Cider Bar SLO for a snack and a drink, including funky ciders made from pears, peaches, pluots and wild cherries instead of apples. For dinner, visit Mistura, an incredible Peruvian restaurant where chef Nicola Allegretta has created a diverse menu that combines Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and pre-Columbian traditions. Next door, Chef Allegretta also runs Mama’s Meatballs, a casual spot for Italian fare.

For dessert and to explore another SLO landmark, visit the colorful Madonna Inn for a taste of the famous pink champagne cake and to see the whimsical décor.

Where to shop

Without question, the San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market must be on your itinerary. It happens every Thursday night, all year long, and it’s really an incredible sight. The market is huge, stretching six blocks in downtown San Luis Obispo on Higuera Street, and it’s got everything imaginable — entertainment, food, arts and crafts, fruits and veggies, drinks and so many local vendors (there are more than 120 official stalls!).

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The farmers market in downtown San Luis Obispo.

The market dates back to the early 1980s, and over the years, the organizers have incorporated some really cool features. For example, if you ride your bike to the market, you can check it with the bike valet, free of charge. No need to worry about where to stash your bike or remembering to bring a lock.

Even when the market isn’t in full swing, the downtown core is still one of the best places to shop in San Luis Obispo. There are boutiques and niche stores everywhere — you’ll find shops specializing in comic books, records, surfboards, furniture, gifts and, of course, clothing and shoes.

One of my favorite downtown spots is The Secret Garden Organic Herb Shop, a truly magical tea shop nestled between two buildings along San Luis Obispo Creek. There are plants everywhere as you walk up to this indoor/outdoor space where founder Kirstin Sherritt makes custom tea blends using hundreds of herbs and spices. If you’re lucky enough to chat with Sherritt, you’ll discover that she’s a fount of knowledge about herbal blends to soothe everything from menstrual cramps to headaches to insomnia. Sherritt and her staff can help you create your own custom blend, or you can choose from dozens of cleverly named, loose-leaf teas already on the shelves. 

Local obsession

People here love sandwiches — and it shows. There are a surprising number of locally owned sandwich shops around town, including favorites like Gus’s Grocery, High Street Deli and Lincoln Market & Deli.

More specifically, folks here are also obsessed with tri-tip sandwiches, which show off California’s special style of barbecue. Be sure to save some room for one at Old Slo BBQ Co.

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