attractions in San Luis Obispo

12 top-rated tourist attractions in San Luis Obispo

Tucked in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, San Luis Obispo prides itself on being the ‘Happiest City in America’. to be mentioned. This small town has a friendly atmosphere, 315 days of sunshine a year, a nice student population and interesting sights such as Pismo Beach and Bubblegum Alley. Take a stroll along the pleasant tree-lined streets, eat outside in a babbling brook or listen to crickets chirping in the evening. Drive just 10 miles outside of town to find beautiful sandy beaches and hot springs. San Luis Obispo is also a popular stop on a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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1 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

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

One of the most beautiful Californian missions, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra and dedicated to Saint Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse in France. The current building dates from about 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 found in 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 advantage was that the local Chumash (Native American) tribe was friendly to the missionaries.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a large complex overlooking the San Luis Creek and the Mission Plaza in a quiet, shaded area. Typical of Spanish missions, the building was built of adobe and has porticoed arcades. At the back, the courtyard is planted with a lush garden. The mission church is one of the most decorative of California’s historic missions. With a simple altarpiece and high ceiling supported by wooden beams, the shrine has a serene atmosphere. A brightly painted floral pattern along the walls and arches gives the church interior a cheerful appearance. The mission also has an interesting museum with several rooms displaying artifacts and works of art, including a 17th-century painting of Mater Dolorosa from Italy. Other exhibits educate visitors on the history of the Spanish missionaries who moved here from Mexico, and an entire room is dedicated to the history and culture of the local Indian population in this area. Another highlight is the gift shop, which sells unique gifts such as handmade Christmas hampers, colorful Mexican home decorations and images of saints.

2 Thursday Night Farmers Market

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

San Luis Obispo is famous for its Thursday evening farmers market, which draws crowds from all over San Luis Obispo County. The SLO Farmers Market is considered one of the best in California. This special event will be heldHiguera Street, which closes off access to vehicular 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 atmosphere. The San Luis Obispo Farmers Market takes place every Thursday evening from6:00 PM to 9:00 PM, unless it rains.

3 Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach

This classic California beach town boasts a 23-mile stretch of sandy beaches. The sunny, laid-back city has the feel of Southern California, even though it’s in the heart of the Central Coast. Surfers and bodyboarders love Pismo Beach for its consistent waves. In summer the beach is a lively scene of surfers, sunbathers and volleyball players; and lifeguards are on duty. Other favorite activities include hiking and fishing on the 4,000-foot Fishing Pier, which also has picnic tables with beautiful ocean views. Perfect for a 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 chip restaurants are packed into the center overlooking the beach.

Pismo Beach has a warm, sunny climate year-round with an average temperature of 68 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. During the months of July and August, temperatures can reach 90 degrees. However, the beach is windy, which keeps it cooler and makes it great for kite flying. Nearby Avila Beach is more sheltered from the wind. Pismo Beach is a 15-minute drive (15 miles) from San Luis Obispo, accessible by RTA bus from Government Center. The bus goes to the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets shopping center, about a 20 minute walk, partly along the highway, to the beach.

In addition to swimming, surfing and bodyboarding, Pismo Beach is a great place for sailing and kayaking. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer. When conditions are right, diving is possible and whale watching is popular during the migration season. Another highlight is theMonarch Butterfly Grove, with “Butterfly Trees” (eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees) where thousands of colorful monarch butterflies gather around the branches from late October to February.

All year round Pismo Beach has many activities including Art in the Park from May to 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 every Wednesday on the Pier Promenade from 3 p.m. afternoon.

4 San Luis Obispo’s Historic Downtown

San Luis Obispo's Historic Downtown | Photo copyright: Lisa Alexander
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 city that was also built around an 18th-century mission. In downtown San Luis Obispo, the center is centered aroundHiguera Street, a lively area filled with restaurants, shops and cafes. Children will loveDoc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Wonderland, which features exhibits on how ice cream is made and offers tastings of inventive flavors of ice cream. On the north side of Higuera, the restaurants have inviting patios that overlook theSan Luis Obispo Creek. San Luis Obispo’s nicest and most famous attraction isBubblegum Alley (off Higuera Street), a narrow 70-meter-long alley plastered with countless pieces of bubble gum in a multitude of colors.

A great place to start planning a stay in San Luis Obispo is at theVisitor Center, at 895 Monterey Street. Close by is the Main StreetRTA bus station, in front of the Old County Government Center at Osos Street and Palm Street. The RTA bus is convenient for exploring the entire area to top destinations such as Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay, and Hearst Castle. Close to the mission is a small, historic Chinatown with shops and restaurants.

5 Avila Beach

Avila Beach
Avila Beach

Avila Beach is located seven miles north of Pismo Beach in a protected bay of San Luis Obispo Bay. This picturesque beach is usually warmer than nearby Pismo Beach because the surrounding hills protect it from the wind. Another draw is the palm-lined promenade lined with shops and restaurants with outdoor terraces. Avila Beach is an easy 10 mile drive (15 minutes) south of San Luis Obispo. In summer it is possible to get here by public transport – first take a 20-minute bus ride to Pismo Beach Outlets and then a 10-minute trolley to Avila Beach.

Avila Beach has a wide coastline, beautiful scenery and fine white sand that makes for wonderful barefoot walks. It’s also perfect for sunbathing, swimming and bodyboarding, or just sliding around in the water. Other outdoor activities include fishing from the pier, paddle boarding and kayaking. The gentle waves of Avila Beach are too easy for experienced surfers, but it has a surf school. The relatively calm ocean environment helps beginner surfers learn. Lifeguards are present all summer. Families with children will also appreciate the well-maintained public facilities, small playground and picnic tables. Pet owners can bring their dogs to the beach during business hours, before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Summer is the best time to visit, but Avila Beach is beautiful in all seasons. If you plan to visit in the spring, try to coordinate the timing with theBlues Festival in May or theOyster Festival early June.

6 Avila Hot Springs

At Avila Hot Springs, visitors can enjoy a day of relaxation and rejuvenation in an idyllic spot just miles from the beach. The hot springs are right off the highway exit on the way to Avila Beach, so visitors could easily drive there before or after the beach. Avila Hot Springs is also accessible by bus, taking the same trolley to Avila Beach. Cyclists can take theBob Jones Bike Trail, a scenic route along the creeks of San Luis Obispo. Founded in 1907, the springs have a 20 x 20 foottherapeutic pool filled with fresh mineral water from the source of Avila Hot Springs. This spring water is known by the native Salinan Indians for its ability to heal ailments. Avila Hot Springs also has an annualgames room, a freshwater pool with slides for the kids, a picnic area and massage treatments. For an outdoor overnight stay, Avila Hot Springs offers campsites 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 relaxing. True to its name, the beach has glittering 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 surrounding the beach. Shell Beach also offers a vantage point for spotting sea lions, dolphins and migrating whales. Other favorite activities include picnicking and fishing from the cliffs while enjoying the spectacular sea views.

8 Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes
Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes is the only beach in California that allows drive-in miles (off-highway vehicles). This state vehicle recreation area consists of 1,200 hectares of unique coastal terrain, including open sand dunes and several kilometers of sandy beach. Some of the rolling sand dunes are as high as 100 feet. The recreation area offers an ATV safety certification course and allows a limited number of vehicles to access the beach daily. Other outdoor activities at Oceano Dunes include hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and camping.

9 San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

The San Luis Obispo Art Museum displays an excellent collection of contemporary works by California artists. Exhibits include avant-garde paintings, sculptures and photography. The exhibitions are constantly updated and presented in an insightful manner that promotes a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art. The museum offers docent-led tours, mobile app tours, and downloadable MP3 audio tours.

Address: 1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site:

10 Bishop Peak Hikes

Bishop Peak Hikes
Bishop Peak Hikes

Bishop Peak, a great place for hiking, is the most prominent peak in San Luis Obispo. The moderate to rigorous uphill climb takes one to two hours and rewards hikers with stunning panoramic views from the top. Two favorite hikes on Bishop Peak include theFoothill Trail which starts in town and theHighland Trail that starts at Highland Drive, where the street ends in a dead end street.

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 ages 1 to 10, the hands-on exhibits are fun for kids and families to explore. This extensive museum has three floors of indoor exhibits and 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:

12 Railroad Museum of San Luis Obispo

At this museum, visitors can learn about San Luis Obispo’s historic railroad area. The exhibit hall displays artifacts that tell the story of Central California’s coastal railroads. Realistically scaled Railway models show the Pacific Coast Railroad from Avila Beach to San Luis Obispo and the Southern Pacific Railroad from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara. Other highlights of the museum include the children’s playground, the train-watching platform and a vintage 1926 Pullman passenger carriage.

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

Official site:

Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo for Sightseeing

We recommend these highly rated San Luis Obispo hotels with easy access to downtown dining, shopping and attractions:

  • San Luis Creek Lodge: mid-range B & B, friendly staff, Tudor and Craftsman style, elegant room decor, hot breakfast included.
  • Apple Farm Inn: 3-star hotel, country-style home, quaint decor, individually decorated rooms, fireplaces.
  • Quality Suites San Luis Obispo: Affordable rates, modern room decor, free downtown shuttle, outdoor pool.
  • Avenue Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo: great rates, walking distance to downtown, comfortable rooms.

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