20 Things To Do In San Luis Obispo

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San Luis Obispo is famous for its beautiful beaches and year-round Mediterranean climate, but don’t overlook the city’s vibrant historic sites and culturally significant attractions. Home to some of California’s best wine-producing regions, the Arroyo and Edna Valleys, things to do in San Luis Obispo extends into the rolling valleys and steep mountains that surround and shelter the city.

It’s a lovely place to visit on California’s Central Coast no matter the time of year. San Luis Obispo is sure to impress you with natural splendour, Californian hospitality and plenty to see, do and experience right on the shores of the shimmering Pacific. Here are some things to do in San Luis Obispo you may enjoy.

San Luis Obispo, California

20 Things To Do In San Luis Obispo

san luis obispo from cerro peak
Looking for fun things to do in San Luis Obispo? Take a hike to Cerro Peak.

1- Explore The Avila Valley

While most travellers know all about Avila Beach and its idyllic waters and fun shops, few venture further into the valley that Avila Beach lies in.

The picture-perfect Avila Valley, with its abundance of fantastic hiking trails and natural hot springs, are not far from the shores of Avila Beach, yet it feels like a world away.

Filled with a wide range of accommodation options, fun outdoor activities and a rural farmstead feel, the Avila Valley is a wonderful destination to add to your itinerary to break away from the beaches and historic charm of SLO.

Check out the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa, the Avila Hot Springs, Avila Valley Barn and the Bob Jones Bike Trail when you’re here to get the most out of your visit to the Avila Valley.

The Avila Valley can be reached via Avila Beach Dr, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405.

2- Visit Mission San Luis Obispo

things to do in san luis obispo county
Visiting Mission San Luis Obispo is one of the top things to do in San Luis Obispo to get a feel for the region’s culture.

Father Junipero Serra established the mission in 1772 in honour of the Bishop of Toulouse.

The picturesque adobe-style Mission de San Luis Obispo is one of California’s best Spanish Missions.

Dotted with towering oak trees, a vibrant rose garden and inviting courtyards and arcades, Mission San Luis Obispo is a treat to tour if you’re interested in learning more about California’s rich history.

The Mission’s museum retells the history of the Mission and its impact on the area through displays and historical items that recount how people back then used to live.

The Mission San Luis Obispo is at 751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

3- See The Iron Road Pioneers Monument

The larger-than-life Iron Road Pioneers Monument outside the San Luis Obispo Amtrak station serves as a monument that pays homage to the countless labourers who built the nation’s railroads.

A thankless job that cost many labourers their lives, the Iron Road Pioneers Monument was created by artist Elizabeth MacQueen and officially unveiled in 2003.

Beautifully lit up at night, admiring the monument is one of the free things to do in San Luis Obispo.

The Iron Road Pioneers Monument is at 1011 Railroad Ave, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

4- Hang Out At Pismo Beach

things to do in san luis obispo
Spending time on the beach is one of the top things to do in San Luis Obispo, ca.

Pismo Beach is halfway between San Diego and San Francisco.

This beachside town is home to cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutiques.

It has a lovely stretch of sandy beach where you can swim, sunbake and feel the sand between your toes.

Pismo Beach is a Californian beach destination to enjoy at a slow pace and one of San Luis Obispo’s best attractions.

Pismo Beach is at 100 Pomeroy Ave, Pismo Beach, CA 93449.

5- Admire The Architecture Of Fremont Theatre

The 1,060-seat Fremont Theatre was opened to much fanfare on Memorial Day in 1942 and is a stylish Art-Deco style structure designed by architect S. Charles Lee and inspired by the lavish opera houses in Europe.

The Fremont Theatre is stunningly decorated with over 100 feet (30 m) of murals covering the walls and ceilings of the theatre’s interior, topped off with intricate palm flooring.

The theatre’s existence was threatened during the latter stages of the 20th century when developers wanted to replace the Fremont Theatre with a multiplex, however, the locals rallied and saved the theatre from destruction.

The Fremont Theatre remains the architectural crown jewel of San Luis Obispo and is well worth stopping by for a tour or a live show.

The Fremont Theatre is at 1035 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

6- Go Kayaking On Lopez Lake

things to do in san luis obispo morro rock
Taking photographs of Morro Rock is one of the things to do in San Luis Obispo that will satisfy photographers at any time of the year.

Covering an area of some 4,200 acres (1,700 ha) of verdant forest and over 22 miles (35 km) of shoreline, Lopez Lake is one of San Luis Obispo’s top outdoor attractions.

Lopez Lake has over 350 campsites all along the lake’s shore, where visitors can stay the night after spending the day enjoying lakeside activities such as kayaking, fishing and windsurfing.

If camping’s not your cup of tea, Lopez Lake also has several rentable cabins near many comfort amenities such as laundromats, grocery stores and vehicle rentals.

Ideal for a weekend getaway to take a break from SLO’s sunny beaches, Lopez Lake is a fantastic spot to visit year-round.

Lopez Lake is at Lopez Dr, Arroyo Grande, CA 93420.

7- Stay At The Madonna Inn

Inspired by cottages and chalets found in the Swiss Alps, the famous Madonna Inn is arguably San Luis Obispo’s most bizarre landmark.

The brainchild of Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and constructed in 1958, the Madonna Inn shares no connection with the singer ‘Madonna’, however, its chichi decorations and colourful rooms are still worth visiting.

With over 109 rooms all decorated in tacky over-the-top themes, the Madonna Inn is truly a sight to behold.

Stop by the hot pink coloured tennis court, the copper-clad café, the bright pink restaurant or the inn’s theatre for a live performance while you’re at the venue.

With room names such as the Hunting Lodge, the Whispering Hills, Old Mexico and Floral Fantasy, there’s never a dull moment at the Madonna Inn.

The Madonna Inn is at 100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405.

8- Go For A Stroll At Avila Beach

things to do in san luis obispo avila beach
Hanging out at Avila Beach is one of the cool things to do in San Luis Obispo.

The lovely Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo Bay provides the same beach fun on offer at nearby Pismo Beach, but with warmer water and fewer winds to boot.

Bordered by a promenade that boasts some of the region’s best eateries and boutique shops, Avila Beach provides visitors with a unique resort-like atmosphere less than a 15-minute drive from Downtown San Luis Obispo.

Avila Beach also hosts many entertaining events and festivals throughout the year, including the Avila Beach Blues Festival, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, and the Open Studios Art Tour.

Perfect for a mid-afternoon picnic or a Sunday stroll, Avila Beach is a perfect destination to plan a visit to any time of the year.

Avila Beach is at Front Street, Avila Beach, CA 93424.

9- Go Wine Tasting In Edna Valley

Often overlooked for the more famous Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles Valleys of California, San Luis Obispo is home to two of the Golden State’s top wine-producing regions.

One of these is the rolling Edna Valley, renowned for its excellent red and white wine varieties.

Many picturesque wineries dot the Edna Valley, making it an excellent region to spend an afternoon tasting wine and having a good time with friends, family and locals.

The Edna Valley can be reached via CA-227, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

10- Step Back Into History At San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum

The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum captures, preserves and retells the history and the deep-rooted impact that the railroad industry had on this once sleepy Californian town.

Home to numerous exhibits dedicated to all things rail, the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is an unmissable landmark for anyone interested in learning this proud city’s history.

The museum’s 1926 Southern Pacific Boxcar, Pacific Coast Railway, Amtrak, and 1,200 square foot (111 sq. m) Central Coast Model Railroad, a perfectly scaled version of the original line, are just some of the top exhibits to see.

For a bite to eat at the museum, La Cuesta Café is a unique eatery within a converted 1926 Pullman open-air observation carriage.

The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is at 1940 Santa Barbara Ave, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

11- Discover The Bells of El Camino Real

romantic things to do in san luis obispo
One of the intriguing things to do in San Luis Obispo is to look for the bells of El Camino Real.

The Bells of El Camino Real is a collection of some 585 individual bells dotted along the El Camino Real, a road originally established to link all of the 21 Spanish Missions which operated in California at the time.

Although the El Camino Real dates back to the establishment of the Spanish Missions, the bells are a recent attraction added to the route to boost tourism.

While some of the bells have since been lost, stolen or destroyed, the bells remain a popular attraction and a fantastic sight as you trek from Mission to Mission across San Luis Obispo and beyond.

12- Ride An ATV At Oceano Dunes

things to do in san luis obispo Oceano dunes
Exploring Oceano dunes is another of the things to do in San Luis Obispo for those who love adventure.

The Oceano Dunes, or Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area as it’s officially known, is an outdoor wonderland that combines stunning vistas with adrenaline-pumping activities all year round.

Oceano Dunes allows visitors to whisk around on the park’s 1,200 acres (486 ha) of Oceanside dunes in ATV off-road motorcycles, dune buggies and all other OHVs (off-highway vehicles).

Apart from the fun off-road activities, the Oceano Dunes area is also a haven for more traditional outdoor activities such as horseback riding, bird watching and fishing, making it a fantastic outdoor destination with something for everyone to enjoy doing.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area is at 100 Pier Ave, Oceano, CA 93445.

13- Hike Bishop Peak

things to do in san luis obispo ca bishop peak
HIking Bishop Peak is one of the top things to do in San Luis Obispo for outdoorsy types.

Rising to just over 1,500 ft. (457 m) above sea level, Bishop Peak stands guard over San Luis Obispo and is the Californian city’s hiking hotspot, with various scenic trails of all difficulty levels to choose from.

Formed over 20 million years ago from magma after a volcanic eruption, this dormant “volcano” of sorts treats visitors to some of Central California’s most commanding vistas from atop its summit.

Reaching the summit of Bishop Peak is relatively easy, with a pleasant 3.7-mile (6 km) round-trip hiking trail to get to the peak’s summit and back down again, making it a perfect afternoon activity to add to your San Luis Obispo itinerary.

Bishop Peak is at Patricia Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405.

14- Bubblegum Alley

top things to do in san luis obispo bubblegum wall
Adding to Bubblegum Alley is one of the fun things to do in San Luis Obispo today.

This odd yet popular attraction in San Luis Obispo’s Historic Downtown area got its start during the 1950s, and despite several cleanup attempts by authorities and local businesses, Bubblegum Alley remains.

Bubblegum Alley was rumoured to have originated due to a rivalry between students at San Luis Obispo High School and the local California Polytechnic State University, but the exact reason remains a mystery.

Since its inception, the alley’s walls have attracted intrepid urban explorers seeking the unique and bizarre, many of whom left their mark on Bubblegum Alley by sticking their pieces of gum on its walls, turning it into a famous attraction.

While certainly not a destination everyone will enjoy, it’s well worth visiting if you’re up for a unique thing to do in San Luis Obispo.

Bubblegum Alley is at 733 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

15- Escape To Shell Beach

things to do in san luis obispo ca shell beach
Visiting Shell Beach is one of the things to do in San Luis Obispo to get away from the crowds.

The secluded and serene Shell Beach is halfway between Avila Beach and Pismo Beach.

It might be geographically close to San Luis Obispo’s two most popular beaches, but Shell Beach couldn’t be further apart from them.

Instead of endless stretches of white sand, Shell Beach is a slither of unspoilt coastal paradise nestled below near-vertical sea cliffs.

A great spot to see some sea lions, whales or dolphins, Shell Beach is an absolute treat for nature lovers.

With stunning sunsets, great year-round weather and calm waters ideal for kayaking, Shell Beach is bound to be an amazing destination to visit during your stay in San Luis Obispo.

16- San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

unique things to do in san luis obispo orange california poppies
One of the relaxing things to do in San Luis Obispo is to wander around the botanical gardens.

Situated neatly between Downtown San Luis Obispo and nearby Morro Bay, the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden and its displays of plant species from all over the world is a wonderful spot for spending an afternoon aimlessly.

The botanical garden’s five-acre (2 ha) preview garden is home to a fascinating display of plants from every major climate zone in the world.

The beautiful Life Celebration Garden, filled with plaques of loved ones who have passed away, is a well-maintained yet sombre location ideal for a stroll.

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is at 3450 Dairy Creek Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405.

17- Drink Wine In Arroyo Grande

Arroyo Grande is alongside the Edan Valley, one of San Luis Obispo’s top wine-producing regions, filled with delightful wineries where one can easily spend an entire day sampling the region’s world-class red and white wines.

The Arroyo Grande Valley is home to charming Victorian-era buildings, charming shops and fantastic eateries serving up sumptuous meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Visitors to Arroyo Grande will be treated to hospitality, friendly locals and stunning landscapes that are well worth the short trek from Downtown San Luis Obispo to get to.

18- Explore Historic Downtown San Luis Obispo

san luis obispo view
There are plenty of things to do in San Luis Obispo to keep everyone busy.

San Luis Obispo’s Mission-centric historic downtown area is filled to the brim with beautiful Spanish-style structures, tree-lined streets and lively cafes, bars and restaurants.

Many of the top things to do in San Luis Obispo are in its Historic Downtown, including visiting the famous Bubblegum Alley, and the area’s bus terminal makes reaching other attractions such as Pismo and Avila Beach a breeze.

Downtown San Luis Obispo comes to life on Thursday evenings between 6 pm and 9 pm when the Farmer’s Market has live music, fresh produce and delicious food.

Always a hub of entertainment in San Luis Obispo, you simply cannot miss out on stopping by the Historic Downtown area.

Historic Downtown San Luis Obispo is at Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

19- Visit San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Situated in Mission Plaza in Downtown San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art puts the very best Californian art on full display in a wide variety of art exhibitions, film screenings and cultural events.

The museum’s exhibits are regularly updated, making no two visits to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art the same.

Filled with thought-provoking sculptures, paintings and photographs, this compact museum can easily be toured in an afternoon, making it a great addition to any SLO itinerary.

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is at 1010 Broad St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

20- Visit Leaning Pine Arboretum

Situated on the sprawling campus of California Polytechnic State University, the 5-acre (2 ha) Leaning Pine Arboretum’s spectacular array of flowers, plants and trees from every corner of the globe.

Not only is the Leaning Pine Arboretum’s lush flora spectacular, but Leaning Pines’ beautiful location on the picturesque campus of CPSU with the mountains behind the arboretum makes it a very scenic destination too.

The Leaning Pine Arboretum can be found on the campus of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407.

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Mark Westwood is a Seattle-based writer who writes for various online blogs and travel websites. In 2017, he went on a 12-month road trip across the USA visiting many iconic landmarks and small towns along the way. Having explored over 20 countries, his favourite places to date are along the west coast of the USA but he is happiest anywhere where there are mountains and ocean.