The Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo, California

The 15 Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo, California

With a population of less than 50,000 people, the Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo is a surprisingly bustling city. Home to the Cal Poly campus and a youthful student population, the city is packed with buzzing breweries, affordable restaurants, and endless activities and attractions that suit all budgets and interests.

In downtown SLO, you can explore a centuries-old Spanish mission before snapping selfies in the quirky Bubblegum Alley, sampling local goods at the excellent Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market, and getting pampered at a luxury spa. 

Head further afield, and you’ll find there are tons of world-class attractions surrounding SLO. Go wine or olive oil tasting in Paso Robles, kayak with otters in Morro Bay, photograph otherworldly sand dunes in Pismo Beach, or sample local treats at a farm in Avila Beach.

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in San Luis Obispo for you. Stick to these fun and unique San Luis Obispo bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this quintessential California town!

15 Fun and Unique Things to do in San Luis Obispo

1. Snap a Selfie in Bubblegum Alley

Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Bubblegum Alley
Image courtesy of Visit SLO

When it comes to unique things to do in San Luis Obispo, Bubblegum Alley is the first thing to come to mind. This rather famous SLO attraction is located between 733 and 734 Higuera Street in the heart of downtown.

As the name implies, walk down this narrow little alley, and you’ll find the walls lined top to bottom with ooey-gooey chewing gum. How this funky little alley came to be is much disputed. But whether it got its start in the 1940s or ’50s, the sometimes controversial Bubblegum Alley has survived two complete cleanings in the ’70s and again in the ’90s.

Today, Bubblegum Alley remains a popular tourist attraction and a must on any first-time visitor’s San Luis Obispo bucket list. Measuring 15 feet high and 70 feet long, you’ll have plenty of space to capture all those Instagram shots!


2. Shop and Eat Your Way Through the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market

Fun Things to do in San Luis Obispo: SLO Farmers’ Market

Paying a visit to a city’s farmers’ market is always a great way to get a feel for the local culture. Plus, if you enjoy eating during your travels, you’ll always find some of the best food in a city being served up at a local farmers’ market.

If you happen to be visiting SLO on a Thursday, put aside an hour or two to visit the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market. Every Thursday from 6 pm to 9 pm, this popular market takes up five blocks on Higuera Street. 

San Luis Obispo Bucket List: SLO Farmers’ Market

You’ll find roughly 120 local bakers, artisans, and farmers selling their wares. From seasonal fruits, veggies, and flowers to baked goods, jams, and honey, you’ll want to bring some cash with you to pick up something to whip up back at your Airbnb or snack on at your hotel. 

Better yet, come hungry and eat your way through all of the food stalls, which feature everything from Mexican to BBQ. You can also expect live music acts and performers to keep everyone in your crew entertained!


3. Catch a Flick (or Two) at the Sunset Drive-In Theatre

Must do things in San Luis Obispo: Sunset Drive-In Theatre

Set right off Hwy 101, the Sunset Drive-In Theatre is one of the most unique San Luis Obispo attractions. There are less than 300 drive-in movie theaters left in the country and only 15 left in California, so you can understand what a gem this place is.

If you love a good movie with a side of nostalgia, you should definitely take a drive to the Sunset Drive-In during your trip to SLO. The drive-in shows two movies on most nights of the week, weather permitting. 

What to do in San Luis Obispo: Sunset Drive-In Theatre

The first showing is at 7:30 pm, and the drive-in closes up shop at around midnight. This a great family-friendly activity no matter what ages you’ve got in your group. But sure to bring blankets, drinks, and snacks. There’s also a concession stand on-site where you can pick up goodies to munch on.


4. Stay the Night (and Take Endless Selfies) at the Madonna Inn

San Luis Obispo Things to do: the Madonna Inn

If there’s one thing that should be on your San Luis Obispo bucket list, it’s a visit to the Madonna Inn. While staying the night in one of the funky, themed rooms makes for an unforgettable experience, you don’t actually have to book a room to visit.

But if you do decide to spend the night in one of the over-the-top rooms, you can choose from a variety of themes, from the glittery pink décor in the Carin room to the rock walls and animal prints in the Caveman room. 

Whether you’re staying here or not, bring your camera and snap selfies at the iconic Madonna Inn sign, head into the kitschy restaurant and take photos in the circular pink booths, sip cocktails in the whimsical Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge, grab lunch at the Madonna Inn Copper Café, or visit the pool area for spectacular mountain views. Don’t forget to check out the pink tennis courts! 

Book a Stay at Madonna Inn


5. Go Kayaking in Morro Bay State Park

San Luis Obispo Bucket List: Morro Bay State Park

One of the coolest things about San Luis Obispo is that it’s surrounded by all sorts of incredible towns. If you’re craving some Vitamin Sea, you’ll be happy to know that Morro Bay State Park is an easy 20-minute drive away.

There are plenty of outdoorsy things to do here, including camping and hiking, but renting a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard and paddling around Morro Bay is one of the best San Luis Obispo activities. You can paddle all the way up to Morro Rock, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot some otters frolicking in the water.

If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent everything you need from A Kayak Shack near the Morro Bay State Park Campground. They even offer group tours for those who’d prefer to paddle out with an experienced guide.


6. Have a Slice of Olallieberry Pie at the Avila Valley Barn

Speaking of cool attractions near SLO, the Avila Valley Barn is just 15 minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo on the way to Pismo Beach. From delicious baked goods to cute barn animals, this place is bound to be fun for the whole family!

You’ll definitely want to take a look inside the bakery, where you’ll find everything from olallieberry cobbler, strawberry rhubarb pie, and banana nut muffins to orange blossom honey, apple butter, and fruit syrups. 

For something more substantial, you can also dine at the Chicken Shack & Smoke House, which serves up delicious dishes like the Nashville Fried Chicken Sandwich, Smoked Tri-Tipper Sandwich, House-Made Mac & Cheese, and Original Smoked Artichokes.

Depending on when you visit, there is u-pick fruit and flowers (July-November), hayrides (May-October), a pumpkin patch (September-November), a hay maze (October), and lots of cute farm animals that you can hand feed!


7. Step Back in Time at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Located in Mission Plaza, in the heart of downtown, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a must on any San Luis Obispo bucket list. This Spanish mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772 and remains an active church to this day.

It’s possible to tour the church on your own, or if you’d prefer to get an interesting history lesson, you can arrange to join one of the docent-led tours. Either way, you’ll love checking out the floral paintings inside the nave, the beautiful arcades, and the peaceful gardens outside. 

You’ll also want to take some time to check out the Mission Museum, which you’ll find in the Convento Wing. This is a great place to get a better understanding of the lives of the Spanish missionaries as well as the Chumash Indians who first lived on this land.

Before you head out, pay a visit to the on-site Old Mission Gift Shop, where you can pick up everything from jewelry to books.


8. Take a Hike to Bishop Peak

Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Bishop Peak

Taking a hike to the top of Bishop Peak is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo if you’re craving outdoor adventure. At 1,546 feet, Bishop Peak is the tallest of the Morros (or Nine Sisters) that dot the landscape between SLO and Morro Bay.

There are a couple of ways to reach the top. One way is to start at the trailhead on Patricia Drive. This moderate trail follows a series of switchbacks, which will eventually take you to the top. 

The hike is about 4 miles and is moderate. It’s well worth it, though, for the stunning panoramic views of the San Luis Obispo area you’ll get from the top! 

There’s another trailhead on Highland Drive. This route is shorter at 3.5 miles, but with an elevation gain of nearly 1,000 feet, it’s definitely the steeper option.


9. Photograph the Oceano Dunes at Pismo Beach 

Cool Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Oceano Dunes at Pismo Beach

If you’re looking for unique things to do in San Luis Obispo, you’re going to love adventuring around Pismo Beach. This quintessential California town is located an easy 15 minutes from downtown SLO and is famous for its sandy dunes and beautiful beach.

Pismo Beach’s Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve State Park was perhaps best known as a destination for thrill-seekers looking to zip around the dunes on OHV vehicles. Though this is still possible at the time of writing, the California Coastal Committee will soon ban OHVs from driving on the dunes in order to protect the delicate ecosystem.

That being said, it’s still very much worth exploring this massive swath of windswept sand dunes. Be sure to bring your camera because the photo ops and ocean views are going to be unbelievable. Some of these dunes even reach as high as 100 feet! 

Dunes aside, Pismo offers excellent surfing, a Monarch Butterfly Grove, all sorts of seaside parks, and so much more. 

Book a Dune Buggy Rental


10. Go Wine Tasting

San Luis Obispo Bucket List: Wine Tasting

Napa Valley and Sonoma might get all the attention when it comes to world-class wineries, but did you know that San Luis Obispo is a top-notch wine-tasting destination in its own right?

You’ll find nearly 300 wineries in the areas surrounding SLO, so get ready to do some serious sipping and swirling during your trip! You’ll have tons to choose from, but if you’re not sure where to start, visiting Edna Valley Vineyard is always a crowd-pleaser.

This place is best known for producing award-winning Chardonnays. But whether you choose to sample one of their Cabernet Sauvignons or Pinot Grigios, you’ll love kicking back on the outdoor patio and taking in the panoramic views. 

Ragtag Wine Co. is another excellent option. The actual winery is located a bit further afield, but if you don’t feel like driving, they have a great tasting room on Higuera St. in downtown SLO featuring their handcrafted, small-batch wines. 

From trying small-batch Chardonnays at Biddle Ranch Vineyard to sampling wine flights and tapas boxes at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, you’ll have plenty to choose from in and around San Luis Obispo.


11. Get Pampered at Spa Cerro

Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Spa Cerro

Booking a session at Spa Cerro is one of the most luxurious and relaxing things to do in San Luis Obispo. Located in Hotel Cerro right in downtown SLO, Spa Cerro boasts 4,000 square feet of space and all sorts of pampering amenities.

Choose from a variety of treatments – from Himalayan Salt Stone and Aromatherapy massages to Apple Stem Cell and Urban Detox facials to the Whipped Honey Salt Scrub and the Organic French Green Clay & Seaweed Wrap.

If you’re in town on a romantic getaway, you can even enjoy the Bubbles & Bliss Couples Retreat in the luxurious double treatment room. With this package, you’ll get Aromatherapy Foot Baths and Cerro Signature Swedish Massages, topped off with the Sparkling Wine service.

However you choose to treat yourself, be sure to take a steam bath before sipping tea in the Relaxation Quiet Room between your treatments!

Book a Stay at Hotel Cerro


12. Grab Your Picnic Supplies at High Street Market & Deli

Whether you need a picnic lunch for your hike to Bishop Peak or you need a pit stop during your road trip along the Central Coast, a meal at High Street Market & Deli is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo. This place got its start in 1927, and it still stands proud as a local institution and the place to go for a hearty (and sometimes “stoney”) sandwich. 

For something classic, go for the Italian Sub or the Hot Pastrami, or, for something a little different, try their Beef Dip Doobie Style with roast beef, au jus, jack cheese, and chipotle mayo. Craving a little spice in your life? Order The Jalapeño Popper, which is piled high with smoked turkey, scallion whipped cream cheese, house hot sauce, jalapeños, avocado, and a touch of Dutch crunch.

Vegetarians can opt for the Garden Burger or veggie-packed Mother Nature Veg, or you can always build your own creation. Either way you go, order your sandwich with “The Works” for all the fixings or “Make It Stoney!” and get surprise extra ingredients!


13. Go Olive Oil Tasting

Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Olive Oil Tasting

San Luis Obispo County isn’t just regarded for its award-winning wines. The Mediterranean climate also blesses this region with award-winning olive oils. If you’re looking for unique things to do in San Luis Obispo, why not treat your taste buds to an olive oil tasting?

If you’re in downtown SLO, stop by local favorite SLO Olive on Higuera Street. Here you’ll find everything from herb-infused olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and tapenades to spreads, jams, and mustards. You can even sample the goods with a free olive oil tasting.

Cool Things to do in San Luis Obispo: Olive Oil Tasting

For something a bit more in-depth, true olive oil enthusiasts will love touring the 140-acre Pasolivo ranch nestled in the heart of Paso Robles wine country. They also offer tastings of their award-winning olive oils in their downtown Paso Robles tasting room. 

If that’s not enough, you can pay a visit to the nearby Olea Farm just outside Templeton. Visit over the weekend, and you can enjoy a free tasting of their five main olive oils and browse the local products to bring a few gourmet goodies back home with you!


14. Go Kayaking in the Pismo Beach Caves

Best Things to do in Morro, Bay: Kayak around Morro Bay

With its proximity to Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay, you’ll have endless opportunities to get out on the water. But if you’re looking for a unique experience, embark on the Cave Excursion Tour with Central Coast Kayaks.

This tour will get you paddling through the Pismo Beach Caves, leading you under arches, through protected coves, past rock gardens, and through kelp forests. Keep your eyes peeled for seals gliding through the water!

San Luis Obispo Bucket List: Pismo Beach Caves

Don’t worry if you don’t have experience kayaking. The experienced guide will show you the basics, and you can choose “how much adventure you can handle” before kayaking into the spectacular caves.

Be sure to bring your camera because there are going to be plenty of photo ops during this 3-hour excursion!


15. Sample All the Local Brews

What to do in San Luis Obispo: Brewery Hopping

When it comes to fun things to do in San Luis Obispo, going brewery hopping is always a good idea. For such a small town, SLO is home to quite a few excellent breweries that will keep you entertained for an entire day.

SLO Brew Rock is home to a 30-barrel brewhouse, tasting room, and restaurant. Grab a seat outside and order one of the 23 drinks on tap – from Double Hazy IPAs and Pale Ales to ciders and alcoholic kombuchas. 

San Luis Obispo Things to do: Brewery Hopping

After that, make your way to Oak and Otter Brewing Co. for traditional beers with a creative spin. Order up some sliders or street tacos and wash them down with an Otter Blonde or Morro Haze New England-style IPA. 

And then there’s Central Coast Brewing on Higuera Street, where you can try the Central Coast Brewing Cocoa Diablo American Stout or the Central Coast Brewing Grapefruit Monterey Street American Pale Ale. And if you’ve got the tolerance for more, don’t miss out on the brews and bites at Antigua Brewing and Libertine Brewing

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in San Luis Obispo. What’s your favorite thing to do in the SLO?


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Author

  • Justine Lopez

    Justine is a writer and editor who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust!

    In 2013, she left her hometown in California and set off on a yearlong round-the-world journey with her now-husband – they never looked back. Since then, she’s lived the expat life in Indonesia, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, and now Dubai. Along the way, she's written and edited for magazines, newspapers, and websites in Asia and beyond.

    When she's not stoking her wanderlust by working on travel articles for Wandering Wheatleys, Justine is busy caring for her many foster cats in Dubai, seeking out all the delicious vegetarian food, and taking every chance she gets to explore a new corner of the world!

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