San Luis Obispo (SLO) – Not only does Sunset magazine describe SLO as “the most Californian place in all of California” and Oprah deemed it “the happiest city in America”, but it is also where I grew up, where I met my closest friends, where I fell in love, got engaged, and got married. So, you could say it’s pretty special to me ;)
Ok, so coming back to this statement of SLO being the most Californian place in all of California. It is the TRUTH! SLO county has countless beaches, wineries, a stunning coastline, health and fitness junkies, surfers, and a slower paced, laid back take on life.
My family and I moved from Orange County (yes, the OC) to a small city outside of San Luis Obispo when I was 10 years old. We took traffic jams and talking about travel times in terms of “with traffic” or “without traffic” and exchanged them for no traffic and driving past farms and cows along the highway everyday. We may have lost the numerous large shopping malls and arcades, but we gained so much more now that we had mountains for hiking, state parks for exploring, wineries for wine tasting, an old fashioned drive-in movie theater perfect for warm summer nights, and surrounding small coastal cities perfect for day or weekend getaways.
During our time here in Minnesota, I have talked to countless people who tell me they have visited California. And 99% of time they have been referring to one of the major cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. If you’ve ever visited California and only went to these major cities, then you are missing out! Don’t get me wrong, those cities are very popular for a reason, but there is so much more to California. Camping in Big Sur. Gazing out upon the dramatic views of Yosemite and Tahoe. Exploring Joshua Tree. Roaming down State Street in Santa Barbara. Skiing or snowboarding in one of the numerous mountain ranges. Roadtripping one of the greatest roads in the world – Highway 1, aka the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). And finally, visiting the Central Coast!
A couple weeks ago I flew home for an extended weekend. I visited some of my favorite locations and restaurants, and tried to fit in as many “classic central coast” activities as I could. Below is a list of places I went, and things I did. It is by no means a complete list of all there is to do and see on the central coast, but it is a great start!
DOWNTOWN SAN LUIS OBISPO
This area has changed a lot over the years, with new stores and restaurants coming and going. But the thing that has remained consistent over the years is that this area is PERFECT for a meandering stroll. Downtown in small enough that it is easy to walk up and down all of the streets, stopping along the way at whatever catches your fancy. Here are some of my favorite spots that you don’t want to miss!
Firestone Grill // This bustling restaurant has THE best tri tip. (If you don’t know what tri tip is, which I realize is most people outside of the west coast, it is simply just a specific cut of beef.) Either get a tri-tip sandwich, served with DELICIOUS BBQ sauce on a soft bun, or my personal favorite, a cobb salad – which includes juicy tri-tip, crispy bacon, red bell pepper, goat cheese (but I switch it out for feta cheese), and is best topped with ranch and Firestone’s BBQ sauce. Don’t forget an order of French fries, because they will be some of the best French fries you have ever tasted. The lines are usually long, but don’t be discouraged, because they move quickly!
Farmer’s Market // This SLO must do is held every Thursday night throughout the year, and is located along Higuera Street. Sample and buy fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, candied almonds, honey, olive oil, and so much more! Enjoy music from live bands or watch the local dance studios perform their latest routines, as you walk along the street. And of course there are numerous spots along the way to purchase dinner and dessert. My personal favorite is Sugar Lips Donuts – serving freshly made, hot, miniature donuts, topped with cinnamon sugar. You will find both locals and visitors enjoying this lively activity. And once Cal Poly (the local University) is back in session, expect some busy crowds!
Scout Coffee // This coffee shop opened a few years ago, and has been a huge hit ever since. So much so, that they recently opened a second location. Both locations are so hipster cute it’s not even funny. My go to order is a simple vanilla latte with almond milk (they make their own almond milk in house!). The drinks are a little on the pricey side, but you’re definitely paying for quality ingredients and location.
Sally Loo's Wholesome Cafe // This popular café had the acai bowl on their menu way before it was hip. Like the acai bowl, all the items on the menu are made with fresh, local, organic ingredients. The café can get pretty busy (especially after 10 am), so don’t come here if you are in a rush, but it is perfect for a lazy morning brunch.
Terrace Hill // Located across the railroad tracks from Sally Loo’s is Terrace Hill. A steep but relatively short climb to the top will bring you to a beautiful outlook of the city. This is a perfect spot for sunset!
Bishop’s Peak // This is the tallest mountain of the nine sisters. There are multiple entrances/trails – with the main ones located off of Highland, Patricia, and Foothill (the latter being the most difficult). When you reach the bench located at the summit, don’t stop just yet. To get the best view, you will need to climb some rocks/boulders located to the right of the bench. Personally, I have a fear of heights so my legs get a little uneasy during this part, but just be smart and know your limits to help keep you safe up there. If you really want an amazing experience – do a sunrise hike. Standing at the top of Bishop’s, looking out over the quiet city, and watching as the sun rises in front of you is truly breathtaking.
Located south of San Luis Obispo is my favorite beach – Avila Beach. It is my favorite beach for a couple reasons - the weather is on average warmer and sunnier than the other beaches, the brightly colored store fronts are, well, adorable, and the atmosphere is always lively. However, I will warn you that it is one of the more popular beaches in the area, which is why I tend to visit this beach on a weekday or earlier in the day. During the summer months (April – September) there is also a farmer’s market on the waterfront on Fridays. Enjoy the live music from the patio of Custom House as you enjoy some wine and fresh foods.
Krava Bowl // Relatively newer to the area is Krava Bowl. Serving fresh acai bowls, smoothies, and juices this is the perfect place for a refreshing (and healthy) treat!
Located about 20 minutes west of San Luis Obispo lays the sleepy town of Morro Bay. This coasted town typically boasts cooler weather and overcast skies, which makes it one of my favorite places to escape to on hot summer days. The town may sound familiar to you if you ever saw Finding Dory as “the jewel of Morro Bay California” was (spoiler alert) discovered to be where Dory came from.
Morro Rock // This geological landmark is nearly 600 feet tall, and the last of the nine sisters. Walk along the boardwalk towards Embarcadero to explore the seaside shops and fresh seafood restaurants. Keep your eyes peeled for the sea otters in the harbor, playing with one another. Or better yet, get out in the water too with either kayaking or stand up paddle-boarding around the harbor.
Taco Temple // This local favorite serves tacos the size of a full dinner plate that are packed with tender, juicy meat. Eat in their vintage beach inspired dining area, or take it to go and eat at the beach! Be sure to hit up their endless chips and salsa bar too!
Because the temperatures here rival those of the Mediterranean, you will find hundreds of wineries located throughout the central coast– Paso Robles, Templeton, Edna Valley, and a few scattered along the coast. Some of our family favorites include, Opolo, Sculpterra, J. Lohr, and Pear Valley. Quick side note about Pear Valley - not only is their wine smooth and flavorful, but their beautiful grounds also boast a stunning outlook over the surrounding vineyards - which from personal experience is a perfect place to get engaged ;)
Below are the wineries where we wine tasted during this visit:
Harmony Cellars // Nestled on top of a small hill, in what feels to be a secluded area of the tiny town of Harmony – population size 18 – is Harmony Cellars. They are known for their white wines, especially their Riesling, which is sold in a blue bottle and is my personal favorite.
Lago Giuseppe Winery // Tucked into the rolling hills of Highway 46, this Italian villa inspired winery is situated on a beautiful private lake. This is a relatively newer winery, but is already starting to make a name for itself. In addition to wine tasting, they also offer bocce ball lakeside and freshly made meals.
Hammersky Vineyards // Ok, I’ll admit I only wanted to come to this popular wedding venue to check out their adorable on site white barn. Their wine was good, but their prices were certainly on the higher side relative to other prices in the area. They do have a nice patio area outside the tasting room that would be a perfect spot to enjoy a home packed picnic!
Montana de Oro // This state park boasts rugged cliffs, endless hiking trails, sand dunes, tide pools, secluded beaches, and eucalyptus forests. In the spring time you will find the ground covered in golden blooms. But year round this area is absolutely beautiful – so beautiful in fact that we have had multiple friends get engaged here and use it as a back drop for first look photos and stylized photoshoots!