California Getaways on a Tankful of Gas – San Luis Obispo

If there is a silver lining to the travel disaster that 2020 delivered, it must be that Californians are seeing more of California.

The centerpiece of the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo, is the sweet spot halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 265 miles from downtown Napa. Less than ten miles from the Pacific surf, SLO is surrounded by oak-dotted mountains, expansive vine- yards, and tiny coastal small towns. None is smaller than Harmony, population 18, where it is a surprise to find a winery and a tasting room.

Headed for San Luis Obispo? There’s no need to rush. Even the T-shirts proclaim, “The SLO Life.” A good rule of thumb for any California coastal journey is to enjoy the scenic southbound drive along Pacific Coast Highway   (hello, Hearst Castle). For those who don’t mind an even slower journey, go car-free; Amtrak has a station just 15 minutes’ walk from downtown SLO.

A quaint, pedestrian-friendly downtown is a draw in this small college town of 47,000. Most everything is within a short walk around Mission Plaza, where the 18th- century Spanish-style adobe, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, is a very California- like structure. And for wine lovers, a day or two dedicated to exploring the tasting rooms in nearby Edna Valley is just the thing.


In June, pop-up spaces were created to augment outdoor dining rooms in Mission Plaza. Weekend street closures and parklets will return once state and county guidelines allow. For much of the year, there’s sandals- and-shorts sunshine with daytime highs in the 70s. Bring a sweater for dining under the fairy lights on the creekside terrace at Novo Restaurant or for cocktails and a bite at Sidecar.

Abundant local farms, fisheries, ranches, wineries, and breweries mean that fresh produce and ingredients are a SLO way of life. For an epic farm-to-table breakfast, Big Sky Café gets all the raves. Papa Joe’s DiFronzo Farms proudly produces heirloom fruits and vegetables for Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica cuisine. At Buona Tavola, Antonio Varia cooks with love, serving meals in a covered garden patio that delivers delightful Tuscan vibes. Pull up a chair outdoors at Mistura in The Creamery Marketplace for authentic, multi-cultural Peruvian cuisine from house-grown organic produce.


Fifteen minutes’ drive from downtown, 30 wineries produce noteworthy Edna Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a coastal climate, notably California’s coolest AVA. On average, only five miles from the ocean, the conditions also suit varietals such as Syrah and Viognier as well as aromatic whites like Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.

Chamisal Vineyards is housed in a casual red barn set in a poppy field with picnic tables and sunbrellas beside  the vines.  Malene Wines operates a sister brand, exclusively rosés, out of a shiny mobile Airstream, pouring crisp, refreshing wines in an outdoors setting.

Reconnect with nature at Wolff Vineyards, an ecologically friendly, certified sustainable family-owned property planted to 53 acres of Chardonnay, 34 acres of Pinot Noir, and 14 acres of Teroldego, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Riesling — all benefiting from coastal influences and minimal intervention.

One of Edna Valley’s premier family wineries, Tolosa Winery, is a partner in the Alpha Omega Collective,   showcasing Burgundian varietals Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the region. The Tolosa tasting room has an expansive bar and a view of the tank room; there are nooks for two overlooking the barrel room, while the club members’ Heritage Room has vineyard views.

Get more far-reaching views from the spacious open-plan tasting room at Edna Valley Vineyard, where Islay Peak volcano grabs attention. Equally attention-getting is the portfolio lineup of a flagship Chardonnay plus five other varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio,  and Sauvignon Blanc.


Find out why they call it “world-famous.” Part street fair and part open-air shopping, Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market is a 45-year- long favorite. It’s every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. along six lively blocks of Higuera Street between Osos and Nipomo streets.

Bubblegum Alley is another downtown point of interest that keeps on growing—literally. It’s anybody’s guess how many extra globs of chewing gum are stuck to its walls every year, but germaphobes be warned. The 70-foot-long alleyway measures 15 feet tall, off Higuera Street, between Broad and Garden streets.

Lace up sneakers for an easy climb at Terrace Hill Open Space, where a half-mile trail gives access to views from its flat top  at 110 feet. Or hike Bishop Peak, 3.5 miles out-and-back to 1,559 feet for a panorama of neighboring volcanic peaks called “Nine Sisters.” This chain includes the famed Morro Rock, created about 20 million years ago when volcanic plugs of magma welled up and solidified inside softer rock that has eroded.

Choices get tougher when it comes to deciding on a beach for a breath of salty air. The Whale Trail incorporates SLO’s 80 miles of coastline, so keep a lookout, especially from December through April. Among coastal towns near SLO, tiny Avila Beach is laid back yet complete with a historic pier, bike paths, and a hot spring. The waves attract surfers, and Hula Hut on Front Street is a sweet tooth magnet (check out Doc Bernstein’s ice cream and Grandma Lizzy’s homemade fudge). At Pismo  Beach  and Shell  Beach,  there  are vast expanses beneath steep bluffs and family fun at Dinosaur Caves Park, an 11-acre public open space.


Not one, but two, newish, stylish downtown hotels have raised the bar on cool SLO accommodation, each with an accent on modern sophistication and relaxation.

Hotel Cerro is purpose-built behind two vintage façades on Garden Street, covering almost an entire city block in an enviable location. It has 65 guest rooms and garden suites (with real, edible herbs), an impressive spa, 360-degree views from the rooftop pool and bar, plus a Mediterranean cuisine-led destination restaurant, Brasserie SLO, where Executive Chef Kenny Seliger is at the helm.

A block from Mission Plaza on Palm Street, Hotel San Luis Obispo is an eco-conscious 78-room boutique property including six suites, a lobby lounge and fireplace, Sol Spa, fitness center with  bar  and  bocce ball.
At  the  adjacent Ox + Anchor restaurant,  Executive  Chef Ryan Fancher continues his new outdoor winemaker dinner series with leading local winery partners into 2021.

If showy and kitschy playful design is one’s calling, Madonna Inn is a five minutes’ drive out of town. A showplace of 110 distinctly different guestrooms, where Barbie doll pink meets cowboy hammered copper,  there’s  a gift shop, a plush restaurant, even daily guided horseback rides on the trails behind the hotel. The main draw, however, is the men’s room waterfall urinal.




Article By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr