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Since our move to Southern California, we have had many people (even our mailman) suggest visiting San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo frequently tops the lists of “Happiest Cities in the United States” and “Most Liveable Cities in the United States”. The Oprah Winfrey Show even labeled San Luis Obispo as the happiest city in America. With all of the glowing recommendations, how could we not see for ourselves?
For Amelia’s first overnight vacation, we thought a road trip would be best. We packed up the car, strapped on the surfboard and headed off to explore California’s Central Coast.
The closest airport is the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (KSBP). The airport currently supports American Airlines, United, Alaska, and Contour. These carriers support nine non-stop flights to the following cities: Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.
San Luis Obispo is located on California’s beautiful Central Coast. The city is almost equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The drive from San Diego is beautiful since you travel on the stunning Pacific Coast Highway most of the way. If you do drive from Southern California, make sure you factor in Los Angeles traffic. We did not factor this in and ended up arriving a lot later than anticipated.
After a good night of sleep, we set out to explore the best that San Luis Obispo had to offer.
Monarch Butterfly Grove
Start your day at the Monarch Butterfly Grove which is adjacent to Pismo State Beach. The monarch season begins in late October and ends in February. We went mid-February, and there were still many beautiful monarchs. You can actually access the dunes and beach from the walk from the butterfly grove. It’s a very easy, flat trail and perfect for families. If you like to take nature photographs, I would suggest a zoom lens to get some close shots.
Suggested time to visit: November/December
Pismo Beach & Pier
After checking out all the butterflies, drive north a short distance to Pismo Beach & Pier where you can enjoy the day at the beach or check out the pier. The town itself is small and bustling with visitors and restaurants. The pier itself was the widest pier I’ve been on and also a perfect place to take drone photography with the beach in the foreground and mountains in the background. While you’re there, check out the famous Splash Cafe for its famous clam chowder in a bread bowl (it’s delicious!). Pro-tip: You can order online or over the phone if you are doing carry-out and skip the almost always gigantic line.
Dinosaur Caves Park
Dinosaur Caves Park is a beautifully designed park that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The towering cliffs remind me of the cliffs at Black’s Beach in La Jolla, California. You can sit on one of the bluff’s benches, have a picnic, play frisbee or watch the sunset. It’s also a great place for kids because the park has the most impressive playground I’ve ever seen. Definitely a great family destination!
Avila Valley Barn
If you brought little ones along on your trip or just love animals in general, we highly suggest stopping at Avila Valley Barn. You can touch and feed the animals, snap some family photos on the haystacks, and grab some BBQ or their famous ice cream. The barn also features a market to buy fruits and veggies, pastas, cheese, jerky and more. They also have pony and tractor rides. If you go in the spring, they have u-pick berry fields! This was one of our favorite spots in the San Luis Obispo area. We loved introducing farm animals to Amelia whether she realized what was happening or not.
Downtown San Luis Obispo
Oh, SLO! I wish we had more time to visit this cute downtown area. We parked on Higueroa Street across from Firestone Grill which is a very popular restaurant. We would have eaten there, but the line was too long, and we were too hungry to wait! After devouring a pizza at Woodstock’s Pizza SLO, we walked along Higueroa Street to explore the downtown district. There is no shortage of restaurants, bars and boutiques.
We stopped by SLO’s Bubblegum Alley where you can actually stick a piece of chewed up gum to the walls (if you’re into that kind of thing). After quickly taking a photo there, we continued along Higueroa to Kreuzberg California, a spacious artsy cafe offering food options as well. The dirty vanilla chai latte I had was incredible– I highly recommend! A friend of ours told us that we needed to check out nightlife in Downtown SLO. Had we not had a 3 month old, we definitely would’ve been back downtown for a few drinks.
Although the Madonna Inn wasn’t on our list of places to visit, we kept hearing about this hotel every time we mentioned visiting SLO. After passing it so many times, we decided to stop for lunch. This hotel looks as if it’s directly out of a movie and is known for its “whimsical” (or in my opinion, gaudy) decor. Each room has a unique theme such as Floral Fantasy (a hot pink room) or Rock Bottom (which looks like you’re living in a cave).
Although you can’t see the rooms if you don’t have a reservation, we explored the hotel’s two uniquely decorated restaurants. Despite it’s quirky decoration, Madonna Inn’s Gold Rush Steakhouse actually gets pretty good reviews. We ate at the Copper Cafe which serves American classic foods that are, in my opinion, not anything special. However, we did have a huge delicious slice of Black Forest cake. If you happen to have time in your weekend in SLO, I would suggest coming here to take some pictures.
SLO Botanical Gardens
On our way to Morro Bay, we stopped at the SLO Botanical Gardens. We were the only ones there, and it was so peaceful being amongst the flowers (and hummingbirds!). If you are able-bodied, wander up the hill behind the gardens to see incredible 360 degree views of the mountains. I imagined myself as Julie Andrews singing the “Sound of Music” twirling around the hills and mountains of Austria.
So, Morro Bay isn’t actually in San Luis Obispo. It’s its own town located about 20 minutes north, but it’s added to this list because you don’t leave SLO County without seeing Morro Rock. Morro Rock is essentially a gigantic volcanic rock that makes for an absolutely beautiful photograph. You can drive right up to the rock, ride your bike or even kayak. We did neither of these, and honestly, it wasn’t necessary because the best view of Morro Rock is the view in which you’re farther away. Andrew threw up his drone and got some pretty beautiful photos at sunset. We did an in-depth post on Morro Bay, check it out here!
Morro Bay is a seaside fishing village so you will get extremely fresh seafood at any of the restaurants in town. You’ll also be able to watch sea otters (!!!) hugging and playing with each other. To get the best views of sea otters, head to the T-dock behind the Great American Fish Company. You can also find some sea lions swimming there as well. Adjacent to Morro Rock is Morro Strand State Beach, a perfect place to swim or go on a long walk with a perfect view of the Rock. In our three days in SLO, we actually visited Morro Bay twice because of its beauty and tranquility.
San Luis Obispo is the perfect destination to explore for a weekend! There are just enough things to do and places to visit. Whether you’re traveling with family, a group of friends, or alone, I highly suggest putting SLO on your list. We’ll definitely be back!
If you’re interested in more weekend getaways in California check out Fall Getaway in Big Bear Lake, California!