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The Very Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo offers museums, a historic downtown, hiking trails, hot springs, wineries, and even a vintage drive-in theater! This travel destination is a great place to stay busy or to do nothing but lay on the beach and listen to the lapping surf at one of the many pristine beaches. This tranquil California community couldn’t be more conveniently located: it's right between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Perfectly positioned at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains, San Luis Obispo calls itself the “Happiest city in America.” Maybe this is due to locals and visitors being treated with 315 days of sunshine per year. Maybe it’s the laid-back culture, access to sandy beaches, or rich history as a Spanish mission founded in 1772. Whatever the reason, San Luis Obispo is a magical place with something for everybody. Let’s explore this jewel of the western coast.

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01Hiking and hot springs

View towards San Luis Obispo as seen from the trail to Bishop Peak, California Sundry Photography / Getty Images

For nature lovers, San Luis Obispo has plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch your legs. From the undulating Oceano Dunes to the Irish Hills Nature Preserve, there are plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in nature. For those looking for a little more of a challenge, take on hiking to the top of Bishop’s Peak.

At the end of a long day on the hills, it's time to rest your bones at the Avila Valley Hot Springs. This outdoor swimming pool has a water slide and an outdoor picnic area with barbecue grills.

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02Be a beach bum

View from the cliffs above Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo, California Eifel Kreutz / Getty Images

If you're looking for some beach therapy, there are three pristine beaches near San Luis Obispo. Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, and Avila Beach draw surfers, bodyboarders, and sunbathers. Animal lovers enjoying whale watching during migration season or spotting sea lions, dolphins, starfish, and crabs year-round.

These calm waters are perfect for swimming — or, try your hand at fishing from the pier. Don't forget the check out the fresh seafood from a nearby local restaurant.

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03Take a stroll around historic downtown

Main entrance gate to Spanish Mission in Historic Downtown San Luis Obispo , California ehughes / Getty Images

An old Spanish mission town founded in the 1700s, the historic downtown district of San Luis Obispo offers history buffs a guided walking tour full of adobe buildings, churches, and Spanish-style architecture from the colonial era. Higuera Street is a tree-lined avenue peppered with cafés, shops, and local restaurants.

If you're not looking for a tour guide, on Monterey Street you'll find a visitor center that provides free maps, brochures, and guidebooks. Be sure to check out the remains of the city's old Chinatown that whisper of the once vibrant Chinese community that settled here in the late 19th century.

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04Visit the mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Obispo , California NNehring / Getty Images

Father Junipero Serra chose San Luis Obispo as the location of one of California’s most beautiful missions. He made an excellent choice, with the superb weather year-round and plenty of fresh water.

This Spanish-style adobe church is beautiful within and without, complete with a garden filled with grapevines and roses. The inside is painted with traditional Spanish frescoes along its walls and arches. The mission also houses a small museum that highlights its Spanish history and pays tribute to the Native American tribes of the area.

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05Tour the museums of San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is home to multiple facilities documenting its past. The Children’s Museum is a great place to keep the kids busy with engaging interactive exhibits.

Maybe art calls your attention more than other aspects of history? The Art Museum downtown showcases the creative talents of California artists, with a busy calendar of events including workshops, films, and traveling art exhibits.

The Railroad Museum will thrill history buffs and kids alike with plenty of training models and full-size decommissioned railway cars.

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06Make a day trip to Hearst Castle

When it comes to unique and breathtaking architecture, architect Julia Morgan outdid herself with the construction of Hearst Castle. This throwback to the roaring 20s was built as a mansion for the Hearst family, combining styles from Greek, medieval castles, and Roman-style bathhouses.

This modern masterpiece showcases an extravagant style with marble statues and gold-plated mosaics. As a modern marvel, Hearst castle has left a luxurious touch just 45 minutes from San Luis Obispo on the California coastline.

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07Get stuck in Bubblegum Alley

Thousands of pieces of bubble-gum stuck on the walls in Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo, California LeaveWithSteve / Getty Images

While enjoying your visit to the historic downtown district, don't forget to stop by Bubblegum Alley. This quirky addition stands in juxtaposition to the old town. Local legend places the start of this fun phenomenon in the 50s when youngsters would stick their bubblegum to the wall. The tradition continues to the present day and invites you to contribute. The more than 200-foot alley is covered with wads of bubblegum. Many have heralded this as a modern art kaleidoscopic masterpiece. One can just imagine the sheer number of people that have contributed to this collaborative effort totaling tens of thousands of pieces of pre-chewed gum.

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08Make your way to the market

San Luis Obispo has vibrant local farmers' markets. Often, local chefs can be seen buying their fresh fruits and veggies to create their culinary delights.

San Luis Obispo has always had a first-class reputation for great eats. The variety of local and imported produce might even inspire you to try your own hand at becoming a Michelin Star chef. Pick up a snack or plan a delicious home-cooked meal at one of the markets around the city.

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09Take a wine-tasting tour

vineyards at sunset Dennis Swanson - Studio 101 West Photography / Getty Images

The temperate climate of San Luis Obispo makes it the perfect location for wineries, and many are producing world-class wines, most famous for pinot noir and chardonnay. Stroll through a rolling countryside filled with vineyards, wine tastings, and artisanal cheese offerings. The wine will warm you up from inside and the California sunshine from the outside on this boozy day trip.

The two most famous wineries are the Filipponi Ranch and Croma Wines, which both invite guests to sit and sip their way through the menu.

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10Get cozy at Sunset Drive-In

If you're feeling nostalgic, check out Sunset Drive-In. The California coast was once dotted with this retro date night option, but such theatres now off a rare opportunity to cuddle up and take in a movie from the comfort of your car.

Tune into the audio feed on your car stereo, roll down your windows and enjoy the cool California night air. Don't forget to check out the yummy and budget-friendly treats offered at the concessions stand. This unique entertainment choice was the go-to for your parents, and now you, too, can enjoy a vintage movie from the comfort of your car.

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