17 Cool Things to Do in San Luis Obispo On Your Central California Vacation

Just a stone’s throw away from some of California’s major cities, San Luis Obispo is the premier Central California destination. Located off the Central Coast of California, this city has a small-town feel that makes it the perfect place to enjoy spectacular views, peace, and relaxation. With countless things to do in San Luis Obispo, CA, you’ll never want to leave.

San Luis Obispo is a vibrant city that enjoys year-round sunshine with the beautiful Santa Lucia Mountains forming the perfect backdrop. State parks, beaches, museums, and vineyards are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the top San Luis Obispo points of interest. Whether for families, a group trip with friends, or a romantic getaway, SLO is the perfect Central California vacation hotspot.

Not quite sure what to do or where to go? Use this complete guide to the best places to visit in San Luis Obispo, CA, to plan your trip.

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Pismo Beach

With 60 acres of shoreline, Pismo Beach is the quintessential California Central Coast beach town. The beach is a popular destination for bodyboarders and surfers thanks to its active and steady waves. The waters at Pismo Beach are also popular for kayaking, scuba diving, and sailing.

Pismo Beach

Back on the beach, you can enjoy volleyball and sunbathing on the perfect, white sands. You can even get in some fishing straight off the pier. Pismo Beach Pier is full of life with cafes, shops, and restaurants. Pismo Beach offers safety and convenience with its public restroom, showers, parking, and lifeguards. 

If you visit during the right times, Pismo Beach hosts a number of exciting festivals, including the Kite Expo, Art in the Sand, and a yearly jazz festival.

Avila Beach

Head down Highway 101 to Avila Beach for calm waves that are perfect for beginners who are looking to try their hand at surfing or bodyboarding. San Luis Obispo County’s premier beach is a haven for those looking to take advantage of fun outdoor activities. Avila Beach’s white-sand shores and blue waters are perfect for fishing, kayaking, sailing, and paddleboarding.

Avila Beach

Just minutes from Avila Beach, set aside a day to visit Avila Hot Springs, an oasis for families. You’ll find breathtaking mineral water hot springs and thermal soaking pools, perfect for swimming, soaking, and the ultimate way to find peace and serenity.

Just a few miles further, head over to the Avila Valley Barn and explore an old-fashioned rustic farm with the family. You can pick fresh fruit like apples and berries while feeding the farm animals.

Avila Valley Barn has a country store, a bakery, a sweets shop, and a BBQ pit shack, where you can buy fresh food and delicious meats!

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Surround yourself in natural beauty at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. Located right off the Pacific Coast, the 150-acre garden is one of the coolest places to see in San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is devoted to displaying, educating, and preserving plant ecosystems from all around the world. Visitors are treated to gorgeous green landscapes, lush gardens, and awe-inspiring plants and trees.

You can get lost for hours exploring and admiring the natural beauty of San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens, but if you head inside, you’ll find just as much to enjoy. You can find horticultural libraries, educational displays, and botanical art throughout the grounds and in the center.

Morro Bay State Park

Morro Bay State Park is the best way to spend a day trip from San Luis Obispo with countless things to do & see. The park’s greatest feature is Morro Rock, an impressive, giant 581-foot volcanic rock that’s sure to astound you. After you’ve admired its striking presence, explore Morro Bay State Park’s lagoons, saltwater marshes, hiking trails, and bird-watching spots.

Morro Bay State Park

Fishing and sailing are favorites at Morro Strand State Beach, the park’s beautiful beach. You can even visit the park’s museum, which covers the park’s history and geology.

If you want to extend your day trip, pack your bags for an overnight stay at the 135-capacity campsite area. Wake up early to tee off on the park’s 18-hole golf course. 

Madonna Inn

Operating for over six decades, the Madonna Inn is a landmark hotel that’s become well-known to California residents and visitors alike. The inn’s claim to fame is its unique and eclectically styled rooms.

Madonna Inn

Although you might think the hotel is named after the famed pop star, it was actually designed and created by Alex Madonna, an entrepreneur in the construction industry.

The famed pink hotel in San Luis Obispo comes with a heated infinity pool, hot tubs, and a magnificent waterfall that stretches 45 feet high. You can have dinner at the Madonna Inn’s steakhouse lounge, grab a delicious pastry at its bakery, or enjoy a drink at its hilltop terrace bar with a view. 

When booking, you’ll get to choose from over 100 individually themed rooms, including the Vintage Room, the Rose Room, the Italy, American Beauty, the Caveman, and the Love Nest. You’re sure to love whichever quirky and lively selection you choose.

Bishop Peak

For an inspiring outdoor experience around San Luis Obispo, plan a morning at the majestic Bishop Peak. This 1,559-foot mountain is the most summited peak in the San Luis Obispo area. One of the nine mountains in the Nine Sisters range, Bishop Peak is the tallest and most awe-inspiring.

Bishop Peak

Traversing to the summit of Bishop Peak can be a bit of a workout, but the views from the top of this iconic California landmark are well worth it. There are different trails with varying lengths and elevation levels depending on where you start. Be prepared for a 3.5- to 4.2-mile roundtrip hike, depending on the path you choose.

Be sure to go to Bishop Peak right before dusk or dawn to catch a spectacular view of the sun rising or setting over the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

Arroyo Grande

Only a twenty-minute drive south of San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande is a quaint city with lots to do and see. Perfect for a one-day getaway, Arroyo Grande will transport you to the charm of small-town California.

Arroyo Grande

Head over to the haunted pizza parlor for a captivating story and a delicious bite. Afterward, visit Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, where you can create your own flavors. If your ice cream invention is a hit with others, they’ll even put it on the menu! Enjoy the city’s vineyard, which has been serving fine wines for three decades.

If you don’t want to leave beautiful Arroyo Grande just yet, stay in one of the many pleasant inns that the city offers.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Located in the heart of downtown, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is an important and integral part of the city. Founded in the 18th century, the historic Spanish mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra. Once dedicated to spreading the word of Christianity, today, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa welcomes guests from all walks of life.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Enjoy one of the many tours highlighting the history and beauty of the grounds. Marvel at the Mission Plaza area, walk the beautiful gardens, visit the onsite museum, and take a stroll near San Luis Creek.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa gardens continue to be beautifully cultivated for visitors to enjoy, while the museum houses historical artifacts from the mission.

Bubblegum Alley

One of the city’s most popular attractions, Bubblegum Alley is a San Luis Obispo landmark. Located on Higuera Street, the alleyway is 70 feet long with two walls—both 15 feet high. Bubblegum Alley’s walls are covered in almost two million pieces of gum left by locals and visiting tourists.

Bubblegum Alley

Located in downtown San Luis Obispo, this small alleyway attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, making this a popular spot for pictures and selfies.

Even though the Higuera Street alley is professionally cleaned monthly, you may not want to touch the gum-covered walls. The photo-ops in Bubblegum Alley will keep you plenty entertained before heading out to explore the many dining options in downtown SLO. 

Sunset Drive-In Theatre

Looking for a relaxing and unique evening? Head over to Sunset Drive-In Theatre, one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the state of California. Take a trip back in time to the height of cinema and watch a film from the comfort of your vehicle with sound from your radio as loud (or low) as you want.

Sunset Drive-In offers double features, showing the newest movie releases at family-friendly prices. It’s worth noting that this cinema does not accept cards, so bring cash for your movie ticket entrance as well as the tasty concessions.

Make sure to arrive at the Sunset Drive-In when the gates open so that you can find the perfect parking spot with the best view of the giant outdoor screen. Films start at sundown (around 8:30 pm) to avoid the glare. Prepare for a fairly late finish; it’s definitely worth the incredible, nostalgic experience.

San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum

Enjoy a history lesson on California’s fascinating locomotive history at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. The museum is home to railroad displays and artifacts, covering everything from Amtrak to Union Pacific and every railway in between.

The 1,200-square-foot railroad model at San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is a fascinating display that’ll give you insight into the inner workings of trains in intricate detail.

Bring out your inner child and marvel at the railroad display exhibit for hours. The kids can take advantage of the interactive train tables where they can play and learn all day! 

Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard

Located right next door to California Polytechnic State University, the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard is a must-visit when visiting Central California. Architect students at the university use the graveyard as their own personal playground to build structures and practice their skills.

Each year, a competition between architecture students results in the graveyard we see today. The structures built during the Cal Poly Canyon Design Village Competition are left behind for visitors to enjoy. 

Perfect for countless photo ops, visit the underground house, the blade structure house, the shell house, and more. There are so many experimental structures at the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard that you won’t be able to explore them all in one visit.

One of the top tourist attractions in San Luis Obispo, this fascinating architectural site will both keep you entertained for hours and provide countless photography opportunities. 

Leaning Pine Arboretum

Much like the students responsible for the structures at Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard, the Leaning Pine Arboretum is also designed and maintained by the students at Cal Poly State University. With the university’s hands-on approach to learning, horticultural students have built the gardens at the arboretum. 

Through lab exercises, class projects, and individual efforts, students have designed the many gardens at Leaning Pine. The gardens feature plants and flowers from all over the world, resulting in a beautiful ensemble of greenery.

When visiting the five-acre Leaning Pine Arboretum, you’ll also be treated to scenic views of Central California’s coastal mountains in the background.

San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

Your family trip to SLO isn’t complete without a visit to the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. With three floors of fun, an outdoor patio play area, and countless interactive exhibits, your little ones will never tire of this downtown attraction. 

The hands-on displays are perfect for visual learning and interactive education. Your little ones can enjoy the play area, build forts, learn about gravity, pretend shop, and more. The permanent exhibits are perfect for children up to ten years old, while the new, temporary displays are sure to entertain visitors of all ages. 

Cerro San Luis Obispo

Located just a short distance from downtown, the Cerro San Luis Obispo is a giant mountain in the Nine Sisters range. The 1,292-foot peak is one of the nine prominent mountains in the range, providing a picturesque backdrop for the San Luis Obispo area.

Cerro San Luis Obispo

Also referred to as Madonna Mountain, the majestic Cerro San Luis Obispo has a number of trails that you can use to hike to its peak. Most trails are at least four miles roundtrip, so get ready for a day’s worth of hiking and sightseeing.

The light trek is more than worth it as the trails are scenic, and the summit offers breathtaking views of Central California and the Pacific Ocean.

Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards

The perfect day trip is only a short drive away at Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards. Operating for a little over two decades, the vineyard is run by Dolores and Dick Kelsey, who tend to it with love and care. The result is a sprawling property with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir estates and over 200 roaming wild peacocks who have become family to the owners and visitors. 

Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards is a family-run operation with the Kelsey children and even grandchildren helping around the property.

The vineyard welcomes you to bring your own food as you enjoy a wine-tasting experience by the glass or bottle in their beautiful outdoor picnic area.

Try one of their delicious reds, whites, or even the sparkling ciders that Kelsey specializes in.

Montaña de Oro State Park

Get a rental or take your car on a great road trip to Montana de Oro State Park where you’ll find plenty to do. This park includes an incredible array of natural features, spanning over 8,000 acres.

Montaña de Oro State Park

Enjoy rugged cliffs and coastal plains as you hike. Afterward, one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo is to take a dip in the streams or at one of its exclusive sandy beaches like Spooner’s Cove. You can even hike the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak mountain, offering sweeping views of the park’s natural beauty. 

Montana de Oro State Park includes campsites and RV access for those looking to extend their trip. Visitors can hike and bike the trails, eat in the picnic areas, fish, scuba dive, snorkel, or take advantage of the park’s guided tours.


Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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