San Luis Obispo, California: SLO CAL at its best
There are so many great towns on California’s Central Coast. We moved on from the Santa Maria Valley to the San Luis Obispo area (SLO) before hitting up Cambria and loved it (I know, we love every city we visit). We’re pretty excited to share this awesome place, as it’s home to some great culture, nature and fun! And they call it SLO CAL, so you know there’s an aspect to the city that’s all about keeping a mellow vibe.
Before this visit, we’d only really known San Luis Obispo as a college town, home to CalPoly SLO. It’s more than that though and actually doesn’t even have the feel of a college town. Check out our ideas for spending a few days (or more) in SLO CAL and you’ll be ready to hit the road and chill like we did.
What you'll find...
Locale of San Luis Obispo
Smack dab between San Francisco and Los Angeles, SLO CAL is directly on Highway 101 making it impossible to miss if you’re doing a road trip. A lot of people wanting to visit California are seeking out the wine towns up in Napa and Sonoma, but there is awesome wine country in the SLO area, such as Paso Robles or the Santa Maria Valley. SLO CAL puts you in the perfect spot for both!
And if you are touring colleges and trying to make life decisions, San Luis Obispo (SBP) is an easy flight from nearly any west coast airport… which is also nice if you have parents that will want to visit you or fly you home on a regular basis. Can you tell that we’re already thinking about these things even though our kids are so young?
Outdoor adventures around SLO CAL
No road trip is complete for us if we’re not doing activities in the fresh air. We’ve tried to keep that a constant theme for traveling with kids, so thank goodness SLO CAL is all about the perfect blend of culture and recreation.
Kayaking on Morro Bay
You know how much we love to get out on the water for kayaking, right? Well, Morro Bay State Park was the perfect spot for it. We worked with the Kayak Shack within the Morro Bay State Park marina to head out into the bay in search of sea otters. We didn’t get to spot any of them (bummer, total fav) but we did see a sea lion, osprey and a whole pelican nesting ground. The kids loved the crazy pelican activity to start the day.
Tip: apparently the sea otters hang out in the cove area around the large marina of the town of Morro Bay. Other kayakers told us that they’ve had amazing luck spotting the once endangered cuddly critters.
For the second part of our kayaking, we moved from the center of Morro Bay onto the dunes area, also part of the State Park. If you’ve never experienced them, sand dunes are really cool and so much fun! We paddled across the Morro Bay State Marine Reserve and ran our kayaks ashore at the base of the dunes. After crossing the sand flat (totally felt like walking on marshmallows) we started scaling the sand dunes.
The kids had loads of fun running up and down the dunes and crashing into the soft, hot sand. A perfect morning activity. We love kayaking adventures and the added thrill of exploring the dunes made starting our day in SLO CAL even better!
Tip: set some ground rules with kids before letting them loose on sand dunes. The sand is exhausting to hike across and it can be hot, so be wise about the amount of time on the dunes. Also, remember that sand gets into eyes really easily, especially when it’s dry and windy, so depending on weather conditions, this could be a problem.
Hiking Cerro San Luis Obispo
When we were looking at our itinerary for SLO CAL we were glad to see that we had a chance for some hiking… while still within the city. Driving over to Cerro San Luis Obispo we were directed by somebody in the neighborhood as to where to park and how to get to the sights along the trail.
We were hiking to the lemon grove via the Lemon Grove Loop, which was pretty cool and totally random. We got some beautiful views of San Luis Obispo and the kids were totally into checking out the modest but interesting lemon grove on the hillside. While this might not sound like the most interesting sight, when you’re hiking with kids it’s a great surprise for the day.
Tip: don’t forget to bring water. There are no water stations at the start or along the trail, so be prepared.
Beach time at Montaña de Oro State Park
We love California State Parks. We had a great time as Oso Flaco down in the Santa Maria Valley, so to add another one just up the coast took no convincing. Montaña de Oro State Park is located down the hill from the city of San Luis Obispo, past the town of Los Osos. To get to the beach, you’ve got to wind through the high hills and eucalyptus groves until you’re down at sea level. It’s a beautiful drive and worth just doing that.
Once you’re through the winding spots, Spooner’s Cove is a really cool beach to hang at and explore. The sand is chunky and full of interesting shells, there are smooth rock strips of the beach, a smaller cove, some sea caves, tide pools… Shall I go on? This one stop will eat up an afternoon or a whole day if you want. There are also hiking trails going up from Spooner’s Cove to get you up to some of the incredible coastal views within Montaña de Oro State Park.
Tip: bring a beach blanket if you want to spend any time just relaxing. The makeup of the beach (sand/shells/rocks) isn’t the most comfortable for laying out, so be prepared if you want to spend time relaxing… as is the SLO CAL way.
Fun in Downtown San Luis Obispo
SLO is such a cool town. Really. Besides the fact that it’s very walkable and interesting just as you wander the streets, it’s also got a cool urban-jungle type path that winds along the creek flowing through the town. Add to that an alleyway covered in gum (gross) and lot’s of great food and sights and you’ll love it too!
Visiting Mission San Luis Obispo
We’ve visited several missions with the kids and they’re always both interested and not. As adults we really enjoyed the sight of it all and the history, but for younger kids it’s not a top pick.
It is a very well maintained, active mission and it offered both educational opportunities as well as just a nice, quiet place to sit and observe. What we dads enjoyed the most about Mission San Luis Obispo were the ancient grapes vines in the courtyard (not for picking though) and the beautiful paintings on the walls inside the chapel. The flowers lining the nave were really pretty and very unusual.
Tip: if you can arrive at the right time, there are docent-led tours of Mission San Luis Obispo. We were able to join the end of one and it was fascinating.
San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
We really needed this stop. The boys love their children’s museums and also are truly appreciative when we can spend time in a new one. The San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum had some super cool exhibits that kept the kids occupied for a loooong time. I had to break them away so we could grab lunch… and then we had to return directly following lunch.
The coolest thing for the kids though was the topographic map sand: pliable sand that you could build with that had a sensor and lighting above it, responding to the shapes of the sand to make topographic maps. My adult mind was blown away. The staff was also very nice and we felt extra welcome.
Tip: even though a children’s museum seems like a place you can let your kids wander and you can just zone into your phone or something, don’t do it. Pay attention to what your kids are captivated by and get involved with their playing. You might have just as much fun.
Dining around SLO CAL
A wonderful thing we noticed about San Luis Obispo almost immediately was the amount of outdoor and open air seating. We were fortunate enough to get to try several spots that let us enjoy the sunshine and cool breezes of SLO.
Our first SLO CAL meal was at the Flour House. What a cool restaurant! We love Neapolitan style pizza… and Italian apps. Flour House used some delicious combinations of traditional Italian ingredients paired with California flare. Fennel sausage and broccoli or bacon and mushrooms, the pizzas were perfect. And there were scallops and carpaccio too… Also, the beverages were delicious. Using interesting liqueurs like nocino and orgeat, the concoctions were a nice change from wine. Don’t get me wrong, we were totally excited to try more of the Central Coast’s wines, but a craft cocktail is always appreciated.
Other spots we found delicious food with the SLO CAL vibe were Mint + Craft and Big Sky. Both were all about tasty California fusion food. We enjoyed the gambit, from California style bahn mi to paella and ahi tacos. Never a dull meal.
Also, SLO Provisions was an awesome spot with kids. A deli-counter style lunch spot re-imagined to be something more (and with delicious salads), SLO Provisions was reminded us of the type of restaurant we would love to open some day. Clean, good food with local ingredients and an uplifting atmosphere, it was the perfect final meal for us while in SLO CAL.
Tip: when you’re in a cool town like San Luis Obispo, take advantage of the local restaurants that you won’t find anywhere else. Local dining typically supports local farmers and you’ll get the best impression of the local cuisine, and in the case of SLO, fresh California fusion.
Oh!! And we almost forgot!! Can you visit or drive through San Luis Obispo without visiting the Madonna Inn? We had breakfast one day at the Copper Cafe at the Madonna Inn and loved the kitchy craziness of the property. The kids’ favorite feature was, of course, the waterfall bathroom downstairs from the steakhouse. Who doesn’t want to pee into a waterfall? Our food wasn’t mind-blowingly great, but the atmosphere was fun and ideal with kids.
Where to stay in SLO CAL: the Apple Farm Inn
We arrived at our hotel, the Apple Farm Inn, a bit early, but that just meant that we got to relax and spend some time at the pool. Down-time is so important when you’re traveling with kids, so we were glad to enjoy the gardens and the pool area at the Apple Farm.
Being completely farm themed, the Apple Farm Inn was so different from any other hotels we’ve stayed at in the past. Everything was country chic, including our rooster covered bedspreads. The best part though was for sure the layout of our room. We had a type of suite that was very long with a large bathroom, a sleeping area, and then a sitting area with a fireplace. When you travel as much as we do, you really come to appreciate spacious rooms, especially when there’s some separation and you can stay up later than the kids.
Overall, the Apple Farm Inn was a very nice, quiet place for our family and we enjoyed our time there. It’s not flashy like some of the places we’ve stayed in Puerto Rico or downtown Seattle, but the people were wonderful and we felt quite at home.
We’ll no doubt be back to SLO CAL in the future. We didn’t get to check out all of the surrounding towns, such as Los Osos or Morro Bay (the town itself), Avila or Pismo Beach… We’ll have to return in the summer to get the rest of the experience. The chill vibe of SLO CAL was great amidst a busy schedule with kids and we’d recommend it as a stopover or main destination for any family heading out on a California Coast road trip.
Want to pin this for planning your next California road trip? Go for it!