Not too many years ago, visitors to San Luis Obispo focused on classic spots: the historic Spanish mission, the over-the-top Madonna Inn with its must-see men’s room, and downtown’s goofy Bubblegum Alley.
Old, kitschy and downright weird.
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo seemed like the Golden State’s misbegotten navel — a way station between two world-class destinations. A few locals might even remember its brief flirtation with the nickname Middle Kingdom.
But lately this community of about 47,000 has become the rising star of Central California, attracting visitors with craft breweries, a pedestrian- and bike-friendly downtown, vibrant restaurant scene, live music, new hotel projects and plenty of outdoor experiences, all within 15 minutes of beaches and wine country.
San Luis Obispo’s transformation is happening as the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and the loss of 1,500 jobs is putting entrepreneurs at the forefront of job creation. Tech companies such as Mindbody and startup incubators like HotHouse, a collaboration between Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the community, are bringing a fresh infusion of creativity to a region once dominated by agriculture. At the same time, the city is taking steps to keep downtown relevant as a destination.
“Without tourism, we’re a little town surrounding a university,” says Paula Dooley, who along with her husband, Stephen, owns Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, an urban winery. “College students don’t usually raise the dining here.”
Dooley, a resident since 1987 who says she’s loved every stage that SLO has been in, acknowledges some residents grumble about the changes, particularly to the historic downtown. “We all want the best parts of town to stay the same. But as an organism, it has to progress.”
That has meant shaking off the sleepy college town image with events that draw locals and visitors downtown. In addition to the popular Thursday night Farmers’ Market that turns five blocks of Higuera Street into a weekly food festival, there are plenty of other happenings to build a visit around: On the first Friday of the month, galleries put out the welcome mat for Art After Dark. Seasonal events include the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in the spring, Concerts in the Plaza during summer, and the Brews and Bites beer fest in September. A visit to the SLO Museum of Art is a must, as is the Mission, especially if you have a California fourth-grader, most of whom study the missions.
And, if you insist, Bubblegum Alley.
Start your day on the Creekside Walk, the sort of asset that helped earn the city a Blue Zones designation, given to communities that prioritize quality of life. The path, which is maintained with the help of residents, starts at Nipomo Street and borders San Luis Obispo Creek for three shady blocks. Along the way you’ll see art installations and, if you’re lucky, maybe a salmon or two. It emerges at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the 1772 landmark whose bells are still rung by hand at noon and 6 p.m. every day. The gardens and museum are open every day and admission is free.
A short walk takes you to Mint and Craft, a 16-month-old fast-casual cafe and mercantile and one of several restaurants that feed the community’s obsession with healthy eating. The morning menu includes breakfast sandwiches, granola, baked items and “toasties” including the Obispo, with bacon, egg and avocado layered on whole-grain bread. Order at the counter. While you wait, browse the hand-crafted housewares at the front of the cafe. For third-wave coffee, head over to Scout, a local hangout where you can order your craft-roasted latte with house-made almond milk.
Burn off breakfast (and lighten your wallet) at shops downtown. San Luis Obispo has its share of chain stores, but there are plenty of boutiques tucked between to keep it from feeling like a mall.
“In the past five years, we’ve seen the biggest jump in the variety of businesses in downtown,” says Kimberly Walker, a part owner of the Granada Hotel and Bistro.
Visit Len Collective for minimalist metal jewelry by Shannon Len and handmade housewares. Ruby Rose specializes in vintage clothing, shoes and furnishings plucked from flea markets, thrift stores and estate sales. Shop the new and used vinyl, DVDs, CDs and merchandise at Boo Boo Records, a 44-year-old institution where you can also get the scoop on the local music scene (and, if you’re lucky, catch an in-store performance).
It wouldn’t be a visit to San Luis Obispo without a hike. Last year, the city added 154 acres to its greenbelt, and there are miles of trails to explore. Consider your options over lunch at Nourish, a tiny cafe next to the Granada Hotel. The menu caters to just about every dietary niche, with smoothies, seasonal grain bowls and soups, and composed salads.
Cerro San Luis or Bishop’s Peak? A hike up the morros — volcanic plugs — is the best way to take in the distinctive landscape surrounding the city. They’re part of the Nine Sisters, a chain of peaks that stretches from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. Bishop’s Peak is a challenging 3.9-mile out-and-back hike with a series of switchbacks and a final scramble up rocks to take in 360-degree views at the top. Cerro San Luis (the peak with the M on it) is a more leisurely 4-mile loop with equally rewarding views.
Back in town, libations await. The area’s craft brew artisans are among the best in the state. The city has several breweries and taprooms ranging from tiny 7 Sisters to Central Coast Brewing, which recently opened a second location in town. For unusual sours and small-batch wild ales, go to Libertine’s new restaurant and brewery. Bang the Drum makes experimental beer in three-barrel batches using fruit, flowers and tea.
You’re in the heart of Central Coast wine country, so you could rent a bike and ride out to Edna Valley to taste aromatic white wines. Or you could sample the range of varietals made here at the Station. This hip little wine bar and shop in a former filling station hosts Industry Night pop-ups on Tuesday nights where you can mingle with winemakers. On Fridays, food trucks pull up to the garage doors.
It would be a good idea to time your visit for the Thursday night Farmers’ Market. Stroll over to Higuera Street and wait with 10,000 other shoppers for the Mission bells to ring at 6 p.m., signaling the start of the party. Listen to live music on each block while you whet your appetite with roasted fresh corn or go all in with tri-tip, the unofficial dish of San Luis Obispo.
Also on Higuera is the stylish Flour House, where Neapolitan-style pizzas are pulled from the wood-fired oven pillowy, scorched and blistered, with toppings such as walnut pesto, bacon and mozzarella di bufala. On Mondays, pizzas are served by the half and whole meter, with choice of three to six tastings. House-made pastas are also a highlight. A few streets over, Vegetable Butcher’s Latin-inspired menu features vegetarian dishes that are as tempting as the meat offerings. All highlight locally grown or raised products.
If you’ve had your fill of virtuous eating, indulge at Batch, where you can order small-batch ice cream sandwiched between freshly baked cookies.
The night is young and the city’s entertainment scene is just warming up. The Art Deco Fremont Theater hosts about 150 shows a year, many featuring touring bands traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“They’re getting all the big acts that come through,” says Mike White, owner of Boo Boo Records.
For art films, check out the three-screen Palm Theater, which shows independent films, shorts and documentaries. It also happens to be America’s first solar-powered theater. In the downtown entertainment district, SLO Brew hosts concerts, comedy nights and events such as Battle of the Bands and a drag revue.
End the evening with a nightcap on the patio at the Granada Hotel and Bistro. The SLO down (watermelon-infused vodka, Cappelletti, Chareau, bianco vermouth, lemon, basil) seems like a proper way to wrap up the day.
Article by the San Francisco Chronicle