Jack Kerouac lived there, along with Weird Al Yankovic. If you can’t find something to love in San Luis Obispo, you just aren’t trying. It’s 10 minutes from both that legendary Pacific surf and the award-winning vineyards (and some 27 tasting rooms) of Edna Valley. Right smack in the middle of it is a lively local art and food scene. And the weather…we suppose that you could eat inside, but why?
Founded in 1772 by the Friar Junipero Serra as a mission, San Luis Obispo is a lot more hip, and heaps more fun, than the Franciscans likely intended. Then again, they were known for wine and al fresco dining, so maybe not. Operating from its current location since 1792, the active church is still located in the heart of downtown SLO, next to the open-air Mission Plaza, home of a free concert series every Friday during the summer and lined with restaurants, shopping breweries and more year round.
Explore more history in the SLO County History Center, housed in the beautiful building built in 1905 as the library. Trek out the nearby San Lucia Mountains just to the east, or just stay in town for the breathtaking views of Bishop’s Peak, the tallest of the “Nine Sisters” (also known as the Morros peaks) a series of volcanic plugs snaking into town.
SLO is a place made for visitors. Sprung up in the intersection of the Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific rail lines, it was home to the first motel, the Milestone Mo-tel, opened in 1925 roughly at the half-way point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the last century, it has grown up into so much more.
It is home to Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center at California Polytechnic State University - Cal Poly - as well as Bubblegum Alley, a very California monument to crowd-sourced art. The origins of the tradition are debatable, but by the 1970’s kids were leaving their chewed bubblegum on the walls of the alley off Higuera Street for as long as anyone young enough to be chewing bubble gum could remember. Now everyone does it, creating a colorful lane some 20 meters long decorated with single shots of Bazooka Joe and whole names in the gummy mosaic.
For a town with a population of 45,000, there are plenty of places to stay, from the hip SLO Brew Lofts, downtown over a great craft beer tap room, to the sixties era Madonna Inn, with its wild, opulently themed “no two alike” rooms.
Fremont Theater is an Art Deco iconic, opened in 1942 and still showing first run movies on an enormous single screen just like when your grandparents went courtin’. There, along with the Palm Theatre and other unexpected venues - like the Paso Robles in Wine Country - the annual SLO International Film Festival is held, drawing Hollywood north from the big city. If you just care about the wine, stop in a Wolff Vineyards anytime, a family owned winery consistently rated as one of the top local spots to visit.
San Luis Obispo is no longer a mission, but it is history, art, food, wine, beer laid out in a cool Mediterranean climate. It isn’t quite San Francisco or Los Angeles but a best of both with beaches and vineyards, movies, music, great local food and that indefinable vibe that get it tooted as the “Happiest Place in America.” Why is it so happy? Go see for yourself.
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