We just returned from spending 5 fun-filled days in San Luis Obispo, California!
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Central Coast, SLO is known for its easy-going lifestyle, rich in farm-to-table dining, an extensive wine culture and activities for all ages.
We technically visited towards the beginning of the ‘off-season’ and with days ranging from 70-90 degrees, we couldn’t believe we had the beaches to ourselves! Coming from Seattle it was completely ideal – especially when traveling with young kids.
While there are hundreds of things to do in San Luis Obispo, I’m rounding up our 21 favorite spots, plus where to stay and how to get there!
So read this post, grab your suitcase, and get ready to enjoy all that is SLO, also known as ‘The Happiest Town in America’ by National Geographic.
How To Get There
The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP) is served by United Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines. You can now fly non-stop from Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix! We took the direct Alaska Airlines flight out of Seattle (ranges from $150-$300/person) and only takes about 2 hours. We love the Gogo® Entertainment App that Alaska offers (a bonus when flying with kids!). There are dozens of shows and movies to choose from in all categories.
Mila also loves going through my camera roll…she watched this video from my husband’s Xtreme Xperience from the day before on repeat…
I’d also like to mention San Luis Obispo is accessible via Amtrak, served several times a day via the Coast Starlight from Seattle, and the Pacific Surfline from San Diego.
And by car, it’s easily accessible from either the North or South, since it’s at the junction of U.S. 101 and coastal Highway 1.
After a quick ride through the clouds, we arrived in the beautiful city of San Luis Obispo, which is home to only 48,000 residents…making it a low-key, stress-free vacation for families (read: zero traffic).
We picked up an SUV from Enterprise Rent-A-Car (which is adjacent to baggage claim). SLO’s airport is small and super user-friendly!
Now let the list begin…
#1 – Vegetable Butcher Culture Kitchen
Located downtown on Marsh Street, you’ll find the perfect fusion of Latin-American and Spanish inspired dishes that are locally sourced, serving premium meats and sustainable seafood, along with amazing vegetarian and vegan options. Our favorite dishes included the Forbidden Sesame Cauliflower (see above) and the Jeweled Sweet Potato & Corn Taco with edible flowers (see below).
Vegetable Butcher has a beautiful Spanish-style aesthetic with a modern-rustic vibe. It was the perfect welcome to SLO.
Where To Stay
San Luis Obispo has over 40 accommodation options (not including Airbnb) with more than 2,000 rooms to serve visitors year round. We had the opportunity of staying at one of the quintessential SLO-style properties, The Apple Farm Inn, located on Monterey Street, just 5 minutes from downtown.
Influenced by the Victorian era, the Apple Farm Inn offered the beautiful country charm that is familiar with the region. Welcomed by cookies, an evening wine reception, and plenty of apple cider for the girls, we immediately felt at home. Each room provides a different theme (ours were roses!) and includes a cozy fireplace, plenty of living space, and a spacious bathroom.
On the property you’ll find a restaurant and bakery (famous for their Hot Apple Dumpling), abundant flower gardens, an authentic Millhouse, Trellis Court and our favorite, the pool and jacuzzi.
During our stay we saw a variety of guests from bridal parties, wine lovers to families and couples. It really is a fantastic location for whatever brings you to SLO, whether it’s visiting local wineries, adventuring (hiking, surfing, etc.) or just enjoying the local cuisine.
#2 – Explore Downtown San Luis Obispo
In downtown San Luis Obispo you’ll find grand ficus trees providing a beautiful canopy along Higuera Street. It was one of the first things we noticed upon arriving…and I’ll be honest we even had to google it. They are incredibly massive and absolutely gorgeous.
I highly recommend you spend a few hours exploring downtown, soaking in the cultural hub made of boutiques, dining and art purveyors.
We discovered Pipsticks, the first brick and mortar shop of the famous international sticker club! They also offer a maker’s studio for all ages. And their shop was an Instagrammer’s dream (great place for a photo op!)
#3 – Mint + Craft
Known as a ‘fast-casual’ cafe, Mint + Craft offers breakfast, lunch and dinner specializing in all things handcrafted. In addition to their local wine and specialty beer labels, their mercantile offers over 300 products from over 60 artisans.
The menu was perfect for our family of 4 with varying palettes and the casual atmosphere was exactly what we needed on our first night in town.
We enjoyed the Cheese Board with local cheeses, charcuterie and artisanal accoutrements, the Indian Vegan Bowl and the Moroccan Lamb Bowl.
#3 – Cal Poly
San Luis Obispo is home to Cal Poly, which has been named the best public-masters university in the West! When in town, check out the schedule and catch a game at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Mott Athletics Center or Baggett Stadium.
#4 – Big Sky
You might be catching on that a big part of the San Luis Obispo culture is food…which if your family is anything like mine, that works out just fine. We enjoy a variety of cuisines, and being able explore the heart of the region made for a nourished soul.
If you’re looking for a hearty, home-cooked-style breakfast, I recommend Big Sky, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in San Luis Obispo that has continued to be a locals favorite for more than 20 years. A line out the door on Sunday morning gives clue to its popularity. Walking into Big Sky, you can feel the energy, a mix of brunch-goers enjoying mimosas and beignets, families enjoying buttermilk pancakes and couples enjoying the perk of breakfast being served until 1pm.
My husband loved the Crab Cakes & Spinach Benedict, I went for the Mediterranean Scramble with Fresh Fruit and my girl’s enjoyed Chocolate Chip Pancakes (with a side of Sugar & Cinnamon Beignets – the famous New Orleans french bread doughnuts).
Our favorite part was chatting with the hostess, who retired from Hollywood several years ago, moved here with the love of her life and now spends her weekends working at Big Sky merely for fun and to enjoy the company. She adds to the character of the restaurant, making you feel welcome in the Big Sky ‘kitchen.’
#5 – San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
For a daily admission cost of $8 (free for kids 2 & under!), families can enjoy an interactive learning environment that offers 3 floors of curious engagement. Nearly 50,000 guests visit the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum each year, making it a highlight of any SLO trip!
#6 – Lincoln Market & Deli
Built in 1941, Lincoln Market & Deli is San Luis Obispo’s original grocer and butcher. The deli has a wide variety of specialty sandwiches using artisan baked bread, house-made salads, soups and desserts and is adjacent to a bustling market which has become a weekend-mainstay for many.
You can pick up lunch, choose from a craft beer and local wine selection, and enjoy on their patio or alongside the kiddos as they play original-style arcade games like PAC-MAN.
Lincoln Market & Deli is definitely more than a place to grab a quick meal, so make sure to give yourself time to explore the market and revel in the SLO-lifestyle.
#7 – Talley Vineyards
With nearly two dozen wineries producing critically-acclaimed vintages in the Edna Valley & Arroyo Grande Valley, enjoying a tasting tour is an absolute must on your visit to San Luis Obispo! The region is known for making California’s finest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, with a majority of vineyards being Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certified, reflecting the community’s respect for the environment and social equity.
Talley Vineyards came highly recommend (I actually have their cookbook – Our California Table), as one of the very best in SLO. A third generation family farm that established their roots producing specialty vegetables (cilantro!!), they have become leaders in the local farm-to-table movement, even providing a local produce delivery service.
We had the opportunity of visiting Talley Vineyards during their harvest season, and after a tour of the farm, including the fermentation process and their in-house bottling methods, it became apparent how much heart and soul goes into each and every bottle.
Our tour was led by Christina Soares, who knew Talley and the entire winemaking operation like the back of her hand. A graduate from Cal Poly, you could feel her love for wine…from the grape on the vine, to the moment it’s poured in your glass…she provided so much intrigue, it was hard not to respect the chemistry behind the process.
Most (if not all) of the vineyards in SLO are family-friendly, and Talley was no different. As my husband and I enjoyed their 2015 Rosemary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir and their Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay, they provided juice boxes for the girls.
During your visit to Talley Vineyards, make sure to enjoy their generous courtyard and lawn, equipped with ladder golf, corn hole, and plenty of wine club members to chat the beauty of SLO with!
#8 – Flour House
Flour House provides an authentic Napoletana experience in downtown San Luis Obispo, specializing in house-made pasta, apertivi and pizza napoletana. They also offer gluten and dairy free pizza options! And it was the BEST pizza I have ever had in my entire life.
Flour House not only creates phenomenal food but the white furnishings, open-air vibe and view of the wood-burning oven create an upper-modern aesthetic that, after a few days in the area, feels very much like SLO. The entire artisan culture is very prevalent downtown, proving a small town can feel fresh and contemporary.
#9 – Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab
A unique sweet-tooth experience is Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab where kids and adults alike can enjoy a nostalgic ice cream parlor while having the opportunity to see how ice cream is made on their Lab Tour!
Lab Tours are available on weekdays starting at 12, 1 or 2pm and are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. For only $5, guests receive the following experience:
- Learn the History of Ice Cream
- Discuss the Ingredients in Ice Cream
- Explain the Science of Making Ice Cream
- Demonstrate Making Ice Cream in the Lab (our manufacturing room)
- Sampling Ice Cream Right Out of the Machine
- Participate in Making Waffle Cones
- Everyone gets a Scoop of their Favorite Flavor
- Enjoy Ice Cream and ask Questions of the Doc
#10 – Madonna Inn
Madonna Inn has become one of the most popular destinations in San Luis Obispo, with 110 unique whimsical guest rooms, enchanting decor, resort amenities including a luxurious spa, horseback riding, boutique shopping, a terrace pool and bar and two dining options.
If you love pink…add Madonna Inn to your bucket list!
We enjoyed breakfast at Copper Cafe, a charming, old-world experience with red leather seats, vintage copper tables and hand-painted walls.
They offer a delicious ice tea, egg-white frittata and gluten-free bread! I love that you can find healthy options everywhere in SLO!
And one of our favorite stops on the way out was the Secret Garden, an intimate space where they offer weddings, cocktail parties and social gatherings. The Madonna Inn is an AMAZING place for photos…depending on how patient your travel buddies are (my littles were a little antsy that morning).
#11 – Johnson Ranch Trail
Looking for some fresh air? Check out the 3.7-mile Johnson Ranch Loop which explores beautiful rolling grassy hills and acres of open space. It’s a short, family-friendly hike that makes it one of the easiest in San Luis Obispo.
If you’re looking for a little more adventure, check out the San Luis Obispo Marathon at the end of April, which is one of the most popular courses in California, making SLO one of the country’s top vacation spots in Runner’s World magazine.
#12 – SLO Provisions
Proprietors, Dwyne Willis and Steve Bland have brought their Southern hospitality to San Luis Obispo with their small-batch philosophy at SLO Provisions. Using local ingredients, the menu includes house-roasted rotisserie meats, family-style dinners, specialty sandwiches, farm-fresh salads and rustic-style baked goods. They’re also known for their Box Lunches including a baguette sandwich, house-made chips and a cookie or their terrific trio salads.
#13 – Avila Beach
After chatting with several locals, we heard one the best beaches in San Luis Obispo was Avila Beach. It’s known to get a bit windy in the afternoon, so pick up lunch at SLO Provisions and head there late morning if possible.
Located just off Highway 1 on California’s central coast, Avila has its own sunny, warm microclimate, paired with charming oceanfront hotels, restaurants and boutiques…it was the perfect beach town.
And as I mentioned, we arrived during the beginning of the ‘off-season’ so we had the beach to ourselves, not to mention, a few locals in the shops more than willing to share their love for the region.
On your way home, make sure to head up the hill for a view of Pirate’s Cove…a little gem not on our itinerary but such a treat to find!
#14 – SLO Brew
Located in the heart of downtown, SLO Brew is a popular nightlife destination, but if you head there early, it offers a great family-friendly dining experience. Tip: On Monday, they offer buy 1 pizza, get 1 free!
Along with an extensive craft beer menu, SLO Brew offers a variety of pub fare, including specialty burgers, pizza, soup and salad.
#15 – The Station
San Luis Obispo’s oldest gas station has been re-imagined into a mixed-use space for work, events and a curated wine and goods shop. If you’re looking for a kid-free night out, check out the Art Bar at The Station, which provides guests a painting experience led by their resident artist – with a finished canvas to go home with – perfect SLO souvenir!
#16 – Seeds
Nothing says California like a fresh smoothie bowl! We LOVED Seeds on Garden Street, where they offer local ingredients in a variety of options – Acai Bowls, Chia Pudding, Parfaits and Pressed Juices.
#17 – Atascadero Lake Park Paddleboating
The owner, Rob, purchased Atascadero Lake Park Paddleboating when the lake was dry! After a little luck, and a lot of rain, he’s created a perfect weekend activity for locals and visitors alike. Rentals are only $10 ($5 for kids) and you can enjoy an afternoon on the lake.
#18 – Charles Paddock Zoo
Just across the park, you’ll find the Charles Paddock Zoo, home to over 200 animals. In 1955, Charles, a county park ranger, would nurse wild animals back to health in the county animal shelter, and by 1959 he had over 125 birds and mammals under his care. In 1963, the animals were moved to the Zoo adjacent to the Atascadero Lake Park.
Open 7 days a week, you can grab tickets for less than $10!
#19 – Street Side Ale House
A definite local’s favorite, Street Side Ale House in Atascadero (17 minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo) has the perfect lunch menu when you are famished! We loved the Black Bean Nachos and Raspberry Picante Burger.
*On your way out of Atascadero, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for this wall…I can’t remember the exact location, but it’s pretty magnificent, right?
#20 – Old San Luis BBQ Co.
For the true BBQ connoisseur or hobby chef (like my husband), Old San Luis BBQ Co. will most likely rank as your favorite place in San Luis Obispo! Specializing in authentic Santa Maria style cuisines with family recipes that date back nearly a century, owner, Matt Pearce, has created something really special in the community of SLO.
Fusing the college-town vibe with a family-friendly atmosphere is no easy task, but Matt has perfected the formula. Offering games for all ages, a digital pour bar featuring craft beer, local wine and cider, Old San Luis BBQ Co. is like much of SLO, an experience that draws people in for the food and conversation.
If you’re more on the plant-based side, they offer a variety of vegetarian sides and salads, as well!
#21 – Sunset Drive In
One of the few drive-in theaters left in California, the Sunset Drive-In offers a classic large-screen theatre experience with an old-school concession stand, featuring new release shows nightly (Adults $9, Children $4 and 4 and under free!).
Liked this post? Pin it to your Travel Board!
I hope you enjoyed this list of 21 Family-Friendly Things to Do In San Luis Obispo! It’s the perfect place to bring kids of all ages, knowing there’s a variety of healthy food, no drive thrus, no smoking laws, and a low crime rate. Plus it’s sunny 300 days a year with only 22 inches of rain! Feel free to bring your pup along too, there are plenty of dog-friendly hotels, restaurants, beaches, events and activities!
Cheers to a stress-free vacation!
*Photo editing by Jasmine Klein Photography
Disclosure: San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and their partners graciously hosted our family. The opinions expressed here represent my own, which I take great pride in providing pure honesty…because I’m OBSESSED with sharing the Good!