Central California: The San Luis Obispo Area

San Luis Obispo is a little over three hours north of Los Angeles, the last Central California stop off the 101 before it splits to Highway 1 at Morro Bay.

We love to pull off here amongst the Santa Lucia Mountains and stop for a wander through San Luis Obispo’s brick-and-stone downtown and the wineries of the nearby Edna Valley.

While it’s now a quiet idyll with cute boutiques, bookstores and creekside walking paths, peaceful San Luis Obispo has had its share of violent history.

As one of Spanish missionary Junipero Serra’s series of California Franciscan missions, it was firebombed so often by resentful area Chumash Indians that Spanish clay tiles were protectively applied to its roof; this practice became standard mission-issue in California.

Nuggets like this can be found by following the Chamber of Commerce’s tour map, the Path of History.  It takes two hours on foot, 20 minutes by car, and shows you San Luis Obispo from the late 1700s through the 1940s.

The only place we’ve ever stayed up here is an altogether trippy slice of Americana known as the Madonna Inn.  Few sing the Madonna’s praises for service or a great night’s sleep — it’s all about the decor. Each one of the Madonna’s 110 rooms has a different theme; check out the Jungle Rock, Austrian Suite, Daisy Mae and Yahoo rooms to see what I mean.

It’s not inexpensive (rooms average $200 a night) and one could question the wisdom of hiring a decorator who clearly gains inspiration from Graceland, but if you have a night to burn in the area, you won’t be sorry. At the very least, stop into the Silver Bar or one of the two on-site restaurants to see lacquered, wood-carved, vinyl-covered excess in all its glory. (100 Madonna Inn, (805) 543-3000)

For actual food, I’d suggest two restaurants in town:

Big Sky Cafe is our favorite spot for a healthy meal after a day/weekend of wine tasting in nearby Paso Robles.   Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and dress is very casual.  Go for the appetizer medley, soups, Thai shrimp salad, and local wines (like Adelaida’s Schoolhouse Red and Claiborne & Churchill’s Riesling).  The Meyer Lemon Mascarpone Tart with blueberries inspires me to weep tears of joy. (1121 Broad Street, (805) 545-5401)

Visit Novo Restaurant for Brazilian/Asian food for when you’re feeling like you’ve never had that combination and now’s your lucky moment.  Vibrant flavors are one happy thing, but the antique bistro feel of the dining room and the jungly creek-side terrace say “vacation.”  Especially good for their salads or a fancy cup of tea. (726 Higuera Street, (805) 543-3986)

If you happen to arrive in town on a Thursday evening, check out the huge San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market, from 6-9 downtown.  Its center is Higuera and Main Streets.

If you’re here in the fall, check out the apple country drive of See Canyon.  From the 101, take the San Luis Bay exit, go one mile down, and take a right on See Canyon Rd.  Along the way you’ll see farms like Gopher Glen; if you’re an apple fan, stock up — the organically farmed apples here are a treat you usually can’t find in grocery stores.

To visit the pretty, adjacent town of Arroyo Grande, take Broad Street through the end of town, where it becomes Route 227.   Just past the airport, the road starts to turn into green hills and intersects with Corbett Canyon Road.  Head southeast into the Edna Valley until, at Branch Street, you’ll soon find yourself in this small Victorian town.  The website here has a great suggestion for a walking tour, under “Attractions” — the last time I walked around here it was fun to look at historical homes and buildings from the late 1800s, but knowing what they are would have been even more interesting.


Speaking of the Edna Valley, it’s an off-the-beaten-path wine region largely centered around Rte. 227 and Corbett Canyon.  Some of these wines are downright elegant, and if you don’t try them here, try them at the restaurants in SLO.

In the realm of Edna Valley wineries, I’d recommend:

Claiborne & Churchill


See also
The Best of Central California


  1. judy Merrill says:

    I wish I’d had these ideas when I had to spend 2 weeks in SLO several years ago on business. While I thoroughly enjoyed the town then, it would have been even better with these suggestions.
    I’d like to suggest the men’s public bathroom at the Madonna Inn, which has (or maybe only used to have) a waterfall down one wall.

  2. what i love about asian foods is that they are always tasty and spice**’


  1. […] places to stop along the first leg of the 101 North: Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo. The latter is adjacent to the delightfully wackadoodle Madonna Inn, which looks not unlike it was […]

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