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San Luis Obispo Area Overview

The Central Coast offers a wide variety of sights to see and things to do. Whether your looking for a place to get away to for a long weekend, or planning to stay for a week or more, the Central Coast has the opportunity to be a lasting memory...if you take advantage of this wonderful area.

Here are overviews of places in and around San Luis Obispo county:

San Luis Obispo

Avila Beach

See Canyon

Pismo Beach/Shell Beach

Morro Bay

Hearst Castle

Places Further South of San Luis Obispo


San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo (SLO) is home to Cal Poly, one of the California State Colleges. During the school year, SLO has a college town atmosphere, especially on Thursday-Saturday nights. During the summer, tourists flock to the area from both Northern and Southern California (and out of state too!). There are many motels in the city of San Luis Obispo. If you're planning on sightseeing, the city offers a central place to rest your feet. SLO is 15 minutes from Pismo Beach to the South, 12 minutes from Morro Bay to the North, and less than an hour from Hearst Castle.

The main areas to stay in San Luis Obispo are:

Monterey Street-
This is "motel row" located right when you enter the city from the North on 101. You can find rooms to fit most budgets along this street. From here, you can walk to downtown shopping (about 6-9 blocks) or to Cal Poly (a bit longer walk or a short drive).

Madonna Rd/Los Osos Valley Rd-
Here you'll find some major chain motels close to the freeway at the South end of the city. From here, you're a few minutes driving distance from downtown SLO and Cal Poly. You're also about 12 minutes from Pismo Beach which is about 4-5 minutes closer if you're staying on Monterey Street.

There are also some motels located in downtown and around the Santa Rosa Street off ramp.

Tourist things to do in San Luis Obispo

Thursday Night Farmers Market-
In the early 1980's, the city of San Luis Obispo began closing off the main street (Higuera) and sponsoring a farmer's market and barbecue. This was at the time that the new indoor shopping mall at Madonna Rd was threatening downtown shops. Today, downtown is flourishing and the Thursday night event is not just a tradition, but one of the most successful town events I've seen. At 6 PM every Thursday, the event kicks off with local restaurants cooking up ribs, tri-tip sandwiches, and other tid bits.

Getting ready for the 6 PM whistle.

One of the many local restaurants represented on Thursday night.

At 6:30 PM, the whistle blows which begins the next part of the event, the Farmers Market. Until the whistle blows, the vendors are not allowed to sell any of their produce. Most vendors are setting up from 6 PM which gives you a wonderful time to browse and decide what you want to buy (if that's your intention). If so, be at the table of your first choice at 6:30 since the streets will be busy and chances are your favorite fruit or vegetable will sell out quick. If you do plan on taking back some produce with you, it may be beneficial to pick a motel with an in-room refrigerator (one you can use, not a mini-bar). Or...bring an ice chest which you can keep in your car. Once you make your purchases, take the produce to your car so you can enjoy the rest of the evening with a lighter load.

Here's some of the items you may find to buy...

If looking at the produce is your preferred choice, then there are other items for sale along the street or in the downtown shops which stay open late on Thursdays. If your a people-watcher, this is a great place to be!

Tip: Although the aroma of barbecues may make you want to get in the line for dinner, hold off. Not that the food isn't good, it is! But...it's a pain to eat. There are no tables or chairs to sit at and you'll end up joining everyone else on the curb to enjoy your feast of messy ribs.

Curb seating is the best you're going to get.

My suggestion is to nibble and have a late dinner in one of the many fine restaurants in SLO or one of the neighboring cities. Or, walk down and have a pizza at Woodstocks and leave the rib/steak dinner to Friday or Saturday night.

The Thursday Night Farmers Market is worthwhile enough to try to get off of work early on Thursday and be on the road by 3 PM. This should give you enough time to drive down to SLO, check-in to your motel, and spend a few hours downtown before going off to dinner or staying around town to visit one or more of the bars with live music.

Bubble Gum Alley

While walking down Higuera Street, look for a small alley on the East side of the street just North of Broad Street. This is bubble gum alley and it won't take you long to figure out how it got the name. For many, many years, people have been placing their chewed gum on both sides of the walls of the alley. You're bound to have a reaction when you see this, either grossed-out or amused. Definitely something you don't see everyday...

Wall to wall gum

You can even add your wad to the wall if you dare


Men's room at Madonna Inn

A trip to San Luis Obispo wouldn't be complete without visiting the men's room at the Madonna Inn. As crazy as it sounds, this room is a popular stop for both men and women. Unfortunately, if your a man and need to use this for it's original purpose, be prepared to be interrupted by giggling women with cameras.

Madonna Inn is a motel with each room having its own theme (like the caveman room). There is also a restaurant, wine cellar, and a few shops in the main building. Mrs. Madonna loved the color pink which you'll see everywhere but luckily they haven't repainted in awhile so it's not as fluorescent as it once was.

Entrance to the Madonna Inn

Once you enter the main building, go down the staircase at the right. This will take you to the wine cellar, and pay phone in the Flintstones-like rock cave. The men's restroom is to the left. Here you'll find the attraction....a urinal that looks like a waterfall which is activated when you break a beam of light. Yep, that's it! Put this in the same category as the Bubble Gum Alley- something you don't see everyday.

Here's a picture of the urinal when not in use!

Don't worry, there's lots of other things to do in SLO if this doesn't meet your fancy. Other suggestions are eating lunch by the creek, taking the kids to the SLO Children's museum, relaxing in an outdoor redwood hot tub at the Sycamore Mineral Springs, or taking a walk along Poly Canyon at the university.

Avila Beach

About 15 minutes from San Luis Obispo is the small coastal town of Avila Beach. Mainly a beach town, Avila Beach has one of the best coastal climates on the central coast. It's worth a trip to Avila just to stroll on the pier and look at the surfers and other beach-goers having fun. If you go to the beach to lay out in the sun, you'll find the college/high school crowd on the South side of the pier, while families tend to be on the North side. Unfortunately, the town recently discovered that the oil pipes under the city that UNOCAL use have been leaking. This has caused some people to stay away from the town while UNOCAL figures out how it's going to clean up the ground beneath the town and beach.

See Canyon

Positioned in the valley between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo is See Canyon. This canyon's unique climate makes it perfect for growing some mighty tasty apples. There are a few apple farms along See Canyon Rd that sell apple cider and fresh picked apples during the August - October season. If you wanted to take a more scenic route back to San Luis Obispo, you can take the 14 mile road which will take you through the apple orchards, up a hill with good views of Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, and through a cattle ranch. The road isn't paved all the way but the non-paved parts are OK. You can take this anytime of the year except maybe in a big rain storm. The apple farms are not too far from the Avila Beach side of the road. So, if you wanted just to visit the apples, they're only a few minute round-trip from San Luis Bay Dr. The road is not traveled much and once your past the apple farms, you'll be lucky to see a car or two until you arrive back at San Luis Obispo.

You can reach See Canyon Rd by taking the Avila Road/ San Luis Bay Dr exit just south of San Luis Obispo off of Highway 101. Travel towards Avila Beach and a few miles up on the right, you'll see See Canyon Rd. About 1/2 mile past the See Canyon Rd turnoff San Luis Bay Dr ends at Avila Rd which means you've gone too far. As far as apple farms go, the Daisy D is just three miles down the road followed by the See Canyon Ranch (our favorite) and the Ruda Ranch which is only 3.7 miles after the turnoff. Beyond the apple Farms See Canyon Road is partially gravel and at times can be narrow. Although fine for passenger cars, the drive is not for someone in a hurry, especially on the one lane non-paved parts. You should allow about 45 minutes to get back to San Luis Obispo.

Here is a mileage guide to help you through the less than 15 mile stretch of road known as See Canyon Road-
At 5.4 miles from the start of See Canyon Rd, the road becomes gravel for the first time and narrows to one lane. The gravel road goes for about one mile before returning to pavement. After seven miles the road is once again dirt. Here you will find a beautiful overlook, on a clear day, Morro Rock looks within grasp. Go another mile and the view is even more spectacular. Remember, allow plenty of time to do the drive and be on the lookout for drivers coming the other way. At the eight mile mark the road returns to pavement and there is a great view of San Luis Obispo. Another half mile the road becomes gravel again and stays that way for two more miles. Ten miles into the drive pavement returns for good, and at 10.4 mileage mark, the road becomes two lanes. 12.4 miles marks the city limit of San Luis Obispo and the road name changes from See Canyon Rd to Prefumo Canyon Rd. Just a short distance and Prefumo Canyon Road ends at the intersection of Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo. To return to downtown San Luis Obispo, turn right at Los Osos Valley Road and make a left at Madonna road. The Madonna Inn, on the left side of Madonna Road is at the 101 freeway junction.

Pismo Beach/Shell Beach

About 10 miles South of San Luis Obispo on Highway 101, you'll get your first glimpse of the ocean and Pismo Beach/Shell Beach communities. The first town is Shell Beach, a small coastal town with ocean front residences. It's here on the East side of the highway where you'll find McClintocks Dining House. If you like steak/ribs/seafood, this is a must restaurant to visit. Always busy, the restaurant consistently gets rave reviews from couples and families. Go when you're hungry since you'll get plenty of good food to fill you up.

Further south is the city of Pismo Beach. Also a beach-town, Pismo offers a wide variety of motels, most right on the cliff overlooking the ocean. If you want to stay at a place where you can hear the surf at night from your room, Pismo is the place. The beach at Pismo is long, wide, and rarely crowded which makes this a great place to take a long stroll. By the pier, you can shop, visit the video arcade, or eat at one of the seafood diners.

South of Pismo Beach are the towns of Arroyo Grande and Grover City. This is also where the Pismo Dunes are located (California State Vehicular Recreation Area). Here, you can drive your car on the beach (if you dare) or rent ATVs to use on the dunes (or bring your own). Rentals will cost you from $42-$140 for four-hours, depending on the type of ATV.

Morro Bay

15 minutes North of San Luis Obispo is all it takes to be in the town of Morro Bay. Mostly known for it's big rock, Morro Bay is a fishing town with it's own fisherman's wharf. Here you can get a good seafood lunch/dinner or go out on a half-day or full-day fishing expedition. There are motels located a few blocks from the wharf which provide a nice relaxing place to get away from the craziness of the Bay Area. Make sure to drive out by the rock and take some time to watch the surfers on the North side.

Hearst Castle

A popular destination on the central coast is Hearst Castle. Located near the town of San Simeon on Highway One, the castle sits up on a mountain overlooking the ocean. You'll need to get reservations/tickets before you go and allow an hour from San Luis Obispo. The drive should only take about 45 minutes but you don't want to be late. You'll park in a parking lot right off of Highway One and bussed up to the castle to take one of the tours of the house and grounds.

The castle is open for tours everyday except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There are four tours to choose from during the daytime and one evening tour. Reservations are strongly recommended as you can get tickets for a specific time and tour you want. You can go to the castle without reservations and get the next available tour but you'll be taking a chance, especially during tourist season. Reservations can be made through Mistix (800-444-4445).

Places Further South of San Luis Obispo

If your stay on the central coast is longer than a weekend, you can take some day trips to places further south on Highway 101. One of those places is Solvang, a town that looks like a Danish village. Actually, a Danish village with a lot of bakeries and tourist gift shops. Solvang is about an hours drive from San Luis Obispo.

Another popular city south of San Luis Obispo is Santa Barbara. It's 75-90 minutes from San Luis Obispo depending if you stay on 101 or take the San Marcos Pass (Highway 154) which cuts off about 15 minutes off your trip but it is a highway that goes through some mountains with only two lanes in sections. A day trip to Santa Barbara to shop on State Street may be a nice break from the quiet central coast (if you need one). Unless you want to walk fast and far, you probably shouldn't try to fit Solvang and Santa Barbara in the same day trip.

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