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Day Trip: San Luis Obispo, much more than a college town

The very pink Madonna Inn is a must-stop for its over-the-top decor. Photo by Chuck Graham

Nestled along California’s Central Coast, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo packs a big punch for a small city. Home to the renowned Cal Poly University campus, SLO is far more than a college town.

Visitors can indulge in shopping, entertainment, and excellent dining throughout its downtown, along with the city’s popular Thursday-night farmers market that spans 5 blocks. Venture just outside town and you can enjoy wine tasting, hiking, and even an urban farm, making SLO a worthy day-trip destination.

You may also like: 10 charming Central Coast towns where you can relax and recharge

What to do

Interior of Hat Bar by Kate Kaney, with hats on the wall and colorful embellishments to choose from on the counter.

Guests at the Hat Bar by Kate Kaney can shop for hats and then customize their purchase with a fabric or leather band and fun accessories. Photo by Chuck Graham

Get your blood pumping and your quads burning with a hike up Cerro San Luis. The 4-mile out-and-back trail gains 1,200 feet in elevation and takes you all the way to the top. For something shorter, follow the lemon icons to the 2-mile Lemon Grove Loop. You’ll get picture-perfect views of the city and its surroundings either way.

Both trails begin at the same trailhead, through the gate off the parking lot. The Lemon Grove Loop trail branches off to the right of the main trail, about 0.2 miles from the trailhead.

You may also like: San Luis Obispo and other apple towns where you’ll find bushels of fun

Take a 15-minute drive southeast to the Edna Valley, where a few dozen tasting rooms and wineries specialize in pinot noir and chardonnay, grapes that thrive here thanks to the region’s volcanic soil, foggy mornings, and sunny days. If you only have time for one, stop at the stylish Tolosa Winery (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol).

An outdoor tasting on its patio, replete with a sculpture garden and olive trees, offers views of rolling hills and its sprawling Edna Ranch vineyards. Staff members will fill you in on the winery’s sustainability practices. Tasting fee, $45 and up. Reservations required for groups of 6 or more. 

Reserve a 90-minute private tour of City Farm SLO, an urban farm focused on sustainability and educational programs. You’ll learn about the farm’s regenerative agriculture practices, visit its resident sheep and chickens, and harvest some produce to take home. Tours, $125 for up to 5 guests. 

You may also like: City Farm SLO and other urban farms focus on cultivating crops and community

Situated on the aptly named Mission Plaza, the 251-year-old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa still operates as a working church and is open to the public with free docent-led tours every afternoon. Its museum is housed in an adjacent wing that once served as the quarters of Franciscan priests and friars, and showcases a collection of Native Californian, American, and Mission-era artifacts.

The very pink Madonna Inn is a must-stop in SLO. The opulent and equally pink Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse boasts a giant gold tree centerpiece, retro fare (with very un-retro prices), and seasonal decor that’s especially over-the-top come Christmas.

Try a whimsical Pink Cloud cocktail and save room for a sky-high slice of cake from the bakery. Purchase a keepsake, such as one of the hotel’s signature ornate glass goblets, from the gift shop. 

Make your own one-of-a-kind chapeau at downtown’s the Hat Bar by Kate Kaney. Start by choosing a brimmed hat made of felt or straw, then customize it with adornments—everything from feathers and ribbons to pins and playing cards. A staff member will even brand your initials on your creation. Hats start at $70. Book for a group and the shop will provide wine. 

You may also like: 10 cool things to do on your Highway 1 road trip

Where to eat

Bar at Nightcap cocktail lounge in the Granada Hotel.

Enjoy a nightcap in a speakeasy-like setting at the Granada Hotel’s cocktail lounge. Photo courtesy Nomada Hotel Group

Kick off your morning with coffee paired with a house-made pastry such as a lemon bar or gooey cinnamon roll at the bright and airy café and gourmet market SLO Provisions. For something savory, order the signature quiche Lorraine or a breakfast burrito that can be made vegan with scrambled tofu. Closed Sundays. 

The Granada Hotel’s upscale restaurant The Bistro blends French bistro–style cuisine with locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Sit inside the historic building’s intimate dining room or on the street-facing patio and feast on the likes of hand-cut truffle fries, local crudités with house-made naan and garlic hummus, and pan-seared sea bass.

After dinner, stop at the hotel’s speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Nightcap, for a … well, you know. 

You may also like: Restaurant review: Nate’s on Marsh, San Luis Obispo

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