Area Attractions

Eighteenth-Century missions

SLO mission
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (2012).
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, The Jon B. Lovelace
Collection of California Photographs in Carol M.
Highsmith's America Project
, Library of Congress.

Two of California’s twenty-one missions are located in SLO County. The San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Mission was established in 1772 and became the center of the town.  The church and the grounds are worth seeing, although the museum itself is underwhelming. (The entrance is through the gift shop.)

Mission San Miguel (1797) is located just north of Paso at 775 Mission Street in the tiny town of San Miguel. Compared to the mission in SLO, there’s a bit more to see here and the museum has more recently been updated. Across the street from the mission you’ll find the Rios-Caledonia Adobe (1835)

If you do make the trip to San Miguel, you may also want to make a stop at the Elkhorn, California’s second-oldest bar (established in 1853). Until recently a dive bar, the Elkhorn now boasts 20 beers on tap, mostly craft brews. For a Smithsonian Magazine article about the Elkhorn and the other historic bars of the Central Coast, click here.

Wine tasting

San Luis Obispo is within an hour’s drive of three major California wine regions: Edna Valley, Paso Robles, and Santa Ynez.  If you wish to leave the driving to someone else, numerous local businesses offer wine tours and shuttle services. Your hotel is a good source for more information about these options.

edna valley
Edna Valley at Sunset (2010).
Photo: Anita Ritenour,

Edna Valley is the closest of the three wine regions, located just south of SLO. It’s known primarily for cool weather grapes such as Pinot Noir. 

Paso Robles was named wine region of the year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine in 2013. It’s known for big, bold reds. Although the region first built its reputation on its Zinfandels, today it is more associated with Rhone varietals. 

Santa Ynez in Santa Barbara County is the furthest from SLO, at almost an hour’s drive. The movie Sideways put this region, and its Pinots, on the map.

Other attractions

Thursday Night Farmers' Market  Anyone arriving early for the conference may want to check out this SLO institution. An entire mile of Higuera Street is closed down every Thursday evening (6 p.m. – 9 p.m.) for a bonanza of produce, prepared foods, music, puppet shows, and (what seems like) half the town wandering around. This market is one of a handful that in the early 1980s started the current resurgence of farmers’ markets nationwide. For more information, click here.

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle Casa Grande (2012).
Photo: King of Hearts, Wikimedia Commons

Hearst Castle — Perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in the county.  William Randolph Hearst left the mansion – with its 165 rooms, Neptune Pool, European art and antiquities, and herd of zebras – to the people of California.  Somehow it seems appropriate that it is the most expensive California state park at $20 per tour. (There are four to choose from.) We recommend booking these tickets in advance, given the holiday weekend. The castle is about 50 minutes north from downtown SLO.

Elephant seals The second most famous inhabitants of San Simeon, after the Hearsts.  Just south of Hearst Castle, you’ll find a colony of these behemoth seals honking, squeaking, and sunning. The colony is much smaller in February than later in the year, but they’re always worth a visit.

The History Center of SLO County (696 Monterey Street) A small but well-run local history museum with rotating exhibits located in a former Carnegie Free Library. No charge. Open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Big Sur The Big Sur refers to the 90 miles or so of coastline that runs between San Simeon and Carmel. It is also, quite simply, one of the most beautiful drives you’ll ever take. There are a number of state parks, hiking trails, and overlook points along the way. The southern-most part of Big Sur is approximately 50 minutes from SLO.

Outdoor activities

Pier at Pismo Beach
Sunset over the Pacific Ocean at the pier in Pismo Beach (2013).
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of
California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project
Library of Congress.

Beaches If you want to visit the beach while on the Central Coast, you’re spoiled for choice. Each beach town has its own distinct character. For a classic California beach town try Cayucos, or for a fishing-centric town head to Morro Bay. Click here for more about SLO County’s beach towns. 

Biking San Luis offers options for urban, trail, and mountain biking. For more information, click here.

Birding San Luis Obispo County offers a number of excellent options for the avid birder. You may want to try the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos, Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area in the Oceano Dunes, Morro Coast Audubon Overlook in Los Osos or Montaña de Oro State Park in Los Osos.  For a more comprehensive list, click here.

Montana de Oro
Montana de Oro State Park (2010).
Photo: Trader Chris,

Hiking Every direction you look in SLO, you’ll see hills. Most have easily accessible, public trails. Bishop’s Peak trail is a favorite in-town trail among locals and Cal Poly students.  Twenty-five minutes away, Montaña de Oro State Park in Los Osos offers some of the best hiking in the area. For more information about SLO trails, click here

Whale watching February is a good time to see California Gray Whales. For whale tours, click here, or just try your luck at local beaches and coastal hiking trails.

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