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San Luis Obispo (city and county), California

Great Destination:

Value for Money:

Total Stars:

Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • The screen in the Hearst Castle theater is eight times the size of a standard movie screen.
  • The world’s first modern motel, the Milestone Mo-Tel, opened in San Luis Obispo (1925).
  • The city’s Spanish mission is San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, named for the 14th century St. Louis, bishop of Toulouse.
  • The city was the world’s first to successfully ban smoking in all public buildings (1990).
  • William Randolph Hearst once maintained the world’s largest private zoo at Hearst Castle.

Where happiness is

The small California city of San Luis Obispo is roughly midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles (220 miles south of the former, 200 miles north of the latter) and only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Located at the foot of the southern Santa Lucia mountain range, the city enjoys the protection of the nearby peaks.

The net result is a Mediterranean climate under sunshine most days of the year, ideal for taking advantage of everything the city and its environs offer in the way of outdoor activities.

The city itself encompasses parks and a municipal trail system where residents and visitors alike can pursue fresh-air pleasures without leaving town. The metropolis — with fewer than 50,000 people — offers big-city choices, too, including the museums and galleries, a busy roster of festivals and other events, quality shopping, fine dining and resorts with spa facilities.

Outside of San Luis Obispo, the eponymously named county boasts 80 miles of Pacific coastline, a wine-producing region, major freshwater lakes, extensive areas of protected lands plus wildlife viewing that ranges from seals and whales to great blue herons, peregrine falcons and black-tailed deer. The county also is home to the renowned Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

Water-based fun ranges from fishing to surfing, swimming to sea kayaking, plus cruises for sightseeing or wildlife viewing. Land-based choices for the active outdoorsperson include hiking and mountain climbing, but the cycling is the big sport in San Luis Obispo and area. Cycling is the central feature of several annual events in and around the city.

San Luis Obispo, the city, also boasts of quality-of-life features such as smoke-free public spaces, pedestrian-friendly areas and 6,500 acres of protected open space. In addition, the region’s terrain and climate make it possible to eat healthy locally grown food and to be active in the outdoors on a routine basis.

Those are some of the reasons a National Geographic writer tapped San Luis Obispo (SLO for short) as America’s happiest city. The city fathers are convinced tourists will be quite happy with their visits, as well.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Utilize the extensive municipal trail system for horseback riding or mountain biking, all within the city limits. Bikers may consider the eight-mile Poly Canyon loop, which starts at California Polytechnic State University.
  • Compete in the springtime San Luis Obispo Marathon.
  • Depending on your preferences, go surfing or sea kayaking at a San Luis Obispo area beach.
  • Download the free 90-minute Historic San Luis Obispo Walking Tour Podcast to your smart phone and take the stroll through the historic parts of town. The podcast combines narrative with archival photos.
  • For Halloween fun, compete in the city’s Mud Mash, a 5K and 10K run with all sorts of dirty obstacles including a mud pit. The event is designed for runners at all levels — and likely to suck your shoes off if you are not prepared.
  • Participate in the SLO GranFondo cycling event in autumn. The GranFondo, a mass-participation activity for riders at all ability levels, offers routes of approximately 25, 50 or 100 miles. It is one of a series of annual cycling events in San Louis Obispo.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Join a cruise that offers the chance to watch whales (several species enter area waters), as well as seals, sea lions, sea otters plus pelicans and other seabirds. It is possible to spot many of these critters from land, too.
  • Savor a visit to SLO, literally, by attending the September Savor the Central Coast food and wine event.
  • The San Luis Obispo County wine country is only a few miles outside of the city. Plan a wine tasting expedition. Come in May for the SLO Vintners Association Roll Out the Barrels Festival or in November for the SLO Vintners Association Harvest Festival.
  • Nearby Santa Margarita Lake is known for excellent fishing (catfish, striped bass, trout and more). Try your luck, and enjoy hiking and picnicking in the surrounding park lands.
  • Tour the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of 21 California missions established by the Spanish.
  • There are at least two farmers’ markets in SLO every day of the week. Attend one for fresh California produce or for locally made goods you can carry home, such as olive oils or preserves. The Thursday night market downtown has a valet service for cyclists.

Things to do for Authentics

  • For area scenery, drive the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway, a stretch of highway that has been federally designated an All-American Road.
  • In summer, listen to one of the Friday Concerts in the Plaza.
  • Head 45 miles north of the city for the day, for a tour of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s extravagant summer home.
  • Devote some quality time to the shops and galleries found in the city’s pedestrian-friendly downtown area.
  • Play golf at an in-town course or sample others nearby. And find a comfortable beach for lazing in the sun.
  • Join a guided walking tour of downtown.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the San Luis Obispo Vacations at