Explore California's Central Coast to discover San Luis Obispo. Uncover historical and artistic foundations and sample its wine and cuisine.
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, along Highway 101, lies the Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo. A historically agricultural area famous now for grape growing, San Luis Obispo is increasing in popularity due to the city's desirability for fine dining and wine tasting. There is more to San Luis Obispo than meets the eye, as you will see when you explore California's Central Coast.
About San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is home to California Polytechnic University. Cal Poly plays a vital role in the area's activities and brings a youthful vibe to the city. The university has one of California's leading enology and viticulture departments, adding prestige to San Luis Obispo's many fabulous Central Coast wineries.
San Luis Obispo has a prevailing sense of a small-town feel despite being a larger city, and the city was named the “Happiest City in America.” Its charm, architecture, art, cuisine, farmers' market, scenic areas, walkability, and friendly atmosphere tie the past and present together.
San Luis Obispo Mission
The Chumash people were indigenous to the area. The city as we know it was founded in 1772 when Father Junípero Sierra established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Its name is Spanish for St Louis the Bishop.
The charming historical buildings throughout San Luis Obispo, especially the Mission, are evidence of the past. The Mission is named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the bishop of Toulouse. From its simple adobe exterior, lovely courtyard gardens, and more ornate chapel, it is worth a stroll to visit. Today the church represents the central parish church of San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
A must-see and integral attraction of San Luis Obispo is the San Luis Museum of Art, SLOMA. Established in the 1950s by a group of artists, educators, and enthusiasts, the SLOMA focuses on California contemporary art.
An intimate art gallery, the art scene it creates carries over to the murals found on the exterior museum walls and other city areas. Its mission is “to provide and promote diverse visual arts experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds through exhibition, education, creation, and collaboration.” The museum's motto for showcasing artists is “around the corner and around the world.” Today, a good portion of their shows are from regional artists.
In 2021, the Museum of Art entered into a community partnership agreement with the City of San Luis Obispo to coordinate public art projects. Led by SLOMA's Chief Curator, Emma Saperstein, the museum engages regional and national artists to complete various projects as part of the program. Currently, 70 unique pieces of art, including murals, mosaics, oil and watercolor paintings, utility box art, stained glass, sculptures, benches, and bridge railings, are all scattered throughout the city.
Even the exterior of the museum has become a mural project. The walls change once a year. All sides of the museum are adorned with colorful depictions of the artist's vision. This year's work by Erin LeAnn Mitchell is called Calafia Was Here. The textural artwork inspired by the legend of Calafia highlights the forgotten role of black women in history.
Downtown San Luis Obispo and Creek Stroll
Take a walk down Higuera Street, the main thoroughfare downtown, and find an eclectic array of stores and restaurants. While strolling, look for Bubblegum Alley, where bubblegum meets Jackson Pollock. No one is sure how the tradition started, but over the years, people have stuck their leftover bubblegum on the 15′ walls of this alley. Depending on the day, the wall can be very colorful, or it has a drab look on other days. Some consider it an eyesore, while others say it's an unofficial city attraction.
Adjacent to Higuera Street and across from the Mission is the San Luis Obispo Creek. The creek starts in the Santa Lucia Mountains, meanders its way through San Luis Obispo, and finally empties into the Pacific Ocean just west of Avila Beach. Please take a few moments to meander along the creek; it is a pleasant walk. Many of the Higuera Street restaurants have outdoor patios that overlook the creek.
Make sure to arrive on a Thursday and partake in one of California's best farmers' markets. Between 6 and 9 pm, Higuera Street becomes a colorful array of stands with local produce, street food, and music.
Wine Tasting in San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo County has a new American Viticultural Area (AVA), SLO Coast AVA, which makes it a fascinating time to taste wine in and around the area. The new AVA, which brings more recognition to the area's vineyards and wineries, extends from San Simeon down to Nipomo along the coast and eastward to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Edna Valley AVA and the Arroyo Grande AVA are now sub-appellations within the SLO Coast AVA. Thirty-two wineries make up this new AVA. They include Center of Effort, Claiborne and Churchill, Chamisal Vineyards, Croma Vera, Edna Valley, Filipponi Ranch, Laetitia Vineyard, Maidenstoen, Niner, Peloton, Piedra Creek, Sinor-LaVallee, Stephen Ross, Talley, and Timbre.
In San Luis Obispo, there are many tasting rooms as well as within a 20-minute drive. Here are some of my favorites.
Center Of Effort
Center Of Effort is a sailing term that is the point in a sailboat when everything is perfectly balanced. This defines the goal of winemaker Nathan Carlson to perfect wines with a balance between tannin and acidity through the efforts of cultivation and passion. The winery sits atop a hill off Corbett Canyon Road, overlooking the valley with picturesque views of the surrounding vineyards. The winery is SIP Certified. Center of Effort is known for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but do try Chenin Blanc, Grenache, and Syrah.
Piedra Creek Winery
I was pleasantly surprised to discover this boutique winery, the smallest bonded winery in the Edna Valley. Piedra Creek is known for its Lagrein grape, a red grape from the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy. The grape produces a full-bodied wine with intense plum and cherry flavors, dense color, and an acidic structure.
Piedra Creek owner Romeo Zuech was instrumental in bringing Lagrein to California. In the 1960s, Meo arranged with a UC Davis Viticulturalist to bring clippings to the United States from the village he grew up in Italy. Keeping some of the clippings, he moved from Woodland Hills to Canoga Park, Westlake, and finally brought those clippings to his home in San Luis Obispo. Today his grandson, T.J. de Jony, produces this wine with his grandmother's help. T.J. creates a Pét-nat and Rosé from the Lagrein grape. These wines are a must to taste.
Stephen Ross Wine Cellars
Stephen Ross Dooley came to Edna Valley in 1987. Growing up in Minnesota, Stephen always had a fascination with wine. He made his first wine, fruit wines, in the family basement. That passion never left him, and he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Enology. Stephen launched his Stephen Ross Wine Cellars in 1994 and opened his tasting room in 2008 in an industrial center in San Luis Obispo. Stephen Ross wines emanate elegance. His exceptional Pinot Noir comes from his estate vineyard, Stone Corral Vineyard, a vineyard planted in 2001. Stephen's second label, Flying Cloud, is named after a small airport in Minnesota near where Stephen grew up and consists of more affordable wines. The Sauvignon Blanc, a favorite, is a very bright, fresh wine that exudes a delicate balance and perfect minerality.
Dining in San Luis Obispo
The restaurants of San Luis Obispo are an eclectic assortment of cuisine ranging from Italian to Spanish to Peruvian.
Big Sky Café is an oldie but goodie, having been in business for over 30 years. Count on Big Sky Café to serve a wholesome meal, especially for lunch, whether it be a salad or sandwich.
A staple of the San Luis Obispo culture, Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant has been around for years. It's located in the original Sinsheimer Bros. Building, built in 1876, and served as the general mercantile. The restaurant's interior has authentic décor from days of yore. For Chef Guiseppe DiFronzo, what started as a Cal Poly senior project blossomed into two restaurants that locals love. DiFronzo was a forerunner of the farm-to-fork movement, and much of his produce comes from his farm in the Edna Valley. From pizza to pasta, Giuseppe's has something for everyone.
Novo‘s restaurant patio overlooks San Luis Creek, which you will find to be one of the highlights of your meal there. Novo is the second restaurant owned by Robin and Shanny Covey. Their first restaurant is Robin's in Cambria, California. In 2003, they took over the Old Cigar Building on Higuera Street. Local ingredients inspire its global cuisine.
San Luis Obispo and Peruvian Cuisine
One would never expect to find a Peruvian restaurant in San Luis Obispo. Still, if you are looking for something different and authentic, Chef Nicola Allegrtta makes a marvelous, captivating food statement at Mistura. This modern Peruvian restaurant blends the cuisine of pre-Columbian and Inca peoples with Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese influences.
Mistura means a mixed culture, and fusion is the mix that Chef Nicola adds to the menu. It is a fusion of sustainable and locally sourced products. Chef Nicola spent time in Peru to perfect and expand his knowledge of Peruvian cuisine. It comes through on his extensive menu. From Peruvian-inspired sushi or ceviche to grilled baby back pork ribs with Peruvian-style dry rub to Chuncho (beef short ribs braised in wine and Peruvian cacao), one will revel in the epicurean flavors Chef Nicola delivers. Make sure to leave room for dessert. Pastry Chef Florencia Breda will not disappoint you.
Pisco is a Peruvian brandy dating back to the Incas. Chef Nicola distills his version of Pisco on the property. I recommend trying it as an after-dinner liquor or one of the mixed cocktails that features this house-distilled Pisco.
Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant
Nestled amongst the hills around San Luis Obispo is the Apple Farm Inn. The inn exudes history and ambiance as each guest relaxes in countrified comfort. I found my suite quaintly decorated with a four-poster bed, sitting area, and fireplace.
In 1925, Arthur Heineman, an architect from Pasadena, built the first motel in the United States next door to Apple Farm Inn. The original sign is still there. In 1977, Bob and Katy Davis purchased the restaurant, at the time a pancake joint. Now it is home to the Apple Farm Restaurant and Bakery, which serves breakfast and lunch. The restaurant is famous for its apple dumplings, but I got hooked on their coconut macaroons.
Part of the Apple Farm Inn dates back to 1957 when it was the Franciscan Hotel. In 1988, the Main Inn was constructed. Today, the Apple Farm Inn sits on three acres and comprises the Trellis Court, Main Inn, the Cider House, and the Restaurant and Bakery. Inside the restaurant, you will find the Apple Farm Marketplace, featuring items from local purveyors and artisan-crafted wares. Befitting its name, you will find apple trees around the property.
The Apple Farm Inn is about to remodel its rooms to become more of a modern farmhouse. The color scheme will be white, beige, and black, accented with the various colors of apples.
Articles Related to Discovering San Luis Obispo
- Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in Santa Maria Valley, CA
- Off the Beaten Path: California Gold Country
- Buellton, CA: Gem of the Santa Ynez Valley
So Much to Do in San Luis Obispo
The draw of San Luis Obispo, from its agricultural heritage, to its historical and artistic foundations, to the taste of its cuisine and wine, is awe-inspiring. You will want to return for more of the friendly, warm vibes this city provides. Check out Wander for more things to do during your visit to California. Looking to fill up your wine-tasting itinerary? We have details about some of our favorite wineries.