How does a visit to a quaint college town nestled between the rolling hills and beaches of California sound? A place where average winter temperatures are in the 60s and boutique shops, wineries, and restaurants are plentiful?
Today, San Luis Obispo looks and feels a lot different than it did back in the early 90s when I attended college there. The town itself, which used to consist mainly of shops up and down Higuera and Monterey streets, with the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa at the end, has now expanded outward to include many more mainstream chains like Pottery Barn and Express. Along with so many more shops to peruse, new boutique hotels, restaurants, and wineries are helping to shape this central coast town into a destination spot.
Yes, I said wineries. Many new wineries have propagated the beautiful countryside, conveniently located minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo proper.
Not to worry, mainstream shops and commercial growth have not taken away an ounce of charm from this happy town. Don’t forget, San Luis Obispo was named America’s Happiest City by Oprah on her show in 2011.
Where to Stay
Usually when my husband and I take a trip to San Luis Obispo, we have our triplets and their big sister following close behind, which means we stay at the Quality Suites. The Quality Suites is a great place to stay when you have a big group because the room can be divided in two with a pullout couch. The hotel also provides a heated pool and spa and a full complimentary breakfast — all for a tidy little price of around $150 per night.
On this adult-only trip, my husband and I stayed in a cool new boutique hotel called The Granada Hotel and Bistro, right in the heart of town.
The Granada was originally built in 1922 as a hotel, but it was later abandoned. On our way up to our room, the hotel host told us that at one point the hotel was “rented out hourly for a special kind of guest” if you can read between the lines. Recently it has undergone a major multi-million dollar renovation, which produced a very unique modern industrial design. Dark wood floors, exposed brick walls, unique art pieces, and antique furnishings fill the hotel with character and charm that you just don’t see much anymore. The rooms are all unique from one another, but what they do have in common is their small size.
Attached to the hotel is The Bistro where my husband enjoyed “the best Old Fashioned he has ever had” and a very elegant plate of cheeses and meats to accompany.
Where to Wine
San Luis Obispo’s wineries fall in a region called the Edna Valley, which is a great place for wine because it is only five miles from the Pacific Ocean. This creates a great cool and consistent climate for grapes to grow. Here are a few wonderful wineries to visit while in SLO:
When we stayed at the Granada, they packed us a gourmet lunch (order in advance) and sent us on our way to Tolosa down the road. Tolosa is a sustainably farmed vineyard that has won the award for Best Red Wine in San Luis Obispo County by the local newspaper New Times four years in a row and is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The elegant tasting room and the spectacular scenery will not disappoint you. You can picnic at the tables or enjoy the plentiful lawn space.
Saucelito Canyon Vineyard
The next vineyard down the road has a long history that leads to great-tasting Zinfandel wines for which California is known. Saucelito Canyon Vineyard began in 1880 when three acres of Zinfandel vines were planted. A century later, those old Zin vines were restored and winemaker Tom Greenough created beautiful wines from them.
Chamisal Vineyard was the first wine-producing vineyard established in the Edna Valley when the Franciscan padres planted grapes beside Mission San Luis Obispo Tolosa. Today they are known for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone varietals. The Califa Pinot Reserve is a must-taste, as well as the stainless steel fermented Chardonnays. Nope, these Chards never see the inside of an oak barrel, and that’s what makes them unique in flavor.
Where to Dine
It just wouldn’t be an authentic trip to San Luis Obispo without a visit to Woodstock’s Pizza for some of the best pizza and WildeBread in town. There are always good beers on tap.
Ciopinot Seafood Grille
An incredible wine list, an oyster bar, and three different kinds of Cioppino make this restaurant a must. Ciopinot Seafood Grille offers high-end dining and a beautiful venue for a special evening of seafood.
This traditional Northern Italian restaurant is a favorite among our family. We dine at Buona Tavola every time we visit San Luis Obispo, and it never disappoints. The fresh gnocchi and pasta dishes are reminiscent of what you would find in Italy. In the back you will find a lovely outdoor dining area with fountains and lush ivy. The ambience is higher-end but still suitable for families.
What to Do
When visiting San Luis Obispo, try to plan your trip around SLO’s famous Thursday night Farmer’s Market. This market is not just a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables — it is block party. Three long blocks of the main downtown Higuera Street are blocked off and visitors come in droves to eat dinner from the vendors, enjoy street entertainment, and buy local produce. This farmer’s market can provide hours of fun and may even be the highlight of your trip.
When you are exhausted from your wining and dining in San Luis Obispo, Pismo and Avila beaches are within 10 minutes from town.
Need more information to plan your trip to San Luis Obispo? Visit www.visitslo.com.
All photos courtesy of author.