San Luis Obispo is a beautiful city in the Santa Lucia Mountain foothills, known for being America’s Happiest City.
A small little locale, it boasts an impressive 315 days of warm, glorious sunshine, a wide range of places to see and stuff to do in its attractions, a cheerful and vibrant population of students, and an all-around friendly atmosphere and community.
A lot of the places to go in SLO focus on serenity and relaxation, providing outdoor enthusiasm, calming parks and gardens, and lovely beachfronts to bask in.
Dining opportunities offer romantic, tranquil meals, day trips bring you to rustic and rural areas, and exploration reveals unique and fascinating tourist attractions.
With all the available options, how can you pick the must-see spots and must-do things in this town?
To help you choose between them, here are our picks for the 24 best and fun things to do in San Luis Obispo, California.
1. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of the main points of interest in the city, despite being one of a significant number of traditional Spanish missions that are scattered throughout the general area.
It’s an honor well-earned, though, as it’s easily among the most beautiful missions in the state of California.
This mission was named after the bishop of Toulouse and was established by Father Junipero Serra in 1772 before the city was even created.
In fact, it’s the city that named itself after the mission, not the other way around!
This site of land was chosen for the mission because of its good climate, proximity to fresh water, and the friendliness of the Chumash tribe of the region.
Overlooking San Luis Creek, the Mission is a large building constructed in the typical missionary adobe, Spanish style, featuring arcades with porticos, a vibrant floral motif along the interior, a high ceiling, and a simple altar.
It is the state’s fifth-oldest mission.
A garden in the courtyard, centuries-old, is home to roses, oak trees, citrus trees, cacti, and even grapevines.
The Mission continues to be in operation today, with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, regular Mass, and special events held in turn throughout the year.
An onsite museum provides further enlightenment and education to visitors, showcasing artifacts, items, and information relating to the history of the Natives of the land, the settlement of those who became Americans, and the history of the Mission.
Tours, led by a docent, are conducted daily, and there’s even a gift shop for souvenir purchases of artwork, jewelry, books, nativity sets, and other handcrafted treasures.
Address: 751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
2. Bubblegum Alley
Bubblegum Alley is a rather odd attraction, and yet visiting it just to see it once is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo.
It’s also just an alley, so it’s also one of SLO’s free things to do, as well as being among its most-discussed.
The alley is a simple one, measuring 65 feet in length and scaling 15 feet in height.
The alleyway’s use for its current purpose – being filled with chewed-up bubblegum – started sometime in the 1950s for reasons somewhat unknown.
It is generally believed that its creation may have been sparked by a rivalry between students from California Polytechnic State University and San Luis Obispo High School.
The alley’s concept is marginally gross, covered entirely with bubblegum that has been used and stuck onto the wall.
In fact, in the 1970s, it underwent two full cleanings by the city that tried to maintain a more positive atmosphere in the area.
The tenacious alley kept creeping back up, restored by avid bubblegum-chewers in the area.
In the 1990s, local businesses attempted to have it cleaned once more, but after resistance from locals who had grown to love it, the authorities relented.
Bubblegum Alley has continued to exist, mostly untouched, ever since.
Address: 733 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
3. San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is located on one far end of Mission Plaza in the city’s downtown area.
Despite being relatively small, the museum is respectable and displays a great range of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other artworks by artists from California, the Central Coastal area, and further beyond.
For the most part, the Museum of Art focuses on contemporary works, though many different styles and backgrounds add diversity and interest to the permanent collection.
Its highlights include movie posters made by Jeffrey Bacon from the 80s to the 200s and many curated photos taken by Bryn Forbes.
The Museum of Art is updated regularly with special additions to allow the collection to grow.
Other activities are also held here once in a while, from movie nights to classes and from talks to concerts, all in the name of encouraging artistry in the community with fun events to enjoy!
Address: 1010 Broad St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
4. Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market
The Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market is run by the San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association, which holds a total of five different markets during the week.
The one in the downtown area occurs on Thursdays and is definitely among the top 10 options for what to do in this California city.
The Farmers’ Market provides local farms, owned and run by families, to sell their fresh produce, goods, and more.
Depending on the season, you’ll find different kinds of goods here, ranging from food to handicrafts and beyond.
Outdoor stands are often operated by local restaurants, live music provides some entertainment to shoppers, and a festive atmosphere makes a trip here quite a joyous occasion.
Thursday’s Downtown Farmers’ Market runs for three hours starting at 6 p.m. and features over 120 different stalls.
Pasta, BBQ, hummus, juice, baguettes, poke, pizza – you’ll find that there’s no shortage of things to snack on as you wander!
Address: Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
5. San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum
The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is a train museum with a simple mission: to preserve and showcase the history of California’s railroads.
It is home to a wide range of different displays, artifacts, information, and models that show off a lot of different topics.
Visual displays will inform you about the impact of the railroad system on the city’s community and how each train and rail lived its life.
You’ll see exhibits dedicated to the Pacific Coast Railway, the Pullman La Cuesta Café/Observation Car and its gorgeous dining space, the Amtrak, surfing, the Santa Maria Valley, and the Southern Pacific Boxcar of 1926.
Among all these places to visit, you’ll have the most fun with the Central Coast Model Railroad, a fully-scaled, 1,200-square-foot model railroad!
There’s also a little gift shop packed with unique souvenirs.
Address: 1940 Santa Barbara Ave, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
6. Madonna Inn
The Madonna Inn is a very strange but incredibly famous hotel and restaurant, inspired by the Swiss Alps and built by Phyllis and Alex Madonna in 1958.
It’s a weird little place stuffed with garish things to see as if in celebration of all the bizarre and tacky things the human mind can dream of – though it is the best of that tackiness!
Within the Madonna Inn, you’ll find a whopping 109 rooms, each one with unique names and matching themes, all lavishly decorated in what most would consider very poor taste.
All rooms are different from each other, so it’s a surprise at every turn.
Some room names include Gold Glitter, the Whispering Hills, The Hunting Lodge, Floral Fantasy, Old Mexico, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Jungle Rock.
A vibrant splattering of all sorts of colors forms a bit of an eyesore at the Madonna Inn, but the most commonly used is pink – and its many shades.
Light pink, rose, and bright pink accents and furniture form the main “theme” of the hotel if it indeed can be said that there is one.
The Madonna Inn is a staple hotspot of San Luis Obispo, California simply because it’s probably the most famous of eccentric accommodations in the world.
There are little secrets to find – including the lobby restroom, which holds a urinal that is essentially a waterfall.
There is also a theatre, a tennis court, a pool, trail rides, a cafe and bakery, a steakhouse, and a bar.
Address: 100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, United States
7. San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
The San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is a great learning center meant for kids aged between one and ten years of age.
There are all sorts of activities and exhibits that are designed to be interactive, hands-on, and engaging for children so that they learn through play.
It’s one of the most fun things to do in San Luis Obispo, California, for families.
The museum is extensive, featuring three floors that promote all sorts of options for indoor excitement and learning.
They’re carefully designed to encourage and promote creativity, curiosity, and imagination.
Programs are constantly occurring throughout the year and regular visitors get to apply for memberships, too.
All in all, it’s a top spot that you should bring your kids to!
Address: 1010 Nipomo St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
8. Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard
It’s a little odd to think of graveyards as San Luis Obispo attractions, but the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard definitely counts as one – if not one of the best.
Right above the California Polytechnic State University, among the hills, you’ll find this nine-acre expanse of land packed with strange structures, eclectic statues, and all sorts of unconventional creations.
And that’s because the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard isn’t actually a graveyard.
At least, not for people.
It’s a mishmash and a hodgepodge used by students from Cal Poly as what they call an outdoor experimental construction laboratory.
It’s where students of design, architecture, and engineering have left their structures built over many decades.
At the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard, you’ll find all sorts of structures, ranging from things close to houses and sculptures, as well as everything in between.
There’s an annual Design Village in the Canyon here at San Luis Obispo, where students build temporary themed structures and sleep in them for the time.
Address: Poly Canyon Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA, United States
9. Bishop Peak
It’s on this list of places to visit because it’s the tallest spot on the range at more than 1,500 feet in height.
This is part of the reason it’s such a loved destination for hiking in San Luis Obispo, California, and if you’re a nature enthusiast or someone who likes a good challenge, this is a great spot to try conquering.
Bishop Peak earned its name as a result of its shape, which resembles a bit of a crown of rocks, somewhat like the miter of a bishop.
It was formed over 20 million years in the past as a result of volcanic magma, making it technically a volcano, in a way.
Many different trails are available for different skill levels at Bishop Peak.
To the summit, you’ll be able to use a round-trip hike of 3.5 miles that starts climbing fairly early, at just 950 feet in from the head of the trail.
It’s a tough climb, but the gorgeous views and beautiful vistas are well worth the endeavor.
A gentler hike can be found at Felsman Loop, which is 2.7 miles in length for a round trip and provides a lower elevation.
Address: Patricia Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, United States
10. The Bells of El Camino Real
The Bells of El Camino Real are scattered across San Luis Obispo, along the road of El Camino Real, known also as King’s Highway or Royal Road.
It has a fascinating history; the road itself was designed to connect the 21 missions established during California’s Spanish Colonial era.
Franciscans made the road in such a way that it took a mere day on horseback to get to settlements.
The route was not especially distinct – or at least, not as much as it sounds.
Many different roads were referenced this way as missionaries traveled along the coast of what would become SLO.
The actual El Camino Real and its bells didn’t get formed until the early 20th century.
As automobiles began their ascent in the state, developers and relevant clubs teamed up to improve state roads, leading to its birth.
The first few bells, mounted upon shepherd staffs, appeared beginning 1906 to mark certain areas of the path, somewhat inconsistently.
Today, the El Camino Real route that once spanned 700 miles isn’t really what it was, but you can still find some of the bells lingering behind.
Unfortunately, many have become lost or even stolen over the years.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some left, though, and in the 1990s old bells were restored and replaced along the road.
Along Highways 101 and 82, if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find sections that contain those simple but historically rich mission bells – all of them San Luis Obispo attractions in their own right.
Address: Mission San Diego de Alcala, San Luis Obispo, CA, United States
Exploring other parts of California? Why not check out some of the things to do in Big Bear?
11. History Center of San Luis Obispo County
The History Center of San Luis Obispo County is one of the city’s key points of interest for its own preservation of culture, heritage, and history.
t’s a relatively small museum, with only some pieces of a very large archive and artifact collection being displayed at any given time.
There are a number of different exhibits to explore at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.
There is Pecho Coast, which covers a large expanse of time dating back to Diablo Canyon’s first native people and the history of the stretch of the Pecho Coast from Point San Luis to Montana de Oro.
There is also a large collection of regional photographs, packed with items dating from the 1840s, such as slides, prints, and postcards.
Sitting inside the Carnegie Library building and taking up space within the Dallidet Adobe and Gardens, the History Center is a great place for history buffs to have fun learning about the region.
A gallery, research area, and gift shop add to amenities.
Address: 696 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
12. Leaning Pine Arboretum
It is part of the California Polytechnic State University’s large campus, covering 5 acres of land along its northern side.
A peaceful location, the arboretum offers gorgeous views of not just the university campus, but the lovely mountains along the coast beyond.
In addition, the Leaning Pine Arboretum has hundreds of fascinating flora, ranging from more common plants to rare and unique sights.
As you walk, you’ll view many different plant collections, some regional, some national, and some from across the globe.
If you’re a nature-lover who isn’t sure what to do in San Luis Obispo, it’s safe to say that the Leaning Pine Arboretum is one of your very best bets!
Address: San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, United States
13. Sunset Drive-In Theatre
Want to watch a movie at night in SLO?
Why not do it the old-fashioned way at one of the city’s more fun tourist attractions?
The Sunset Drive-In Theatre is a nostalgic trip back in time to the retro days of America, showcasing movies on a large screen in a family-friendly, drive-in setting, with kid’s discounts and nightly double features.
The Sunset Drive-In Theatre of San Luis Obispo is one of the state’s last few functional drive-in cinemas.
The concession stand serves popcorn, drinks, and other snacks and refreshments to munch on as you enjoy your film.
Its bright neon sign and huge screen can be seen from Highway 101!
You can find the Sunset Drive-In Theatre near the previously mentioned Madonna Inn.
Do note that it only accepts cash, so come prepared.
There are also Sunday swap meets, where handmade items and used belongings are bought, sold, and swapped left and right if you’re interested!
Regardless, if you’re hankering for a little silver screen magic this weekend, you can’t go wrong with the Sunset Drive-In Theatre!
Address: 255 Elks Ln, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
14. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is a lovely, laid-back, relaxing town, near San Luis Obispo at just a quarter-hour drive away.
It provides the atmosphere of quintessential Southern California despite being a part of the Central Coast, which is precisely why a day trip here is often considered among the top things to do in SLO.
Basically, it’s worth the trip out of the city!
Pismo Beach is as close to a classic beach destination as you can get.
Its downtown region boasts seafood restaurants, surf shops, and accommodation options galore.
Most importantly, its shoreline reaches 23 miles in length and gets very busy in the summer, as bodyboarders, surfers, sports-players, and sunbathers flock to the sandy beach to have a blast with activities like whale watching, fishing, scuba diving, volleyball, kayaking, and picnics.
Lifeguards are present in these busier months.
All year long, Pismo Beach maintains a pleasurable temperature, only rising in July and August.
Its winds keep it quite cool even in hotter months and offer great kite-flying opportunities.
Whether you seek to soak up the sun or waves or simply go sightseeing in town, you’ll enjoy your time here.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to Pismo Beach during event times.
Art in the Park, the Kite Expo, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival, and the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea are among the great, fun events that may be happening this weekend!
15. San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Want more places to visit that are nature-themed?
Check out the stunning San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden!
A number of different gardens are located in this quiet spot, which sits between California’s Morro Bay and the rest of the city.
A good place in the botanical garden to begin your sightseeing is in the Preview Garden, which is an impressive five acres and provides you with sights of the plant life from all five major climate zones in the Mediterranean.
Beyond there, you can head to the Life Celebration Garden, where memorial engravings can be purchased in celebration of loved ones who have passed away.
You can also check out the greenhouse and nursery, where flora for the botanical garden are grown, county park plants are prepared, and some are available for sale to you and other visitors!
Address: 3450 Dairy Creek Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, United States
16. The Dorn Pyramid
The Dorn Pyramid is one of San Luis Obispo’s best things to see purely for its uniqueness and unusual nature.
It is a pyramid-shaped masonic tomb, rising 25 feet into the air, fashioned from granite, and completed in 1905.
The Dorn Pyramid was made by Fred Adolphus Dorn, a wealthy lawyer whose wife passed away giving birth to their son, who also passed away in that infancy.
The mysterious structure was his way of honoring their lives and passings and was erected in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Strangely, the Dorn Pyramid stands isolated and alone, separated from the rest of the structures on the grounds.
The explanation lies in its weight, as it is very heavy and requires very solid rock support, only available in this part of the cemetery.
Until 2018, two stones sat at its entrance, awaiting the final passing of the last Dorn.
It was sealed off that year.
The Dorn Pyramid certainly looks eerie, and open its front you can read its inscription, stating “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH”.
Urban legends have sprung from the Dorn Pyramid’s creation right off the bat and many live on till today, and if you ask around SLO, you might hear some of the interesting theories and mysteries surrounding this slightly spooky, slightly melancholy tomb.
Address: Higuera Street and Elks Lane, Oddfellows Cemetery, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
17. Avila Beach
Avila Beach sits in San Luis Obispo Bay, near to the aforementioned Pismo Beach but more protected and calm.
The little cove is perfectly picturesque and is wonderfully warm, shielded from the wind by hillsides.
The shoreline is perfect for sunbathing, the boardwalk is delightfully flanked by palm trees, and there are lots of restaurants and shops that line the beachfront.
Avila Beach’s relaxed ocean environment makes it a great spot for beginners to surfing and bodyboarding, though other activities like fishing, sailing, paddleboarding, and kayaking are also viable.
A picnic area and a playground make for some family-friendly enjoyment, especially if you’re here in the summer.
All year long, Avila Beach is host to a number of events and cultural exhibitions.
There’s the Festival Mozaic, the Blues Festival, the Open Studios Art Tour, and even the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival to check out.
Technically, Avila Beach isn’t in the city, 15 minutes out from it despite being in its titular bay.
Regardless, a trip here this weekend will still be among the most fun things to do in San Luis Obispo Bay to soak up some California sun and surf.
18. The Iron Road Pioneers
If you’re looking for some more free things to do in SLO, then why not head to one of the San Luis Obispo attractions that stands simply as a monument?
The Iron Road Pioneers is a glorious statue that honors a very important part of not just San Luis Obispo, but California and even the entire country beyond.
There are countless train routes that travel across the United States, and one route rests in this city itself.
The railways of the nation were constructed largely by Chinese immigrants, and 20,000 of them – at least – were involved in the Transcontinental Railroad’s construction.
Many lived with harsh discrimination and received no congratulations for their monumental contribution to the railways that would further the development of America.
These workers have often been called the “silent spikes”, but this statue at the San Luis Obispo Amtrak station gives them a new name.
Titled The Iron Road Pioneers, the sculpture is a monument to those many unspoken, unknown workers whose hard work and efforts are to be thanked for the railroads of the country.
Many of these workers would pass away during the brutal effort, laid to rest uncaringly in unmarked graves.
The Iron Road Pioneers was revealed in 2003 after being made by artist Elizabeth MacQueen.
It depicts two men working opposite each other, levering tracks with rivets and sweat in a long ordeal.
In the nighttime, the monument is lit up.
Address: San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
Looking for more fun outside San Luis Obispo? Why not check out Fresno? If you do plan the trip, here’s a list of some of the best things to do in Fresno!
19. Avila Hot Springs and Hiking Trails
The Avila Hot Springs and Hiking Trails are part of the titular Avilla Valley, a small rural area close to San Luis Obispo, California.
We’ve already mentioned its beach as one of the places to visit as a day trip, but it’s also fun to head further into the valley and discover what else it has to offer.
The Avila Hot Springs capitalize on the natural hot springs of mineral water in the valley, which are thought to provide benefits to health through therapeutic processes.
The hot springs hold a thermal soaking pool that measures 20 by 20 feet and has a fair bit of historical value.
It’s also equipped with amenities like a picnic area, a children’s water slide, cabins, and camping sites.
If you’d like to go on a bit of a walk after, you’ll find that the Avila Valley Hiking Trails are well worth the effort.
There are countless trails you can opt for, varying in length and difficulty, so there’s something for everyone as you explore forests, scrublands, and creeksides.
Address: 250 Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach, CA 93424, United States
20. Fremont Theatre
Fremont Theatre is San Luis Obispo’s go-to entertainment hotspot.
It opened on Memorial day in 1942 with a premiere of This Above All, providing 1060 seats at launch.
It invited hundreds of army servicemen from camps close to the area and was attended by a wide range of celebrities, too.
Even until now, the Fremont Theatre is one of the few star-studded San Luis Obispo attractions.
It is an Art Deco-style building with Streamline Moderne architecture, designed by S. Charles Lee, a famed theatre architect.
It was meant to mimic European opera houses and concert halls and is filled with more than 100 feet of decorative murals depicting flowers, women, and steeds across ceiling and walls.
The vintage palm flooring and retro pink-shaded exterior add to the overall glamor.
The building was almost lost as the 20th century drew to a close, as developers wanted to tear it down to put in a multiplex.
Thankfully, the public fought back, and it was saved.
It now continues to show a mix of classic and contemporary movies and films and is a staple theatre in California.
Address: 1035 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, United States
21. Avila Valley Barn
The Avila Valley Barn is another one of those day trips from San Luis Obispo, but it’s such a fun place that you should add it to your points of interest to check out regardless!
It is, at its core, a simple farmstand that sells lots of different fresh goods.
Ice cream, homemade baked goods, vegetables and fruits, fudge, candy, barbeque, roasted corn, and more all line up at the barn to provide yummy offerings to all.
Owned by family, the Avila Valley Barn provides a lovely slice of life in the countryside of California, offering a wide range of exciting experiences for those of all ages.
Kids will get to interact with animals at the farm or participate in hayrides and pony rides on weekends.
Gifts are sold that make for wonderful souvenirs and presents, too.
Address: 560 Avila Beach Dr, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, United States
22. California Highway One Discovery Route
If you’re getting restless and are looking for what to do, going on a road trip down this 101-mile road packed with over 40 attractions within San Luis Obispo alone is definitely a great option.
To travel the California Highway One Discovery Route gives you the true untamed, relaxed SLO experience.
Boutiques, vineyards, hamlets, views, and beaches make for fantastic stops along the way of the heart and soul of the state.
You’ll never run out of things to do and ways to spend your time!
Aside from the petrol costs, just driving through here is one of the area’s great free things to do.
Address: Highway 1, San Luis Obispo, CA, United States
23. Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a serene recreational location and is one of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo, California if you drive an off-highway vehicle.
It’s a unique choice among local tourist attractions, spanning 1,200 acres in a state park of interesting coastal terrain that features five miles of beach and open sand dunes as high as a hundred feet.
There are lots of ways to have fun at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area of San Luis Obispo. Camp, ride horses, fish, surf, bird-watch, swim, hike, and relax!
It’s an officially recognizes site by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, too!
Address: 100 Pier Ave, Oceano, CA 93445, United States
24. Lopez Lake
Lopez Lake is an incredible spot among San Luis Obispo’s places to visit.
It covers 4,200 acres of forest area and 22 miles of beach shoreline, packed with campgrounds, picnic spots, and all sorts of things to see in the flora and fauna.
Lots of family fun can be had at Lopez Lake.
Jet skiing, windsurfing, fishing, kayaking, picnicking, and camping are the most common options.
There are over 350 campsites at the lake as well as a number of rentable cabins, and you don’t need to worry about supplies thanks to the marina’s equipment shops, general store, laundromat, eatery, and vehicle rental options.
Address: Lopez Dr, Arroyo Grande, CA 93420, United States
Start Planning Your Trip To San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, California is a fun and exciting location, with lots of options for places to go and things to experience.
This list should help you decide what to see and do while you’re in this light-hearted, cheerful little city!