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The ultimate guide to getting around San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo County (SLO CAL) lies on a stunning stretch of Californian coast, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The area is famous for its beaches and vineyards, boasting over 250 wineries, as well as historic Hearst Castle. Come to SLO CAL to hike in national parks and laze on white sands, visit Spanish missions and enjoy farm-to-table dining. Here’s our ultimate guide to getting around SLO CAL and its top attractions.

What’s in this guide?

•    Getting from the UK to SLO CAL
•    Suggested itinerary from Los Angeles
•    Suggested itinerary from San Francisco
•    Getting around the SLO CAL area
•    Top attractions in SLO CAL
•    Best SLO CAL beaches
•    Top wineries in SLO CAL
•    Shopping in SLO CAL
•    Where to eat in San Luis Obispo

Getting from the UK to SLO CAL

The best way to explore the SLO CAL area is to fly into either Los Angeles or San Francisco. There are direct, 11-hour flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with airlines like British Airways, United, Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic. Thomas Cook Airlines offers direct flights from Manchester, or you can take longer connecting flights from other UK cities like Southampton, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Direct flights to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) also take around 11 hours. Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, United and British Airways fly from London Heathrow and Thomas Cook Airlines goes direct from Manchester. It takes upwards of 13 hours to take a connecting flight to SFO from other major cities in the UK such as Birmingham, Aberdeen and Bristol.

Suggested itinerary from Los Angeles

Flying into LA? Hit the main city sights, from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and TCL Chinese Theatre to Universal Studios Hollywood. Stay in Santa Monica to be near the beach and head to Beverley Hills and Rodeo Drive for shopping. After a taste of Tinsel Town, rent a car and head north towards SLO CAL.

Here’s a suggested road trip itinerary, based on a seven-10-day trip:

•    Los Angeles
•    Santa Barbara (95 miles northwest on Highway 101). Known as the American Riviera, the city is famed for its white-sand beaches, lively Stearn’s Wharf and Spanish architecture. Visit The Old Mission, founded in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans, kayak across to the nearby Channel Islands National Park and follow the city’s Urban Wine Trail.
•    Santa Ynez Valley (34 miles northwest along CA-154). Located just north of Santa Barbara, this pretty valley is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the country with over 200 tasting rooms. There are also six quaint towns, from the Danish-inspired Solvang to Old West heritage in Los Alamos
•    San Luis Obispo (68 miles north along the 101). Base yourself in the city of San Luis Obispo (SLO) and explore the rest of the county from there
•    Los Angeles (190 miles southeast on the 101)

Suggested itinerary from San Francisco

If you have two weeks or more, fly into San Francisco. Take in the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and park, wander around the Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, catch a show in the theatre district and relax by Stow Lake. From San Francisco, head inland to some of the country’s top National Parks en-route to SLO CAL.

Here’s a suggested itinerary:

•    San Francisco
•    Yosemite National Park (195 miles, head east on I-580, I-205 and Highway 120). Get your hike on to see waterfalls, lakes, giant sequoia trees, viewpoints and wildlife. Highlights include Yosemite Falls, the El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations, Tuolumne Meadows and Glacier Point
•    Kings Canyon National Park (130 miles, go south on the CA-41, at Fresno follow the CA-180 east to the Big Stump entrance). Discover striking canyon landscape and huge trees. Drive along the scenic byway, hike to Paradise Valley and catch sweeping views of Zumwalt Meadow
•    Sequoia National Park (46 miles, follow the CA-180 south to the Ash Mountain entrance). Don’t miss the Giant Forest and Moro Rock. Take the Big Trees Trail, a loop of less than a mile and check out the world’s largest tree, General Sherman
•    San Luis Obispo (170 miles, head west on the CA-198, south on the CA-41 and Highway 101). Use this as a base to visit the rest of SLO CAL
•    Pismo Beach (13 miles, follow the 101 south). Spend a couple of days at one of the most-loved beaches in the area
•    Monterey (151 miles, head north on the 101 until Salinas, then take the CA-68 west, or follow coastal Route 1). On your way back up the coast, make a pit-stop in Monterey Bay for its world-renowned aquarium. Stop at nearby artsy Carmel, a village with beach and nature preserve
•    San Francisco (120 miles, head north along the coast on Route 1)

Getting around the SLO CAL area

The SLO CAL area features 16 main cities which you can visit on a road trip through the county. Most lay on or just off Highway 101, which winds inland, or you can take the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1, to hit SLO CAL’s beach towns. It’s a good idea to base yourself in SLO, here are the distances from the city to some of the area’s hotspots:

Continue north from SLO on the 101 inland to visit:

•    Santa Margarita – 11 miles
•    Atascadero – 21 miles
•    Templeton – 27 miles
•    Paso Robles – 36 miles
•    San Miguel – 47 miles

Travel south on Highway 101 from SLO to visit:

•    Avila Beach – 10 miles
•    Pismo Beach – 17 miles
•    Grover Beach – 20 miles
•    Arroyo Grande –22 miles
•    Nipomo – 31 miles

Branch northwest from SLO onto Route 1 to visit:

•    Los Osos – 12 miles
•    Morro Bay – 18 miles
•    Cayucos – 24 miles
•    Cambria – 39 miles
•    San Simeon – 49 miles

Top attractions in SLO CAL

You could spend weeks exploring this idyllic slice of California, but here are some of the area’s most popular attractions:

San Luis Obispo

This college and mission town lies at the heart of SLO CAL and is an ideal base for exploring the county. There’s a walkable downtown as well as nearby beaches, dozens of wineries and breweries, mountain biking and watersports. Highlights include:

•    Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa – tour one of the most historical buildings in the city, built by Spaniards who settled in the area in 1772. Mission Plaza is a key meeting space in the city and is used for festivals and events
•    Farmers’ Market – every Thursday between 6 and 9pm, Higuera street transforms into the second-largest farmers’ market in the western US. Browse over six blocks of fresh produce, flowers, food vendors and entertainers
•    Museums – top picks include the SLO Children’s Museum, Museum of Art and History Museum. On the first Friday of every month, you can see artworks in over 20 venues across the city during Art After Dark
•    Theatres – catch a show or movie at the Palm Theatre, Clark Center for the Performing Arts or San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre

Hearst Castle

Built by business and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, this sprawling estate is dubbed La Cuesta Encantada, The Enchanted Hill. Spread over 250,000 acres, it features ocean-view gardens, swimming pools, guest houses and a private zoo. The main house has 165 rooms and a collection of art and antiques from all over the world. Take a tour of Hearst Castle and its visitor centre to learn about this fascinating estate. Directions: head 42 miles northwest along Route 1 from SLO.

Watersports

With over 80 miles of coastline and 315 days of sunshine a year, SLO CAL is the ideal place to indulge in some watersports. The coastline is dotted with beaches perfect for surfing, windsurfing, sailing and kayaking, paddle boarding and fishing. There are also a range of wildlife and whale watching tours on offer.

Paso Robles

A magnet for wine tasting, but it’s also known for producing craft beers and spirits such as gin and rye whiskey. In the 19th century, Paso Robles became known for its hot springs and later for its world-class vineyards. Hop around the city’s tasting rooms, have a meal or soak at the River Oaks Hot Springs Spa. Directions: drive 32 miles north from SLO on Highway 101.

Point San Luis Lighthouse and Light Station Park

This dates back to 1890 and is registered as a National Historical Monument. You can take a keeper-led interpretive tour of the lighthouse, built in Prairie Victorian and Gothic style, to learn about its history. Combine the trip with a hike along the Pecho Coast Trail. Directions: drive south about 10 miles on Highway 101. You can park at Avila Beach and take the trolley from there or hike the trail.

Wineries

There are over 250 wineries in SLO CAL that produce award-winning varieties including Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. Cooler-climate wines are produced in SLO, while Paso Robles is known for warmer-climate wines. Head out on the country roads to family-run vineyards or hop between downtown tasting rooms in SLO and Paso Robles.

Outdoor activities and National Parks

SLO CAL is a haven for nature lovers, who flock to the area for its rich hiking, biking, camping and horse riding opportunities. Top national parks, reserves and forests include:

•    Montaña de Oro State Park
•    Los Padres National Forest
•    Los Osos Oaks State Reserve
•    Estero Bluffs State Park
•    Morro Bay State Park
•    Hearst San Simeon State Park and Memorial Beach

Best beaches in SLO CAL

SLO CAL’s Pacific coastline has everything from dramatic cliffs to peaceful coves, here are the best beach options:

•    Pismo Beach – is the most popular beach in the county, with a boardwalk and 1,200-foot pier built in 1928. There’s soft sand for sunbathing and beach volleyball, great waves for surfing, kayak tours and horseback riding through nearby dunes. The vintage downtown and waterfront is filled with shops and fish restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and cute beach houses. Between October and February, around 25,000 Monarch Butterflies congregate in Pismo. Directions: 13 miles south of downtown SLO off highway 101
•    Avila Beach – this quirky beach town has a bustling pier and boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants. Enjoy the warm, south-facing beach which has calm waters perfect for bathing. Avila is a family and dog friendly beach with picnic tables and fire pits for BBQs. The nearby Central Coast Aquarium is worth a visit and you can hike to the Point San Luis Lighthouse from the beach. Directions: 10 miles south of San Luis Obispo on the 101
•    Morro Strand State Beach – is a great surfing spot with a long sandy beach. Kayaking tours of the bay are common, as you can spot wildlife such as sea otters, harbour seals, herons and even Peregrine Falcons. Morro Bay town has a boardwalk that stretches to the 581-foot-high Morro Rock. Directions: Head northwest on Route 1, 18 miles from downtown SLO
•    San Simeon Beach – is also known as the William Hearst Memorial State Beach and lies close to Hearst Castle. The protected beach has a pier and picnic area and is part of the San Simeon State Park. Sunbathe, swim, kayak or take a whale watching tour. If you’re feeling active, hike to San Simeon Point for panoramic views or head to Point Piedras Blancas, where over 17,000 elephant seals come to breed and raise their young. Directions: Take Route 1 north of Cambria, 42 miles northwest of SLO
•    Shell Beach – this thin, narrow beach is backed by steep cliffs and the water is studded with jagged rock formations. The beach lies just north of Pismo but is a much quieter option, with a nearby park for children and dogs. Shell Beach is teeming with tide pools, coves and has gentle waters for kayaking. Directions: Head 11 miles south of SLO on Highway 101 to Shell Beach Road
•    Montaña de Oro State Park – means ‘Mountain of Gold’ and is a great photography spot. The park has a number of rocky beaches, sand dunes and tide pools, as well as dunes and a mountain backdrop. Stop at the lighthouse and Hazard Canyon, do some hiking or horse riding. Spooner’s beach is a favourite, with nearby caves and surf spots. Directions: Head west on Los Osos Valley Road, continue along Pecho Valley Road, 16 miles from SLO

Top wineries in SLO CAL

You can’t visit SLO CAL without tasting some of its world-famous wines, here are some of the most highly-rated tasting rooms and vineyards:

•    Wolff Vineyards – lies in Edna Valley, 13 miles south of SLO, and has a tasting room as well as picnic space and panoramic views of its 125-acre vineyard. Wolff is a family-run business established in 1976, renowned for its Chardonnay, Rosé, Syrah and Teroldego wines
•    L’Aventure Winery – is located just outside of Paso Robles, set in rolling hills. There’s a wine cave tasting room where you can sip owner Stephan Asseo’s unique ‘Paso Blends’ of Syrahs, Sauvignons and Petit Verdots
•    Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards – has been producing wine since 1947 and has a rich family history. Come to taste the signature Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignons, wander among the resident peacocks and enjoy live music and food on Sundays. The vineyard is located just nine miles south of SLO
•    Edna Valley Vineyard – offers views of Islay Peak Volcano, a tasting room and dining options. Edna Valley lies seven miles south of SLO and produces five varieties of award-winning wine. Choose from 6-or-18-variety tasting experiences, pairing sessions or demonstration tours

Shopping in SLO CAL

Fancy some retail therapy? SLO CAL has everything from antique stores and designer boutiques to malls and surf shops. Higuera Street and downtown SLO have a range of local and well-known stores, including vintage goods, arts and souvenirs. Pismo Beach Premium Outlets has 40 designer brand stores, whilst the Madonna Plaza Shopping Center has well-known high-street options. Head to Santa Margarita to browse its collection of antique shops.

Where to eat in San Luis Obispo

The SLO CAL area is known for its fresh seafood and locally-sourced meat and produce. You’ll find highly-rated farm-to-table restaurants all over the county, but if you’re based in San Luis Obispo itself, here are some of the city’s best restaurants:

•    Luna Red – uses seasonal ingredients in its international menu and is located downtown. Enjoy dishes such as ceviche, paella and tapas, craft-cocktails and an award-winning wine list, as well as views of the creek
•    Big Sky Café – lies a block from Mission Plaza and boasts fresh market cuisine, supplied by local farmers. Meals include fish tacos, the devil’s mess breakfast and a range of vegetarian and vegan dishes
•    Ciopinot – this family-run seafood restaurant and oyster bar is set downtown and has an extensive wine list. Favourites include clam chowder, seafood fettuccini, the fisherman’s plate and lobster tail
•    Buona Tavola – is the city’s top Italian restaurant, run by acclaimed chef Antonio Varia. Dine on northern Italian cuisine with a variety of delicious pastas, salads and risottos
•    Apple Farm restaurant and bakery – has been a popular farm-to-table option with locals for decades. Sample their pies, pastries and traditional dishes like turkey pot pie. There’s also local meats and seafood, plus hot apple dumpling for dessert

 


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