On a recent overnight trip with my husband and two kids to San Luis Obispo, I bought a tee that reads "San Luis Obispo. Happiest Place in the U.S.A." I bought it from a local t-shirt designer at SLO's weekly Thursday night farmers market/street fair because I thought it was cute, and because I'm a t-shirt junkie. Little did I know that this claim was actually legit; turns out it's been substantiated by such heavyweights as USA Today and Oprah -- how's that for a gift to the tourism bureau? Overblown as this slogan may sound, it made sense to me after spending a little time in this friendly college town tucked away in the rolling green hills of California's Central Coast.
After a three-hour drive from Santa Monica, my family and I exited the 101 just in time for lunch, so we made straight for a little Italian joint in the heart of downtown SLO called Mama's Meatball. After a hearty lunch of pizza and homemade pasta, we found San Luis Creek hidden behind the restaurant, and followed it until we came to the San Luis Obispo Children's Museum. We played there for a couple of hours before continuing along the pretty creek path to the famed Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Our five-year-old son had a ball scrambling across boulders and exploring the deep, dark "zombie cave" where the creek goes underground near the mission.
Throughout our mild adventure, I felt a sense of ease and contentment that isn't always in abundant supply when traveling with a kindergartner and a toddler. I credit the laid-back nature, not to mention walkability, of our surroundings: there's a reason the locals call it "SLO Town." After an enjoyable evening at the farmers market, we spent the night in the "Joie de Vivre" suite at Le Petit Soleil Bed and Breakfast, which I recommend highly both for its charming accommodations and scrumptious breakfast. The Granada Hotel is a new hot spot that's also receiving rave reviews for its elegant, upscale accommodations and convenient downtown location.
Below is a rough guideline for exploring San Luis Obispo's downtown area on foot. I've made the Amtrak station a starting point for visitors who travel by train. And even if you go by car, the city's Historic Railroad District is worth checking out.
SLO Walking Tour (Approximate Round-Trip Distance: 2 miles):
-Exit the Amtrak station via Santa Rosa St. After five blocks, you'll come to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kundert Medical Building on the corner of Santa Rosa and Pacific St.
-Continue for two blocks on Santa Rosa, and then turn left on Higuera St. Every Thursday night from 6 to 9pm, the San Luis Obispo farmers' market takes over the five blocks of Higuera between Osos St. and Nipomo St. Food vendors hawk barbecue, hand pies, vegan fare and more, while street performers keep the throngs of people entertained. Oh, and there's produce too.
-Turn right on Chorro St. and you'll come to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on your left. After exploring the mission's buildings and enjoying the pretty grounds of Mission Plaza, follow one of the pathways down to the San Luis Creek walkway (located right next to the plaza).
-Follow the creek path southwest toward Broad St. You'll find the History Center of SLO and SLO Museum of Art at street level on the corner of Broad and Monterey St. If you're traveling with tykes, you'll want to follow the creek path one more block to its end at the corner Monterey and Nipomo St., site of the thoroughly entertaining (if you're under 10) SLO Children's Museum ($8 adults and children, free for kids 2 years and under).
-From the Children's Museum, head southeast on Nipomo back to Higuera St., turn left and window shop for the next few blocks along one of downtown's main drags.
-Turn right on Morro St. and you'll come to the Granada Hotel and Bistro, a recently opened luxury boutique hotel in a historic 1920s building at 1126 Morro.
-If you've booked a room at the Granada, your walk is over. If you're staying at Le Petit Soleil, turn around and head back the way you came on Morro St., cross Higuera, and then turn right on Monterey St. Le Petit Soleil is located about six blocks up the road at 1473 Monterey St.
-If you'd like to return to the railroad station, continue along Morro St. for a few more blocks to Buchon St. and turn left. Make a right on Santa Rosa St. to continue back to your starting point.