For years, my only memory of San Luis Obispo was a couple of overnights at the landmark Madonna Inn, the gaudy pink palace. The guestrooms, which have names like “Caveman,” “Edelweiss” and “Tack Room,” are decorated thematically.
The pseudo-Swiss chalet, which has appeared in the television shows “The Bachelor” and “The Simpsons,” is most famous for its 8-foot rock waterfall urinal. The inn still plays a big part in the life of the town. Check out the over-the-top holiday displays by dining 3-10 p.m. Christmas Eve or noon to 10 p.m. Christmas Day (madonnainn.com).
Father Junipero Serra in 1772 founded the city, nestled approximately 200 miles south of Los Altos off Highway 101, 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, named for the bishop of Toulouse, sits in the heart of downtown, in what is now known as Mission Plaza. The vibrant pedestrian square boasts grassy areas with benches and a fountain.
Happiest town in U.S.
San Luis Obispo – called SLO by residents – is not only a nice place to visit, but you’d want to live there, too. At least according to writer Dan Buettner, who sings the city’s praises in his book “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way” (National Geographic, 2010).
Drawing from a 2008 Gallup-Healthways study, Buettner outlines why SLO’s 45,000 residents enjoy “stratospheric levels of emotional well-being.” The town qualified as the happiest in the nation. He cites the area’s many nonprofits organizations, its green orientation and community values as reasons its residents are content.
The Central Coast city has a small-town atmosphere with big-city arts, like its own orchestra and performing-arts center. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a public university with 20,000 students, contributes its resources and youthful energy to the city.
SLO supports the arts with its year-round Festival Mozaic musical programs (festivalmozaic.com). The festival’s WinterMezzo concert series is scheduled Feb. 28 through March 2.
The city sponsors Art After Dark events 6-9 p.m. the first Friday of every month. Galleries like Drew Davis Fine Art (331 Pacific St.), Steynberg Gallery (1531 Monterey St.), the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (1010 Broad St.) and The Photo Shop (1027 Marsh St.) remain open during the event. The nearby Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates (1445 Monterey St.) and Breaking Bread Bakery (1074 Higuera St.) sell treats and gifts. For a list of venues participating in the Jan. 3 event, visit artsobispo.org/art-after-dark.
Several movie theaters are located downtown. The Palm Theatre (817 Palm St.), which claims to be the nation’s first solar-powered movie house, shows independent and art-house features. The historical Fremont Theatre (1035 Monterey St.), a restored art-deco cinema, sports painted sea nymphs on horseback on its ceiling. The Sunset Drive-In Theater (255 Elks Lane) draws rave reviews from families with small children. For $6 a car, the entire clan can watch the show. This may be one of the last remaining drive-ins in the state.
If you like paint-by-number sets or have artistic talent that needs a creative outlet, Art Bar (1130 Morro St., in the Granada Hotel & Bistro) is the place for you. It’s also a great date idea. For $40 for two hours, participants receive wine or beer and charcuterie, brushes, paints, smocks, canvas and instructions from guest artists who teach how to reproduce their paintings. Next on the calendar are “The Flying Buddha” with Tracy Taylor Friday and “Let It Snow” with Briana Devereux Saturday. Southern California artist and Cal Poly student Isaac Yorke will teach mosaic Saturday. Registration is required (artbarslo.com).
Despite being a college town, San Luis Obispo banned drive-thru restaurants in the 1980s, and smoking in public was outlawed in April 2010.
Instead, the city offers healthful options for travelers in all categories, from dining to recreation.
For example, the massive San Luis Obispo County Farmers’ Market (slocountyfarmers.org) features diverse food stalls that take over downtown streets 6-9 p.m. every Thursday. Bike valets park two-wheelers behind the ropes on Higuera Street between Nipomo and Osos streets. Live street entertainment and locally grown produce are but two of the attractions.
Biking and hiking trails take people around town and to Bishop’s Peak, as well as to the Seven Sisters volcanic plugs, which offer panoramic views of the area.
What do locals do to stay well – and happy? There are several hot springs on the way to Avila Beach. Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort (1215 Avila Beach Drive) rents hot tubs with mineral water on an hourly basis. The resort also offers workshops, yoga classes, special packages and retreats. Guestrooms come with spas. During the week, the Gardens of Avila Restaurant’s 4-6 p.m. happy-hour menu features Central Coast wines made famous in the movie “Sideways.”
Shopping and fine dining
Downtown covers approximately seven blocks of quirky shops interspersed with chain stores. Try Moondoggies Beach Club (837 Monterey St.) for surfboards and amenities and Ian Saudé (1003 Osos St.) for imaginative baubles. Stop by EcoBambino (863 Monterey St.) for organic children’s clothes and toys.
Novo Restaurant and Lounge (726 Higuera St.) serves global cuisine in a romantic creekside setting. The building originated as a cigar factory in the 1880s, then became a tobacco store and the Cigar Factory Restaurant before Novo assumed ownership. There’s a full bar, and brunch cocktails include the Tall, Dark & Wired, a Kahlua, Bailey’s and espresso mix. Vegan and gluten-free options are available.
Big Sky Cafe (1121 Broad St.) deserves raves. It’s open daily for organic breakfast, lunch and dinner. Menu items range from hummus starters to main-dish butternut squash and sage butter pasta with chicken sausage.
Downtown San Luis Obispo features several boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts that can serve as home base while you take advantage of the town’s proximity to Hearst Castle, beaches, sand dunes and hiking and biking trails.
After a long day of sightseeing and fine dining, tuck in at one of the following.
Petit Soleil (1473 Monterey St.), decorated with sunny Provencal colors, offers a rustic-looking courtyard and charming rooms five blocks from the city’s heart. Author Buettner mentions Petit Soleil in “Thrive,” noting that hotelier John Conner loaned him a bike before he had paid his bill. It was an example of trust and community welfare that makes SLO the happy town it is, according to Buettner. Fifteen rooms range from $169 to $299. If you need extra space, try the grand suite, the 540-square-foot “Joie de Vivre,” which includes a wet bar with refrigerator, two TVs and an extra sofa bed. Free Wi-Fi and local phone calls are included in the room prices.
The Apple Farm Inn (2015 Monterey St.) offers guests two choices: the Trellis Court Motel or the Wine Country Inn. The fancier of the two, the three-story Wine Country Inn, features rooms with a seating area, welcome basket, gas fireplace and free Wi-Fi. Some rooms have hot tubs. Motel rooms are smaller but cheaper and include a writing desk. Specials start at $99.
The San Luis Creek Lodge (1941 Monterey St.) has 25 rooms in three buildings – the Londonderry, the Plantation and the Craftsman. As one might imagine, the lodgings’ decor matches their titles. The Windsor, Room 28 in the Londonderry, features a king bed with a fireplace and jetted tub. Rates start at $122.
For more information, visit visitslo.com.