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San Luis Obispo, California, coastline.
AntonioFernandez/shutterstock

California’s Best-Kept Secret Is This Beachside Wine Region

SmarterTravel

You might think that a coastal wine region worth flying for lies only on the other side of a transatlantic flight—Lisbon, Santorini, even Cape Town. But California’s Central Coast is hiding an underrated wine region wrapped in rolling hills and fringed by rocky coastline.

A sprawling rural county mostly known as a stop on scenic Highway 1 between L.A. and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo is best known for Hearst Castle and the coastal highway lookout points over Morro Bay. But pulling off Highway 1 to stay a while at a bed and breakfast or a trendy boutique hotel means slowing down SLO-style and discovering a world of art galleries, quaint town centers, and an array of hand-crafted ways to experience California cuisine through the local and sustainable food movement. With 250 wine producers, Paso Robles and SLO county make up the second-largest wine region in California—just behind Napa and Sonoma.

From olive oil producers and distillery and farm trails to craft beer and, yes, lots of wine, there’s something for every palate.

Slowing Down in SLO: San Luis Obispo County

San luis obispo mountains.

When choosing lodging or a looking for a fast meal in SLO, you might notice that there are very few chains—and nary a drive-through in sight, thanks to a local ordinance banning them. A cluster of arts and farming communities close to the beach, SLO is a stylish mix of cowboy and surfer cultures that invite you to slow down. Here’s how to mix R&R with outdoor adventure in SLO, whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway or a family-friendly stay.

Stay in Style

Kinney slo and madonna inn hotels in san luis obispo.
Shannon McMahon

There’s a lodging option for every style in San Luis Obispo County, and staying in a few different locales is a good idea if you’re looking to fit in both the beach and the vineyards.

Downtown San Luis Obispo is a central jumping-off point for both, with plenty of hotels walking distance from the historic SLO town center’s shops, galleries, and dining. The Kinney SLO is a quieter art hotel with a pool and firepits, located steps from the bustle and college-bar scene (California Polytechnic, better known as Cal Poly, is here) of Higuera Avenue.

If you’d rather be in the heart of the college town, the trendy Granada Hotel and Bistro is also a worthwhile al-fresco dining destination; wait for a table at the property’s thoroughly ambient bar, Nightcap. Across Higuera Avenue, the beer-stocked SLO Brew Lofts are popular with the younger crowd for apartment-style suites complete with a record player and library of vinyl to choose from. Nearby attractions include the town’s historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the SLO Museum of Art.

For more family-friendly digs five minutes (driving) away, the retro Madonna Inn is a famously pink motel-style resort that was built in a Swiss-chalet style in the 1950s. Stay here to choose your own kitschy themed room and enjoy the large spa, or visit for a meal at the wildly decorated Copper Café and peruse the property.

Wine lovers will want to stay in Paso Robles—wine country. The historic Paso Robles Inn’s new boutique property, The Piccolo will bring a stylish new roof deck and wine bar to the city’s quaint town center. Some of the county’s best restaurants and nightlife spots are nearby, including fine dining at Il Cortile, and a not-so-secret speakeasy, Eleven Twenty Two.

Sample Local Flavors at Tin City & the Distillery Trail

Tin city san luis obispo.

The rolling countryside of Paso Robles parts to reveal a hidden gem off of Highway 101: Tin City, a modern outdoor business park that’s become home to more than a dozen small wine producers, plus distilleries, breweries, a cider house, restaurants, and food shops. Meandering among the businesses and outdoor patios is the perfect way to sample the many flavors of San Luis Obispo in one place. Take your pick of the places to imbibe and play lawn games, head to Tin Canteen for fresh pasta and wood-fired pizza, and don’t miss Negranti Creamery to try a flight of artisanal goat-milk ice cream flavors—or you can stick to the standard cow-milk version.

Another way to taste the fruits of the region is along the nearby Paso Robles Distillery Trail. The new partnership links a dozen farms and vineyards through craft spirits, often created from wine waste: the skin and seeds that can be distilled into your spirit of choice. The craft distilleries that make up the trail, including Re:Find, Bethel Road, Azeo, and Pendray’s echo California cuisine’s mission of sustainability by turning waste into spirits ranging from gin and vodka to brandies, grappa, and sweet liqueurs.

Experience the SLO County Farm Trail

San luis obispo, california, farm trail.

If getting outdoors without imbibing is more your pace, San Luis Obispo’s sustainable farms offer all types of fun and educational activities. Located near Tin City, Templeton Valley Farms is one of nine properties, from creameries to lavender and rose farms, that have partnered with educational FARMstead Ed to form the SLO County Farm Trail. Classes and experiences range from cow milking classes and alpaca visits to “Garden to Glass” kombucha mocktail tastings, and olive tree plantings. See more on the changing array of experiences here.

Go Olive Oil Tasting

SLO cal olive grove.

Another SLO tasting opportunity sans alcohol happens to be one of the best, and cheapest, things to do in San Luis Obispo: olive oil tasting. Kiler Ridge Olive Farm is a hilltop operation with an expansive view of SLO County. It’s free to visit and costs just $5 for olive oil tastings (offered Thursdays through Mondays) that include all the farm’s Tuscan varietals. The outdoor tasting patio overlooks the property’s expansive grove, and you’ll finish out your sample flight with olive-oil-topped salted ice cream and a new understanding of the oil you probably often buy off the grocery store shelf.

Stroll Atascadero Center

Atascadero city hall and downtown.
Shannon McMahon

SLO County is rife with historic town centers like Atascadero’s, and they’re all unique. Atascadero historic past as a hub of the women’s suffrage movement of the 1900s (its founder established the American Woman’s League) is evident in its street art, galleries, and on a free tour of the City Hall. Atascadero City Hall and surrounding “Sunken Gardens” also host a quarterly neighborhood wine and beer stroll (tickets are about $20) that welcomes locals and visitors alike to wander through nearby businesses for live music, snacks, and local beer and wine samples. Free movie nights on the City Hall lawn, the summer concert series, and Atascadero Farmers Market are also crowd favorites. See an up-to-date list of events in Atascadero here.

Drive Scenic Highway 1 to Cambria

Cambria, california.

Those scenic Highway 1 pull-offs are a road trip must-do for a reason—Morro Bay’s rocky coastline and SLO County’s beachside arts town of Cambria are some of the most scenic places on California’s Central Coast.

And what’s a cozy arts community without a bed and breakfast? Stay a night at the Olallieberry Inn to sleep in one of the town’s oldest homes and wake up to specialty homemade meals featuring all things olallieberry, including Montecristo sandwiches slathered with the sweet berry’s jam and a garden salad punctuated by the treasured local berries. The music-themed inn is a relaxing property and garden that also offers private transportation to and from SLO wine tours in the area if you’d like to stay close the beach for your entire trip.

Cambria’s downtown is a worthwhile art walk of cafes, shops, and esteemed galleries like Patrick Gallery, Riccardo Gallery, and Mission Gallery. Shop and then walk to nearby Moonstone Beach’s easy boardwalk, or head to nearby Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to stretch your legs.

Explore (and Hike) Downtown SLO

You can’t visit San Luis Obispo without exploring its beating heart: Downtown SLO. Walk through the city’s historic Mission and choose from downtown eateries like Mint + Craft cafe, Goshi sushi, and Taste Craft Eatery. Head to the Junk Girls, a locally loved gallery and craft souvenir store, to pick out a scavenged piece of metal and turn it into your very own keepsake—think metal spoon-handle rings and vintage books repurposed into spiralbound notebooks.

Hiking is a great thing to do in SLO if you want to fit in with the locals. Pick an easy route like the downtown-adjacent Lemon Grove Loop Trailhead of Cerro San Luis (marked with a distinctive “M”), or tackle something bigger like Bishop’s Peak for a two-hour-long route. Both will earn you bragging rights that you made it up one of the area’s nine volcanic plugs known as the Nine Sisters.

Visit a Luffa Farm

Luffa farm in nipomo california.
Shannon McMahon

Did you know luffas—also known as loofahs—grow on farms? One of the most unique properties you can visit in SLO is the Luffa Farm, a small operation in Nipomo that teaches visitors about growing and drying out the gourds to create the natural sponges—a cheap and waste-free alternative to shopping for processed or plastic sponge brushes. You can pick your own luffa if the greenhouse fruits are in season, peel back the husk and take your own natural luffa sponge home. Visiting is free, for now, but the educational experience and keepsake warrants a generous tip.

San Luis Obispo is full of surprises. And whether you’re a true oenophile, looking to learn more about varietals, or simply more inspired by the beach or farms, a mix of culinary-inspired outdoor experiences and the bucket-list coastline makes San Luis Obispo a sprawling coastal wine region worth exploring.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel, and experienced San Luis Obispo as a guest of Visit SLO Cal. Follow her travels on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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