California’s SLO County: Scenic Charm and a Relaxed Vibe

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California's SLO County: Scenic Charm and a Relaxed Vibe

Discovering unique communities of San Luis Obispo County in Central California

(Disclosure: My visit was hosted by San Luis Obispo County as part of a post-trip after the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) 2016 conference in Oxnard, California. Observations and opinions are my own.)

San Luis Obispo County is located along California’s central coast, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is only three hours from the freeway busyness of Los Angeles, but its relaxed vibe feels worlds away. It has a warm Mediterranean marine climate and offers beautiful coastal scenery, charming towns, outdoor activities, protected open spaces, culinary treats, arts and culture. Each of the communities I visited had its own unique character.

San Luis Obispo

Mission Plaza in San Luis Obispo, one of the unique communities in the relaxed and scenic SLO County
Mission Plaza

The city of San Luis Obispo (SLO for short) is located about eleven miles inland. It is the county seat and one of the oldest communities in California. It was founded in 1772 by Spanish Franciscan Junípero Serra. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa still stands in the centre of the city and remains a working parish. Mission Plaza is a central meeting place and hosts festivals and fairs throughout the year. The Plaza connects to the San Luis Creek Walkway, a nice place for a leisurely stroll. San Luis Creek was the original source of water for the town.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, California

Inside Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, California

Today SLO is a vibrant college town with a population of about 46,000. The National Geographic Book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner, published in 2010, named it the Happiest City in the United States. Downtown is pleasant and easy to walk through. I felt a young and lively vibe. The streets are lined with brick nineteenth century buildings containing shops, galleries, award-winning restaurants, coffee shops, bars and clubs. The area south of the city is wine country with many tasting rooms. (Paso Robles in the north of San Luis Obispo County is another wine centre.) SLO is also home to many craft breweries as I discovered on a tour of Craft Beer in Wine Country.

Images of San Luis Obispo, a lively and historic college town in central California

Morro Bay

Morro Bay along central California's coast is a funky, maritime town

Morro Bay is a fishing town with harbour-front restaurants, quaint shops and plenty of outdoor activities. You can view sea otters, sea lions and whales via cruises or see birds and other wildlife on a hike in Morro Bay State Park. Morro Bay is a popular family vacation destination. I found it to have a funky, maritime feel. You can read more about my experience in Morro Bay at Morro Bay: A Seaside Escape.

Morro Rock, just off shore at Morro Bay in central California
Morro Rock, just off shore, is where the town got its name


Cambria lies twenty miles up the coast from Morro Bay. Surrounded by Monterey Pines and craggy coastline, this charming, artsy town has stunning scenery, nature walks, historic buildings, galleries, sophisticated dining and lovely inns. While I easily pictured a family vacation at Morro Bay, Cambria struck me as a relaxing or romantic adult getaway. You can read about my impressions of Cambria at Enchanting Cambria: History, Art and the Outdoors.

Charming Cambria along central California coast


The coastal town of Harmony is a dairy community with a population of eighteen (nine people, nine cows). You will not find any shops, restaurants or inns here, but it is picturesque and worth driving through. The town is home to Harmony Glassworks Studio and Gallery.  You may be able to pick up a piece of glass art or view a glassblower at work if you time your visit appropriately. Harmony Cellars Tasting Room is nearby.

Glass art studio in Harmony, population 18, in central California.


Bristol's Cider, made in Atascadero, California

Atascadero is inland, seventeen miles north of the city of San Luis Obispo. I passed through this town very briefly and did not notice anything to particularly make it stand out. It has art galleries, antique shops and a craft beer scene. It is also home to Bristols’ Cider House.

Atascadero City Hall in San Luis Obispo County, California
Atascadero City Hall

What I did find interesting about the town was its history. It was founded as a utopian colony in 1913 by entrepreneur E.G. Lewis. I learned some of that history when I toured City Hall, which is worth a visit. City Hall was built between 1914 and 1918. After significant earthquake damage in 2003, it was closed for extensive renovation for ten years, re-opening in 2013. Part of the Atascadero Historical Society Museum is housed in the building.

Atascadero City Hall features, California

San Simeon

San Simeon, near the northern end of San Luis Obispo County, has a population of less than five hundred people, but it has some spectacular attractions. Here is where you find Hearst Castle, the opulent estate built by William Randolph Hearst. It is also where you can view elephant seals at the Piedras Blanca Rookery. I viewed another attraction, the Piedras Blanca Light Station, from a distance. Access is only by guided tours on certain days.

The views from Hearst Castle are as magnificent as the buildings
The views from Hearst Castle are as magnificent as the buildings
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Rookery, San Simeon, San Luis Obispo County, California
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Rookery
Piedras Blancas Light Station in the distance, California
Light station in the distance

I enjoyed my short time in San Luis Obispo County. My weekend was very busy and yet it felt relaxed and slow (SLO?) because of the laid-back feel of the area. I hope I can return some day to spend more time and discover the rest of the County.

Scenery of San Luis Obispo County in central California
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  1. My husband and I spent 2 weeks in and around SLO County about 10 years ago. We loved the area … all the small towns, beaches, restaurants and the wine area. We stayed in the southern end of the County in Pismo Beach, There are several small towns that run together in that area, including Avilo Beach and Arroyo Grande. We also visited Morro Bay, San Simeon and San Luis Obispo. At the time there was a weekly evening market in San Luis Obispo and I recall (in addition to everything else being sold) there were beautiful vegetables available. Definitely an area I would gladly revisit!

    1. Eva, we did not get to see the Pismo Beach are on this trip. I agree this is an area I would gladly revisit.

  2. I’ve made numerous trips to both Northern and Southern California but have never been in the middle. Your images make it look to be a place I’d like to spend some time.

    1. Rebecca, I’d been to a couple of spots in California before, but it wasn’t until this past spring when we travelled through more of the state that I began to fully appreciate how varied the State is. Lots of beautiful areas.

  3. Wow I didn’t know San Luis Obispo was named the Happiest Place in the USA! I passed thru the town over 30 years ago and didn’t recall anything you talked about. I certainly remember Hearst Castle though. Great area to visit as you head north from LA.

  4. We rolled through SLO last month and loved it. I had previously been there countless times when I lived in California. Love the place. The elephant seals were out in force. We camped (with a JUCY campervan) in Morro Bay State Park. Stopped for lunch in Cambria and was knocked out by that place. Great place.

    1. Charles, I too was knocked out by Cambria. I was impressed with the entire SLO area and would love to visit again and again.

  5. We lived in CA for 30+ years and enjoyed many visits to SLO area. We always loved Cambria, such a cool little town with such spectacular views. And, I always appreciated the wooden walkway and charming side streets full of shops and eateries. Hearst Castle is always a fun step back in time to the age of Hollywood glamour. So glad you got to experience SLO.

    1. Patti, I too am glad I got to experience SLO. And I knew almost nothing about the area before going there.

  6. I’ve been to a few California locations, but never San Luis Obispo. This post is well-timed though in that I am currently working with an author on a query and synopsis, and the main setting is SLO in the late-1800s.

    1. Jeri, that’s an interesting coincidence. After having been to the area, it would be fun to read a book with a setting in an earlier time frame.

    1. Carole, I will have to keep Avila Beach and La Fonda Hotel in mind for any future visits to the area. Fresh pie every night as a snack sounds lovely.

  7. Hi Donna! Even though I was on this same post-trip as you, we ended up doing some different things so it was fun to see some of the things I did not! That was an amazing trip, though, and I’m glad I got to share most of it with you. SLO County is somewhere I want to return. I missed seeing the elephant seals!

    1. Alison, when I look back I realize I did cover quite a bit of territory and yet there was still so much I didn’t get to see.

  8. Thx for the super post, Donna. I’ve never been to San Luis Obispo or the SLO County, but must have been very close (or drove by without knowing), as we have driven up and down the California coast more than once. Time to go back!