Travel | January 3, 2023 7:19 am

Where to Stay, Eat and Camp on the Dunes in San Luis Obispo

Slow down in "SLO Cal" with Michelin-caliber eats and a growing assortment of top-tier hotels

A photo taken in the hills outside of San Luis Obispo, California. The town of Morro Bay and the Pacific Ocean can be seen in the distance.
A view of Morro Bay, which is located in San Luis Obispo County.
Mimi Ditchie Photography via Getty

SoCal and NorCal need no additional introduction, but SLO Cal might not yet be on your radar. Smack dab between L.A. and S.F. — about a three-hour drive from either — this community in the middle of the state is known for its wine and other local makers, temperate nights and pristine beaches. As the area’s wine country grows in stature, a hospitality network is growing right alongside to help accommodate the influx of visitors to the region. With neighboring cities like Paso Robles, Morro Bay, Cayucos, Pismo Beach and others, there’s plenty to explore for visitors looking to expand their knowledge of local California culture. 

In that spirit, here’s a guide for the enterprising traveler looking to find their way around the city that makes up the heart of the central coast: San Luis Obispo. (Ah, now you understand SLO Cal…)

Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo

Choosing a good home base can make or break a trip, especially in a city that’s still expanding its offerings. With that in mind, the city’s namesake property, Hotel San Luis Obispo, is a real gem for first-time visitors, with a ground-floor bar and chef-driven, Michelin-recommended menu at Ox + Anchor. It’s got a great, social vibe, with a lobby that doubles as a lounge, as well as a pool, a bustling rooftop and bright, spacious rooms that are practically brand new, as the hotel was completed in early 2020. 

Another great option is Hotel Cerro, a quieter, slightly more off-the-beaten-path property with enormous, suite-like rooms, a glassy rooftop pool and a downstairs bar and restaurant that leads out onto the picturesque downtown for easy access to shopping and other dining options. 

We’ve also recommended Nomada Hotel Group’s Granada Hotel & Bistro before as a great stopover if you’re road tripping through the area. Though they don’t have a pool, Granada makes up for it with their historic brick building, a stunning roof deck, their on-site bistro and a tucked-away speakeasy, Nightcap. Also worth noting: Nomada is launching three additional properties in the area next year, so they’re all in on central coast hospitality.

Where to Eat in San Luis Obispo

Two recommendations have already been embedded up above, as both Ox + Anchor in Hotel SLO and Granada Bistro serve excellent, locally-sourced menus with a farm-to-table emphasis — and Granada’s offerings also include a mean weekend brunch. Nate’s on Marsh is the other pick from Michelin, a downtown restaurant that’s set up in a converted house and serves refined Italian against a nostalgic, cowboy-esque backdrop. If you’re staying at Cerro, then Scout Coffee is just across the street, a cozy brick space where tchotchkes, greeting cards and pastries round out their delicious coffee and tea offerings. In a neighboring beach town, Morro Bay, Tognazzini’s Dockside is an ultra-casual, incredibly fresh seafood haunt right on the water, with an added bonus that there’s usually a local musician playing oldies while you wait for everything from raw or barbecued oysters to fish and chips, scallop kabobs and seafood risotto. Of course, nearby Paso Robles is a foodie hub and all the local wineries tend to offer their own food that pairs with wine tastings or more expansive dinners and lunches upon request, so do a little research into local favorites like Niner Wine Estates and Cass Winery to incorporate a foodie experience right into your tasting.

Why Paso Robles Is California’s Most Pioneering Wine Region

When it comes to reds, there’s more to the Central Coast than just muscle. Here are nine must-try bottles.

What to Do in San Luis Obispo

On the subject of wine tasting, there are few areas in the state right now getting the kind of attention that the central coast is. With a new AVA (American Viticultural Area) designated this past March called — you guessed it — SLO Coast AVA, and the next generation of players like Field Recordings coming out of Paso Robles, there are plenty of tasting experiences for all levels of wine drinkers, from novice to expert. If wine isn’t your thing, nearby Pismo Beach is also known for their extensive sand dunes and accompanying sand-sport activities, and exploring the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in buggies and ATVs could keep you occupied all weekend (literally, as camping is also available). If you’re not confident in your own sand-driving abilities but love a thrill, expert Hummer tours from a local might be the move.

There are also plenty of hikes to be had around at the Montaña de Oro State Park, or on the Sycamore Crest Trail for the ocean views. If you plan ahead properly, a drive up to Hearst Castle and a tour of eccentric billionaire William Randolph Hearst’s very own antiquities-filled mansion could also double as a hike of sorts. If you make it all the way up to the castle, stop in at Hidden Kitchen in Cayucos on the way back and order a savory blue corn waffle or two to get your strength back up before more wine tasting or nature exploring.

What to Buy in San Luis Obispo

The local makers scene in SLO is so robust that I’d be remiss not to share a few favorites. Fablerune is a local skincare brand that’s so popular it’s already popping up in nearby luxury properties, like the Pacific Motel, and their unisex products range from haircare and skincare to candles and gift boxes, all created with local herbs and botanicals. 
Kelpful is a local collective that sustainably farms local seaweed and turns it into useful products and ingredients, and Tied & True Goods have all the beautiful macrame wall art and plant hangers to make your home Instagram-ready. (Pro-tip: If you’re not there yet, or can’t keep a plant alive, these also make great gifts.) If you’re heading to the area, the community hub SLO-cally Made has plenty more artisans to check out and often throws events where plenty of these retailers gather to showcase their wares.