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San Luis Obispo Walking Escape

Need to slow down? Want to ditch the car? Prefer small towns? This Central Coast haven is for You.

restaurant patio over San Luis Obispo Creek
Photo caption
The outdoor patio of Novo restaurant overlooks San Luis Obispo Creek.


Father Junipero Serra had the good sense to build his San Luis Obispo mission next to a clear, cold creek, a spot well suited to meditation and sustenance. Nearly 240 years later, people stop by San Luis Obispo Creek to set down their shopping bags, rest their feet, and finish off their frozen yogurts. This college town of about 45,000 halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is still a place for contemplation.

Moving at a good pace from one affordable discovery to another, you could cover the entire downtown—bordered by Marsh, Palm, Santa Rosa, and Nipomo streets—in a half hour. At a more relaxed pace, it will take you an afternoon or more. The locals call San Luis Obispo SLO. It’s an acronym, sure, but it carries a message: Don’t rush things. You can visit Hearst Castle tomorrow or tour the nearby wineries on Friday.

Bonnie Cullen, a writer who teaches art history classes at the local community college, stretched out a Saturday afternoon on a bench next to the creek, the sun breaking through in bursts as a light breeze rearranged the leaves overhead. On the other side of the creek, diners at Novo were clinking wineglasses and tucking into tapas on the outdoor patio. (Later, I discovered that the tandoori salmon sandwich—made of flaky fish with a hint of saffron—fits especially well with the view.) Just downstream, a country jam band was getting warmed up at Cisco’s, a budget beer, burger, and falafel joint with its own suite of creekside tables.

"This is a lovely spot," Cullen said. "San Luis Obispo is very civilized. It’s small enough to be human." She can also attest that it is eminently walkable. In her five years here, she hasn’t owned a car. With an Amtrak station six blocks from the center of town and a trolley connecting the area to nearby motels Thursday through Sunday for a mere 25 cents a ride, many visitors find San Luis Obispo entirely car optional.

Walking is my thing, but I must make a confession: I’m normally a failure at shopping. Still, there I was on the streets of SLO, clutching some great finds. At Tom’s Toys, a two-story downtown institution, I bought a couple of handpainted Smurf figurines for my 6-year-old son. For my wife, I picked out an offbeat sculpture from the Plaza Gallery—a four-inch-tall steel quail made from welded ball bearings, washers, and other bits of spare hardware. I saved the best for my 14-year-old son: a polished chunk of fossilized dinosaur droppings from Unique Beads & Jewelry. Hey, even terrible shoppers can get lucky. The whole bag of loot cost less than my last pair of shoes, as far as I can remember.

That’s the delight of downtown San Luis Obispo: Though a few restaurants and stores cater to big spenders, you can still shop, eat, and fill your day on the cheap. I started at the mission where for a $2 donation I walked through the small museum that, surprisingly, displays far more arrowheads than crosses. The courtyard with its roses, orange tree, and cacti was free, but only because I resisted the wishing well.

That afternoon I went on a mission of my own to find Bubble Gum Alley, a narrow thoroughfare whose walls are plastered with decades’ worth of sticky mementos. I then headed to Taste, a winetasting room owned by local vintners. Machines dole out one-ounce portions of more than 70 of the area’s vintages at $1.25 to $3 a shot. A sample of a Wood Winery 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon turned out to be an excellent prelude to my spicy $12 pasta puttanesca later that evening at Vieni Vai Trattoria.

Local flavors loom large on Thursday evenings when the hugely popular farmers’ market takes over Higuera Street for an all-out blast of food, music, produce, and crafts. The smell of barbecued beef ribs hovers over stalls of locally picked strawberries and fresh-baked breads.

Although I didn’t pull the trigger, I saw lots of other potential purchases: Elvis LPs (also known as records) at Decades, T-shirts and porkpie hats at Central Coast Surfboards, and a luminously glazed funeral urn from the Gallery at the Network. A few national chain stores have recently moved into town, but this is no cookie-cutter neighborhood. It’s SLO, and it’s worth the time.

Photography by Chris Leschinsky


This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.