Travelers often drive along Highway 101 through the Central Coast without realizing that the city of San Luis Obispo (known regionally as “SLO,” population 47,536), halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, offers a host of reasons to stop and check out the sights. It’s a character-rich town with modern attractions that are inextricably entwined with its fascinating history—well worth a detour and, if you have time, an extended stay.
As is the case with many parts of Santa Barbara County and the Channel Islands, the Chumash Indians lived in what is now San Luis Obispo County for thousands of years. Father Junipero Serra and the Portola expedition arrived there in 1769, on their way north to establish missions in Monterey and Carmel. When supplies dwindled and the Spaniards faced starvation, they recalled the friendly natives and the abundant bear population that roamed the range down south. In the summer of 1772, a hunting expedition traveled back to Cañada de Los Osos (loosely translated in later chronicles as “Valley of the Bears”), charged with fetching food for the hungry mission residents. The group returned to Carmel with more than 25 mules laden with dried bear meat and edible seeds. Father Serra then decided that Valley of the Bears was a very promising site for his fifth mission and soon led a group south to get started. On September 1, 1772, Serra officially established Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on the banks of a sparkling creek.
Over the centuries, the city of San Luis Obispo grew around the mission community. Today, the mission still serves as the town hub, the heart of a vibrant downtown filled with historic buildings occupied by thoroughly modern businesses, such as the Apple Store and Lululemon, and a slew of restaurants and pubs. Nearly every block has colorful stories to tell, and the best way to discover them is to park and walk along its charming pedestrian-friendly streets.
MISSION & MISSION PLAZA
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa ( 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo) still reigns as the “queen” of San Luis Obispo. It’s a great place to begin a city walkabout. Visit the small museum to view artifacts and learn about Chumash Indian life, early Spanish settlers and California history. Docents lead tours of the church and grounds most days at 1:15 p.m. (Sundays at 2 p.m.), starting at the mission steps. Call 805/543-6850 to confirm.
Mission Plaza, adjacent to the mission, is SLO’s community cultural center. Locals and visitors gather here for numerous events held on weekends and holidays throughout the year, from concerts and wine tastings to family-friendly festivals.
The Chumash and early Spanish settlers all depended on San Luis Creek as a water source. The creek travels through the city on its way to the ocean and borders Mission Plaza. Follow a footbridge to access the scenic Creek Walk, with various access steps to downtown shops and restaurants, some with patio tables overlooking the always gurgling stream.
Just up the road is History Center of SLO County (696 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo), in the historic Carnegie Library built in 1905. The small museum holds exhibits on regional history from Native American and rancho periods to the railroad era. (Admission is free. Open Weds.–Mon. 10 a.m.–4 p.m).
When the first train chugged into San Luis Obispo in 1894, the city was forever changed. For the first time, passengers and goods could travel directly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Southern Pacific rails. Southern Pacific built the Ramona Depot in 1889 for guests of the elegant Ramona Hotel. In 1905, the hotel burned to the ground. The depot, however, was spared and today houses the stagecoach that transported guests to and from the train station. Southern Pacific also built a depot in 1895, which stands next to the more modern Spanish-Mediterranean depot completed in 1942.
Today’s busy railroad district is still a major transportation center. Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight trains stop at the historic depot multiple times a day, ferrying passengers to the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California and beyond. Buses stop here, as well, to connect travelers to destinations throughout the city and county. The district is also a lively neighborhood with restaurants, shops and businesses, parks and open spaces.
ADOBES & OTHER HISTORIC HOMES
Historic homes dating back to the 1800s are sprinkled throughout the city and stand as excellent examples of bygone eras, from early adobes to Victorian mansions. Here are several standouts you can see on a SLO walkabout.
Lush gardens surround this lovely adobe home, built in 1853 by Pierre Hypolite Dallidet, who founded the Central Coast’s first commercial vineyard. He and his wife, Maria Ascencion Salazar, and their children lived here for more than a century. Their youngest son, Paul Dallidet, deeded the property to San Luis Obispo County Historical Society in 1953.
Sauer Adobes (964 and 970 Chorro St., San Luis Obispo)
These two adobes across from the mission, built in 1860, are the oldest commercial buildings in SLO. The pair includes a single-story home and an adjacent two-story Monterey-style structure with two-foot thick walls sided with redwood.
Englishman Walter Murray built this home in 1849 at the edge of Mission Plaza. Murray was the town judge, postmaster and legislator from 1853 to 1875. He was also a newspaper editor—Murray printed the first editions of SLO’s newspaper, The Tribune, within its walls.
Morris and Helena Goldtree built this Italianate Queen Anne-style home in 1887. It was later converted into eight apartments and is now an elegant bed-and-breakfast inn.
Rancher and banker Robert Edgar Jack built this classic Victorian in 1875. The well preserved home is now a museum that reflects Victorian life in the 1880s.
SLO’s main street— along with the alleys and avenues that connect to it—was named for the Higuera family, who arrived in 1774, just two years after the mission was founded. Shoppers, restaurant goers and students from nearby California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) regularly amble up and down the street, often bumping into friends and acquaintances doing the same thing. Historic buildings abound, and their walls actually do talk. You can listen to their tales by watching a fun and informative SLO Chamber of Commerce video, 130 Years of Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo in less than five minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZuBIVHtFhM&t=1s.
This legendary event is much more than a collection of fruit and vegetable stalls— it’s a social gathering of locals and visitors who come here to eat (many restaurants set up shop on the street), listen to music, connect with community groups and shop for all types of culinary delights. It takes place on Higuera Street, between Nipomo and Osos streets, from 6–9 p.m., every Thursday, weather permitting. downtownslo.com/farmers-market.
Don’t miss this quirky 70-foot-long alley with a 15-foot-high wall covered in gum. No one really knows for sure why and how the tradition started, but people have plastered the wall with fresh wads of chewy gook for decades. It’s now one of SLO’s most unusual attractions (733 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo).
For a time, San Luis Obispo County was home to the nation’s largest dairy industry. The Creamery, established in 1905, operated as a full-service dairy for decades. The historic complex at 570 Higuera St. now houses a restaurant and wine shop, a pub and other businesses.
Historic Monterey and Osos Streets
Walk north of the mission along Monterey Street to view a number of historic sights and landmarks.
Ah Louis Store and Chinatown
More than 2,000 Chinese laborers moved to the Central Coast to help construct the railways and tunnels in the region. On Wong (aka Ah Louis), a Chinese-American banker, made his own bricks to build a shop, completed in 1885. His general store, across from the mission on Monterey Street, provided many services and anchored the Chinese community.
The city of San Luis Obispo is currently immersed in the Chinatown Project—a major renovation of the downtown area near the Ah Louis Store.
Designed by architect S. Charles Lee, the art deco Fremont movie palace opened in 1942 (1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo). Today, the fully restored theater screens films and presents concerts and special events such as the annual San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
The Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo) in a pristine hillside setting just off the highway, first welcomed travelers to SLO in 1958 with 12 rooms and friendly service. They evolved into a landmark hotel and restaurant, beloved by generations of locals and visitors. Each of its 110 rooms is individually themed, named and decorated, from Rock Bottom (all stone) and Safari to California Poppy and Wilhelm Tell.
If you’re driving on Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo County and gaze at the surroundings, you will certainly spot some unusual geographic features along the way: random craggy buttes that seem to suddenly poke up and point to the sky from the flat plains and sea-level meadows below. What are these alien creatures, and why are they there?
Millions of years ago, volcanic activity pushed a series of magma plugs above the ocean in what’s now the heart of San Luis Obispo County. The plugs evolved into a series of steep peaks that march in a fairly straight line from the Edna Valley in the south to Morro Bay in the north, with the city of San Luis Obispo at the epicenter.
When the Spaniards trekked through the region in 1769, they called the plugs “ morros,” as the tall hills evoked images of headdresses of Moors who had invaded Spain. Later, locals referred the peaks collectively as The Nine Sisters, which today distinguish themselves as iconic images of San Luis Obispo, both city and county. They represent the uniqueness of a most unusual piece of the planet, where humans and the natural world continue to evolve in harmony.
This story was originally published in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.