Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, along Highway 101, lies the Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo. A city that is increasing in popularity partly due to its agricultural roots giving way to grape growing, expanding the city’s desirability for fine dining and wine tasting. There is more to San Louis Obispo than meets the eye.
San Luis Obispo is home to Cal Poly. The University plays a vital role in the area’s activities and brings a youthful demeanor to the city. Cal Poly has one of California’s leading enology and viticulture departments, adding prestige to San Luis Obispo’s many fabulous Central Coast wineries.
A sense of a small big city prevails, especially since the city was named the “Happiest City in America.” Its charm, architecture, art, cuisine, farmers’ market, scenic areas, walkability, and friendly atmosphere tie the past and present together.
The Chumash people initially occupied the area. The city was founded in 1772 when Father Junípero Sierra established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Its name means St Luis the Bishop in Spanish.
San Luis Obispo Mission
The charming historical buildings throughout San Luis Obispo, especially the Mission, are evidence of the past. The Mission is named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the bishop of Toulouse. From its simple adobe exterior, lovely courtyard gardens, and more ornate chapel, it is worth a stroll to visit. Today the church represents the central parish church of San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
Visiting San Luis Obispo, one must see the San Luis Museum of Art, SLOMA, which reminds one of an intimate gallery. As one will discover, the art scene carries over to the murals found on the exterior museum walls and other city areas. The museum is an integral part of the city. Even its location between the creek and Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo makes it appealing,
Established in the 1950s by a group of artists, educators, and enthusiasts, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, SLOMA, focuses on California Contemporary Art. Its mission “to provide and promote diverse visual arts experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds through the exhibition, education, creation, and collaboration.” Today a good portion of their shows are from regional artists. The museum’s motto for showcasing artists is “around the corner and around the world.”
In 2021, the Museum of Art entered into a community partnership agreement with the City of San Luis Obispo to coordinate public art projects in San Luis Obispo. Led by SLOMA’s Chief Curator, Emma Saperstein, the museum engages regional and national artists to complete various projects as part of the program. Currently, 70 unique pieces of art, including murals, mosaics, oil and watercolor paintings, utility box art, stained glass, sculptures, benches, and bridge railings, are scattered throughout the city.
Even the exterior of the Museum has become a mural project. The walls change once a year. All sides of the museum are adorned with colorful depictions of the artist’s vision. This year’s work by Erin LeAnn Mitchell is called Calafia was Here. The textural artwork inspired by the legend of Calafia highlights the forgotten role of black women in history.
Downtown San Luis Obispo and Creek Stroll
Take a stroll down Higuera Street, the main thoroughfare downtown, and find an eclectic array of stores and restaurants. While strolling, look for Bubblegum Alley, where I say bubblegum meets Jackson Pollock. Some consider it an eyesore and others an unofficial city attraction. No one is sure how the tradition started, but over the years, people stuck their leftover bubblegum on the 15′ walls of this alley. Depending on the day, the wall can be very colorful, or it has a drab look on other days.
Adjacent to Higuera Street and across from the Mission is the San Luis Obispo Creek. The creek starts in the Santa Lucia Mountains, meanders its way through San Luis Obispo, and finally empties into the Pacific Ocean just west of Avila Beach. Please take a few moments to stroll along the creek; it is a pleasant walk. Many of the Higuera Street restaurants have outdoor patios that overlook the creek.
Make sure to arrive on a Thursday and partake in one of California’s best farmers’ markets. Between 6 and 9 pm, Higuera Street becomes a colorful array of stands with local produce, street food, and music.
Wine Tasting In San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo County has a new AVA, SLO Coast AVA, which makes it a fascinating time to taste wine in and around San Luis Obispo. The vineyard and winery owners were looking for more recognition for their area. The new AVA extends from San Simeon down to Nipomo along the coast and eastward to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Edna Valley AVA and the Arroyo Grande AVA are now sub-appellations within the SLO Coast AVA. Thirty-two wineries make up this new AVA. They include Center of Effort, Claiborne and Churchill, Chamisal Vineyards, Croma Vera, Edna Valley, Filipponi Ranch, Laetitia Vineyard, Maidenstoen, Niner, Peloton, Piedra Creek, Sinor-LaVallee, Stephen Ross, Talley, and Timbre.
In San Luis Obispo, there are many tasting rooms as well as within a 20-minute drive. Here are some of my favorites.
Center Of Effort
Center Of Effort defines a point in a sailboat when everything is perfectly balanced. This Center of Effort is the goal of winemaker Nathan Carlson to perfect wines with a balance between tannin and acidity through the efforts of cultivation and passion. The winery sits atop a hill off Corbett Canyon Road, overlooking the valley with picturesque views of the surrounding vineyards. The winery is SIP Certified. Center of Effort is known for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but do try Chenin Blanc, Grenache, and Syrah.
Piedra Creek Winery
I was pleasantly surprised to discover this boutique winery, the smallest bonded winery in the Edna Valley. Piedra Creek is known for its Lagrein grape, a red grape variety from the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy. The grape produces a full-bodied wine with intense plum and cherry flavors, dense color, and acidic structure.
Piedra Creek owner Romeo Zuech was instrumental in bringing Lagrein to California. In the 1960s, Meo arranged with a UC Davis Viticulturalist to bring clippings to the United States from the village he grew up in Italy. Keeping some of the clippings, he moved from Woodland Hills to Canoga Park, Westlake, and finally brought those clippings to his home in San Luis Obispo. Today his grandson, T.J. de Jony, with the help of his grandmother, produces this wine. T.J. creates a Pét-nat and Rosé from the Lagrein grape. These wines are a must to taste.
This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Wander With Wonder.