Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

About two hours north of Santa Barbara is San Luis Obispo (aka SLO), a small city along California’s Central coast (with stunning, green rolling hills and blooming wildflowers following the recent winter rains).

San Luis Obispo-20

This laidback town of 46,000 residents and two colleges has brought about a wealth of entertainment, art and culture, as well as year-round festivals and events on the plaza in front of the Mission.

SLO vineyard, California

Pristine, uncrowded beaches are just 10 minutes away (think 300 days of sunshine and it’s understandable why SLO is a magnet for sun seekers). Speaking of a warm, temperature climate, about two dozen wineries are located just south of here in both the Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys.

San Luis Obispo-12
[Fremont Theater, one of the last Streamline Modern theaters built by S. Charles Lee, 1942]

This is a two-day SLO city guide (that’s not too packed in) however a third day would be ideal for some wine tasting.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn

I headed north from Santa Barbara on a two-day tour of the city’s highlights, dining and one landmark hotel off the 101 freeway immediately recognizable for its kitschy motif.

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[Photo courtesy of The Madonna Inn]

The Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Road), built by Alex and Phyllis Madonna and opened in 1958, contains a pseudo-Swiss Alps exterior motif with rooms that feature Western murals, pink roses and hammered copper.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn

Marvel what some consider kitsch and others tacky. Whatever your reaction, this landmark hotel with its 110 uniquely designed rooms is here to stay and is loved the world over.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn

If you’re not staying here, you’ll need at least an hour to wander around and appreciate the interiors, or better yet, settle in for a meal at the Copper Cafe or Gold Rush Steak House, each with their own unique atmosphere.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn
[Bottom photo: A peek inside the Madonna Inn’s honeymoon bathroom]

Why all that pink, you may ask? It was Phyllis’ favourite colour. Everything from napkins to sugar on the dining tables – to the tennis courts – is a bold, unapologetic pink.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Mountain

After indulging in breakfast or one of the gourmet pastries from the bakery, head up Cerro San Luis Lemon Grove Loop (aka Madonna Mountain) for gorgeous views of San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Mountain

Walk along the white fence road (site of the jogging and bike path) for about 15 minutes, then through the dirt parking area to the trail head.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Mountain

Following the lemon path icons will produce an easy, one-hour hike (or keep to the left for a more strenuous incline).

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
San Luis Obispo’s gentle climate and scenic beauty attracted the Spanish padres to the area in the 1700’s; you’ll find Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth of California’s 21 missions, in the heart of compact, downtown SLO on the banks of San Luis Creek.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

There’s a small museum with gift shop and a church off to the side (visit the website for docent-led tour times). A pretty garden displays the mission bells and offers a bit of history as you ponder the pretty 1792 structure.

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If you happen to be in town on a Thursday, there’s a year-round Farmers’ Market, bringing together the local farming community as well as street food, craft and flower vendors and live entertainment.

San Luis Obispo/Madonna Inn

Dining

Ciopinot (1051 Nipomo Street) is a play on cioppino and pinot noir (this region is a great cultivator of the varietal). The restaurant has an elegant interior with red lamps and a couple of wall waterfall accents set against black furniture.

San Luis Obispo/Ciopinot

There’s a good range of seafood dishes on the menu as well as oysters on the half shell (the shucking station is up front towards the entrance). Each week, Ciopinot features a different pinot noir by the glass (on my visit, it was a nicely-bodied Hahn SLH Estate Grown 2016 from neighbouring Soledad, CA).

San Luis Obispo/Ciopinot

Aside from seafood, you’ll find meats, salads, soups and specialties. Behind CioPinot is sister restaurant La Esquina which after a year and a half in business, is pulling in the crowds for their tasty Mexican fare.

San Luis Obispo/Buona Tavola

Buona Tavola (Italiana for “good table”) is a fabulous spot to get a taste of traditional Northern Italian cuisine. Executive Chef Antonio Varia opened Buona Tavola in October 1992 and taught current chef Pedro Flores the ropes.

Varia, together with co-owner Andrea Fabbretti, has earned a reputable spot in the SLO dining community and if you’re having a meal here, try and grab a table in the lovely enclosed patio (with a tree in the center).

San Luis Obispo/Buona Tavola

Andrea’s brother Paolo serves as the hospital sommelier and will steer you in the right direction when pairing your dishes with local or international wines.

Our group shared a few of the restaurant’s top pasta dishes as well as grilled-to-perfection, sustainably-farmed Atlantic salmon with gorgeous caramelized carrots, spinach and rosemary-seasoned potatoes.

By all means, save room in the tank for the Crema I’d Vaniglia; it’ll knock your socks off. Find Buona Tavola at 1037 Monterey Street.

San Luis Obispo/Novo Restaurant & Lounge

With its romantic creekside location, Novo Restaurant & Lounge offers a delectable range of appetizers, meat, seafood, a few Asian curries plus soups and salads on restaurant-filled Higuera Street (726).

There’s an expansive selection of local and international wines by the glass and bottle, rotating craft beers, classic and signature cocktails, spirits and aperitifs, all making Novo a fine spot to enjoy a sip or two either on their splendid heated outdoor creekside patio or indoors. 

Lavender lemonade (using locally-distilled Re:Find vodka and lavender syrup) with a sunny view? Yes, please!

San Luis Obispo/Novo Restaurant & Lounge
[Novo’s diver scallops, broccolini, citrus beurre blanc]

Novo is a solid SLO choice for an excellent meal utilizing regional ingredients and locally-sourced produce and is open for lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch plus happy hour (Mondays to Thursdays, 3 to 6 pm).

San Luis Obispo/SLO Provisions
[SLO Provisions]

Open for about three and a half years, SLO Provisions (1255 Monterey Street, close to The Butler Hotel) is a friendly, well-lit space for a yummy breakfast, pastry, coffee or – off to the side of the dining area – a regional wine tasting.

San Luis Obispo/SLO Provisions

Their weekly Wine Wednesday (5 to 8 pm) event sees a local winemaker or two come in for a flight of their wines (or a varietal focus tasting when there’s no winemaker scheduled).

San Luis Obispo/SLO Provisions

There’s a small curated goods space too, so you can bring home a taste of SLO.

San Luis Obispo/SLO Provisions

The breakfast bowl (sautéed kale, grilled veggies, brown rice, sliced avocado) is a great start to a day of exploring or en route to nearby San Luis Obispo Airport. You can also order a picnic box for taking out to the wine country.

As for lunch and dinner, there’s a rotisserie on site for chicken and porchetta, plus a range of salads, soups, specials and sweets. They’re open from 8 am to 8 pm Monday to Friday and from 9 am to 6 pm on Saturday.

My visit was hosted by the City of San Luis Obispo. Opinions, as always, remain my own.

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