What to Do, See, and Eat in California’s Nine Best College Towns

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People eating corn on the cob at an outdoor market.

The Downtown SLO Farmers Market is held on Thursday nights on Higuera Street.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Population. 47,545, is located 189 miles northwest of Los Angeles City Hall, just a few miles from the ocean, but also just a few miles from the wine country around Paso Robles.

What makes it special: Juxtapositions. Old-school ranchers live alongside new winemakers, who live alongside Southern California retirees, who mingle with students on nearly every trip downtown. Future engineers rub shoulders with aspiring designers. Agricultural hills and valleys rub against the gentle Central Coast. Also, you can’t beat the view of a gentle hill dotted with oak trees.

bigger picture: If you know SLO primarily from driving down the 101, then you’ll recognize it as the home of the Madonna Inn, perhaps the most irresistibly kitsch set of rooms and restaurants this state has to offer. The day-to-day SLO is different (and not as rosy).

The main drag is Calle Higuera, and that’s where the weekly Thursday night downtown SLO Farmers’ Market takes place, whose vendors join a list of downtown retailers, restaurateurs, and hoteliers that had been growing for several years before the pandemic. Now there is a chance that growth will resume.

Meanwhile, the San Luis Obispo Creek continues to flow past the Mission San Luis Obispo (founded in 1772), phoenix books quietly sells used volumes on Monterey Street, students continue to contribute to bubblegum alley (across from Higuera between Garden and Broad streets) and junk girls (also in Monterey) offers art, artefacts, jewelry, custom lighting, and edgy, artistic hand-stamped flatware, often upcycled.

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The Campus: Cal Poly, founded as a vocational high school in 1901 and expanded to its current state in 1972, is just north of downtown. The main campus is 1,321 acres (but the school also controls more than 7,500 ranch acres), and the school’s engineering, agriculture, architecture, and environmental design programs are widely admired.

To check out the architecture program, walk from the main campus to Poly Canyon, a 2.5 miles round trip that leads to more than 20 experimental structures erected by students (with faculty approval) on the rugged, oak-studded slopes, including a geodesic dome inspired by architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller on a campus visit long ago. .

Undergraduate enrollment: about 21,400. Team name: Mustangs.

Example of alumni: “Weird Al” Yankovic, NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who died in 2021, and former US Representative Devin Nunes, now CEO of Trump Media and Technology Group.

Cost of staying there: San Luis Obispo has 38 hotels averaging $220.40 per night. about 984 close airbnb units average $359.

whitney chaney

Local Guides: Whitney Chaney

Program Director and Farmers Market Manager Center SLO

Robert Flores, Retired Professor of Agricultural Education and Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Roberto A. Flores

Retired professor and department head of agricultural education and communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Jamie Patton, assistant.  Vice President of Student Affairs at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Jamie S Patton

Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

To do: Chaney tries to make time for only blues baseball games (they are in the California Collegiate League, late May through August). She also likes him drive-in at sunset. It is one of the few remaining old-school drive-ins in the state. “The nostalgia. They still play the same jingle, the popcorn song. And you can watch two movies and camp out with your family in the back of your car. Chaney’s other favorite places include the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center (on the Cal Poly campus) and Elf Forest El Moro. “It is a walking path through a nature reserve. [near the Morro Bay estuary]and it feels like you are in a different world,” he said.


Flores recommends hiking the Seven Sisters (also known as the Nine Sisters), a series of volcanic mountains in and around SLO. The highest (1559 feet) is bishop’s peak, just west of downtown. Flores is also a longtime supporter of Chaney’s employer, Thursday night. Downtown SLO Farmers Market.

Patton said she feels the same way about the farmers’ market. When family visits, “I usually make sure they’re here on a Thursday night.” Besides the food, music and vendors, “that’s an opportunity, especially in the summer, to really capture the diversity of San Luis Obispo, the city and the county. … That’s when I know they’ll see other people of color in the community.” Otherwise, he said, “Many people can go an entire day without seeing another black man elsewhere in the county.”

For half-day excursions, Patton likes Shell Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay. And as someone raised in Philadelphia who has never lived in such a rich agricultural area, he likes to join his wife and daughters (ages 12 and 9 ½) in “pickup” opportunities at Cal Poly farm. “A couple of weeks ago, we harvested tangerines and peaches as a family.”

Where to eat and drink: the dairy market “It’s really come alive and has a ton of places to eat. And they just opened a distillery there,” Chaney said. Further, she likes Talley Vineyards (in nearby Arroyo Grande), which offers tastings and tours and was recently updated.

Flores likes to dine at newwho has a large yard by the brook, and Giuseppe’s rustic kitchen on Monterey street. Your favorite brewery: liquid gravityTucked away on Clarion Street next to the SLO airport.

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Patton enjoys the fire stone grill in Higuera, which is “my go-to for at least one meal with the family when they visit me.” Other favourites: rock tacos (a local chain) on Los Osos Valley Road and Capriotti’s sandwich shop (on Foothill Boulevard), which is part of a chain but makes “the best cheesesteak outside of Philadelphia. I had that last night.

There is also a do-it-yourself dining option. Flores points out that anyone interested in grilling can purchase Cal Poly Meats (processed on campus) at the Campus and Village Markets or at the Cal Poly Meats store (Thursday through Saturday) on Stenner Creek Road on the north end of campus. (You may need some Cal Poly came to go with it.)