1. Breakfast at the Madonna Inn
If you like the thought of taking in the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked pastries while sitting in a kitschy, technicolor dining room that seems to have been designed by a member of the Von Trapp family after one too many Mai Tais, then the restaurant at the Madonna Inn is for you. One of the most legendary hotels in the U.S., the Madonna Inn has 110 rooms, each with a different, elaborate theme. After breakfast, ask your server precisely which of the baked goods is responsible for that delightful smell wafting through the place—and then order a few of them to go.
Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, madonnainn.com.
2. Record Hunting
Please point anyone who tells you that vinyl is passé directly to Boo Boo Records on Monterey Street in SLO. While it may be one of the last remaining independent record stores in America, Boo Boo has been going strong for more than 40 years. Powered by the never-ceasing positive energy of local music fanatic Mike White, Boo Boo Records has anything and everything related to music you could possibly imagine: books, CDs, vinyl records, stickers, T-shirts, magazines, and so much more. While you're there, ask White to regale you with tales of the superstars who've bought albums from his store, or about his former sales clerk, Mike Ward (a.k.a. M. Ward), currently the "Him" of She and Him, the band Ward fronts with Zooey Deschanel.
Boo Boo Records, 978 Monterey Street, booboorecords.com.
3. Taste Santa Maria-style BBQ
You may be familiar with barbecue from Tennessee, Texas, and the Carolinas, but here at Old San Luis Barbecue Company, chef and owner Matt Pearce serves up Santa Maria-style barbecue, cooked over coast live oak. The meat is prepared with a dry rub, which means it is juicy enough that it doesn't need any sauce at all—but fear not, barbecue sauce fans, Old San Luis Barbecue offers a tasty version of its own, along with a must-have pico de gallo. Order the tri-tip sandwich with both sauces on the side, and you will have no regrets.
Old San Luis Barbecue Company, 670 Higuera Street, oldsanluisbbq.com.
4. Party With Some Seals
Just a 20-minute drive from the center of San Luis Obispo sits Avila Beach, the perfect jumping-off point for kayaking and paddleboarding trips that will find you crossing paths with seals, otters, sea lions, and pelicans—if you're lucky, you'll even catch sight of some whales breaching in the distance. Swing by Avila Beach Paddlesports to rent some gear, then make your way over to the neighboring beach that provides access to the historic Port San Luis lighthouse, home to some of the best whale-watching in the area.
Avila Beach Paddlesports, 3915 Avila Beach Drive, avilabeachpaddlesports.com.
5. Dinner by the Sea
An afternoon adventure on the Pacific is a great way to work up an appetite, so after drying off, make the 30-minute drive up to Morro Bay for some laid-back dining by the sea at Tognazzini's Dockside. The restaurant boasts a quite formidable menu, but you won't go wrong ordering any special of the day involving local seafood. And ask for a postcard when you arrive—fill one out and the restaurant will mail it for you to anywhere in the world, free of charge.
Tognazzini's Dockside, 1245 Embarcadero, morrobaydockside.com.
6. Local Beer and Live Music
Founded in 1988, SLO Brew, in addition to offering up excellent beer, has made a solid name for itself as a home for live music (just say the words "SLO Brew" to any local resident, and it won't be 60 seconds before someone brings up the secret show Neil Young once played there). In their new location, which just opened last week, SLO Brew has a concert venue that can fit 300 patrons, has up to a dozen of their own beers on tap—four of which they will be launching for sale in cans later this summer—and also offers a full dining menu. Order a flight and try four of the house beers to find out which one is your favorite.
SLO Brew, 738 Higuera Street, slobrew.com.
7. Breakfast at Scout Coffee
Start your next day in San Luis Obispo with a cup of locally roasted, pour-over coffee, and a pastry from Scout Coffee. While you're at it, order one of the sodas made in-house using local produce, or a seasonal milkshake.
Scout Coffee, 1130 Garden Street, scoutcoffeeco.com.
8. Vintage Shopping
At Ruby Rose, you can find everything from your next outfit to that red couch you've been dreaming of (as evidenced above). How do they source their goods? The owners scour the West Coast in their Airstream, another vintage throwback, to find all the clothing and furniture on offer. The result is a vintage store with a certifiably cool, California feel.
Ruby Rose, 1235 Monterey Street, rubyrose805.com.
9. Burrito Lunch
Originating in Santa Cruz, this is the taqueria's lone San Luis Obispo location. Best known for their long, skinny burritos, Taqueria Santa Cruz garnered 2016 "Best in County" recognition from New Times, San Luis Obispo's beloved local weekly. Try their chile verde burrito, and be sure to get a healthy serving of their homemade salsa on the side.
Taqueria Santa Cruz, 1308 Monterey Street, taqueriasantacruz.com.
10. Reading Material
One of the thrills of travel is finding fantastic used bookstores, and Phoenix Books is one of them. As with many other great bookshops, the fare here is subdivided into hyper-specific categories, and mountains of yet-to-be-filed classics are scattered throughout the place. Just keep an eye on the time when you're there, because the day could easily slip away as you rifle through stack after stack of beautiful old editions.
Phoenix Books, 990 Monterey Street
11. B.Y.O.B. (Bubblegum)
If you want to leave your mark on San Luis Obispo, the easiest thing to do is to pay a visit to Bubblegum Alley. The place is precisely as advertised: enter this side street and find yourself surrounded by a brightly colored mosaic made up entirely of the gum of visitors past. It's gross, but it's tradition.
733.5 Higuera Street
12. Len Collective
If you dig Bubblegum Alley—but maybe feel a little less than spotless after walking the gauntlet—pop into Len Collective and stock up on aromatic soaps, face creams, and lotions. The shelves here are also lined with jewelry, candles, and pottery from around the globe—so if you're looking to bring back a San Luis Obispo treat for your near and dear, this is the place to find it.
Len Collective, 722 Marsh Street, lencollective.com.
13. A Tall Glass of Rock and Roll
If you've never tried sour beer, a sharply tart, yet refreshing breed of suds, this musically inspired brewery is a great place to give it a shot. Murals of Freddie Mercury and Iggy Pop decorate the walls of the Libertine Brewing Company, while the bottles' labels sport images of Mick Jagger and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Libertine's specific style of sour beer uses "wild" brewing processes, allowing bacteria naturally present in the air to ferment the beer. As such, Libertine Ale couldn't be made anywhere else on Earth except SLO. Try their "Soccer Mom" Ale, infused with tangerines and oranges, or their "Coffeetine," a surprisingly light coffee-flavored beer, brewed using java from nearby Scout, where you started off your day.
Libertine Brewing Company, 1234 Broad Street, libertinebrewing.com.
14. Go Back in Time
A good drive-in movie theater is a gem not to be missed. The Sunset Drive-In theater maintains a mid-century feeling with the old cartoons they play before movies—and with the ultra-cheap prices at the concession stand. Show up just before sundown and find a good spot to settle into for the nightly double feature.
Sunset Drive-In, 255 Elks Lane
15. Late-Night Doughnuts
A 24-hour shop offering more than 100 varieties of doughnut per day sounds too good to be true. And as if that weren't enough, the SLO Donut Company also regularly offers up concerts and movie screenings. "It's all about creating a community environment," says special events coordinator Erin Parsons. To that end, the store even has a mug rack where regulars can store their cups till the next time they're in need of coffee and a treat.
SLO Donut Company, 793F Foothill Boulevard, slodoco.com.