A Day in San Luis Obispo

Central Coast Landscape near San Luis Obispo

Central Coast Landscape near San Luis Obispo

Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this “happiest place in America” is an excellent stopping point for road-weary road-warriors driving the 656-mile Pacific Coast Highway. But don’t expect too much downtime in San Luis Obispo. After spending the morning at Hearst Castle (roughly 40 minutes north in San Simeon) or marveling at California’s rocky coast, you’ll still have plenty of daylight left to explore one of the state’s oldest communities.

Having worked up quite a hunger after Hearst we made our next stop a place renowned (they say “world famous” although that seems unlikely) for its barbeque tri-tip sandwiches. The line snaking out the door told us that The Firestone Grill was indeed popular with locals; or, at least on that particular Saturday, popular with Cal Polly students hungry for hangover food.

Firestone Grill San Luis Obispo

Don’t be fooled by the burgers. The Firestone Grill makes killer BBQ tri-tip sandwiches.

The long line moved rapidly and soon led us inside to a menu that contained more grill than barbeque. We nonetheless doubled down on the “world famous” tri-tips and took a number. We didn’t wait long. Our sandwiches were up before I could finish snapping a few photos and, well, we agree with the Cal Polly crowd. The tri-tips are the perfect remedy for a hangover or, in our case, an antidote to help fend one off later. The plates overflowed with crispy fries and the Texas toast with tender, smoky meat. A molassesy ‘Q sauce complemented everything beautifully.

Stuffed and happy we made our way down Higuera Street, past quaint shops and stately ficus trees, toward one of the city’s most unlikely attractions – Bubble Gum Alley. Allegedly begun as a college prank in the 1960s, this 70-foot-long alley is still adorned on both sides, and up to 15 feet in height, with thick layers of chewed bubble gum.

San Luis Obispo

Alternating between brightly colored and moldering grey, the bubble gum blobs are a five-decade archaeology of second-hand food, which is – you might be surprised to learn – every bit as charming as it sounds. We toyed with the idea of traversing the passage but didn’t have the slightest idea what we’d find on the other side. Fearing Bubble Gum Alley would lead us to a Used Condom Courtyard, we decided not to risk it.

Bubble Gum Alley San Luis Obispo

Bubble Gum Alley. Yum.

We set off instead for more hallowed ground and discovered Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa just a few blocks away. Founded in 1772, this was the fifth in a chain of California Spanish Missions established by Father Serra. Unlike the others, though, this building’s unusual combination of belfry and vestibule make it the only “L”-shaped mission anywhere in California.

But Father Serra and the Franciscan Friars brought more heavenly pursuits to the central coast than just religion. They also brought viniculture. In those early years the wine produced at Mission San Luis Obispo was among the most prized throughout “Altra California,” an area encompassing all of present-day California and stretching as far west as Colorado.

Mission San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo

Over the succeeding centuries the area’s reputation diminished as wine making moved northward to Sonoma and its surrounds. In recent years, though, the quieter San Luis Obispo wine region experienced a resurgence producing award-winning Pinots and Chardonnays that excel in its cool climate close to the sea.

During our time here, we found none of the crowds and congestion that plague California’s more popular Napa Valley. We did, however, discover consistently excellent wines and also a huge variety of winery experiences.

From Tolosa’s posh private tasting room, where we sat in comfortable chairs overlooking rolling vineyards as we sampled a selection of wines specifically paired with locally handmade truffles (pinot noir with a dark chocolate lavender truffle is a special treat). . .

Tolosa Winery

Tolosa Winery wine and truffle tasting

. . . to the more understated tasting room of artisanal wine creator Autry Cellars, where simply having an opportunity to taste the limited production wines is a treat in and of itself.

Autry Cellars San Luis Obispo

We also found something else in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley wine region that is now nearly, if not completely, extinct in trendy Napa: reasonably priced tastings (typically between $5 and $10). And that is something to be happy about.


San Luis Obispo wine country.

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14 Comments on “A Day in San Luis Obispo”

  1. digger666 May 6, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.


  2. paisstat May 6, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    Excellent post and photos. Gotta work my way up there one of these days!


  3. Susan Johnson May 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Nice area . Went camping at Montona Del Oro state park a few years ago and did the wine tasting route. Very nice. I highly reccomend this little campground at Montona Del Oro. Beautiful spot and abundant wildlife. Ocean is right across the street.

    If you are heading north and want to do some more wine tasting. A fun area to explore and to wine tast is Amador County. Along highway 40. Lots of history there from gold mining days, antique stores, small towns, wineries and most of the wineries in Amador dont charge at all ! El Dorado county right next door is also nice and leads you on up into the sierras.



    • Brian May 6, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

      Hi Susan, thanks for the tips. Montona Del Oro looks like a lovely state park. Unfortunately our R.V. is a bit too big to stay there (along with many other CA state parks). We ended up staying a bit further north right across the Morro Bay Rock.

      We’ll probably hit Amador County when we come back south in the fall when we head toward Sacramento.

      Thanks again,


  4. hermitsdoor May 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    We are looking at a CA Coast drive later this year. I’ll have to read up on your travels first.


    • Brian May 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

      Glad to be of service. 🙂


  5. chr1 May 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Thanks for the photos and writing. I want a little slice of what the town is like with some facts. You guys do that well.


  6. Larry F May 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    I enjoy visiting your blog. I graduated from Cal Poly. I had my car’s brakes fixed at the Firestone Grill. But Firestone was selling tires and brake jobs in the 1970’s. The best. Larry F


    • Brian May 6, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      Ha. Is that right? Today’s Firestone Grill used to be a Firestone Tire?


  7. Karen May 7, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    Oooh that bitter, rich, smokey, flowery, chocolatey loveliness plus the fruity,berryness of the Pinot Noir……can still remember those combinations! Do you realise what you are doing to migraine sufferers with this post!!! 😉


  8. backthewaywecame May 10, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    Oh! to be on the road to explore the wonders of a country. Sounds like a great place to be.


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