Everything About San Luis Obispo, California


The area of San Luis Obispo was originally inhabited by the Chumash people for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish. In 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was established by Father Junípero Serra as the fifth California mission. The mission helped to expand Spanish influence and convert the native Chumash people to Christianity.

In the early 1800s, Mexico won independence from Spain and took control of California. San Luis Obispo then became part of the Mexican province Alta California. In 1842, Mexican governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted the 13,000 acre Rancho San Luis Obispo to his uncle Luis T. Burton.

After California became part of the United States in 1850 following the Mexican-American War, San Luis Obispo County was one of the original 27 counties of California.

The City of San Luis Obispo was officially incorporated in 1856. The town grew as a center of ranching and farming, benefiting from its location halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In 1869, acclaimed architect Thomas Kinkade designed the San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library, the first public library established in California. The expansion of railroads in the late 1800s increased commerce, tourism and population growth for the city.


San Luis Obispo is located along the Central Coast of California, approximately 230 miles south of San Francisco and 190 miles north of Los Angeles. It sits at an elevation of 157 feet above sea level.

The city has a total area of 14.23 square miles, of which 14.08 square miles is land and 0.15 square miles is water. San Luis Obispo stretches across flat plains between the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the Nine Sisters to the west.

San Luis Obispo is surrounded by a number of smaller unincorporated communities including Edna Valley, Avila Beach, Los Osos, and Morro Bay. The nearby Irish Hills form a low mountain range along the western border of the city.


The geology of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding area is characterized by the meeting of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. The nearby San Andreas Fault zone has created a variety of rock formations and landscapes.

The Irish Hills are made up of ancient volcanic plugs, stocks and lava flows consisting of fragmented Franciscan chert. Morros Creek flows through cascades and waterfalls carved through sandstone, shale and conglomerate deposits.

Bishop Peak, Cerro San Luis and the other Morros are examples of morros, extinct volcanoes made of andesite and dacite lava domes. They were formed by lava that hardened underground between 20 and 40 million years ago when this area was volcanically active.

The area is also known for serpentinite rock outcrops containing blue asbestos and the rare San Luis Obispo Diamonds. Other local geological features include Shell Beach sandstone, stream terraces of Tar Springs Formation, and alluvial deposits along creeks.


Some of the main neighborhoods and areas of San Luis Obispo include:

  • Downtown: This is the historic central business district with shopping, restaurants, nightlife and cultural attractions clustered around Higuera Street and other main thoroughfares. Notable sites include Mission Plaza, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and the Madonna Inn.
  • Old Towne: Located adjacent to downtown, this neighborhood has historic Victorian homes, cottages and buildings from the late 1800s.
  • Cal Poly Campus: Cal Poly State University and its surrounding student neighborhoods cover a large swath of the eastern part of the city.
  • Laguna Lake Park: An affluent community surrounding the Laguna Lake open space area. Homes showcase mid-century modern and Spanish revival architectural styles.
  • Orcutt Area: A mix of residential, commercial and light industrial areas in the southern section of San Luis Obispo. Anchor businesses include Orcutt Burger, Natural Cafe and FedEx.
  • Edna-Islay: Named for the adjacent valleys, this quiet area in the northeast part of the city features more moderately priced family neighborhoods.
  • Margarita Area: A master-planned community with suburban-style tract housing, retail centers and office parks. Margarita Elementary School and parks are community hubs.


San Luis Obispo has a Mediterranean climate characterized by warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Temperatures are moderated by the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The coolest months are December and January with average highs of 65°F (18°C) and lows of 41°F (5°C). July and August are the warmest months with average highs of 76°F (24°C) and lows of 54°F (12°C). Temperatures occasionally exceed 90°F (32°C) in the summer or drop below freezing in the winter.

Precipitation averages 26 inches annually, with most rainfall occurring between November and April. The wettest month is February with 5 inches on average. Snowfall occasionally dusts the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo but does not persist. Morning fog and low clouds are common due to the marine layer.


According to 2020 Census data, San Luis Obispo has a population of 47,544 residents. It is the largest city in San Luis Obispo County. The racial makeup of the city is approximately 78.5% White, 16.5% Hispanic/Latino, 6.5% Asian, 3.0% Black or African American, 1.2% Native American, and 0.2% Pacific Islander.

Around 15.5% of the population is aged 18 or under, while 14.5% are over age 65. The median age is 31.7 years old.

Over 60% of households are occupied by families. Around 20% of residents live below the poverty line. The largest industry is education, employing over 30% of the workforce with Cal Poly being the dominant employer.

The city has a large student population due to Cal Poly State University. However, it does not have as high of percentages of under 18 or over 65 residents compared to the rest of California due to the transient student population.


The economy of San Luis Obispo is centered around education, tourism, agriculture and government services.

As mentioned, Cal Poly State University is the largest employer and economic driver, with over 26,000 students and 6,500 faculty and staff. The university contributes an estimated $1 billion annually to the local economy. The service industry, especially retail, food and accommodation services, employ a large portion of residents.

Wine production is a major agricultural industry, with Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley wine regions located just outside the city. The area is becoming an increasingly popular agritourism destination.

The California Men’s Colony prison and Atascadero State Hospital are major components of the government sector. Some residents also work for the County of San Luis Obispo administration. Small businesses, construction, healthcare and finance make up other parts of the economy.

Tourism brings in over 12 million visitors per year, largely concentrated during summer months. Attractions like Mission San Luis Obispo, downtown shops and restaurants, hiking trails, and cultural events draw tourists. Travel spending injects around $450 million annually into the city.


San Luis Obispo has an eclectic culture with California laid-back attitude and small-town charm. The city hosts a variety of outdoor festivals and events year-round.

The SLO Farmers Market every Thursday night is one of the largest weekly certified farmers markets in the state. Concerts in the Plaza, SLO International Film Festival, Savor the Central Coast, Concours d’Elegance car show, and holiday parades like the Pioneer Day Parade are some popular annual events.

Downtown offers local art galleries, cafes, boutiques and historical museums to explore. Bars and craft breweries can be found along Higuera Street and Garden Street.

Mission San Luis Obispo and Bishop Peak are iconic city landmarks and provide sweeping views. Hiking, biking, camping and surfing at Pismo Beach and Montaña de Oro State Park are popular outdoor recreation activities.

San Luis Obispo has a growing wine region centered in the Edna Valley which produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other varietals. The area has a distinct arts and culture scene with live music and theater performances.

Colleges and universities

San Luis Obispo is home to Cal Poly State University, which has about 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six different colleges. It is renowned for programs in engineering, agriculture, architecture, business, and the sciences.

Cuesta College is a community college founded in 1964 located just north of the city in San Luis Obispo. It has around 10,000 students enrolled in associate degree and certificate programs.

The Art Center College of Design has a small satellite campus in San Luis Obispo focused on graphic design and photography.

Pacific Beach Yoga Institute, SLO Classical Academy, and Tolosa Wine Institute provide specialized vocational training in their respective fields.

Cal Poly Continuing Education offers extension courses, certificates and summer programs for professionals and non-matriculated students.


San Luis Obispo is served by several local media outlets:

  • The San Luis Obispo Tribune is the primary daily newspaper covering the city and greater San Luis Obispo County area. It has a daily circulation of about 30,000.
  • KSBY is the local NBC television station based in San Luis Obispo. Other TV channels include ABC affiliate KKFX-CD and PBS member station KQED.
  • Popular radio stations include 90.1 KCBX public radio, 93.3 KZOZ rock, 98.1 KKJG classic hits, 101.3 KVEC talk radio, and 104.5 KXTZ contemporary hits.
  • Local magazines include SLO LIFE, a monthly lifestyle publication, and Inside SLO, a bi-monthly arts and entertainment guide.
  • The city also receives coverage from nearby Santa Barbara media like the Santa Barbara News-Press, KEYT TV, and KRAZ radio.
  • Explore SLO is an online events calendar and visitor guide to San Luis Obispo tourism.


San Luis Obispo is located along U.S. Route 101, the main coastal highway linking San Francisco to Los Angeles. US 101 runs through the middle of the city as a freeway. Other significant roads include:

  • State Route 1 – Known as Higuera Street, this road connects downtown to Cal Poly University. A portion is signed as part of Historic US Route 101 Business.
  • Madonna Road – Major thoroughfare on the westside leading to shopping centers, Avila Beach, and the airport.
  • South Higuera Street – Southern extension of Higuera Street linking US 101 to Edna Valley wineries.
  • Prado Road – East-west arterial road paralleling US 101 across the southern part of the city. Leads to Margarita shopping area.
  • Broad Street – Crosstown street connecting SR 1 on the north end to South Higuera Street. Goes through commercial corridors.
  • Los Osos Valley Road – North-south road heading to Morro Bay and Los Osos.
  • Foothill Boulevard – Winding road following Foothill Drive as it turns into Chorro Street through downtown.

Public transportation is provided by SLO Transit bus system with service throughout the city and Cal Poly campus. Amtrak Thruway Bus and regional RTA bus routes also connect SLO to surrounding communities.

Major Landmarks

Some of the most notable landmarks in San Luis Obispo include:

  • Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa – Founded in 1772, this is one of the most historic structures in SLO and an iconic landmark. Known for its church and gardens.
  • Madonna Inn – The famously flamboyant Madonna Inn resort opened in 1958. It is decorated with lavish themed rooms and suites, a restaurant, bakery and gift shop.
  • Bubblegum Alley – This narrow downtown alleyway is completely plastered with hundreds of pieces of old bubblegum.
  • Cerro San Luis – Also known as Madonna Mountain, this large volcanic morro provides panoramic views from the trail to the peak.
  • Laguna Lake Park – Features a 5-acre lake surrounded by walking and biking paths, playgrounds, and the SLO Botanical Garden. Home to an annual Kite Festival.
  • Dallidet Adobe – Historic 19th century adobe home built by pioneer Pierre Hypolite Dallidet, now restored as a museum.
  • William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach – Also called the Hearst Castle Beach, located below Hearst’s famous mansion in nearby San Simeon.
  • Bishop Peak – A popular hiking trail leads to the top of this 1,559 ft. volcanic peak with scenic vistas.
  • Cal Poly Campus – Spanish revival architecture and scenic landscapes make this university campus a notable local landmark.
  • Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove – Located just outside SLO, one of the largest overwintering western monarch sites.

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  • Take US-101 N 10 miles. Exit LOVR, turn left. Drive 3 miles, turn right on Prefumo Canyon. After 2 miles turn left to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon is on the right after 0.3 miles.
  • Take Monterey to Santa Rosa. Get on US-101 N, then CA-1 N toward Morro Bay. Exit Prefumo Canyon, turn right. Turn right to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon is on the right.
  • Head west on Monterey. Turn right Santa Rosa. Left on CA-1 N. Take Price Canyon exit to Prefumo Canyon. Turn right then left to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon on the right just past Dahlia Court.