The second leg of my epic trip on the Coast Starlight Train took me from Monterey, down into Central California and stopping in San Luis Obispo—the idyllic blue-sky city that loves to tout its recognition as “the happiest city in America.”
The train from Salinas station to San Luis Obispo takes 3 hours, 20 minutes (from $40, or $55 total for a direct ticket from San Francisco). The first segment is through Steinbeck country—including the mission town of Soledad, where Of Mice and Men was set. But things really start getting scenic as the train gets closer to SLO County, cutting through green vineyards and winding around horseshoe curves that allow you to see the whole train at once.
Where to Sleep
Petit Soleil (from $159) is a cute, French-themed Bed and Breakfast just removed from the main stretch of downtown. If you don’t have much luggage, it’s an easy walk from the train station, at just under a mile. The hot breakfast is a cut above, (savory bread pudding, olive oil pancakes), as is the 5pm wine hour, with complementary local bottles, brews, and cheeses. If you didn’t bother to bring your own bike, be sure to take advantage of the B&B’s free cruisers for little jaunts around town.
Things to Do
1. The notoriously opulent Hearst Castle, the
seaside residence built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, is by far the biggest tourist draw in SLO County. It’s a full 45 miles from downtown, but believe it or not, is accessible by public bus—although you have to be willing to tolerate a two-hour ride. Of course, in that time you could have picked up some sturdy two-wheelers from Hostel Obispo (from $10/day) and just biked there.
2. Pismo Beach and coastal SLO County get most of the love in travel brochures, but there are actually plenty of great outdoorsy finds in the city itself. I opted for a hike up Bishop’s Peak, the tallest point in the Nine Sisters range that gazes over the city. You can reach the trailhead from downtown (it’s about a 2-mile walk, but there’s also a surprisingly efficient public bus system). The 2.2-mile hike to the top is not particularly strenuous, you’ll pass through oak forests and take in sweeping views of the entire city—which, yes, is a blue-sky, green-valley little piece of perfection. Check out CarFree SLO for full instructions on how to find the trailhead.
3. The Thursday evening San Luis Obispo County farmers market is one of the largest in the state, drawing 10,000 people every week. It brings 70-odd farmers to Higuera Street (downtown’s main strip), mixing local music performances with booths from nearby restaurants, and of course, lots and lots of flawless strawberries. Or take a 10-mile bike ride out to Avila Beach Promenade for the workout-worthy farmers market, which takes place Fridays 4-8pm through September 28. (And if you’d rather shop more and bike less, you can always take a bike-friendly and free trolley ride the rest of the way to Avila or Pismo Beach. Riders also get a “Market Buck” to spend on any farmers market vendor.)
Where to Eat
1. You simply cannot leave central California without consuming at least one tri-tip sandwich. The slow-roasted “California BBQ” take on sirloin steak is ubiquitous, and the go-to place in SLO is downtown’s Firestone Grill. There’s a huge wall-hanging menu, but barely anyone glances at it: all you want is a tri-tip sandwich and maybe a basket of fries.
2. Kreuzberg, CA is a German-inspired coffee shop, café and “book bar”—which seems to mostly mean it’s a popular study spot for Cal-Poly students. It also has a lengthy menu of very Californian sandwiches named for popular writers (the Milan Kundera: crispy tofu in sweet chili glaze, microgreens, coleslaw and sunflower seeds on a ciabatta).
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