The only thing missing in San Luis Obispo is a view of the Pacific. This nearly-perfect small city is on US 101, at a point where the highway turns inland. So what if SLO has one flaw? While you can’t go to the beach, you can enjoy its nice downtown district, and its historic mission.
Of the 21 missions established along The Royal Road, El Camino Real (roughly, modern-day US 101)Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was the fifth. In 1772 it began as a rough-hewn log chapel; the current building was finished 22 years later.
The SLO mission is still used as a church on a daily basis. If you’re so persuaded, you can check out the schedule of services and attend one, or just stop by as a tourist. I didn’t go inside, but I believe there’s no admission charge.
Mission San Luis Obispo was the first of the California missions to use a tile roof. Back in those days, the land’s native residents like to shoot flaming arrows at the missions, and burn them from the top down. Tiles on the roof helped eliminate that problem.
San Luis Obispo’s riverwalk runs in front of the mission. The river is a few feet below street level, so it’s easy to miss, if you don’t know it’s there. The drop in elevation helps you forget you’re in the middle of a small city.
SLO is home to a unique attraction: Bubble Gum Alley. The narrow passage between two businesses is covered with more wads of Hubba Bubba than anyone could possibly count. Creative chewers have used their gum to form designs and words on the walls.
Gum has been accumulating here since the 1960’s. Not surprisingly, Bubble Gum Alley has an interesting smell, if you happen to visit after it rains.
Bubble Gum Alley is located on Higuera Street, in between Broad and Garden Streets. Mission San Luis Obispo is located one block north, between Broad and Chorro Streets.
There are at least two more landmarks worth seeing in San Luis Obispo: be sure to see the Milestone Mo-Tel, also known as Motel Inn, at the end of Monterey Street, near the US 101 onramp. The Milestone Mo-Tel was the world’s first motel. It’s now out of business, and owned by the neighboring Apple Tree. On the other end of the hotel spectrum is the Madonna Inn: a place where “unique” doesn’t come close to describing the atmosphere. Each of its 110 rooms has a different theme, ranging from Heaven to Yosemite, and Italy to Mexico. Rooms aren’t cheap, though–starting at $179. If you can’t afford it, just use the Madonna as a rest stop, and visit its world-famous urinals
At SLO, Highway 1 and US 101 split. 101 stays inland, on the east side of the coastal mountains, while CA 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) begins its legendary trip up the rugged coast. Unless you’re in a hurry, stick with the PCH.
This is my second visit to San Luis Obispo, the river walk, and Bubble Gum Alley. My first stop in SLO was in 2004
, during a similar drive up the California coast.