Love architecture, great food and wine, and hefty serving of history? Head to San Luis Obispo. Located about a four-hour drive from LA and San Francisco, this picturesque region offers something for travelers of all ages. Here’s a few area highlights.
The Hearst Castle
Located about 45 minutes north of San Luis Obispo, a trip to the Hearst Castle is a must. As a boy, William Randall Hearst traveled through Europe, falling in love with the grand homes and castles. In 1919, Hearst wanted to build a castle of his own, and because he had loads of money (back when publishing was BIG, baby!), this dream became a reality. Hearst sought out architect Julia Morgan, and over 28 years, the duo constructed this American castle atop a hill overlooking California’s San Simeon Valley.
Opulence doesn’t even begin to describe this place. The main house includes 168 bedrooms; Roman baths covered from floor to ceiling in blue and orange one-inch tile; the iconic 345,000 gallon Neptune pool; and the property once housed a zoo, complete with free-ranging zebra (fun fact: though the zoo is no longer maintained, a few of the animals’ descendants remain. You can sometimes see zebras grazing on the property!). The parties thrown at this 250,000-acre estate were legendary, and included old Hollywood stars like X and Hearst’s longtime girlfriend, star Marion Davies, plus the biggest names in politics and sports. Located about a four-hour drive from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Hearst built a two runway airstrip on the property, which made flying guests in and out a breeze.
Today, the Castle is open all year long (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day) and offers four distinct daily tours to choose from, in addition to seasonal tours.
Wine, wine and more wine:
Though the nearby Paso Robles Wine Country is lesser-known than Napa or Sonoma Valley, they’re churning out some of the best wines in California. You’ll find over 300 wineries, breweries, distilleries and restaurants in the area, complete with quaint historic towns and beautiful scenery. Find a detailed map of the wine tasting here.
One definitely worth mentioning is the Hearst Ranch Winery, located just down the road from the castle. Housed in a former general store built in 1852, the business once served as the area’s main shipping point for barrels of whale oil, cheese, butter and other commodities on the Central Coast. Today, visitors love to sample wines on the deck while hearing the crashing ocean waves and views of the Hearst castle. If you’re looking to stay nearby, the winery rents out a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom historic adobe.
Where to eat and sleep:
Located about an hour south of the castle (and along the route between LA and San Simeon), you’ll find one of the most kitschy, fun, and over-the-top hotel experiences. Imagine if Liberace, Elvis and Marie Antoinette designed a hotel, and boom, you’ve got the Madonna Inn. This San Luis Obispo gems features 110 whimsical guestrooms, each with their own unique charm and décor, and lots of the Madonna’s signature color, hot pink.
You don’t actually have to stay here to enjoy the place. The casual Copper Café is straight out of the 1960s and offers diner-style staples like corn beef hash with eggs; Denver omelettes; BLTs; and patty melts. The Gold Rush Steak House isn’t reinventing the wheel, and that’s partly why it’s so great. Enjoy jumbo shrimp cocktail followed by filet mignon with a baked potato and dinner salad. A post-dinner Manhattan at the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge might be the perfect way to end your night. There’s live entertainment most evenings, which cements the stepping-back-in time vibe. Tip: If you have a chance to check out the men’s room, the urinal is priceless. Here’s a video of when I snuck in.
Best place for a selfie:
Bubblegum Alley! Imagine a 70-foot long narrow stretch between two 15-foot walls, covered in chewed bubblegum. Yes, it’s kinda gross, but also pretty fun. Take a bubblegum selfie, and maybe even stick a wad on the wall—everyone else has been doing it since the 1970s! Just try not to touch anything because, well… gross.
Where to catch a show:
When was the last time you went to a drive-in movie? It’s been a while for me! There aren’t many of these legendary ladies left, so why not stock up on candy, drinks and popcorn and watch a flick from your car? Pay a visit to the Sunset Drive-in (https://www.facebook.com/sunsetdrivein/) and see if you can stay awake for the double feature (10:30pm is kind of past my bedtime these days!).
Where to get outside:
SLO is home to Cal Polytechic State University, a school that prides itself on its “learn by doing” philosophy. Hands-on experience is huge here, and you can see that on a walk through its architectural graveyard. This nine-acre collection of eclectic, abandoned mishmash of unconventional architecture is what remains from the school’s outdoor experimental construction laboratory, where you’ll find structures and sculptures imagined by former students. The easy hike is about three-miles round trip.
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