20 Incredible Free Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County.

Let’s face it, we ALL love when things are free! Especially when traveling! Traveling is expensive as it is, when factoring in the cost of flights, rental cars, hotels, meals, and any excursions out! Anytime I travel to a new location I love to look for free activities to do, especially if they’re worthwhile!

Luckily, I had the privilege of living in the beautiful town of San Luis Obispo for 4 years, so I am well aware of the countless free activities in SLO!

So if you’re like me and looking for things to do in SLO, read on! I complied a list of 20 incredible free things to do in San Luis Obispo, whether you are visiting or a resident.

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About San Luis Obispo

Church in San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo is a beautiful coastal town that is home to one of the state colleges in California, Cal Poly! The population is ~45,000, with one-third of that actually being college students. The town is located approximately half way in between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is around a 3 ½ hour drive from both SF and LA to get to San Luis Obispo, making it the perfect destination for a getaway weekend trip!

San Luis Obispo is very close to many surrounding beach towns, such as Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and Cambria. There are also two incredible underrated wine regions nearby, Paso Robles and Edna Valley, that I highly recommend visiting if you are in the area and love to wine taste!

Free Things To Do in San Luis Obispo

Here is a list of free things to do in San Luis Obispo County that I have collected from 4 years of living in the area! Most of them involve outdoor activities, but I have found some unique indoor attractions in San Luis Obispo for you to do as well!

1. Explore the tide-pools at Montaña de Oro State Park

Montaña de Oro is a gorgeous state park in Los Osos, approximately 25 minutes away from San Luis Obispo. The park features rolling sand dunes, large eucalyptus and cypress trees, long hiking trails, and rocky beaches that create tide-pools perfect for exploring!

You could easily spend an entire day here enjoying all of the great things that this park has to offer. The sand dunes are a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset at with a picnic and a bottle of wine!

2. Hike Bishop’s Peak

Bishop’s Peak is one of the best hikes in San Luis Obispo that features scenic views of the entire valley. The hike can be done in 3-4 hours at a reasonably slow pace, so devoting a morning to this hike is a perfect morning activity for any day on your trip.

The trail requires durable hiking shoes because of the rocks you step on during the switchback ascent. Also, be sure to pack enough water, especially if hiking in the middle of the day because the sun really beats on you during the switchbacks!

Overlook from Bishop's Peak in San Luis Obispo.
View from Bishop’s Peak

3. Play sand volleyball at Avila Beach

Avila Beach is the one of the most popular beaches near San Luis Obispo, located 15 minutes south. The town of Avila Beach is very cute, with adorable shops that sell ice cream and decor, as well as beachfront restaurants and cafés.

The beach itself features soft sand, a pier, and two full-size volleyball courts! Whether you want to go for a swim, catch a tan, or play volleyball, Avila Beach is sure to have something for everyone to have a perfect afternoon beach day.

Travel Tip: Parking can be a little bit of a hassle on busy weekend days, so I recommend getting there early if you want to score a spot close to the beach!

4. Blow a bubble at Bubblegum Alley

Bubble Gum wall.

Bubblegum Alley is one of San Luis Obispo’s famous downtown features. The origins of how bubblegum alley are not entirely clear; some say it started as a graduating class event, others say it was started as a prank between San Luis Obispo’s rival high schools.

Either way, it is worth a visit and a unique free thing to do in San Luis Obispo. You can even add your own mark on the wall…!

5. Visit the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is a neat little art museum located near downtown San Luis Obispo. It is open 7 days a week (except only allows access to school tours on Tuesday and Wednesday), and features rotating exhibitions!

On the first Friday of every month, the museum is open from 5-8pm for the new exhibit openings! These events are lots of fun, with music and complimentary wine for the public to celebrate the opening of the exhibits!

This is my favorite free thing to do in San Luis Obispo, because it showcases work from artists from around California, and you can always find me at an event with free wine!

6. Visit the Morro Bay Rock

Morro Bay Rock- best free things to do in San Luis Obispo Outside.

Morro Bay is a little town 8 minutes from San Luis Obispo that features a HUGE rock! The rock is 576 feet tall perched at the edge of the harbor in Morro Bay. Around the rock you will find relaxing beaches and coves that are the perfect setting for an afternoon.

There are places in the town of Morro Bay to rent kayaks and paddle boards if you are looking to enjoy Morro Bay from the water! End your beach day by enjoying one of the many restaurants or wine bars located in the town.

7. Go to Farmer’s Market (and hope there’s live music!)

Farmer’s market in San Luis Obispo is on Thursday evening, starting at 6 pm on Higuera street. There are food trucks, booths, stands selling corn on the cob and more! There are also booths selling jewelry and art, as well as other businesses.

There often is live music on the far end of Higuera street that I recommend checking out! It’s the perfect San Luis Obispo free activity for a Thursday evening.

8. Drive along the scenic Highway 1

Highway 1 is a well-known highway in California that travels north to south along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Highway 1 travels directly through San Luis Obispo, overlapping with Highway 101 for a few miles. Driving along the highway is an activity in itself because of the beautiful scenery along the coast!

9. Stroll along the Pismo Beach Pier

Pier at Prismo Beach.

Pismo Beach is a beach town located 15 minutes from San Luis Obispo. There is a beach, a pier, and a boardwalk that is really lovely to walk around at! Pismo Beach is also one of the few beaches that allow you to drive your car on the beach. If you are looking for more adventure, you can camp out on the beach as well!

10. Enjoy a picnic at Pirate’s Cove

Pirate’s Cove is a nice little beach along the coast that has beautiful hiking trails surrounding it. It is the perfect spot for an afternoon picnic while watching the surf.

Travel Tip: Pirate’s Cove is a nude beach, so if you see someone without clothes on don’t be alarmed! It might not be the place to bring your family, but otherwise it is a nice little spot.

11. Visit the Avila Valley Barn

The Avila Valley Barn is a rustic farm located on the way to Avila Beach. They have events for all seasons, including live music in the summer, a pumpkin patch in the fall, and seasonal fruit for sale.

Whether you want to come to shop or just look around, this is a perfect little stop on the way to one of San Luis Obispo county’s beaches!

12. Walk around the Historic Downtown

Downtown San Luis Obispo is one of my favorite spots in the city. There are TONS of cute boutiques, nice restaurants, breweries, pubs, and wine bars! It has everything you need for a perfect day spent in SLO.

Other than all of the incredible stores, there are also historical buildings that are nice to see as well. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of the major landmarks, located in Mission Plaza. I also recommend walking by Fremont Theater (and maybe see a show!)

13. Watch sunset from Terrace Hill

Terrace Hill is a beautiful and serene hill in San Luis Obispo that is perfect for a sunset picnic. To get there, you have to hike ~ half a mile, so be sure to wear good walking shoes!

The view from the top is incredible, with views of the entire valley with Madonna Mountain and Bishop’s Peak close in the background. It is definitely worth it for the view!

14. Ride your bike in Prefumo Canyon

Prefumo Canyon is a hiking and biking region located in the Los Osos Valley, and can be found by following Prefumo Canyon Rd. There are many trails in this area that are great for exploring, but one of the most famous leads to Prefumo Canyon Scenic Overlook.

15. Visit the Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn is a historical landmark in San Luis Obispo that also operates as a boutique hotel and restaurant!

With 110 completely unique rooms, this hotel is surely a sight to see. While you may not be able to see the hotel rooms without staying here, I think the property itself is worth a visit (and the bathrooms in the Inn are also unique and interesting to see!)

16. Get a tan at Grover Beach

Grover Beach is another one of the major beaches in San Luis Obispo county. This beach is a little bit less busy than Avila and Pismo beach, making it a better place to spend your afternoon if you want more seclusion. The town of Grover Beach is alike many other beach towns, with restaurants, bars, and shops for you to visit.

17. Hunt Moonstone at Moonstone Beach

Moonstone Beach is located in Cambria, around 40 minutes from San Luis Obispo. While this destination is a little further to get to, I recommend it as something to do while in SLO because it offers a unique perspective of the coastline.

Moonstone Beach features a boardwalk and a beach with, you guessed it, Moonstone! There are also tide pools filled with sea life, and if you get lucky you might see some whales!

18. Watch butterflies fly in Monarch butterfly grove

The Monarch butterfly Grove is an incredible sight to see, but unfortunately it is seasonal! The migration happens during the winter months, with the park being open from November to February. In 2022, there were 22,000 butterflies that flew, which was the largest amount in over 5 years! I definitely recommend planning a visit to SLO around these months to see the glorious butterfly migration!

19. Go seal watching in Piedras Blancas

Piedras Blancas rookery is one of the only elephant seal rookeries, that is free and easily accessible to the public year round! It is located 50 minutes north of San Luis Obispo but is worth the visit especially if you are already north of San Luis Obispo for other reasons (such as visiting Hearst Castle or wine tasting in Paso Robles).

There is also a live cam of the elephant seals that you can watch from home if you prefer!

20. Visit Cal Poly’s campus

And last but not least, you could visit Cal Poly while in San Luis Obispo! While Cal Poly is not the most exciting of college campus’s, it is a foundational aspect of SLO that is worth at least a drive by! One-third of the population of SLO is from the college students of Cal Poly, although most live off-campus by their second year of college.

My favorite buildings are Baker Science building and the Business building!

Other Things to do in SLO

Now that you know the best FREE things to do in SLO, what about other activities? If you are looking for something else to do in the area, why not check out the wineries in San Luis Obispo, in this adorable wine region called Edna Valley!

Those wineries are some of my favorite I’ve been to in the United States! The top recommendation–a visit to Tolosa, a high-end winery with fantastic Pinot Noir.

Have you ever visited SLO? What are your favorite free things to do in San Luis Obispo County? Let me know in the comments!

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12 Comments

  1. I absolutely have to go to Moonstone Beach when I travel to San Luis Obispo (which is now on my list)! I’m more than a little obsessed with moonstones; so, they are calling me name 🙂

  2. Oh wow, San Luis Obispo looks like a beautiful place to explore! I love a good farmers market so I would have to check that out! Not too sure about the gum wall though 😂

  3. I have memories of this little town of San Luis Obispo from many years ago! I would love to re-visit and enjoy the bubble gum alley ! Perhaps it did not exist then. Also I would love to visit the tide pools at Montana state park. 🙂

  4. I love when a place offers so many free things to do. It’s really a great mixture of outdoor activities, beaches and other fun things like the bubblegum alley you shared. I think there’s one in Seattle too no? Thanks again, saving it for later.

  5. I loved reading your post about the free things to do in San Luis Obispo. You have given me so many ideas for my next trip to this charming town. I had no idea that there were so many free attractions and activities to enjoy there. From hiking to the Madonna Mountain, to visiting the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, to exploring the Bubblegum Alley, you have covered it all. Your post shows that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a great time in San Luis Obispo.

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