What to do, see and eat in California’s nine best college towns

The Downtown SLO Farmers Market is held Thursday nights on Higuera Street.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Population. 47545, is 300 miles northwest of LA City Hall, a few miles from the ocean, but also a few miles from the wine country around Paso Robles.

What makes it special: Juxtapositions. Old-school ranchers live alongside new winemakers, who live alongside Southern California retirees, who mingle with college students on just about every trip to town. Future engineers rub shoulders with aspiring designers. The hills and agricultural valleys rub shoulders with the mildness of the central coast. Also, you can’t beat the view of a gentle hill dotted with oak trees.

A bigger picture: If you know SLO primarily from the breeze on the 101, then you’ll recognize it as the home of the Madonna Inn – perhaps the most irresistibly kitschy set of rooms and restaurants this state has to offer. Day-to-day SLO is different (and not so rosy).

The main thoroughfare is Higuera Street, and it’s where the Thursday night SLO Downtown Farmers’ Market spreads each week, its vendors joining a roster of downtown retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers. city ​​that had been developing for several years before the pandemic. Now there is a chance that growth will resume.

Meanwhile, San Luis Obispo Creek continues to flow past the Mission San Luis Obispo (founded in 1772), Phoenix books quietly hawks used volumes on Monterey Street, students continue to contribute to chewing gum aisle (off Higuera between Garden and Broad streets) and unwanted girls (also in Monterey) offers fine art, artifacts, jewelry, custom lighting, and hand-stamped flatware.

The campus: Cal Poly, founded as a vocational high school in 1901 and expanded to its current status in 1972, is just north of downtown. The main campus spans 1,321 acres (but the school also controls over 7,500 acres of ranch land), and the school’s engineering, agriculture, architecture, and environmental design programs are widely admired.

For an overview of the architecture program, walk from the main campus to Poly Canyon, a 2.5 km round trip this leads to more than 20 experimental structures erected by students (with faculty approval) in the otherwise rugged, oak-strewn slopes, including a geodesic dome inspired by architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller himself. even on a campus tour a long time ago.

Undergraduate enrollment: approximately 21,400. Team name: Mustangs.

Example of elders: “Weird Al” Yankovic, NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who died in 2021, and former U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, now the CEO of Trump Media and Technology Group.

Cost of stay: San Luis Obispo has 38 hotels that cost an average of $220.40 a night. Some 984 nearby Airbnb units average $359.

Whitney Chaney

Local guides: Whitney Chaney

Program Director and Farmers Market Manager for Downtown RES

Robert Flores, retired professor of agricultural education and communication for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Robert A. Flores

Retired Professor and Department Head in the Agricultural Education and Communication Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Jamie Patton, assistant.  Vice President of Student Affairs at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Jamie S. Patton

Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

What to do: Chaney tries to find time to Blues S.L.O. baseball games (they are in the California Collegiate League, late May through August). She also likes the Drive-in at sunset. It’s one of the few old-school drive-ins left in the state. ” Nostalgia. They always play the same little jingle, the popcorn song. And you can see two movies and camp with your family in the back of your car. “Chaney’s other favorite spots include the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center (on the Cal Poly campus) and Forest of the Elves of El Moro. “It’s a walking path through a nature reserve [near the Morro Bay estuary]and it just feels like you’re in a different world,” she said.

Flores recommends hiking the Seven Sisters (aka the Nine Sisters), a series of volcanic mountains in and around SLO. The tallest (1,559 feet) is Bishop’s Peak, just west of downtown. Flores is also a longtime reminder of Chaney’s employer on Thursday night Downtown SLO Farmer’s Market.

Patton said he felt the same way about the Farmers Market. When visiting family, “I usually make sure they’re here on a Thursday night.” Along with the food, music, and vendors, “it’s an opportunity, especially in the summer, to really grasp the diversity of San Luis Obispo, the city, and the county…That’s when- where I know they will see other people of color in the community.” Otherwise, he said, “many people can go an entire day without seeing another black man in other parts of the county.”

For half-day trips, Patton likes Shell Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay. And as someone raised in Philadelphia who has never lived in such a rich agricultural region, he enjoys joining his wife and daughters (ages 12 and 9½) on “pick your own” opportunities at Cal Poly Farm. “A few weeks ago we harvested mandarins and peaches as a family.”

Where to eat and drink: The Dairy market “really bustling and has a bunch of places to eat. And they just opened a distillery there,” Chaney said. Further, Chaney likes Talley Vineyards (nearby Arroyo Grande), which offers tastings and tours and has been recently renovated.

Flores likes to dine at newwhich has a large patio by the creek, and Giuseppe’s Kitchen Rustica on Monterey Street. His favorite brewery: liquid gravitytucked away on Clarion Street near the SLO airport.

Patton likes Firestone Grill on Higuera, which is “my go-to for at least one family meal when they visit.” Other favourites: taco roco (a local chain) on Los Osos Valley Road and Capriotti Sandwich Shop (on Foothill Boulevard), which is part of a chain, but does “the best cheesesteak outside the city of Philadelphia.” I had this last night.

There is also the do-it-yourself catering option. Flores notes that anyone interested in grilling can buy Cal Poly Meats (processed on campus) at the Campus and Village Markets or at the Cal Poly Meats storefront (Thursday through Saturday) on Stenner Creek Road at the north end of campus. (You may need Cal Poly wine to go with that.)

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