San Luis Obispo Introduction Walking Tour, San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, or SLO for short, is a lovely Californian city with a strong Spanish heritage. Situated in the heart of the state's central coast, this hidden gem is known for its ability to “captivate the soul with its allure of beautiful natural setting, vibrant downtown area, and cultural scene.”

The region's history dates back thousands of years to the Chumash Native American tribe, who were the first inhabitants of this land. During the Spanish colonization of California, explorer Gaspar de Portola discovered the area, in 1769. Three years later, Spanish Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra established here a convent named after a 13th-century French Catholic saint – Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse (“San Luis Obispo de Tolosa” in Spanish).

The mission played a crucial role in the city's development and, at some point, during the Gold Rush, even served as a stagecoach stop. It also gives name to the adjacent Mission Plaza, now a popular gathering spot in the heart of the city.

Following Mexican independence from Spain, the settlement became a part of Mexico. In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, it came under American control. It was officially incorporated as a city in 1856 and has since grown into a thriving community.

Not far from Mission Plaza lies another popular, and somewhat weird, attraction called Bubblegum Alley. This quirky landmark is a testament to the city's vibrant and creative culture. However, if you prefer something more conventional, you can check out the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, showcasing works by contemporary Californian painters, sculptors, photographers, and mixed media artists.

The nearby Higuera Street, the city's main commercial thoroughfare, houses numerous top-brand outlets and a Farmers’ Market. Also here, is the 1940s Moderne-style Fremont Theater, a major cultural landmark. Similarly notable, from a historical standpoint, is the Carnegie Library building on Monterey Street, constructed in 1905.

In San Luis Obispo, natural beauty and history intertwine, creating a sanctuary of enchantment "where dreams find their wings and hearts find their home," they say. To find your way around the attractions that make one of California's oldest communities an appealing destination for visitors and a charming place to live for its residents, take this self-guided walk.
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San Luis Obispo Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: San Luis Obispo Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Luis Obispo (See other walking tours in San Luis Obispo)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.9 Km or 0.6 Miles
Author: sabrina
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
  • Carnegie Library
  • Mission Plaza
  • San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
  • Bubblegum Alley
  • Higuera Street and Farmers' Market
  • Fremont Theater
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

1) Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (must see)

Old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa holds a significant place in the history of Central California. Established on September 1st, 1772, by Father Junipero Serra, it is the fifth mission in the chain and is named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse.

The mission's founding followed an expedition where the explorers stumbled upon the Valley of the Bears, known as La Cañada de Los Osos. When food supplies were scarce at the existing missions in California, an expedition was sent to hunt for meat in the valley. The local Indians, grateful for the soldiers' assistance in eliminating bears, traded edible seeds in return for the meat. Father Serra recognized the potential of the region and decided it would be an ideal location for the fifth mission. While the city of San Luis Obispo has since evolved and is no longer a bear-inhabited territory, a statue of a grizzly bear in the mission plaza serves as a reminder of its earlier days.

In 1776, a devastating fire broke out at the mission when an Indian fired a flaming arrow onto one of the mission buildings. This event prompted the fathers to start producing roof tiles locally to reduce the risk of future fires. Over time, the mission underwent modernization and adaptation to changing needs. For example, what was once the fathers' soup kitchen now serves as a youth center.

Remarkably, Old Mission San Luis Obispo has remained on its original site and has never had to relocate. The mission's walls, reaching heights of 50 to 60 feet, were constructed according to Vatican law, which required churches to be as tall as the local trees—in this case, the pine trees. The mission's unique architecture features a long secondary nave that forms an L-shaped church, making it the only mission in California with this distinctive layout.
Carnegie Library

2) Carnegie Library

The San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library is a remarkable example of a Carnegie library. Constructed in 1905 with funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the library served as the city's subscription library program, which had been in operation since 1894.

Renowned architect William H. Weeks, who designed 21 Carnegie libraries in California, crafted the design of the San Luis Obispo library in the distinctive Richardsonian Romanesque style. The library's architectural features include a tall hipped roof with two gabled wings, decorative elements such as gargoyles adorning the gable ends, and an entrance portico adorned with multiple round arches. The building's façade primarily consists of red brick with yellow sandstone trim, while the basement showcases a dark gray granite exterior.

Operating as a library until 1955, the building transitioned into a county historical museum the following year. Today, the library building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized for its architectural significance and its role in the community's history.

Currently, the Carnegie Library houses the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, formerly known as the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum. The museum offers visitors a glimpse into the region's rich history and culture through changing exhibits. Additionally, it provides a research room for individuals interested in exploring the area's past.
Mission Plaza

3) Mission Plaza (must see)

Mission Plaza, located outside the iconic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in downtown San Luis Obispo, is a vibrant gathering place that serves as a focal point for events, festivals, community celebrations, and everyday leisure. It offers a harmonious blend of history, natural beauty, and a welcoming atmosphere.

The origins of Mission Plaza can be traced back to 1971 when Monterey Street in front of the mission was closed, paving the way for the creation of this dynamic public space. In the early days, the dusty street itself served as the plaza. However, thanks to the vision and foresight of the community and local leaders, Mission Plaza has transformed into a captivating destination that showcases the city's history and natural surroundings, all within the vibrant atmosphere of the "Happiest City in the United States."

While Mission Plaza does not aim to replicate the exact past, complete with oxen-drawn carts and the accompanying sights and smells, it provides an opportunity to engage with the rich history of the mission and the city in a beautiful and accessible environment. The plaza features open spaces adorned with benches, grassy areas, and a captivating fountain, inviting visitors and locals to relax, connect, and immerse themselves in the surrounding ambiance.

One of the notable highlights of Mission Plaza is the restoration and cleanup of the nearby San Luis Obispo Creek. Just a few steps away from the mission, this revitalized natural feature adds to the charm and "natural history" of the area, allowing visitors to enjoy the soothing sounds of flowing water and appreciate the ecological significance of the creek.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

4) San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is a vibrant cultural institution located in downtown San Luis Obispo. It serves as a hub for artistic expression, showcasing a diverse range of contemporary artworks through its changing exhibitions. The museum's commitment to promoting creativity and education is evident in its wide array of art forms, including paintings, prints, pottery, ceramics, and sculptures, each displaying a kaleidoscope of colors, styles, and shapes.

One of the highlights of the museum is its workshop, where visitors of all ages can engage in hands-on activities and learn about the art creation process. Whether it's through guided art classes, interactive demonstrations, or collaborative projects, the museum fosters an environment that encourages artistic exploration and personal expression.

In addition to its exhibitions and workshops, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art actively collaborates with various cultural societies, artists, and community organizations. These partnerships bring a dynamic mix of events and programs to the museum, creating a vibrant cultural scene in the city. Visitors can look forward to exciting events such as Jazz At the Museum, where live jazz performances complement the art on display, and Movies At the Museum, which combines the cinematic experience with the visual arts.

The museum's operating hours are from 11 am to 5 pm, providing ample opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in the world of art. It is open every day except Tuesdays, inviting both locals and tourists to explore the museum's collections and participate in its engaging programs.
Bubblegum Alley

5) Bubblegum Alley (must see)

Bubblegum Alley is a unique and quirky local landmark that has become a popular tourist attraction. This unusual alley is renowned for its walls covered in layers upon layers of used bubble gum. Stretching 15 feet high and 70 feet long, the alleyway located between 733 and 734 Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo has become a colorful and sticky testament to a peculiar tradition.

While the idea of an alley adorned with decades-old, over-chewed bubble gum might sound unappealing, Bubblegum Alley has taken on a life of its own, capturing the curiosity and imagination of visitors from around the world. It has become a must-see spot for those seeking a unique and offbeat experience.

One of the intriguing aspects of Bubblegum Alley is the variety of traditions and contributions left by visitors. Fraternity and sorority members often leave their Greek letters as a symbol of their affiliation, adding a touch of personalized decoration to the already vibrant walls. Another tradition that may puzzle those unfamiliar with the area is the presence of numbers scattered throughout the gum-covered surface. These numbers actually hold significance for students from California Polytechnic State University, also known as Cal Poly. They represent the "Week of Welcome" (WOW) numbers assigned to different groups of incoming freshmen. During this special week before the start of the school year, WOW leaders guide their groups to Bubblegum Alley, where each student leaves their mark by placing their gum on the walls, sometimes even shaping it into their assigned group number.

Visitors to Bubblegum Alley will encounter a captivating blend of colors, textures, and shapes, as well as a fascinating mix of artistic and personal expressions created by countless individuals. The alley continues to evolve as new layers of gum are added by visitors, further cementing its status as a beloved and talked-about local landmark.

While Bubblegum Alley may not be everyone's cup of tea, it represents a distinct aspect of San Luis Obispo's cultural identity. It serves as a reminder that art and creativity can emerge from unexpected places, capturing the imagination and creating a sense of community. Whether seen as a quirky attraction or a testament to the human desire for self-expression, Bubblegum Alley has carved its place in the city's history and has become an intriguing and memorable destination for locals and tourists alike.
Higuera Street and Farmers' Market

6) Higuera Street and Farmers' Market

Higuera Street is a vibrant and bustling thoroughfare located in downtown San Luis Obispo. It serves as one of the main arteries of the city and is known for its charming blend of history, culture, dining, shopping, and entertainment.

Stretching through the heart of downtown, Higuera Street offers a delightful mix of architectural styles, ranging from historic buildings to modern establishments. The street is lined with a variety of shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, cafes, and bars, making it a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

One of the notable features of Higuera Street is its pedestrian-friendly environment. The street is designed with wide sidewalks, allowing pedestrians to stroll leisurely, browse through storefronts, and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere. Numerous outdoor seating areas and patios create a welcoming ambiance, where people can relax, socialize, and soak in the vibrant energy of the city.

Higuera Street is also renowned for its lively Farmers' Market, held every Thursday evening (6-9 pm). This popular event draws crowds of locals and tourists who come to explore a wide array of fresh produce, artisanal goods, local crafts, and live entertainment. The Farmers' Market transforms Higuera Street into a vibrant street fair, creating a sense of community and celebration.

In addition to the Farmers' Market, Higuera Street hosts various festivals, parades, and events throughout the year, adding to its lively and dynamic character. From car shows and art walks to holiday celebrations and cultural festivals, there is always something happening on Higuera Street.

Whether you're looking for a trendy place to shop, dine at a local eatery, discover unique boutiques, or simply enjoy the vibrant atmosphere, Higuera Street is a must-visit destination in San Luis Obispo. Its combination of historic charm, eclectic offerings, and lively events make it a true centerpiece of the city's downtown area, captivating residents and visitors alike.
Fremont Theater

7) Fremont Theater

The Fremont Theater stands as a testament to the city's rich cultural history. This historic movie theater, built in 1942, showcases the distinctive Streamline Moderne architectural style and has played a significant role in the local arts and entertainment scene for decades.

Designed by renowned architect S. Charles Lee, the Fremont Theater is one of the few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne theaters in the region. Its construction occurred on the eve of the United States' entry into World War II, a time when the nation's attention was shifting towards the war effort. The theater initially served as a venue for both motion pictures and live performances, hosting a diverse range of shows, including war bond events during its early years.

Over time, the Fremont Theater continued to adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of the community. In the late 20th century, there were plans to demolish the historic building to make way for a new multiplex theater. However, thanks to the passionate outcry from the public, the theater was saved from destruction. Instead, a multiplex was built adjacent to the Fremont Theater, allowing the company to capitalize on the demand for modern movie experiences while still preserving the cherished historic structure. This unique arrangement not only ensured the survival of the Fremont Theater but also provided financial support through the additional screens.

Today, the Fremont Theater holds a prominent place in the cultural landscape of San Luis Obispo. It has become one of the main venues for the renowned San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, an annual event that attracts filmmakers, industry professionals, and movie enthusiasts from around the world. This prestigious festival showcases a diverse range of films and offers a platform for emerging talents to showcase their work.

Walking Tours in San Luis Obispo, California

Create Your Own Walk in San Luis Obispo

Create Your Own Walk in San Luis Obispo

Creating your own self-guided walk in San Luis Obispo is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
San Luis Obispo Historical Buildings Walk

San Luis Obispo Historical Buildings Walk

Architecture – the thoughtful making of space. One of the timeless values of historical buildings is that they continue to shape people long after the people shaped them originally. In the context of San Luis Obispo's historic architecture, it reminds us of the thoughtful design and craftsmanship that went into creating the buildings that still stand as symbols of the city's enduring...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.9 Km or 2.4 Miles