The Fast Train to SLO Town

Riding the rails to America's

By Maryann Hammers


abhor flying and am also not terribly fond of driving. Lucky for me, San Luis Obispo—dubbed our nation’s “happiest city” by National Geographic, USA Today, and even Oprah—is just a scenic train ride away.

The city of San Luis Obispo enthusiastically promotes its carless convenience, touting the town’s walkability and bike-friendliness. The SLO Car Free web page ( includes bike trail maps, bike-rental deals, and other discounts—including 20 percent off an Amtrak train ticket.

I stepped aboard the Pacific Surfliner on a cool, misty morning. The conductor stored my carryon for me and directed me upstairs for a better view. I had sprung for a business-class ticket (an extra $19), and that car was nearly empty, except for a college student riding the rails on a cross-country journey and a couple of champagne-sipping middle-aged women on a giggly girlfriends getaway.

The journey from Ventura County is worth it for the scenery alone: The train hugs the shoreline, along steep bluffs and beaches without a footprint. The secluded stretch of sand through Vandenberg Air Force Base—not accessible to civilians—was particularly gorgeous. Though I had brought my laptop with the intention of getting some work done (WiFi is free on the train, and every seat has an electric outlet), I ended up reclining my seat, sipping coffee and nibbling on a muffin, and just enjoying the view.

After about four hours, the train pulled into the San Luis Obispo station. It was such a pleasant journey, I was genuinely sorry to step off the train.

Wheeling my carryon a few leafy blocks past cute bungalow homes, I quickly reached downtown. Granada, a chic hotel and hip restaurant/nightspot/spa, was to be my crash pad for the next couple of days.

Though the hotel opened just over a year ago, this was no sterile, ultra-modern edifice: The picturesque brick building and former brothel was built nearly a century ago as a hospital, but never admitted a single patient. It was located next door to the Elmo Theater, an old vaudeville house (since demolished). In the 1920s, rooms were rented, ahem, by the hour. More recently, the building served as an old folks’ home.

The hotel’s current owner, Kimberly Walker, had been using the lower level of the building as a small wine bar. When she learned that the entire building was for sale, she leapt at the opportunity to renovate and restore it to a hotel, with exposed brick walls, heavy wood doors, and original hardwood floors. She expanded the wine bar to become a high-end bistro, with outdoor seating under leafy trees, fire pits, and old-fashioned street lamps.

My second-floor room was super small yet had a luxe feel, with a fireplace, soft robe, luxurious bedding, and fancy amenities. From my Juliette balcony I observed the downtown bustle one floor below. A silver-haired, pony-tailed, tie-dyed hippie rode by on a vintage bicycle, dragging behind him a bulky baby stroller holding a guitar.

Speaking of bikes, SLO is a great place to ride one. Granada lends wheels to guests who want to cruise around downtown or to the nearby winery, or pedal along Bill Roalman Bike Boulevard or the Railroad Recreation Trail. Even better: soon the City-to-Sea Trail will connect downtown SLO with Avila Beach. On the first Thursday of every month, hundreds of cyclists circle downtown, wearing costumes. Why? Just cuz.

Downtown SLO is compact, pedestrian-friendly, and just plain cute. A creek runs through the center of town, with benches scattered about under trees. I was enchanted by the whimsical mom ’n‘ pop shops, many with a natural or eco vibe, such as the Secret Garden Organic Herb Shop, with dried herbs, teas, and rustic yard art. It’s next door to the Birkenstock place and a few steps from the Flip Flop Shop.

I paid 50 cents for a ride aboard the Old SLO Trolley. The cable car circles downtown Thursday evenings (and on some months of the year, Friday and Saturday, too), clanging along Monterey Street, past the art deco theater, record (vinyl) shop, and used book shop, stopping at the Mission San Luis Obispo, Farmers Market, Madonna Inn, and other popular neighborhoods. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land.

On Thursdays, when the huge Farmers Market/street fair takes over town, everyone lines up for beef brisket and barbecue. But downtown dining options the other days of the week are eclectic and fun, many with an organic farm-to-table approach—just what you’d hope for in a hip college town surrounded by agriculture.

Big Sky, one of my favorites, had an open-air feel and casual wood tables. The place serves up such improbable combos as eggplant with chipotle and watermelon with feta. Next door, Sidecar specializes in sophisticated burgers—think brioche buns, maple ketchup, and carmelized shallots.

My favorite eatery was Luna Red. Its creative late-night menu features tapas, pizzas, “picnic boards” (meat and cheese plates), and other satisfying smallish meals for around five dollars. It was a warm evening, so I chose an outside patio table, where I enjoyed a black-bean avocado fritter and goat-cheese stuffed piquillo peppers. With the live music and a friendly Ashton Kutcher-lookalike server, this was one happy meal.

In no time, my getaway had come to an end, and I found myself wheeling my carryon back to the train station for the ride south. Happy to report that the view was just as scenic in the opposite direction.

Overlooking the action, a Terrace Room at the Granada Hotel.

An organic, farm-to-table approach to food prevails downtown. At Novo, shown here, global cuisine leans on local, seasonal ingredients.

Higuera Street, the main drag for shopping.

AmTrak Pacific Surfliner.

sprawling Farmers Market takes over downtown San Luis Obispo on Thursday evenings.


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