San Luis Obispo

The happiest place in North America

Save to my Account

Acclaimed author David Buettner traveled the world for five years in search of the happiest places on Earth. Buettner compiled the research data in his book, Thrive, published by National Geographic in 2011. The happiest place in North America? San Luis Obispo, California, where people live, work and play in one of the most pristine natural environments on the planet.

Buettner wasn’t the first to discover this idyllic, smile-inducing area. The native Chumash lived here for thousands of years. Their flourishing villages speckled the land when the Spaniards arrived in the late 1700s and established Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission San Miguel. Later, fishing villages and ports sprang up along the coast, and farms and ranches blanketed the hills and valleys. Tourists ventured here to soak in the myriad hot springs, and artists settled along the coast to capture the exquisite natural setting. William Randolph Hearst built a sprawling mansion at his coastal ranch in San Simeon; now a state historical monument, Hearst Castle attracts nearly a million visitors a year.

The quiet, unassuming county remained relatively unknown to most of the world until recent years. But thanks to Buettner’s research and other press, it catapulted into the travel media stratosphere. Here’s why.

San Luis Obispo: California Preserved

SLO (as the locals call it) retains an old California character that disappeared in many coastal cities decades ago. The county enjoys a perfect position along the California coast, midway between two major cities: Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s a vast region that represents a microcosm of California—the way it appeared 40 or 50 years back in time. It encompasses many diverse towns and vistas, from sandy beaches at Pacific’s edge, to tiny, historic villages in the heart of a world-class wine region, minus the crowds. Much of SLO County’s open space is protected: it includes eleven state parks, the Morro Bay National Estuary, portions of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Los Padres National Forest, plus countless greenbelts and open space.

The City of San Luis Obispo (pop. 45,000), a national leader in green and sustainable practices, anchors the county at its geographic center. This pedestrian-and-bike-friendly town was the first in the nation to prohibit smoking in public; drive-through restaurants are also banned. Miles of hiking and biking trails crisscross the hilly greenbelt that encircles the city—so easily accessible that people trek along them during lunch breaks from work.

Bounty. Beaches. Beauty. Brains.

People smile a great deal in these parts—for good reason. Living the SLO life, according to researchers, includes all the essential elements that promote happiness from day to day. Bounty, for starters. Mild temperatures, numerous microclimates and mostly sunny days encourage everything to thrive here, from people and businesses to wine grapes and luscious produce. Farmers markets happen every day of the week, and locavore living and farm-to-table dining doesn’t get much easier than here.

Next, beaches. SLO County includes more than 100 miles of prime Pacific coastline. You could spend a lifetime checking out all the fabulous beaches and coastal wildlife, and getting your daily quota of outdoor activity (known for producing endorphins, which increase happiness). Dig for clams at Pismo Beach, kayak with sea otters in Morro Bay, and watch mother elephant seals tend their babies near Piedras Blancas. Stroll along the boardwalk above Cambria’s Moonstone Beach, surf at Avila Beach, fish from the pier in Cayucos. Camp near the ocean and bike along the bluffs at San Simeon. It’s a vast outdoor playground in which nature and wildlife provide unlimited entertainment 24/7. Within this natural playground, stunning scenes of beauty unfold at every turn—yet another source of happy thoughts.

Brains, too, play an important role in living the SLO life. Nationally ranked California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly, total enrollment ca. 19,000) prepares thousands of students for scientific and technical careers. Their presence and programs stimulate minds and the local arts and culture scene. Creativity also reigns throughout the region, a longtime refuge for artists and artisans.

Bounty, beaches, beauty, brains, and a caring, connected community. No wonder SLO residents often sport ear-to-ear grins. Who could want for more?

In SLO, All Roads Lead to Happiness

Highway 101 is the county’s main artery. It travels from Nipomo in the south along the coast, then swings inland and over a steep mountain grade to north county wine country. Here, the acclaimed Paso Robles appellation includes more than 200 wineries—predominately small, family-owned enterprises where you can often chat with the winemaker.

Take your pick of many detours just off the 101 to explore SLO’s hidden secrets along two-land highways and pastoral country roads. A 10 or 20 minute drive in any direction takes you from beach and sweeping coastlines to rolling, vineyard-studded hills and towering peaks.

In the south, Highway 1 hugs the coast along massive dunes in Nipomo and Oceano before reaching several classic California towns: Grover Beach, Pismo Beach and Shell Beach. A 3-mile road to the north winds it way along a creek to sunny, picture-perfect Avila Beach and historic Port San Luis. Highway 227 wends it way eastward through the quaint village of Arroyo Grande through Edna Valley wine country, with three distinct appellations. Los Osos Road travels 10 or 15 miles through farmland to Montaña de Oro State Park and the Morro Bay National Estuary, plus the laid-back towns of Baywood Park and Los Osos.

Highway 1 merges with the 101 between Shell Beach and the county hub, the City of San Luis Obispo (pop. 45,000). From there it returns to the coast, swooping around Cal Poly to Morro Bay (you’ll know you’re there when you see the giant rock in the ocean), then up the coast to San Simeon and Ragged Point, gateway to one the world’s most dramatic road trips. Along the way it passes through quaint villages, including Cayucos, Harmony and Cambria. Highways 41 and 46 traverse the rolling hills, connecting the coast with Atascadero and Paso Robles.

Anyone Can Live the SLO Life

Bring the family. Bring the pets. Chat with the locals and find people who share your passions. Connect with a slower pace of life that focuses on the basics. Good food, good wines, good times with good folks in the great outdoors — they’re all guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

What it Costs

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

N/A => Not applicable

$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person


You need to login to favorite a post.

Need to sign up? Create an account here.

Forgot your password? Reset your password here.