Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles at the junction of Hwy-1 and US-101, San Luis Obispo (pop. 45,119) makes a good stopping-off point, at least for lunch if not for a lengthier stay. Like most of the towns along this route, San Luis, as it’s almost always called, revolves around an 18th-century mission, here named Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Standing at the heart of town at Chorro and Monterey Streets, the mission overlooks one of the state’s liveliest small-town downtown districts, with dozens of shops and restaurants backing onto Mission Plaza, a two-block park on the banks of Mission Creek.

Besides the mission and the lively downtown commercial district that surrounds it, not to mention the nearly 20,000 students buzzing around the nearby campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, San Luis holds a singular roadside attraction, the Madonna Inn (805/543-3000 or 800/543-9666, $209 and up), which stands just west of US-101 at the foot of town. One of California’s most noteworthy pop culture landmarks, the Madonna Inn is a remarkable example of what architecturally minded academic types like to call vernacular kitsch. Created by local contractor Alex Madonna, who died in 2004, the Madonna Inn offers 110 unique rooms, each decorated in a wild barrage of fantasy motifs: There’s a bright pink honeymoon suite known as “Love Nest,” the “Safari” room covered in fake tiger skins with a jungle-green carpet, and the cave-like “Caveman” Room. Roadside America rates it as “the best place to spend a vacation night in America,” but even if you can’t stay, at least stop for a look at the gift shop, which sells postcards of the different rooms. Guys should head down to the men’s room, where the urinal trough is flushed by a waterfall.

Though the Madonna Inn has a huge, banquet-ready restaurant—done up in white lace and varying hues of pink—the best places to eat are downtown, near the mission. Linnaea’s Café (1110 Garden St., 805/541-5888), off Higuera Street, serves coffee and tea and sundry snack items all day and night; there’s also the lively veggie-friendly Big Sky Café (1121 Broad St., 805/545-5401) and the usual range of beer-and-burger bars you’d expect from a college town. For something special, the heart of SLO holds one of the central coast’s great restaurants, Novo (726 Higuera St., 805/543-3986), serving locally sourced and fresh Mediterranean-inspired meals on a nice terrace backing onto Mission Plaza. It also has a great bar.

Along with the Madonna Inn, San Luis has a number of good places to stay, with reasonable rates that drop considerably after the summertime peak season. Besides the national chains, try the Peach Tree Inn (2001 Monterey St., 800/227-6396, $79 and up) or La Cuesta Inn (2074 Monterey St., 800/543-2777, $119 and up). There’s also the HI Hostel Obispo (1617 Santa Rosa St., 805/544-4678, $32 and up), with 28 beds in a converted Victorian cottage near downtown and the Amtrak station.

Map of Pacific Coast through California's Central Coast.
Map of Pacific Coast through California’s Central Coast.
Travel map of California Missions
California Missions