Visiting San Luis Obispo — the ‘Happiest City in America’

As that Neil Diamond song says: “L.A.’s fine, the sun shines most of the time.” But now that I’ve lived in Los Angeles for eight months after moving from New York, I’ve found that, while indeed life here is “fine,” there’s plenty about Southern California that can make one just flat-out cranky. The traffic, of course, is killer. All my friends back east know how good/bad Saturday Night Live was three hours before I do. And, really, does the sun have to shine all the time?!?

Naturally, the erstwhile cranky New Yorker in me was skeptical when I heard that, only a few hours away, there exists a town widely known as one of the Happiest Places in America: San Luis Obispo, Calif. That isn’t just some phrase SLO puts on its road sign; it’s all official and stuff. Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, named San Luis Obispo, about two hours north of Ventura County, one of the four happiest cities on earth (it was the only U.S. city in the bunch). San Luis Obispo frequently makes Gallup-Healthways’ annual rankings of cities with the best well-being. And, as if that weren’t enough, Oprah Winfrey featured the city in a segment titled “The Happiest City in America.”

Well, if Oprah said it, it must be true.

San Luis Obispo: Why are they so happy here? (Photo: iStock)

So my wife and I (plus our dog) recently ventured to San Luis Obispo County — located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco — to effectively ask, “Wha” the hell are you so happy about?“ And lo and behold, I actually got an answer. Here are seven reasons why San Luis Obispo really may be the Happiest Place in America.

1. They take it "SLO”

Being chill is an art form in SLO. (Photo: Juice Media)

I admit I might be a little “SLO” on the uptake, but it took two days of reading local signs and hearing greetings from store workers who kept referring to “SLO” before it dawned on me that “SLO” stands for “San Luis Obispo.” Of course, taking it slow is a way of life here. The famously wide sidewalks are tailor-made for casual strolls. The city prides itself on its pleasantly laid-back feel. “It’s kind of like a Cheers town; you can go somewhere and everyone knows you,” says Noelle DuBois, president of Bang the Drum Brewery. Speaking of breweries…

2. They like to drink

People take their drinking very seriously here, and that too is a recipe for happiness. Noelle runs Bang the Drum Brewery with her dad, Gary (a 20-something woman runs a small-town brewery with her eternally cool, outdoorsy father — Hollywood, this is a sitcom waiting to happen). The brewpub, which has the relaxing, wood-paneled atmosphere of a coffee shop, features a variety of handcrafted brews made in batch sizes of half a barrel. As I enjoyed a bourbon barrel Aged B.A. Belgian Dark, Noelle and Gary told me about the town’s up-and-coming craft brewery scene, which includes the growing popularity of area brew tours, one of which is called “Hop On.” (I got that pun immediately.)

One of the homegrown brews at Bang the Drum Brewery. (Photo: Bang the Drum)

But while craft brewing is a big deal here, it’s wine that apparently fuels this region’s drinking. Throughout the county lies expansive wine country with two dozen wineries. I spent an afternoon at a tasting at Chamisal Vineyards. The vineyard grows five grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, and an excellent Pinot Gris. Since studies show that moderate drinking leads to an “increase [in] overall affective expression, happiness, euphoria, conviviality, and pleasant and carefree feelings,” maybe San Luis Obispo, with its thriving wine and brew culture, is onto something.

3. Quirky accommodations

The diverse grape varieties at the Chamisal Vineyards. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

A perfect example of the SLO vibe could be found in one of the places I stayed in during my trip — the endlessly charming Petit Soleil Bed & Breakfast. Inspired by the rustic places the welcoming hoteliers, John and Dianne Conner, encountered during their trips to Europe, Petit Soleil is a terrifically low-key way to ease into SLO’s “don’t worry, be happy” vibe.

Has a VW van ever looked as at home as this one does at the charming Petit Soleil? (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

At the front of the hotel rests an old-school VW van. And in the interior of the hotel is a cobblestone courtyard, perfect for enjoying the 5-6:30 evening wine tasting (as I said, they really enjoy their wine here). And it’s pet-friendly, as one of my travel partners can attest. Speaking of which…

4. SLO loves small dogs in bags

Chelsea the Chihuahua: an SLO obsession. (Photo: Tracey Steinberg)

Our well-traveled 8-year-old Chihuahua, Chelsea, was a big hit in San Luis Obispo. For some reason, our habit of toting her in a backpack when she gets finicky about walking was the source of endless fascination among the SLO townspeople. Walking down the street in SLO with Chelsea in her mesh backpack carrier had passerby after passerby saying, “Oh, my gosh — that’s a cute dog. And a cute carrier — where did you get it?” Maybe they don’t have small dogs in SLO, but any town where visitors get stopped on the street repeatedly by extraordinarily friendly people inquiring after your dog carrier must have a serious happiness surplus. 

The place to be on Thursday night: the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

The attention continued even after we briefly strayed into the town’s big social event: the Thursday night Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market along Higuera Street. Alas, dogs are not allowed there, so Chelsea and my wife milled about on the perimeter while I stayed and sampled another item that must account for SLO’s happiness.

5. Meat is kind of a big deal here

Tri-tip and other forms of meat are given their proper due in SLO. (Photo: Firestone Grill)

Could happiness be found in meat? That seemed to be the case at the farmers’ market, which — though full of all kinds of treats, produce, and ethnic cuisine — was especially meat-heavy. People were lined up at multiple booths for various forms of barbecue and tri-tip; the line was especially long at F.McLintocks. The trip-tip at Firestone Grill is also the stuff of local legend. Still, I eventually went with the tri-tip sandwich from Mother’s Tavern. It was flavorful, meaty, and heavenly. Now I see why dogs aren’t allowed at the farmers’ market. Chelsea would have loved it.

6. They enjoy the great outdoors 

The view from Madonna Mountain. (Photo: Tracey Steinberg)

“We have great outdoor activities,” Kylee Jepsen told me when I asked her about SLO’s notable happiness quotient. She’s the senior communications director for Visit San Luis Obispo County and, it bears noting, a reasonably happy person herself. She continued: “There’s lots of hiking in its beautiful terrain. And you’re within miles of the ocean, and who can’t be happy when they’re that close to the ocean?” She’s right about the hiking, especially the view-heavy trail along Madonna Mountain. 

Related: Pacific Paradise: Drinking In the Oceanside Beauty of La Jolla, California

Avila Beach (Photo: Visit San Luis Obispo County)

The greater county of San Luis Obispo is full of beachside communities. I spent another tranquil evening taking in the beachside town of Cayucos, Calif., about 20 minutes away. After checking in at the Shoreline Inn, it was a treat to walk around in a beachside community not teeming with elbow-to-elbow tourists. Plus, nearby Avila Beach also offers opportunities for waterborne fun, including standup paddleboarding and kayaking at Avila Beach Paddlesports, activities in which I did not partake, but I did watch from dry land — happily.

7. Good-natured pranks on tourists

The residents of Morro Bay sun themselves. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

Nothing can make one happier than a little giggle at someone else’s expense. And I got one during a Sub Sea Tour in Morro Bay, where we ventured on a 21-passenger boat to look at the various birds and sea lions who call the bay home.

The boat has a glass-enclosed viewing area below deck where people can get a view of the various fish and marine life. But spoiler alert: The operator likes to have a little fun. As a group was looking at fish below, he took out a plastic shark-on-a-stick he keeps hidden and mischievously plunged it into the water.

Jaws attacks our boat in Morro Bay. (Photo: Mike Mathis)

The collective shriek from the unsuspecting passengers below made him grin in the kind of way that says, “This never, ever gets old,” even though he’s probably pulled that stunt a thousand times. SLO recently topped a poll of cities with the happiest work environments. If everyone gets as many grins from their jobs as this guy gets from his shark trick, then it’s easy to see why this town’s so darned happy.

Related: 10 Reasons Santa Barbara Is the Perfect Escape From L.A.

So can SLO’s happiness surplus rub off on a visitor? As I made the lovely, vineyard-heavy drive back to Los Angeles, I was occupied with three thoughts. One was that San Luis Obispo’s philosophy of taking it SLO — by enjoying simple pleasures like a glass of wine, a fun chat with strangers, and harboring a general commitment to wellness — is something I want to take back with me to L.A. The second was that I can’t wait until I can visit again to get another dose of SLO-style happiness.

And the third: Man, I gotta get me one of them sharks-on-a-stick …

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