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A Student’s Guide to Downtown SLO: Back-to-School Edition

Posted September 11, 2023

Each year on the September wind, a certain special feeling blows into San Luis Obispo. You hear the excitement in the chatter of a group of passing Cal Poly students on their way to the first class of the fall session. You feel the need to pull out your favorite sweater for Farmers Market or Art After Dark as the evenings cool down. You taste the flavors of local harvests at local restaurants and coffee shops. 

That’s right: It’s almost fall, y’all.

SLO is a city with what is arguably one of the most charming downtowns in all the world, and that is never more true than at this time of year. Plus, it’s back-to-school season, with Mustangs starting classes on Sept. 15. Now is the perfect time for students to explore all that downtown has to offer, from clothing and supplies to tech gadgets. We’ll also delve into convenient parking options and dining choices that make downtown SLO the ultimate stop for students and more.

Thrifting & Gifting

Need some new clothes without spending your entire budget for the quarter? Downtown SLO has an exceptionally good thrifting scene. Take advantage of those who’ve made incredible fashion finds in the days of yore at vintage shops like A Satellite of Love, which also has a curated collection of art, housewares and other unique items. Try Finders Keepers for vintage and consignment clothes and accessories. Central Coast Vintage, Fred & Betty’s Thrift, Hep Kat Clothing and more spots are all worth exploring for fashion treasure. 

Beyond clothing, downtown SLO offers so many shops for unique and even unusual gift-type items that students and cool people of all ages will fall for. Grab a bev, and take your time browsing through these shops:

Of course, these are just a few of downtown’s dozens of awesome shopping spots. You’ll also find favorite major retailers like Anthropologie, H&M, Urban Outfitters and many more.

Mustangs and Mustangs fans should also remember to stop into Cal Poly Downtown for all the green and gold gear you could ever imagine.

Supplies for Success

Need something for a class or a project? Downtown SLO has you covered! Check out these student-favorite spots:

  • Books: Barnes & Noble is right in the heart of downtown, with multiple stories of resources, cozy chairs and a cafe inside. Phoenix Books is a used bookstore that has some real gems, plus great prices. Plus, students are encouraged to take advantage of all the resources of the SLO Library, including vast archives, printing services, study rooms and more.
  • Art: Art Central is an awesome independent supplier of all your art supply needs, just a bit outside of the downtown area, between campus and downtown. Stop on your way and the friendly staff will hook you up with everything on your professor’s shopping list! And while you’re downtown, get inspired by the large variety of private art galleries, the SLO Museum of Art (free admission!) and the monthly Art After Dark program on the first Friday of every month.
  • Tech: We know that no student guide is complete without letting you know where the local Apple Store is. Ours is right downtown on Higuera Street. Don’t forget to use your student discount!

When You’re Tired of the Dining Hall

Downtown SLO is a food lover’s paradise, with a wide range of options and price points for whenever you’re ready to get away from dining on campus. Here are some student favorites, including so many fantastic coffee shops:

Coffee shops:

Delis & Sandwiches:

Exceptional eats:

  • Firestone Grill: A true Cal Poly favorite, this sports bar offers tri-tip sandwiches and other BBQ classics. 
  • Big Sky Cafe: Don’t miss Big Sky for brunch or their vegetable-centric menu that changes with the seasons.
  • Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica: Visit this local classic for upscale Italian – a great date-night spot.
  • Louisa’s Place: A vintage diner vibe makes this the perfect big breakfast spot when you’re craving waffles.
  • Novo Restaurant: The quintessential downtown SLO restaurant, Novo serves impeccable California fare on the creekside.
  • Woodstock’s Pizza: Another Poly favorite, this fun pizza joint often has deals for students.
  • Farmers’ Market: Of course when it comes to exceptional eats, we’ve got to mention Farmers’ Market, our weekly street fair on Thursday evenings. Five blocks of Higuera Street shut down to vehicles and fill up with booths selling BBQ, pasta, crepes, corn, teriyaki, pizza, gyros and pretty much anything else you can think of. Plus, the more than 120 vendors also offer amazing fresh produce, flowers and other home goods. There’s always live entertainment, too, and pretty much the whole community comes out. Learn more about Farmers’ Market.

Getting Here

From the Cal Poly campus, downtown SLO is about 1.3 miles away, and there are lots of great options for getting here. Walking takes about 20 minutes, depending on where you start, and cycling is always a great option, as downtown is filled with tons of bike racks. Ridesharing is also a common choice among students.

For those who drive, downtown has some innovative parking solutions to keep things easy. You can park on the street or in any of our convenient gateless parking structures and pay on a variety of apps. Learn more

SLO Transit, the city bus system, also is a great option and connects the campus directly to lots of other areas of SLO. Find the bus route you need by checking out the SLO Transit Schedule or using their handy app.

See You Downtown!

Remember, Mustangs, this is just a sampling of some of what downtown SLO has to offer students, their families and all our beloved visitors. We invite you to explore our downtown as often as you can, a thriving hub that truly represents the best of our community. Here’s to a fantastic school year ahead, and we’ll see you downtown soon!