Founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772, California's fifth mission was built with adobe bricks by Native American Chumash people. Serra chose this valley for the site of his fifth mission based on tales of friendly natives and bountiful food. The traditional red-tile roof was first used atop a California mission, after the original thatched tule roofs repeatedly fell to hostile Native Americans' burning arrows. The fifth mission remains one of the prettiest, most interesting structures in the Franciscan chain. The former padres' quarters are now an excellent museum chronicling both Native Americans and missionaries. Allow about 30 to 45 minutes to tour the mission and its grounds.
Mission Plaza, a garden with brick paths and park benches fronting a creek in which children love to wade, still functions as San Luis Obispo's town square. It's the focal point for local festivities and activities, from live concerts to poetry readings and dance and theater productions. Check at the visitor center to find out what's on when you're in town.
At the south end of Mission Plaza, the San Luis Obispo Art Center's (tel. 805/543-8562; www.sloartcenter.org) galleries display and sell an array of California-made art. Admission is free; hours are 11am to 5pm Wednesday through Monday (daily July-Aug).