San Luis Obispo, California
California's Central Coast often gets lost in the buzz over the state's big cities, and that's just fine with residents of San Luis Obispo, who are happy to keep this stretch of the Golden State to themselves.
See also: America's healthiest hometowns.
Set halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo County boasts miles of beaches, rolling vineyards (and wineries), historic Spanish missions, a burgeoning arts scene and sumptuous dining options. It's also home to Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University – enrollment: 18,360), a major four-year state school whose students contribute to the relaxed vibe of the town.
San Luis Obispo was named one of the happiest cities in the world by author Dan Buettner in his book Thrive, due in part to a decades-old ban on drive-through restaurants, a near-universal public smoking ban and an emphasis on walking, cycling and commingling with others in the community. Examples include the weekly farmer's market, Thursday night community bike rides and numerous arts and culture festivals that bring locals into the streets around the two-block Mission Plaza in the center of town. SLO is a few miles from the beach but nearby towns — among them Morro Bay, Baywood-Los Osos and Grover Beach — sit right on the coast.
A number of impressive state parks dot the coast, including Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve, Morro Bay State Park and the ruggedly beautiful Montana de Oro State Park. Just inland from San Luis Obispo are the northern reaches of the massive Los Padres National Forest. Together the public lands support a dizzying variety of recreation, from sport fishing and mountain biking, to surfing, hiking, whale watching, climbing, kayaking, sailing, golfing and more.
Some 85 percent of SLO's 45,119 residents are white, so if you're seeking diversity this may not be the town for you. The local economy has rebounded well from the recession due in large part to the fact that Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo County are the two largest employers in the area.
The most famous landmark in San Luis Obispo — Hearst Castle — is but one of many cultural attractions. The whimsically designed Madonna Inn dates to 1958. The Big Fremont Theater, an art deco building erected in the 1940s, still features first-run movies. The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival is a major annual event that often brings top stars to town. And there's a doctor's office in town that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – a rare commercial design for him.