There are certain excursions and experiences that every pop culture vulture should have at some point in their lives, and a stay at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is definitely one of them. Known for its themed rooms and outlandish Barbie-esque interiors and exteriors, the inn provides a colorful escape from the daily drudgery of a work-driven life. Planning a getaway around a stay at this iconic hotel can make for a uniquely romantic romp, a glam getaway with friends, or a singular special occasion jaunt, especially for Angelenos. In the summer, when the weather is still comfortably cool, a charming adventure awaits in SLO, as San Luis Obispo is called, with Madonna as the must-see centerpiece.
As we’ve done with past travel guides to Las Vegas, San Diego and Santa Barbara, we worked with area tourism groups and the local chamber of commerce to find out what’s new and what’s special to traipse, taste and try near the inn, and we dug deeper, talking to locals and frequent visitors about things to see and do beyond the typical and touristy.
San Luis Obispo county is located on the central coast of California, almost exactly midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s a college town as California Polytechnic State University is nearby, which means the population is a real blend– from students to retirees to natives who never saw need to leave the comfortable, creative and amusement-filled environments. We’re covering downtown SLO here, but we encourage readers to seek out more in the areas that surround it, especially those looking for wine tasting, outdoorsy or beach activities and family-friendly fun.
With Madonna as a base camp (and a campy inspiration), we specifically sought to highlight art, music, dining and shopping here, all with a similarly maximalist creative flair that complements a stay at the inn. What we discovered: SLO is a city driven by immersive amusements, community connections and a rich coastal California history.
A Rockin’ Road Trip
The Madonna Inn opened for business in 1958 and it’s remained a novel destination ever since. With 110 uniquely decorated rooms, it also offers a coffee shop, steak house, bakery and a bar, as well as a pool area, gardens, tennis courts and an expo hall for events. With Swiss dollhouse-style exterior design, stained glass, rose-printed carpets, and lots and lots of pink everywhere, it also has over-the-top restrooms including an infamous rock waterfall urinal located in the restaurant’s men’s laboratory.
“Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it. It’s more economical. Most places try to give you as little as possible,” Alex Madonna, the visionary behind the hotel, said in a famous New York Times article that helped put the place on the map with hipsters back in 1982. “I try to give people a decent place to stay where they receive more than they are entitled to for what they’re paying. I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It’s fun.”
Indeed, fun is the point here. Each room features its own moniker, color-coordinated furnishings, real rock showers, and a gaudy ambiance that recalls Disneyland, Liberace and Graceland all rolled into one whimsical wonderland. Room names, like the “Safari,” “Love Nest,” “Just Heaven” and “Caveman” adorn each door. The latter, by the way, used to be called The Flintstones Room until Hanna-Barbera Productions sued Madonna in 1983 over the name. Now it’s called the “Jungle Rock” suite, which was ironically paid homage in a different animated form: a 1994 episode of The Simpsons that saw Homer and Marge sleeping in it. Doh!
We just stayed in the “Mini/Maxi,” a newly wallpapered space with purple glitter hues, iridescent tiled flooring and a rustic rock fireplace. It got its name during the first year of the hotel’s grand opening, as guests could pay on a sliding scale starting with a set minimum rate, not exceeding a set maximum rate. Set against a mountain on the second floor of the main building, there’s a shared balcony area that’s perfect for sipping morning coffee with a view of SLO’s majestic mountains.
Pretty in Pink
Honeymooners make up a big part of the guestbook regularly and we personally know a handful of couples who actually got married here as an alternative to Vegas chapel/Elvis officiated nuptials. Wedding receptions take place among the gold cherubs, creepy dolls, hot pink and gold retro booths and whimsical mid-century splendor of Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush steakhouse and adjacent ballroom, which features a dance floor and small stage for live music. A wonderful jazz outfit played standards during our last visit, adding to the old school feel.
Though creator Alex died in 2004, his wife Phyllis, who worked on the design of the rooms with him, lives nearby. The inn is still owned by the Madonna family (who bear no relation to the superstar singer as they have different surnames… people still ask employees about this all the time, though). Phyllis wrote a book that provides a detailed history and personal recollection about the audacious aesthetic, building process and personal inspirations called Madonna Inn: My Point of View.
By the way, if you plan to celebrate anything at the Madonna, book way in advance; up to a year for the most popular rooms. And once there, you simply must do the following for the full experience:
1) Have a Pink Cloud – The signature cocktail is made with strawberry vodka, creme de cacao and strawberry puree, topped with whipped cream, pink sugar and the obligatory maraschino cherry, and it’s as decadent as it looks, recalling a lethal tiki drink and yummy milkshake in one. Enjoy one in the gazebo by the pool next to a serene waterfall at dusk.
2) Have a slice of Pink Champagne Cake – The restaurant bakery cuts portions of its beloved buttercream, pink chocolate white cake confection super thick, but flavorwise, its sweetness isn’t overpowering, but balanced and creamy.
Take-out orders for this one are steady but they don’t ship it, so you must go there to get it. It doesn’t actually contain any alcohol, but rather a splash of Brandy for the Bavarian Cream flavor. On your birthday you can get a free slice with dinner.
3) Get a Madonna Goblet – The rose-embossed drinking vessels serve as glassware in the inn’s coffeeshop and steakhouse (and they get stolen regularly, too). You can buy them in the gift shop but don’t expect to find every color you want on your next visit. Handmade in the United States by a family owned glass company, they only put one color into production at a time, producing about 500 pieces per color. A cult-like collector following keeps track of available shades.
The online store offers a waiting list for the rare and in-demand shades, but prepare to wait for popular colors like red and pink– these goblets have an obsessive cult following, so much so there’s even a local tattoo artist who offers permanent ink versions.
Style and Sustainability
If you appreciate the vintage vibes of Madonna Inn, there are plenty of stores in town that’ll strike your retro fancy in the same way. According to SLO’s tourism rep, the city is driven by a strategic sustainability plan that includes its Keys for Trees program, earmarking part of local hotel revenue for the continuous planting of trees. “The goal is to have 10,000 trees planted and flourishing throughout the city by 2035, which coincides with SLO’s goal of being carbon neutral,” they tout. San Luis Obispo also is the first city to utilize Hitachi Zosen Inova’s state-of-the-art, high solids anaerobic digestion facility, converting organic waste into carbon-neutral biogas.
With this in mind, SLO offers many repurposed crafts, vintage and upcycle-heavy boutiques that are as stylish as they are treasure-filled. If you love thrifting, SLO’s got a myriad of clothing stores to score previously worn gems. Check out A Satellite of Love, with curated vintage clothes, new and used books and decor, Central Coast Vintage with used mens and womens basic pieces like tees, jeans, jackets and skirts, and Calico Trading Co., featuring previously loved styles from the ‘60s-’90s.
Junk Girls began in the owners’ garage and has been featuring local artist-made decor and jewelry in its brick-and-mortar store for over a decade. From funky accessories made from silver spoons, knives and forks to hand-stamped words and graphics on repurposed brass to sculptures from discarded hardware, the shop is an inventive and imaginative oasis.
Boo Boo Records is a music lover’s delight. Founded in 1974, it’s one of the oldest record shops in all of California, let alone SLO. They’ve got a killer vinyl selection (new and used), tees and rockin’ novelty gifts, but Boo Boo is the kind of store you just want to hang out in even if you don’t buy anything. There’s so much to look at and every crevice is filled with a collectable, poster or tangible music item. As Penny Lane explained in Almost Famous, record stores are where fans go to visit their friends, and Boo Boo is filled with a bounty of beloved buddies.
Looking for a new dress to wear to a Gold Rush steakhouse dinner date? Beyond vintage, the cutest ‘50s and ‘60s style frocks are found at Hep Kat Clothing, which stocks dresses that gals with a pinup girl/rockabilly flair will covet. Leopard prints, cherry prints, gingham, and all things girly and sassy are found at this bodacious boutique.
While this guide focuses on city-minded endeavors versus outdoorsy ones like hikes or beach activities, we do recommend renting bikes while in town to get around. Cambria Bicycle Outfitters has a plentiful stock of e-bikes, which allow for exercise when you want it and a little accelerated help when you need it as you peddle and roll around town.
If you want to immerse yourself in the local community and cuisine, there’s no better place to do it than SLO’s weekly Farmers’ Market which packs Higuera street between Nipomo and Osos streets with local farmers selling produce and flowers, grill masters smoking and cooking meats of all sorts, artisans selling crafts and goods, and live entertainment like DJs and street performers. Plan your trip so you can be there Thursday and prepare for a real street scene filled with the flavors of the community that’s brought people together from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., for 40 years and counting.
While you’re at the outdoor market, make a quick pop into Bubblegum Alley (7335 Higuera St.), if you dare, and maybe do so before you eat. The popular photo op is basically a narrow 70- foot- long walk-thru between two buildings where hundreds, nay, thousands of people have discarded their used chewing gum (in every color imaginable) along the walls to create a bizarre sort of public art display that recalls the abstract splatter of Jackson Pollock, kinda. The odd attraction apparently started by teenagers back in the 1950s and nobody ever thought to power wash it away.
There’s a reason Mistura always tops the best restaurant lists in Obispo – care is taken with every dish and cocktail from presentation to flavor profile(s), which tend to be as unexpected as they are delicious. Chef Nicola Allegretta, who also owns the nearby fave Mama’s Meatball, has taken the authentic Italian staples he’s known for and jazzed them up with Peruvian touches (inspired by his wife’s heritage) for a fun yet sophisticated fusion menu that also takes inspiration from Spanish, Chinese and Japanese cuisine.
Brunch and lunch at Seeds feels refreshingly Californian, serving juice and smoothies, alongside flatbread dishes and paninis. There’s also coffee, alcohol and a nice selection of health-minded canned beverages.
One of the best outdoor patios in town, Luna Red has a menu that’s equally inviting. Overlooking the San Luis Obispo Creek, they’re known for paella, a variety of pizazzy tacos and sangria. Enjoy live music while dining and SLO breezes while soaking up the scene. 1023 Chorro St.
Painting the Town
For accommodations, Madonna Inn maintains the most popularity in the area thanks to its whimsical variety – many book a week and change rooms each night, while others have created a checklist-driven challenge of sorts with the goal of sleeping in all 110 rooms. The first woman to do so reportedly took seven years and completed the task in 1977.
Still, visitors might want to try something different on a visit. SLO has plenty of other places to stay. The Granada Hotel & Bistro is a century-old environment with exposed brick walled rooms and large picturesque windows. Formerly an auto repair garage, The Butler Hotel is now filled with awe-worthy art, mid-century modern furnishings and industrial chic. 1511 Monterey St. Hotel Cerro in downtown offers edible chef’s gardens, a copper Holstein distillery, and a breezy rooftop pool terrace. 1125 Garden St. SLO Brew Lofts is a good choice for short-term vacation rentals with five arty lofts located in the center of the entertainment district and its own brewery where vendors offer artisanal food and drinks, plus crafts and art.
Speaking of art, it’s a huge part of SLO’s appeal. The first Friday of each month, Art After Dark, becomes a bonafide artist’s hub with self-guided tours of exhibits and galleries in downtown, which stay open after hours and highlight local and international works utilizing a variety of mediums and creative approaches. Another great example of San Luis Obispo’s attention to and celebration of art, the SLO Museum of Art is a must while in town, with renowned names in the art world spotlit on a regular basis. (Read our Arts Editor’s feature on SLOMA here).
If you’re looking for music, check out The Fremont Theater, a beautiful 1941 building that features touring acts weekly amid a strikingly art deco backdrop. The theater hosts everything from classic rock to jazz to comedy, and they even welcome club nights that happen in LA, like the Shrek Rave and Disney-themed DJ dance parties. Speaking of dance parties, check out Magic Kastle‘s DIY music and DJ events while you’re in town.
More live sounds can be found during the free summer concert series called Concerts in the Plaza. Located in the Mission Plaza area, the Friday evening events run through Sept. 8 with a different singer-songwriter showcase at 5 p.m., and a main act at 6 p.m. The shows are family friendly, offer food and drink on site, and free bike valet parking.
Special thanks to Visit San Luis Obispo for its help facilitating this story.
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