The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa – in the heart of the city

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo was the fifth mission founded in the twenty-one California mission chain.

In the heart of the city of San Luis Obispo (affectionately known as SLO to locals) and sitting on a lovely creek, the mission has been the witness to much history, endured ill-thought out facelifts and is now restored to its former glory.

The fascade and bell tower at the Mission San Luis

Of the eight Central California missions, (see complete list here) Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is the only one to be situated in the center of a vibrant and active city.

That is not to say that it is better or worse for that, but rather to point out the interesting differences that have occurred in the two hundred plus years since the founding of the missions.

San Luis Obispo is a bustling college town as well as the county seat. It is an enjoyable town that “lives bigger” than the 45,000 population would indicate.

Edward Vischer drawing of the mission late 19th century


Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Quick Facts

Address: 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 (San Luis Obispo County) – (Google map – opens in new window)
GPS coordinates: 35.28105, -120.66421
Phone: Gift Shop/Museum (805)543-6850
Gift Shop & Museum (self-guided tours) Open seven (7) days a week
Winter Hours: 9 am to 4 pm
Summer Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
Mass Times: Old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Formal Name: Mision San Luis Obispo de Tolosa; Mission of Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse

View of the aisle and altar at the San Luis Obispo Mission

In Oceanside, in southern California, there is another “Mission San Luis” (San Luis Rey de Francia) but that one is named for Saint Louis IX, King of France. Louis IX actually was the uncle of our Saint Louis, the bishop.


The Church

There was never a standardized set of plans for the building of the mission churches handed down by the Spanish government.

The circumstances and realities of each site demanded that accommodations be made. And that is why each of the missions seems to have some unique variation compared to the others.

The unique variation for Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is that there is a second nave to the right of the main altar which forms an “L” shaped floorplan.

You can see this in the photo above with the large arch to the right.

Mission SLO - view of the rear of the church

You can also see that this church is in a very good state of repair, and that it is on the “plain” side with regard to the wall murals and the reredos behind the altar.



There is an excellent museum at Mission San Luis Obispo with artifacts and exhibits covering the mission period.

This was the first mission established in the territory of the Chumash indians and the museum has a room devoted to this subject.



The normal plan for the missions was a garden surrounded by a quadrangle of buildings. This actually derives from old Roman architecture. This design allows for a cool, shaded area in the interior of the square. The gardens and a fountain enhanced this cooling and makes for a restful place in the heat of the day.

Grape arbor at the San Luis Mission

It’s actually a brilliant design and is a better solution to the heat than mechanical air conditioning.


The City of SLO

The Mission fronts on a plaza through which runs San Luis Obispo creek. Lots of trees (including my favorites – sycamore) provide another respite from heat and bustle.

There are many choices for food and drink within short walking distance from the mission. There are also many unique and interesting boutique shops featuring items you will probably not see anywhere else.

There is also a fine walking wine tour through downtown (more on this later).

The Mission San Luis Obispo is an interesting and enjoyable destination. A visit can be part of a walking tour through SLO which is very “pedestrian friendly”.

If you’re near here, I recommend a stop since the Mission is definitely one of Central California’s treasures.

Santa Margarita asistencia

An interesting historical footnote: Each of the California missions were granted large tracts of land by the King of Spain in order that sufficient crops and animals were raised to support the natives and the missionaries.

Some of the missions created “sub-missions” or “asistencias” as they were known so that there were facilities available on the outlying areas of the missions.

Mission San Luis Obispo created one such asistencia, to the north and it was called Mission Santa Margarita de Cortona after a 13th century Italian saint.

The town of Santa Margarita was created on this foundation. It is a charming and interesting little town, located just over the Cuesta Grade off Highway 101 north of San Luis Obispo.

19th Century drawing of the Mission San Luis

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