My Trip to Happy Town

After seven hours of slogging through L.A. traffic, coasting through Ventura and Santa Barbara, and rolling through the golden hills of central California, I arrived in San Luis Obispo with a sore bum and ready to stretch my legs.

Why did I choose this city as my next stop? Because I’d recently learned it was dubbed the “happiest” in the nation by New York Times best-selling author (and National Geographic grantee) Dan Buettner.

I saw him give a talk just last week (at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival) about his study of the happiest places in the world. SLO was the only U.S. city to make the list. According to Buettner, people who live there are more likely to smile and experience joy, less likely to experience pain or depression, and have the highest overall emotional health of any city in the U.S.

Sounded like rainbows and butterflies, but I was skeptical.

This place pretty much oozes warmth and comfort, right?

I was especially skeptical that the place could live up to the title in the few hours I would have to explore it. But I dutifully set out to discover if it was all a sham — or, if it wasn’t, why everyone was so darn happy.

Checking in at the Apple Farm Inn, with its outpouring of country warmth and kitschy charm, was a good start. It’s hard to be unhappy when you get home-baked chocolate-chip cookies handed to you along with your room key.

Then it was time for a walk. The streets were clean and well lit. And I’m not sure if it was because I was looking for happiness, but everyone I stopped and talked to was downright

The gum started showing up in the 1960s, and college students have kept the tradition alive.

nice. Not just smiling-politely nice, but genuinely happy to chat and give tips on places to check out.

After a mandatory stop at “Bubblegum Alley” followed by a delicious vegan/gluten-free dinner and beer (Sprecher Brewery‘s Shakparo; made of sorghum and only 50 calories at 6% alcohol) and game of SKIP-BO at the European-style Kreuzberg Book Bar & Cafe, I set off to photograph the  city’s famed Mission.

I heard someone call out “Happy Monday,” from behind me. I turned to see a young man waving across the street to his friend who was driving a limo. This was not a sarcastic or jaded “Happy Monday.” No sir. This man was wearing a smile wider than his face.

When SLO folks express themselves, what do they have to say? That they're happy, of course! Taken in the restroom at Kreuzbergs.

After taking a spin around the mission, I was drawn back to the babbling brook that cuts through the heart of downtown and the music I could hear coming from the other side of it. I followed the melody and found myself at the Frog & Peach Pub.

When I walked in, who else did I see but Mr. Happy Monday on stage crooning in a smooth jazz voice. My jaw dropped. This wasn’t your average cheesy karaoke going on, but talented musicians taking turns jamming on stage — singing, playing guitar, saxophone, or bongo drums, take your pick. Couples were swing dancing to the rhythm.

I was already sold on this place, and I hadn’t even seen any of the outdoor goodies SLO had to offer.

A good way to make (and keep) friends -- at the Frog & Peach Pub!

As Nick, the bartender at the boutique wine bar, Vintage 1255, put it, “There’s endless outdoor stuff to do here. You can have free fun for days, weeks, months, years! Plus, you walk ten feet and you’ll run into a festival, no matter what day of the week.”

He also mentioned another reason why he thinks everyone is so happy, “We love our whiskey — especially Jameson. Our Irish pub, McCarthy’s, sells more Jameson per capita then any other bar in the world!,” he said. “Oh, and we don’t have to worry about locking up our cars or homes at night, either.”

I reckon that pretty much summed it up: outdoor adventure, strong community values, good eats, feeling safe and accepted.

I’ll be back, SLO, and someday soon. Perhaps to set up shop permanently.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.


  1. […] I visited the Kreuzberg Book Bar & Coffee Lounge in San Luis Obispo, where they serve this beer, while with my gluten-intolerant friend Rachel. So she ordered this, and I took a sip expecting to hate it, but it was so delicious I ordered one, too. […]

  2. Jenny
    June 14, 2012, 10:56 am

    Slo sounds fun (minus the murder and whatnot)! My sister in law went to school there and loved it! Still goes up for vacation a lot. Glad you enjoyed it!!

  3. Cata
    San Luis Obispo
    June 12, 2012, 1:14 pm

    True, it’s quite happy. I, too, lock my doors – but that’s out of habit. I grew up here and then moved to SF for college. The first night in SF my car was broken into and all my stuff was stolen. So when I lived there, I remembered to lock up after that. Now I just can’t break the habit! As for rex krebs- the only major criminal we’ve had here in SLO – he was abused as a child and wasn’t raised here. He grew up in idaho and had a father and step father that abused him. He was sad, and hurt, and acted violently – but these things happen in the world. While I dont condone what he did, it doesnt make SLO a worse place. Its just a sad thing that happened here.
    There is always something free going on – either an art class or a music gig, or a festival. The new times posts everything happening that week and month, so its easy to find something cheep or free to do! Thanks for the great review!

  4. AJ
    June 11, 2012, 11:18 pm

    Love the article! As for the comments– let me just set a few things straight– being the fourth generation from SLO I have to say a few things. First of all, I refuse to lock my doors at home and my car. Haven’t had any problems–ever. For the missing students, that is true and unfortunately are just a few cases of thousands plagueing our country. The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is the cleanest in the country and without thier contibutions to our community, SLO county would be a different place altogether. It has been a blessing to grow up there, although I am currently loving NYC for the last few years. So happy to read about SLO and some of my favorite spots!!
    Thank you!

    There are festivals pretty much every day if you look in the New Times events/community pages ;)

  5. Kjerstin F.
    San Luis Obispo, CA
    June 11, 2012, 10:08 pm

    You should definitely lock your doors and windows, but SLOPD caught Rex Krebs – the guy responsible for the death of several local co-eds – YEARS ago. San Luis Obispo is a beautiful place to live (and yes, expensive, but no more expensive than nearby Santa Barbara and MUCH better). The weather is beautiful and near perfect all year round and when you smile at people they actually smile back. I was fortunate to be born and raised here!

  6. Anthony
    San Jose, CA
    June 11, 2012, 7:26 pm

    It is a happy town, very happy. I lived their twice, once as an undergraduate and then years later again as a graduate engineering student. Yes, it has some crime but nothing like you’d find in surrounding cities and big cities. Many of the criminals are from out of town. Visit the Thursday night Farmer’s Market with its fresh organic vegetable and fruit stands, and the many awesome grilled ribs and tri-tip sandwiches. Yes, there’s a nuclear plant about 10 miles away but big deal. Only an idiot anti-nuclear moron ignoramus would fret over it existence; it provides 24% of California with power. The Central Coast is just so beautiful with many outdoor activities and just nice people, something I’m not used to living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  7. Alan P.
    Formerly of Santa Maria, CA
    June 11, 2012, 8:40 am

    SLO is also known for its murders and missing college co-eds. Definitely not the happiest place. Be careful.

  8. cassie
    June 10, 2012, 10:46 pm

    haa! You actually DO have to lock your cars and homes at night in slotown. Born and raised here I know it looks nice and shiny on the outside but every place has scumbags in it who are looking for a free ride. Its expensive to live here, and beautiful, but happytown usa? I’d be much happier if we didn’t have an old nuclear power plant in our backyard!

  9. K.T.
    San Luis Obispo, Ca.
    June 10, 2012, 9:24 pm

    Not too shabby! I would have to agree. I just moved back and couldn’t be happier. Not sure about the festivals any day of the week, but everything else sounds about right. My favorite thing to do is grab a peppermint iced tea from Big Sky and take a walk. Always wonderful to walk in this town. :)

  10. Heather
    June 10, 2012, 9:01 pm

    I lived there for five years before I had to move away for work- every other town feels sad and lacking after that place!

  11. Shannon Switzer
    June 8, 2012, 3:39 am

    Glad you enjoyed the post and will (hopefully) find it useful in the future! Definitely added to the gum art!

  12. Alan S.
    Vista, CA
    June 7, 2012, 6:35 pm

    Sounds like you’re having too much fun….something I warned you about in your childhood, but you obviously didn’t listen.

  13. Ben
    Coronado, CA
    June 6, 2012, 5:15 pm

    I hope you added some gum to that wall!

  14. Freddy
    Central Florida
    June 6, 2012, 1:39 pm

    Bubble gum wall?! Bubble gum wall?! I’d go there just to see that! And the Pub, of course! Sounds like your trip is off to a great start!

  15. Fred
    June 6, 2012, 12:44 pm

    Thanks for the post. I’m going to SLO for a long weekend in August. Your recommendations will come in handy.

  16. loco2
    June 6, 2012, 12:13 pm

    This was a great read and I found myself smiling just from reading it. I would love to go to San Luis Obispo and experience all that happiness. You really must’ve had a great time, sounds like fun :)

  17. Michael Gross
    June 6, 2012, 10:51 am

    enjoyed your blog on slo–makes me want to go there and check it out myself.Can’t wait to see what’s next.