Explore Hearst Castle on California's Central Coast
As a family vacation destination, California’s Central Coast has a lot going for it: beaches, wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, charming seaside towns like Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Pacific Grove, and one of our state’s most amazing architectural and artistic wonders—Hearst Castle. Once a destination for Hollywood royalty and political luminaries, Hearst Castle is now a state park and one of California’s most popular tourist attractions and a must-visit destination for families on a Central Coast getaway. It’s great place to add to your summer vacation list of places to visit.
Situated in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean near the town of San Simeon, Hearst Castle is the creation of San Francisco-born media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan, who built it on a spot where he camped with his family as a boy. Morgan and Hearst designed this opulent hilltop estate to resemble a Renaissance-era Spanish village and to show off Hearst’s priceless collection of art and antiquities.
The estate, called La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “the Enchanted Hill”) or simply “the ranch” by Hearst, includes the magnificent Casa Grande main house and several smaller guest houses, as well as pools, fountains, terraces, fine art, and plenty of breathtaking views. Visitors to Hearst Castle can take one of several different tours of the estate, and are then free to explore the grounds on their own for as long as they like. As you wander the grounds it’s not hard to imagine movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, the Marx Brothers, and of course Hearst’s companion, actress Marion Davies, relaxing at the estate.
A visit to Hearst Castle begins at the visitor center right off Highway 1 north of San Simeon. In the visitor center you’ll find exhibits, gift shops, restaurants, and a theater. Pick up your tour tickets at one of the ticket windows. Due to Hearst Castle’s popularity and limited tour group sizes, it’s a good idea to get your tickets in advance.
Your tour ticket includes admission to the theater, which shows a short film on its giant screen about the history of Hearst Castle and the life of William Randolph Hearst. When you’re done, you can check out the exhibits as you wait for your time to board the bus up to the estate. The bus ride up the hill takes about 15 minutes, and features a recorded narration by Alex Trebek (yes, that Alex Trebek), who explains the history of the ranch as well as what you’re seeing on the way. No cars are allowed up the hill, only buses.
At the top of the hill your group will meet your tour guide. We opted for the popular Grand Rooms tour, which takes you through the most opulent and breathtaking rooms in the Casa Grande, including the assembly room, where guests would meet before dinner, the Refectory, or dining room, and the game room. Each room is decorated with priceless art and artifacts, like Spanish Gothic choir stalls, Flemish tapestries from the 1500s, and medieval Persian tiles. We even got to sit in Hearst’s movie theater and watch films taken at the estate in the 1920s and ‘30s.
This was our family’s first visit to Hearst Castle, and all our jaws literally dropped when we first entered the Casa Grande. It’s a spectacular experience, and we all really enjoyed the tour. The kids were in rapt attention whole time, and loved exploring the grounds afterward and searching out all the different estate landmarks marked on the map in the visitor guide.
Our tour guide, Suzie, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really provided a lot of interesting information about the house and how it was used by Hearst, Davies, and their guests. After the tour, we were free to explore the grounds on our own. The grand Neptune Pool seen in so many photographs of Hearst Castle is currently drained while undergoing repairs, but it’s still spectacular, with a classical colonnade and a real Roman temple at one end. Across the grounds you’ll find sculptures and other works of art, as well as sweeping views of the coast.
On your way out, don’t forget to check out the magnificent indoor Roman Pool. Housed underneath the estate’s tennis courts and based on historic Roman pools like the Baths of Caracalla, this pool features ornate tilework and statuary of Roman deities and heroes. Apparently Hearst’s guests didn’t like swimming here due to the 10-foot depth of the pool, so it was largely reserved for staff use.
When you’re done, a bus will take you back down the hill. The way down uses a different route, so you’ll get a new tour and sights to see on this trip.
Other tours at Hearst Castle include the Upstairs Suites Tour, which highlights Hearst’s private quarters and guest rooms; the Cottages and Kitchen Tour; and an Evening Tour (offered in spring and fall only) where guests and staff don 1930s attire and experience the estate as part of a living history program. Accessible versions of all the Grand Rooms and Evening Tours are available. We’re definitely planning on returning to experience a new part of Hearst Castle!
If You Go
Hearst Castle is located at 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon 93452. The visitor center can be found directly off Highway 1. It’s open daily at 9 am; the last tour times vary depending on the season. Hearst Castle is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Tour tickets cost $25 for adults and $12 for children ages 5 to 12. (Evening Tour tickets are $36 and $18, respectively.) Advance purchase of tickets is highly recommended since tours can sell out. You can order tickets online or by calling 1(800) 444-4445. Pick up your tickets at the visitor center at least 15 minutes before your scheduled tour time. Tour tickets can also be purchased in-person at the visitor center, depending on availability.
Food and drink are available for purchase at the visitor center, as well as a wide variety of souvenirs in the center’s gift shops. Restrooms and drinking water can be found both at the visitor center and at Hearst Castle itself.
Since you’ll be spending time outdoors exploring the grounds of Hearst Castle, hats and sunscreen are a must. Weather on the California coast is notoriously fickle, so layered clothing is also advised. While children of all ages are welcome, kids 7 and up will probably get the most out of the experience, which involves a lot of walking as well as paying attention while on the tour.
The drive to Hearst Castle takes approximately four to five hours from the San Francisco Bay Area. To get there, take Highway 101 south to I-280, then pick up 101 again in San Jose. Follow 101 south through the Salinas Valley to Paso Robles, where you’ll head west on Highway 46. Follow 46 to Highway 1, where you’re head north. Take Highway 1 through Cambria until you get to San Simeon and the Hearst Castle Visitor Center.
Since it’s such a long drive to Hearst Castle, you’ll probably want to stay overnight. We made a road trip of it and stayed in Pismo Beach (about an hour south of Hearst Castle) at the SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel. Lodging, ranging from camping to luxury resorts, can be found closer to the estate in Cambria, San Simeon, and other nearby towns.
For more information on Hearst Castle and to reserve tickets for your tour, visit www.hearstcastle.org or call (800) 444-4445.
March 12, 2018
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