“Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something,” Hearst wrote to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect. Almost 30 years later that ‘little something’ turned out to be a mansion of epic proportions, tucked away in what was then referred to as ‘the enchanted hills’ on the central Californian coast.
We stopped at Hearst Castle a few years ago, when we were driving between San Francisco and LA with my family. It was in December – pouring rain – and we had just about enough time to go in and out of the visitor centre before we took off again. I had no idea what it was or even where I was, so what I was missing flew completely over my head. My mom knew (because she’s a teacher and she knows everything, as she duly lets me know), and she seemed really disappointed.
So much so that I kept it on my California bucket list, despite not really knowing what it is.
So when we recently took a little Californian road trip and stopped at Cambria, I made sure to bully Joel into going. And I am so glad I did, because I could never have anticipated how weird and wonderful and just truly impressive Hearst Castle would be.
WHAT IS HEARST CASTLE?
It’s a mansion in San Simeon, a little coastal Californian town. But it’s not just any old fancy mansion. It is a mansion designed and built by the first woman to receive a certificate from the famed Fine Arts school in Paris, and decorated by newspaperman William Hearst, who was maybe the most eclectic man in America. He was inspired by his trips to Europe, so the mansion is a pastiche of all the Western European styles you can think of. It mimics everything else, yet looks like nothing else.
7 FUN FACTS
- It was never called a castle during Hearst’s time. It was deceptively referred to as ‘The Ranch’ even though it looks more like a cathedral.
- Hearst would extend invites to celebrities, tennis champions, top politicians (even Winston Churchill paid a visit), anyone who tickled his fancy. The visits would last for weeks, but guests would notice when they started overstaying their welcome, based on the dinner seating chart. The further away you moved from Hearst, the more annoying you’ve become. (Not a bad tactic?)
- You’d imagine some wild parties with all these famous, rich people at a secluded mansion right? Except Hearst kept the hard liquor locked in a safe, and he only let people share rooms if they were married.
- The dining hall served as a source of inspiration for the Harry Potter film set designers.
- Hearst loved serving all-American meals like hamburgers and hotdogs in his medieval dining hall. The guests would then be ushered into the cinema for some home videos on a big screen.
- The main house, Casa Grande, has 115 rooms and 30 fireplaces. The 3 guesthouses on site have almost 50 rooms in total.
- Tennis prodigy Alice Marble (18-times Grand Slam champion) would not only beat everyone at tennis, but also poker. Except she would have to return her winnings because she wasn’t old enough to gamble.
Hearst Castle and its previous occupants has an interesting story with a lot of unconventional plot twists. Go hear the rest and imagine the splendour for yourself on site.
Gorgeous mansion, incredible location, interesting back story, what’s the catch?
Yes. It is…kind of expensive. If Hearst Castle wasn’t so damn spectacular I would say too expensive. But it’s a ticket fee I would suggest paying once in your life, at least.
$25 for adults
$12 for children up to the age of 12.
You can buy tickets online in advance, and the website recommends it, but we would say it really isn’t necessary. Doing this requires a reservation of $8 on top of whatever you’re paying for your tickets. And if you miss your time slot you have to pay $8 per ticket to change the reservation. (Hearst Castle is just coining from sunrise to sunset).
However, you can use the online ticketing system to gage whether a preferred time slot is being sold out (tours depart every 10 minutes). So just keep an eye on that and buy your tickets at the visitor centre without any extra fees.
CAN I JUST DRIVE UP AND DO A SELF-GUIDED TOUR?
Hearst castle is a sleek money-making capitalist machine.
You can only drive about 4 minutes off the highway until you have to park at the visitor centre. A little shuttle bus will then drive you through the rolling hills up to the mansion entrance (circa 15 minutes’ drive), where a tour guide will receive you.
You can only roam the gardens freely at the end of your tour, and then catch the bus back to the visitor centre whenever you feel like it.
P.S. If you have bad motion sickness, grab the front seats! The road up wind back and forth around the hills.
PIN FOR LATER
BUT WHICH TOUR SHOULD I TAKE?
If you take a look at Hearst Castle’s website, you’ll notice that there are multiple tours to choose from.
The Grand Rooms tour is a classic for a reason – it will take you through all the big grand rooms you usually see when you look up Hearst Castle online. (The billiard room, indoor Roman pool, and Gothic grand lounge are my favourite).
It doesn’t, however, lead you through any of the private rooms or the library.
Again, the online ticketing system is super useful here: each tour is mapped out with pictures when you click on it.
CAN I TAKE PHOTOS INSIDE?
I know, my biggest concern too. I wasn’t going to spend $25 and not be allowed to take photos. But relax! Hearst Castle encourages recreational photography, so all is good.
The Hearst Castle tour groups are between 35 and 55 strong, so you may not get that catalogue shot you were hoping for.
TOP PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Not only for Hearst Castle, but for all museum tours. In order to take photos without other tourists in them, you have to be right in front with the guide, but ideally you should position yourself at the back of the tour. This would allow you to hang back for a quick couple of seconds and take those photos.
Below is a photo of the billiard room mid-tour, and a photo of that magic quiet moment alone because I hung back to be dead last in tow. Don’t hang back so long that the guards have to ask you to leave – that’s rude.
You may miss some tour info, but you’re smart – you’ll figure it out.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT?
The garden is in full bloom in spring and summer, making the castle especially picturesque.
There are also Friday and Saturday evening tours to be had in spring and fall (March – May, October and November), when the houses and gardens are lit up and docents are wearing period dress.
And officially added to my bucket list: Hearst Castle during the Christmas season, when it is DECKED. OUT.
See the official website for seasonal hours.
Also, if you are set on seeing something specific, just give the website a quick glance to make sure it’s up and running. The iconic Neptune Pool was under construction during our visit.
HOW LONG DOES ALL THIS TAKE?
The website will tell you the tours are an hour. But the tours are run by real people (the guides are excellent, by the way), so it depends on them. Our tour was more or less 75 minutes.
If you add to that the drive up and down the mansion, checking out the tennis courts and pools and gardens by yourself, buying tickets and waiting at the visitor centre, the total time spent at the estate is more in the vicinity of 2h30mins – maybe even 3 hours.
The tickets also include a little documentary at the theatre at the visitor centre, which is about 40 minutes. You can watch this after your tour, but we were SO HUNGRY. So no.
FOOD AND DRINK?
So, yes, you’ll also work up an appetite, and the visitor centre is kitted out for this. There are multiple places to source your lunch or coffee or snacks before or after your tour, but it is hella expensive. We suggest you take off and go get the best pastrami sandwich this side of America at Café on Bridge Street in Cambria, just 15 minute’s drive south.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE TO DO IN THE AREA?
OMG, so glad you asked. This area is STUNNING. There are so many amazing things to do and see. Right next to Hearst Castle is the elephant seal vista point, for starters. Hearst Castle was just one stop of many during our recent road trip in the area. So if you want to spend more time in central California, check out our other post on things to do in the area, super cool places to stay, and incredible diner destination.
So is Heart Castle on your bucket list yet?
(Just say yes.)
PIN FOR LATER