Posts by this author:

“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.

Hearst Castle: Everything you need to know


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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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?)
  3. 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.
  4. The dining hall served as a source of inspiration for the Harry Potter film set designers.
  5. 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.
  6. The main house, Casa Grande, has 115 rooms and 30 fireplaces. The 3 guesthouses on site have almost 50 rooms in total.
  7. 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. 

Hearst Castle's medieval dining hall set for a hotdog dinner

The medieval dining room, set for a hotdog dinner, complete with ketchup and mustard.


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.




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.




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.



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.

For example:

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.

Hearst Castle billiard room

Hearst Castle billiard room




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. 

The iconic Neptune Pool of Hearst Castle under construction

The iconic Neptune Pool, minus that bright blue water.


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.



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.



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.)



Hearst Castle's lush garden

Hearst Castle's lush garden

Hearst Castle: view from the top

Hearst Castle: view from the top

Hearst Castle gardens

Hearst Castle choir stalls

Hearst had 15th-century choir stalls from Spain installed in his grand living room

Hearst Castle lavish interior

Hearst Castle lavish interior

Hearst Castle post dinner tea and coffee

Hearst Castle billiard room details

Hearst castle cinema

The tour ends how the dinner party would have ended: with some home videos of Hearst and his guests in the cinema, lit by golden goddesses all along the red velvet walls.

Hearst Castle cinema lighting

Hearst Castle tennis courts

The cinema leads out to the tennis courts that hosted many of Hollywood’s elite and Grand Slam champion, Alice Marble.

The indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

The indoor Roman pool is the last stop before you take the shuttle back to the visitor centre.

The indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

The indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

A cool 5-hour drive to Hume Lake, a quick breeze through Yosemite, pop over to San Francisco for two days of eating fancy toast, drive down the gorgeous California central coast, one last stop in cute little Cambria, and finally back home to Ventura County…is NOT the road trip we did. We had it all planned out, though. We even had some things booked! And then Joel woke with a swollen uvula the day before we were supposed to leave. A SWOLLEN UVULA. Of all things. Ever given much thought to that tiny little tongue dangling above your actual tongue? Well, it turns out it can derail entire road trips.

And here is where I’d like to insert some really corny Western lyrics to the tune of ‘won’t do anything differently / all the mistakes led me to you’ kind of thing (you know those songs) – because  we exchanged our epic long-distance road trip to iconic San Fran and Yosemite, for a more off-the-beaten path, fly-by-the-seed-of-your-pants, short-distance-but-long-days kind of road trip. And honestly, it was probably one of my favourite road trips and long weekends ever.

The ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip




1. Go with friends. This much is obvious. But, fine print: go with friends you have fun traveling with. One of the reasons this was so much fun was because we were roadtrippin’ with two of our favourite travel buddies. 

2. Take the road less traveled (or instagrammed). An exponential part of the enjoyment came from not having these huge expectations surrounding places like Yosemite or San Francisco. We stopped over in small towns, without much expectation and very little plans, and we were able to just enjoy a place for what it is.

3. Ultimate road trip ≠ longest possible distance by car. This small, cozy central Californian road trip felt so big and so long – with unique accommodations each night, epic ocean cliff views, lazy pool lounges, and incredible food. And we didn’t even venture further than 3 hours and 16 minutes from home.



Rent a car. You don’t have to fall victim to peer pressure and rent the biggest baddest truck or SUV you can find. A small thing with four wheels is perfectly fine.

Open up an Airbnb account if you don’t have one. Use this code for a sweet beginner’s discount on us!

Open up a account! I love using this platform to book accommodation – there’s lot’s of discounts to be had. Use JOEL2495 for a £15 discount off your first booking.


Pin for Later: The ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip



What then follows is a 3-night, 4-day road trip along the Central Californian coast, stopping at and exploring little towns and staying over at one of a kind motels and Airbnbs. It doesn’t take you super far up and down the coast, but it allows for a sleepy kind of exploring – the road trip version of slow traveling. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? In fact, if you could, it would be even better to do this same route over 5 days, to really slow it down.

You could start at the top, like we did, and drive down to LA. Or you can start at the bottom and work your way up and around. The stops are fairly close to each other, so the order hardly matters.



If you blink you’ll miss it, but the 6000-strong Cambria is an underrated sparkling little jewel on the central Californian coast. It’s the best of all the worlds – surrounded by those dark green Monterey Pine forests, home to the lapping waves of the Pacific ocean on Moonstone Beach, run by friendly locals, and heaving under fressshhhhh seafood. The feeling is ultra-californian – laid-back, active, eco-conscious – but with all the authenticity that the Hollywood-ridden south sometimes struggle with (sorry, honest opinion).

Central Californian road trip: LA to Cambria


Gape at the Elephant Seals

We drove through Cambria in winter once, and stopped to look at the famous elephant seals. We had never seen them before and it was really cool seeing about 50 of them rolling around and being super passive aggressive. But I was shocked – SHOCKED – when we rolled up to the view point to see hundreds (the reactionary in me wants to say thousands) of elephant seals lining the coast like packed sardines.



You won’t believe your eyes. Or your nose (they stink). Do yourself a favour and cruise circa 20 minutes north of Cambria on the 1 and just look at these guys. Watch them roll over each other, watch little fights break out, watch them labour in and out of the waves. And don’t be like that guy who gave it 1 star on trip advisor because ‘no sex or violence’ (LOL. IT’S A REAL REVIEW), just go knowing they don’t do much but you’ll never see so many elephant seals together ever in your life.

Plus, you’re gonna want to drive up that coast anyways (scroll down).

An unbelievable amount of elephant seals in Cambria

elephant seals in Cambria

central Californian road trip: the hidden gems version


The highway along the central Californian coast must be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. You don’t need a plan or an itinerary to appreciate the dramatic views, so just jump in your car and cruise out. We drove up 20 minutes further from the elephant seals just past Ragged Point. The highway was closed from this point on due to construction, but if it’s past 5pm and they’re not working on it, you can park your car and go out on to the highway for a really unique coastal walk.

We didn’t because we were getting hungry, but it seems like a cool thing to do?

Coastal views at Ragged Point


“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, decorated by the eclectic newspaperman William Hearst, who was inspired by every corner of Europe. The result is an encyclopaedic pastiche of architectural and decorative styles consisting of hundreds of rooms, multiple pools, almost 40 fireplaces, and a tennis court.

It’s the only place in between San Francisco and Los Angeles where you will see tourbuses of foreign tourists, and it makes sense: Hearst Castle is one of a kind. It mimics everything and looks like nothing else.

Hearst Castle is a must when you're making a stop along the central Californian coast

Hearst Castle is a must when you're making a stop along the central Californian coast

The views from the eclectic Hearst Castle, CA

The indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

It’s expensive ($25 per adult), but I definitely recommend going at least once and doing the classic ‘grand rooms’ tour. The tour itself is just over an hour, and the whole trip will cost you about 3 hours.

Find out everything you need to know before you go to Hearst Castle here. 



Man, if I could teleport myself anywhere right now it would be to a table at the Sea Chest with a bottle of chilled white Californian wine and a plate of oysters on ice and horseradish sauce.

The Sea Chest came highly recommended by our Californian parents and we are SO GLAD we listened to our parents this! (Proof: moms and dads know best). It’s above-average price-wise (think 3 out of 5 dollar signs), but it is a remarkably special little place.

The restaurant was set up over 3 decades ago in a little New England type seaside cottage just across from moonstone beach, and has retained a quirky seaside-theme with locals cooking food behind the bar for other locals, exhibition-style.

The Sea Chest doesn’t accept reservations or credit cards (they have a little ATM inside), so you’ll probably have to wait for a table. You can order some drinks from the bar and play a card or board game while you wait, or sip your wine by the fire pit outside. We went for a little stroll along the board walk and returned to the bar, upon which we were immediately seated at a table. They give tables to whoever is waiting on-site.

Honestly, one of the best seafood meals we’ve ever had. Like top 3.

An unforgettable seafood dinner at the Sea Chest

Try some local seafood freshness at the Sea Chest, Cambria

Californian wine and oysters at the Sea Chest, Cambria

If you’re looking for inspiration: we had the tuna of the day, a plate of oysters, and the scallops over pasta. OMG my mouth is watering right now.



THIS PLACE OUTS OUT A MEANNNNNN SANDWICH! Again, and really I am not exaggerating, one of the best sandwiched we’ve ever had. (Cambria: 2; My Diet: 0).

Bridge Street is just off of Main Street, and the Cafe is just couple meters in. It’s set in a little red house, complete with a white-picket fence and it has a teeny tiny little back yard for some al fresco sandwich scoffing.

We were hungry after Hearst Castle, so we ordered the first thing our eyes met on the scribbled menu behind the counter. Hot pastrami Sandwiches. Oh man. It is GOOD. And it comes with a giant pickle, so that’s a win right there.

And, in true Cambria fashion, the locals who run this place are super friendly. This recommendation was passed on by our Airbnb host and we pass it on to you without any reservation.

Don't miss the mean sandwiches from the Café on Bridge Street!

Disclaimer: the sandwiches are HUGE and totally sharable (but you might not want to share all that flavour!).



Staying in Amy’s garden shed, aka ‘The Pub’, was awesome.

First of all, you’re gonna want to meet Amy, who is the epitome of a great Airbnb host. She is so warm and welcoming and laid-back yet on top of it. She has long wild blonde hair, surfs in her free time, and watched nature documentaries because she cares about this world.

And then there’s The Pub. The little wooden man-cave/artist-shed/sanctuary-from-the-world in her lush back yard. Think English pub with a cozy wooden fireplace, a stack of books, and a comfy bed in the back. Add to that some breakfast bagels and coffee, and that right there is the picture of an extraordinary Airbnb experience. If you’re more concerned about the numbers: The Pub has 5 stars and over 1000 reviews. 

Find The Pub here (and remember to use the discount if you’re new to Airbnb).

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

Disclaimer: There’s no plumbing in The Pub, but you’ll feel totally at home to use the bathroom in the main house. There’s also a neat outdoor shower.




Central coast Californian road trip: Cambria to San Luis Obispo


Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

There are lots of nice hikes to do in the area, but because this is the definitive lazy road trip, we opted to go check out the Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach. I found this spot just by zooming in to Google Maps and checking what’s in the area, and I was surprised to find that none of my southern Californian co-travelers knew about it! Essentially, it is a park on the coast with multiple lookout points to natural caves in the seaside buffs below, and it is GORGEOUS.

I would LOVE to tell you that they found fossilised dinosaur eggs here, but actually it got its name from some guy who decided to build a 50ft concrete dinosaur in the park, which was visible from the highway. He also kitted out some of the caves with kitschy skylights and fake gems. Everyone hated the dinosaur he was busy building, so the county made him stop. The caves collapsed and the dinosaur remained unfinished – headless – for a decade before it was destroyed…maybe by local teenagers who started a fire in its neck? Whose to say.

Anyway, this is kind of more intriguing than real fossils anyways.

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach


Dinner: Novo

Novo is a really popular spot and comes recommended by everyone. They do take reservations, and I would recommend making one. We waited about 30 minutes for a table, but unlike the Sea Chest, the bar area in front is uninspiring.

BUT, this bar area gives way to a beautiful outside seating area (which is totally betrayed by the street facing bar) with soft yellow lights and climbing flora on a deck built around sprawling trees. Not all of our meals were winners in relation to the price point. BUT I did have the Lavender Lamb Chops and I couldn’t BELIEVE how good it was. It was, sincerely, some of the best meat I have ever tasted – and, as a meat-eating South African, I don’t say that lightly.

Erica also won with her order of scallops, which were soft and juicy and buttery and basically everything you want your scallops to be.


Coffee: Scout Coffee

We were led to Scout Coffee by Chris, who has been bragging about this place since forever. Turns out all the praising was on point, because the coffee is good and strong and it the place vibey and cool. 

If you’re looking for the best coffee in town, I’m sure you’ll have to look no further.

If you are repulsed by cool coffee shops, avoid like the plague.



Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn is a landmark central Californian hotel, and it is unlike any other hotel you will ever see.

That is the easy one-liner.

Describing what it is really like is a bit trickier. It is an unashamedly pink and kitschy people’s palace, which has taken lots of its inspiration from nearby Hearst Castle (not surprised). It’s a weirdly harmonious marriage of marble staircases and cherubs, pink and gold dining rooms, extravagant dark wooden detail, enormous blooming pink fake flowers (that light up and rank up the columns and onto the ceilings), pink golf carts, pink street lamps, pink glittering chandeliers, a stable full of horses, and a hot pink tennis court (with pink rackets and pink tennis balls).

And because it’s such a landmark hotel, most guests come dressed for the occasion (pink). So it feels like a sort of Barbie West World, where everyone is in on it.

Yeah, it’s unreal. Surreal. And undeniably fun.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn's hot pink tennis court.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

It opened the day before Christmas in 1958 and offered the then 12 rooms onsite totally free to a group of travelers. It now boasts 110 rooms, and each one has a name and is decorated according to its own theme. Some of them are super extravagant, with double stories or stairs climbing into a tower, or waterfall rock showers. Others are more…plainly kitsch, and way more affordable. We stayed in Los Alamos the night before, and decided to lengthen our trip with another night. I had just learnt about the Madonna Inn and suggested it, kind of assuming it will be too expensive. But we actually found and booked a family suite for the 4 of us for something around $70-80, on the Friday that we were gonna stay there. What a deal!

So if you’ve always wanted to go to the Madonna Inn but thought it’s probably way too expensive – we got good news for ya!

We didn’t want to leave the Madonna Inn (you better believe we enquired about staying one more night only to find out is fully booked for a wedding), so instead of leaving after we checked out, we spent hours by the pool drinking, you guessed it, pink drinks.

And before you assume we are the laziest people on the planet, I’ll have you know that we spent an hour or so on the hot pink court before breakfast. How could you not???

Book a room here.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn: the perfect place for pink drinks by the pool

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn


Central Californian Coast road trip: San Luis Obispo to Los Alamos, Ca.

Los Alamos is the coolest one-street town you never knew existed. If you even think about blinking, you’ll miss it. Population is shy of 2000, and the buildings along the main streets are sparsely staggered. The best part of Los Alamos (as a foreigner not used to anything)? It is an old Western town. The millennial in me wants to say it is ‘Western-themed,’ like I arrived in West World or something. But it is just a small Western town that has been standing strong since the 19th-century. Its history is steeped in what seems like Western fantasy – the hills above the Los Alamos ranch having served as a hideout to a real-life bandit leader who terrorised the new American settlers and sought justice for his people. He supposedly inspired the legend of Zorro.

If that’s not enough Western for you, just take one glance at the Union Hotel, where Johnny Cash once performed, and tell me I’m wrong.

The Union Hotel, est. 1880, in Los Alamos

The Union Hotel, est. 1880, in Los Alamos

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West


Go Antiquing in Town

At one end of the town there’s a big shed that is basically the antique depot. It is sectioned off in individual stalls inside, each specialising in its own version of junk and jewels. Spend some time wandering around, and see if you can find something valuable in between the decanters and dentist chairs and old poison bottles and racist posters. And when you get tired, take a seat at the working bar inside and fuel up with a cup of coffee!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

The in-house bar at the Antique Depot in Los Alamos

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Drink the day away

When I say ‘drink’, I obviously mean ‘wine taste’ because Municipal Winemakers has a tiny little tasting room right on the doorstep of the Alamo Motel. So taste some wines, find one you like, then drink a glass or two or three (at this point you may as well just get a bottle) on the patio chairs under the trees.

And if you want my opinion, go straight for the Grenache, because it is SOMETHING ELSE. Rich and deep and easy-drinking. Yes please.

Muni Wines in Los Alamos: some lazy afternoon wine tasting


Breakfast: Bob’s Well Bread bakery

English muffins, morning buns and coffee at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. That’s all you need to know.

The muffins are soft, the buns are sweet, and the coffee is good. We don’t know if Bob is moody or grouchy or both, but it doesn’t matter because the focus is clearly on the quality. With an english muffin that scrumptious and a morning bun that good, we really don’t care how friendly the supplier is. Just put it in my belly.

Morning buns and coffee at Bob's

Lunch/Dinner: Full of Life Flatbread

Disclaimer: we haven’t actually been here. But…apparently this place serves incredible flat bread pizzas, so incredible that people travel all the way to Los Alamos just to stand in long lines for it. It’s famously known as a diner destination. Also the owner, Clark Staub used to be a big wig in the music industry in LA, even serving as VP of marketing for Capitol Records. He rebooted his life, moved to the middle of nowhere and opened a pizza shop. That back story right there is almost enough reason to eat at this place.


Lunch/Dinner: Industrial Eats

Located in a refurbished warehouse in Beullton, just a 15-minute drive from Los Alamos, is Industrial Eats. I don’t know what else is in Beullton, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is also a diner destination. It is a whole experience.

Go hungry – the food is insanely good. But don’t go starving – we went for Saturday lunch and had to wait for a whole while and I was on the cusp of being super hangry.

The menu is divided into pizzas, sandwiches (the wily and reuben are mouthwatering), and clipboards. The food on the clipboard list is served as small to medium plates, and the trick is to go on flavour preferences. That is, the menu lists the ingredients but little specification of whether it’s a salad, or a whole piece of meat, or something cooked, or grilled, etc. But whatever it is, it’ll be delicious. Add to that giant carafes of Californian wine and you’re good to go.

PRO TIP: wear stretchy pants or a long shirt so you can unbutton that top button without shame.

Central California food jewel: Industrial Eats in Beullton

Central California food jewel: Industrial Eats in Beullton

Drink: The Union Hotel 

Whiskey cocktails in an old Western saloon.

Do I need to say anything else?

Knock back a couple of whiskeys at the Union Hotel



Having had an *interesting* experience staying in a motel on Fresno’s motel row, I was less than eager to try another motel.

But the Alamo Motel is cool. In every sense of the word. It is effortlessly cool, and it knows so. And it integrates seamlessly into its retro Western context. The rooms are fitted out with cow hides and and cool art, and even things like leather bags that you can buy from the front desk if you like the look of it in between all your stuff. Also, we are told that the some of the rooms have bare claw tubs. Their whole look was supposedly inspired by Georgia O’ Keeffe’s New Mexico residence.

We woke up the next morning looking to see if we can book another night, but they were booked out for a wedding. (Which is when we turned our antennas toward the Madonna Inn.)

The Alamo Motel sort of epitomises the feel of Los Alamos – authenticity and creativity abounds. The town only stretches a couples of blocks, but it has become a hub for creatives trying new things with a sort of cowboy flair.

I know I’ve convinced you, so book a room here.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.


And then you can start your short journey home. This long-weekend-cum-road-trip is slow, and satisfying and if you’re traveling from down south, you’ll barely even leave your backyard. Just follow our guide and you’ll barely even have to lift a finger.


Find The Pub on Airbnb and Madonna Inn and the Alamo Motel on

Any other questions? Comment below or drop us a note!



Pin for Later: The Ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip

Booking your accommodation and rental cars on through our blog will help generate us some income at no additional cost to you!

We were shocked to find out how cheap Uber is in Russia: a thirty-minute ride literally costs €2,5; an hour not much more than €5. Even so, Russia is a train-centred society. In the major cities you can get to any part of it on the metro, and in Moscow it will be the most beautiful underground commute you’ll make anywhere in the world. And then there’s the historic national rail.

The Moscow – Saint Petersburg line was built less than 30 years after the invention of the very first horse-drawn rail in the UK. And that famous trans-Siberian railway – nearly 9,300km of rail from Russia to the far East – was already established very early in the 20th Century. And among these iconic rail lines there is the legendary Red Arrow overnight train running between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The Red Arrow train (or Krasnaya Strela) is a historic way to get from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and vice versa.

Red Arrow started its daily service in 1931, and have reliably run ever since. It was only interrupted between 1941 and 1943 when Finland and the Nazis raided Saint Petersburg. During the Soviet era it was the de-facto carrier of the Communist elite, zipping the likes of Stalin and Lenin in between the two iconic Russian cities. Many luxury overnight trains have spawned from the Red Arrow, but nothing beats the original. 

So if you’re heading to Russia, which you absolutely should (try and get there before the end of the World Cup – the atmosphere is insane!), and you’re planning on visiting both these cities (again, which you absolutely should), you should absolutely forget about those crowded domestic flights and step aboard the historic Red Arrow instead.

We’ve tried it, we’ve loved it, and we want to help you with a super quick bullet guide.


Moscow – Saint Petersburg in 8 hours

23.55 – 07.55

Depart from Leningradskaya Station

NOTE: If you leave from Moscow it will say MOSKVA OKTIABRSKAIA -> SAINT PETERBURG. There is a station in Moscow with that name but that is not where your train departs from, it just indicates the direction in which the train travels. The Red Arrow always leaves from Leningradskaya station. 


Saint Petersburg – Moscow in 8 hours

23.55 – 07.55

Depart from Moskovskaya Station



It depends on the class of your ticket and where you book it.

It can cost between €50 and €200 when you book on the cheapest site.

The price fluctuates with about €10 depending on the time of the year.



Red Arrow is an affordable luxury train, so even if you book the lowest you’ll be comfortable. But the classes are, from worst to best:

2nd class sleeping compartment: this is a 4-berth compartment with upper and lower bunks. Upper bunks are €10 more expensive than lower bunks. WC at each end of the carriage. (ca. €50-€60)

1st class sleeping compartment: 2-berth sleeping compartments with lower bunks. The same size as the 2nd-class compartment so you get twice the space and all the privacy. WC at each end of the carriage. (ca. €90)

Deluxe: 2-berth sleeping compartments with one upper and one lower bunk, with en-suite WC and shower.

The Red Arrow has 3 classes, but all of them offer a luxury overnight experience.

A first class 2-berth compartment. The back of the seats flip down and convert into two cozy single beds.



You should buy tickets directly from the official Russian rail site:

They have an English translation and it’ve every clear. The only thing not in English is the payment gateway where you enter your credit card information. But you can just copy and paste it into google translate to know where your card number and where your name go.

There are English-language booking agencies but they charge fees on top of the train ticket price and it can end up being more than double the price.



You don’t have to be there hours before. We went early, to be safe, but it was totally unnecessary. The platform is only shown 20/30 minutes before departure, and there is no rush to get a good seat because it’s booked already.

Just leave enough time to get through the general station entrance security (this doesn’t take too long).

The Red Arrow always leaves from Leningradskaya Station in Moscow

Waiting for the platform information in Leningradskaya station, Moscow.



  • When your platform is finally displayed, you’ll have to go through another round of security. Then, you’ll find your carriage and show your ticket and ID to the provodnik/provodnitsa (male/female carriage attendants) who will be waiting to receive you. Keep your passport at hand. 
  • Once you’re settled in, your provodnitsa will show you all the important bits in your compartment, like how to unfold your bed and where the plugs are.
  • In the carriage will be snacks like waters and fruits, bread rolls and Red Arrow branded chocolate, newspapers and travel amenities like toothbrushes and toothpastes. Pillows and a hand towel are placed on each seat in protective plastic. The bedlinen is already made, as you will see when you flip down your mattress.
  • There are two tiny very useful lights lights indicating which  WCs are occupied.
  • There’s a menu from which you can order drinks, extra meals, and souvenirs.
  • Your compartment door locks from the inside.
  • After that you can snooze through all the way to Saint Petersburg!
  • You will receive a wake-up call about an hour before your arrival with some breakfast: we had traditional pancakes with smoked salmon and cheese and meats with pre-packaged croissants on the side.

The train ride is smooth, quiet, and it feels surprisingly short – so enjoy every minute! I actually wished it was a bit longer, so we could enjoy the train a bit more – we just slept through most of it.

The historic Red Arrow

Breakfast is served on the iconic Red Arrow



I don’t know why I was surprised that a historically Russian train operates only in Russian. The conductor’s departure and arrival announcements, the TV channels, the provodnitsa: it is an all-Russian operation. Even so, we still felt wholly welcomed and were a hundred percent comfortable and at ease.



There are lockers available at the station.

Departure and arrival times are obviously way before and after general check in/out times, so this is a good idea.

Beware: The lockers were VERY busy during the middle of the day in Moscow: long, long queues underground in a hot station. Hmmm, no thanks. We just kept our backpacks on us for the day.

However, the St Petersburg station’s luggage area was dead when we arrived at 8am, and again when we departed just before midnight.



Follow the luggage signage – a bag with a key – in the train stations, they will lead you downstairs.

Buy a card/token from the luggage guy.

Pay per hour up to three hours, and then a set price from 3 – 24 hours.

We paid about 300 Rubles (ca. €4) for 24 hours.

Follow the instructions on the locker.


The Red Arrow arrives at Moskovskaya Station in Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg’s Moskovskaya Station


The Red Arrow will take you right into the heart of Saint Petersburg

And just like that you’re in Saint Petersburg!



A Quick Guide to the Red Arrow

Imagine a grand hall with monumental chandeliers, marble columns and high ceilings – porcelain figures with gold-plated details gracing the ceilings, and bronze figures lining the columns. Imagine intricate mosaics within ornate relief frames, and illuminated stained glass. I bet you didn’t imagine any of this up to 84 meters underground, though.

What I’ve described above isn’t a palace or a castle or a cathedral. It’s Moscow’s metro system – famously the most beautiful metro system in the world, and it is nothing short of palatial. In fact, it is  even nicknamed ‘The People’s Palace.’

We arrived in Moscow about two weeks ago with the Red Square, onion-domed cathedrals, and FIFA on our mind. We had no idea of the existence of ‘the People’s Palace’ and we had no intention of spending around 2 hours in one of the world’s deepest underground systems in the middle of a summer’s day – much less paying for it. But it quickly became clear that it was one of the must-see Moscow things, and so we met up with the guys from Moscow Free Tours at 3PM to descend underground.

Having been built in the mid-20th century, the metro system is the ultimate form of propaganda, instilled with images of a contributive community, victory in war, and the idea of ‘a radiant future’ via communism. The communist party even took up residence in the Mayakovskaya station during Word War II, and since the cold war it has been fitted with technology to effectively serve as a nuclear shelters. It is lavish and rich, and more importantly super efficient. Even today, you rarely have to wait more than 90 seconds for train. 

With the historic Red Arrow between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the famous trans-Siberian rail, we already suspected that trains are central to life in Russia. But if you had any doubts that Russia is a train-centred society, the opulence of the underground will quickly convince you. 

The underground tour quickly became the highlight of our short stay in Moscow, even being crowded with all the FIFA fans. Sure, you could just buy a metro ticket and check it out yourself, but it really comes alive when a local who knows can tell you the stories and myths and point out the details.



The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

Alex from Moscow Free Tours giving a killer underground tour

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Rub the dog’s nose for academic success? Uhm yes, I’m gonna need that.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

An enormous intricate mosaic of Mother Russia at the end of a metro station. Casual.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Mayakovskaya Station sports 34 mosaics depicting 24 hours in the Soviet skies, and it’s gorgeous and nuanced art. Just remember to look up!

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Stalin and his party took up semi-permanent residence in Mayakovskaya station during the siege of Moscow.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system


Take a tour everyday with Moscow Free Tours at 3PM. €31, includes the metro tickets.

We also took their actual free tour, which is every day at 10.45AM and it was awesome!



MOSCOW METRO: The World's most beautiful Metro

Traveling, and life in general, seems to be far more enjoyable to those who have managed to master that illusive superpower called flexibility. Now, Joel and I are pretty flexible and relatively low-maintenance, so I feel like I’ve come to the above conclusion by observation. But last week I had to re-learn that lesson all over, first-hand.

I have always, since forever, wanted to go to Russia. It may or may not have something (or everything) to do with 20th Century Fox’s 1997 hit animation Anastasia that came out when I was an impressionable six years old. So yes, for the next 20+ years I’ve dreamt about Russia.

Joel has never really wanted to go, so for the last 3 years since we’ve lived in Europe, we’ve settled on places we actually both wanted to go to (seems fair?).

That is until:


Finally I had my in; the World Cup was just the push Joel needed and before you could say ‘Together in Paris’ (fan girl reference) we booked our tickets to Moscow, and our train ride to Saint Petersburg.

We jumped on our red-eye from Berlin to Moscow, arrived at 3.30am (in full sunrise), and enjoyed an early check in to our Airbnb. I allowed us a decent 4/5 hour nap (I’m the sleep police when we are traveling) before setting off for…THE RED SQUARE.

Except we arrived to packed sidewalks and squares, 4 hours before the first kick off, and the red square: closed off.

The next morning I read there was a concert there. Okay, so it’s probably open now. We try again: closed off.

Okay fine, I’ll go see Lenin’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum: Nope, closed.

Then we learn that the Red Square will be closed until we leave Moscow.


I immediately get in my head about how much this sucks; about how much I hate planning my trip around football games; about how I’d probably never come back to this country and this is it, my Russia trip is ruined; I hate FIFA, I hate sports, I hate life, I’m gonna hate this town; I’ll lay my Russian dreams down to die slowly.

I sulked HARD.

Moscow was packed with tourists before the kick off of the first FIFA game.

Our first look at a packed Moscow 4 hours before kick off.

But then the summer sun and the festive crowds, the cheers and chants and spontaneous rival camaraderie, the realisation that I am in Russia, and the sweet, sweet pre-packaged ice cream in wafer cones for 1EUR melted my cold heart and I made a decision that would change everything for me:

Just enjoy FIFA-crazed Russia for what it is, let go of your expectations, stop kicking against the celebrations, allow yourself to be infected by other people’s joy.

Just. Be. Flexible.

And with a cool attitude shift, our week in Russia turned out to be so much more incredible than I could ever anticipate. And after I let myself be charged by the jubilation instead of being drained by it, I have a new understanding for extroverts!

So yes, you get it – it was a bit of a click-baity title, and I am not ashamed! So here are the main (ironic) reasons you should avoid FIFA cities like the plague (not really [ok, you get it.]): 


Sports, sports, sports – yawn, amiright?

I was hesitant about the crowds. I was afraid it’ll be too busy, and just sour my perfect sightseeing plans. But after embracing the spirit of the moment, the crowds added to why we liked Moscow so much. Now, it was really busy. Really, really busy. But imagine people from all over the world coming together, dressing up, dancing in the streets, taking photos together, singing songs, embracing each other, sharing food and drink, from sunrise to sunset.

For example,

We just sat down at a table to watch the Portugal Spain game, when we saw a guy with a big South Africa flag draped around his back. We yelled to him and he came over, we chatted away, and before you knew it we were sharing a table, food and drinks with a group of awesome people who we initially just yelled ‘Hey! South Africa!’ at. Where else in the world does that happen??

It’s a celebration of ourselves and each other, and I can totally behind that.

FIFA at its best: when you can grab someone with your flag off the street and spend the next few hours drinking and celebrating over a World Cup game. Moscow.

Joel in his element: talking to strangers and making new friends.

Getting excited for the first FIFA game at the Moscow Fan Park

Getting into the swing of things at the Moscow Fan Park for the first game of the World Cup.


Hmmm, no.

Russia is currently essentially a platform for a bunch of crazy fans who have traveled 1000s of miles to see their teams go head to head and battle it out on the football field. Fifa countered this with a #WeAreRivals campaign – showing a short video at the fan parks in front of each game, encouraging fans to hug their rivals, post it to social media accounts, and win tickets to the final. (See the results at #rivalhug). Pretty cool! And this is really what we experienced in Russia – fans from different teams were constantly posing for photos with each other, celebrating together, congratulating each other, or offering their condolences.

FIFA's #WeAreRivals encouraged fans to celebrate their rivalry with photos and hugs

Some Russians and Egyptians rival hugging before the game.

It seems like a recipe for disaster, but what we witnessed was actually quite inspirational, and critically so in the combative political climate of the day. There was not an ounce of animosity, just a celebration of difference and camaraderie from thousands of people so vastly diverse – it is enough to make you believe in all the good in the world. 

And also, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are both lovely cities and not at all scary places. I am not sure why people think Russia is scary, but I am guessing the negative portrayal in the media and all those American movies don’t help.



Nope, not a thing either.

Yes, half of Mexico and the entire Iceland showed up to support their teams, but you don’t have to have a team to get invested or benefit from the spirit of those who are. There were tons of people walking around with flags that were nowhere near competing (like, read above, our South African friends), rooting for the underdogs, or whichever country is closest, or just for Mexico (the fan favourites).

Of course we had to root for the African teams, and we were pumped to have tickets to the Egypt Russia game, but we were really disappointed that we didn’t have any Egyptian paraphernalia – we wanted to show our support! Some face paint, a flag, a knock-off jersey, a hat, anything. And then right in front of the stadium entrance the heavens answered our prayers and an Egyptian flag flew right into my hands from the sky. FOR REALLLLL.

So no, you don’t need to have a team – Mother Russia will provide.

Can you believe this Egypt flag fell into my hands right before we walked into the Russia Egypt game at the stadium???

Best. Souvenir. Ever.

Celebrations before FIFA Russia Egypt showdown.

The Egyptian flag gave us all the confidence we needed to take photos with random fans.

Celebrations before FIFA Russia Egypt showdown.


I think my first real, non-animated impression of Russia came from a picture I saw in an Afrikaans magazine when I was little. It was of a bunch of old people standing outside in the snow half-naked to get some sun. Dang Russia must be depressing, I thought. Fur hats, Siberian huskies, drinking vodka to stay warm, vast snowy deserts, solitary trains chuffing in the darkness – let’s be honest, these are the things we imagine when we think of Russia.

Though I can’t speak to the climate for the biggest country in world with…are you sitting down…ELEVEN time zones, I can say that summer in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is AWESOME. The days are long and hot, but not humid, and in Saint Petersburg it never gets dark.

Saint Petersburg's White Nights

Saint Petersburg at around 1am.


It’s called the White Nights and it occurs for two to three weeks around the longest day of the year – 21 June, the summer solstice. The sun sets around midnight, and then it goes from dusk to dawn in no time at all until the sun starts rising at 3am. Experiencing these monolithic long days is truly bizarre; dinner at 11pm or even midnight, everyone out on the streets all through the night, seeing night on your left and day on your right, and not actually being able to tell whether it’s getting lighter or darker.

Then the Saint Petersburg bridges draw through the night, a historic nightly necessity that turned into tradition. Palace Bridge, right behind the State Hermitage, draws first at 01.25 to music and fanfare. Hundreds of people watch from the shore, and some hop onto bridge tour boats and chase all the bridges as they open (remember to check the updated schedule!). I’ve never thought that watching bridges draw could feel so magical, but when hundreds of people are out in the barely-there night, the excitement is infectious.

Of course it helps that Russia had just won a World Cup game in the city’s stadium.

The drawing of Palace Bridge, Saint Petersburg

The State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg around 1.30am

White Nights in Saint Petersburg


In the end, both of us loved our week in Russia way more because we embraced each other’s interests, budged on our own agendas, and reassessed our expectations. Joel let me make him do the Moscow Underground Metro Tour (the world’s most impressive metro – it’s absolutely incredible), and stand in line for the Hermitage museum. I let myself be swept up by soccer, and it’s made our week in Russia so much fun, and wholly unforgettable.

When I changed my attitude (it’s so simple!) and forced myself to be flexible, what I at first perceived as hysteria and frenzy, I instead experienced as joy and elation. We were sad to leave all the craziness behind, but you better believe we will return to Russia asap, and we are watching every game in the meantime.





The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The grandeur of Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg must be the dreamiest city in Europe.

The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

In the end, all my Russian dreams came true.