San Simeon, California / USA - May 12, 2018: Exterior view of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's extravagant coastal hilltop estate designed by architect Julia Morgan over 28 years.; Shutterstock ID 1297759909; your: Meghan O'Dea; gl: 65050; netsuite: Online Editorial; full: POI

Shutterstock / Abbie Warnock-Matthews

Hearst Castle

Top choice in Central Coast

Perched high on a hill, Hearst Castle is a wondrous, historic, over-the-top homage to material excess. From the 1920s into the '40s, Hearst and Marion Davies, his longtime mistress (Hearst’s wife refused to grant him a divorce), entertained a steady stream of the era’s biggest movers and shakers. Invitations were highly coveted, but Hearst had his quirks – he despised drunkenness, and guests were forbidden to speak of death.

California's first licensed female architect Julia Morgan based the main building, Casa Grande, on the design of a Spanish cathedral, and over the decades she catered to Hearst’s every design whim, deftly integrating the spoils of his fabled European shopping sprees, including artifacts from antiquity and pieces of medieval monasteries.

The estate sprawls across acres of lushly landscaped gardens, accentuated by shimmering pools and fountains, statues from ancient Greece and Moorish Spain and the ruins of what was in Hearst’s day the world’s largest private zoo – indeed, don't forget to look for zebras grazing on the hillsides of neighboring Hearst Ranch. Note also that a full restoration of the famed Neptune Pool was completed in 2018, and the stunning pool is once again full of water.

Hearst Castle construction was begun in 1919, and it was legendary during the roaring 20s © Shutterstock / dshumny

Hearst Castle tours

Much like Hearst’s construction budget, the castle will devour as much of your time and money as you let it. In peak summer months, show up early enough and you might be able to get a same-day tour ticket, but it's always better to make reservations in advance. Tours usually start at 9am daily, with the last leaving the visitor center for the 10-minute ride to the hilltop by 4pm (later in summer).

There are three main tours: the guided portion of each lasts about an hour, after which you’re free to wander the gardens and terraces and soak up views. Best of all are Christmas holiday and evening tours (offered in spring and fall), featuring living-history re-enactors who escort you back in time to the castle’s 1930s heyday – book two weeks or a month in advance for these special tours.

Grand spacious living and dining room at Hearst Castle, which is a National and California Historical Landmark opened for public tours.;
Hearst spared no expense on his European-inspired "ranch" © Shutterstock / gnohz

Tips for visitors

Dress in plenty of layers: gloomy fog at the sea-level visitor center can turn into sunny skies at the castle’s hilltop location, and vice versa. Tickets include a worthwhile 40-minute historical film about the castle and the Hearst family shown in a five-story theater at the visitor center. Before you leave, take a moment to visit the often-overlooked museum area at the back of the center.

Closing time varies throughout the year. On weekends, RTA bus 15 makes a few round-trips to the Hearst Castle Visitor Center via Cambria and Cayucos from Morro Bay (55 minutes), where you can transfer to/from bus 12 ($2.50, 25 minutes) to San Luis Obispo. A regional day pass for return day trips to Hearst Castle is $5.50. Outside of weekends, an Uber or Lyft one-way from Cambria is around $25, but can be hard to secure.

Interior of guest bedroom at Hearst Castle, "America's Castle," San Simeon, Central California Coast © Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

Who was William Randolph Hearst?

The most important thing to know about newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) is that he did not live like Citizen Kane, the titular character of Orson Welles' film of the same name, based upon Hearst. Hearst may have been bombastic, conniving and larger than life but he was certainly not the moody recluse of Orson Welles' movie. He also didn’t call his 165-room estate a castle, preferring its official name, La Cuesta Encantada (‘The Enchanted Hill’), or more often calling it simply ‘the ranch.’

Hearst's father owned the land on which La Cuesta Encantada sits, and the future tycoon spent his boyhood camping here – a far cry from the luxury this corner of San Simeon came to be known for. Luminaries from Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant to Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindberg entertained here – a range of acquaintances that speaks to Hearst's varied career not only in often sensational print publishing but later in politics.


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