Hearst Castle

Historic Building in San Simeon

Image by Hiroyuki Matsumoto Getty Images

Hearst Castle is a wondrous, historic, over-the-top homage to material excess, perched high on a hill. 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 (look for zebras grazing on the hillsides of neighboring Hearst Ranch). To see anything of this historic monument, you have to take a tour (try to book ahead).

The most important thing to know about William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) is that he did not live like Citizen Kane. Not that Hearst wasn’t bombastic, conniving and larger than life, but the moody recluse of Orson Welles' movie? Definitely not. Hearst 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.’

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 woman 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.

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 depart starting 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 springtime evening tours, featuring living-history re-enactors who escort you back in time to the castle’s 1930s heyday. For holiday and evening tours, book at least two weeks to a month beforehand.

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. At the visitor center, a five-story-high theater shows a 40-minute historical film (free admission included with daytime tour tickets) about the castle and the Hearst family. Other facilities are geared for industrial-sized mobs of visitors. Before you leave, take a moment to visit the often-overlooked museum area at the back of the center.

It's closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, and closing time varies throughout the year. RTA bus 15 makes a few daily round-trips to Hearst Castle via Cambria and Cayucos from Morro Bay ($23, 55 minutes), where you can transfer to bus 12 to San Luis Obispo.

Note that at the time of writing the famed Neptune Pool had been emptied for repairs, and restoration was expected to be completed by early- to mid-2018.