Hearst Castle in California’s Big Sur Region: A Must See
When it comes to Hearst Castle, well, I like big houses and I cannot lie.
From mansions like Glensheen in Duluth, MN, or Grey Towers outside Milford, PA or downright palaces like Kensington in London or Versailles outside Paris, I love them all. When Andy and I headed to west coast in 2017, I hit up an acquaintance in the Monterey, CA area for her area “must-sees.” She recommended spending a night in the Cambria area and checking out Hearst Castle. One Google search of Hearst Castle put it at the tippy-top of my trip’s “must-do” list.
Why You Should Visit Hearst Castle along California’s Big Sur Coast Too
If you’re like me and need your memory refreshed about Hearst Castle, basically it’s a massive hilltop villa outside San Simeon, CA. Originally called “La Cuesta Encantada,” (Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill”), “castle” is really the only accurate word to describe this opulent mansion built for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst starting in 1919. Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to bring his vision of a Mediterranean-style home with three guesthouses and extensive, manicured gardens overlooking the Pacific Ocean to fruition.
The project’s magnitude can’t be overhyped. Hearst and Morgan worked in tandem on La Cuesta Encantada for nearly 30 years. Even when Hearst left the house for the final time in 1947 due to his poor health, the project still wasn’t finished.
Today, Hearst Castle is a celebration of art, architecture, and landscape. It also serves as a memorial to the property’s star-studded social history in the 1920s and early 1930s. Yes, financial hard times, spurred by the Great Depression, did eventually catch up with Hearst.
If you find yourself driving along California Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, don’t worry about missing Hearst Castle. The attraction is well signed and you can’t miss the turn on the inland side of the coastal highway.
What To Expect When You Visit Hearst Castle
“This place is huge!” I thought when we first pulled into the sprawling parking lot. Now owned by the state of California and part of the large California State Park system, Hearst Castle doesn’t shy away from being a tourist attraction. In fact, you might find it a little aggressive in all the amenities it offers to entice visitors to stay awhile.
The visitor center features three dining options, a movie theater, and, of course, a gift shop. It also houses the William Randolph Hearst exhibition which displays information, photographs, and artifacts relating to the Hearst family and the Hearst Castle property. There’s no admission fee for the visitor center, but it’s hard to imagine that many visitors stop at the visitor center. If you’ve gotten that far, you’re probably going to pay for a tour of the actual castle.
We didn’t book tickets in advance (there’s actually a pretty hefty service fee associated with booking advanced tickets online) and didn’t have any problem getting on the next tour. With so many different tours offered throughout the day, it seems to me you’re safe “winging it” if you’re not too picky about which part of the castle you see.
We arrived a little after 10 in the morning on an April Saturday and easily got tickets for the 10:30 a.m. Grand Rooms tour. The website does “strongly recommend reservations.” If there had been more than two of us or it was a holiday weekend or the summer, I might have considered booking in advance.
Your Tours Starts with a Bus Ride Up the Hill
Regardless of which tour you opt for, your tour starts with a five-mile ride up the hill to the Castle. Don’t get too distracted by the exhibition and gift shop as you wait for your tour time. You’ll want to queue up for the bus a few minutes ahead of your tour time.
Part of the group sitting behind us on the bus were waiting for a few members of their group who had opted to visit the San Simeon beaches (known for their elephant seal rookery) before coming to the Castle. They figured since their friends had tickets for the 10:30 tour, the bus would wait until they arrived. Oh no. The bus rolls when it’s time to go, regardless of if all the ticketed guests for that tour are on board or not.
As soon as the bus starts rolling, a recorded guide, narrated by Alex Trebek of Jeopardy fame, kicks on. Once you adjust to the weirdness of spending the bus ride with Alex, the recording gives you a good overview of the property’s history and explains points of interest as you pass them. Be sure to watch for zebras on surrounding hillsides. A herd of about 100 zebras – remnants of Hearst’s private zoo – still roam the property.
The Grand Rooms Tour
For first-time visitors, Hearst Castle recommends the 60-minute long Grand Rooms Tour. This tour highlights the social rooms where Hearst entertained the likes of Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, and Winston Churchill. Upon arrival, our tour guide immediately announced that we should “feel free to touch absolutely nothing.”
Our guide showed us the exteriors three guest houses – Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte, and Casa del Sol -, the gardens, and some of the outside artifacts leading us inside the main house. Known as Casa Grande, we only toured the ground level of the three-story mansion. Even with only visiting the Assembly Room, Refectory, Billiard Room, and Theater we got a good taste of just how extensive both Hearst’s vision and collection of antiquities was.
When you stand in rooms like the Assembly Room or the Refectory, it’s hard not to believe that you’re not in a European castle or cathedral. And for good reason! Many of the artifacts used in the room came right out of European castles and cathedral. In the refectory (the mansion’s only dining room), choir stalls that once belonged to the Catalonian cathedral, La Seu d’Urgell Cathedral, line the walls.
Sadly the Neptune Pool wasn’t open during our visit, but the indoor Roman pool, which you pass on your way to catch the bus back to the visitor center, was spectacular. Photos really don’t do it justice.
Take Time After Your Tour to Enjoy the Grounds
If you’re on a daytime tours, you’re allowed to explore the hilltop grounds for as long as you like. We lingered for about twenty minutes, wandering through the gardens and enjoying the views of the countryside before catching the next bus down the hill.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about visiting Hearst Castle today is that you see the same view that William and his guests would have seen when standing in that same spot. That’s because the Hearst Corporation donated the residence and 120 acres of undeveloped land to the state of California and the surrounding 80,000 acres are owned by Hearst Ranch. Currently managed by Hearst’s great-grandson, Hearst Ranch raises grass-fed cattle.
As Lonely Planet so accurately writes in their description of Hearst Castle: “Much like Hearst’s construction budget, the castle will devour as much of your time and money as you let it.”
We certainly feel under its spell.
We went for a one-hour tour and ended up buying lunch in the cafeteria. Then, after spending some time exploring the San Simeon shore, we returned to the visitor center to use our “free” tickets to “Hearst Castle – Building the Dream.” Tickets are included with any tour for this 40 minute movie that focuses on the construction and hey-day of Hearst Castle.
And I would still go back for more. I’m especially interested in the costumed evening tours they offer and I’d love to see the three guest “cottages” interiors.
Hearst Castle = Great; William Randolph Hearst? Not so much.
There are some definitely not so nice aspects of William Randolph Hearst’s character that the site, especially in the film, glosses over. (Okay, more accurately, they straight up don’t touch these facts with a ten-foot pole.) After all, Hearst is the model for the Orson Welles’ character is Citizen Kane and he’s often remembered as a crazed collector of antiquities.
He certainly acquired many of the most incredible artifacts on display at Hearst Castle by preying upon European collectors’ perilous finances following the First World War I. The ruthless nature he used in his collecting hobby extended to his publishing business and he was known to stop at nothing (not even the truth!) to sell his newspapers. But if you’re okay with visiting the home of a notorious philander who gained most of his “leg up in life” from family blood money, then Hearst Castle is for you!
But seriously, you should still really go see it . . .
BUT . . . as nasty . . . okay . . . downright unsavory, as Hearst’s character was in many ways, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we let that reality detract from the magnificence that is Hearst Castle. However, ill-gotten both the artifacts on display at the Castle and the money used to construct the residence may have been, we can still enjoy seeing what was collected and built. Despite his many faults, an unarguably good facet of Hearst’s character led him to seek out and magnify the beauty in the world through the splendor of Hearst Castle.
If you find yourself in the Big Sur area of California, I highly recommend you take a day trip down to the San Simeon/Cambria area and check out Hearst Castle.
Have you been to Hearst Castle? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below!
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