Hearst Castle in San Simeon is a popular and easy stop on a California road trip up Pacific Coast Highway. Is it worth the time and money, though? In this post, we will consider those things, and I’ll offer some tips for visiting, along with some photos I took on our recent tour Grand Rooms Tour of Hearst Castle.
For those unfamiliar, Hearst Castle is the estate of the world’s first media baron, William Randolph Hearst. It was a defiant passion project of he and architect Julia Morgan that morphed from a small bungalow project so Hearst didn’t have to sleep in tents in his older age to a 100+ room castle that he eventually dubbed “La Cuesta Encantada,” Hearst’s Enchanted Hill. In pop culture, it was the inspiration for Xanadu in Citizen Kane.
It’s opulent to say the least, with 100+ acres of gardens, plus lavish terraces, pools (the main Neptune Pool currently is drained of water due to leaks, and will be until early 2017), tennis courts, guest houses and furnished with priceless antiquities collected by Hearst and his art buyers from around the world. Some remnants of the castle’s private zoo remain, including zebra (don’t count on spotting them–we didn’t).
Hearst Castle is located in San Simeon, California, which is in San Luis Obispo County, along California’s Central Coast. It’s roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making it a good stopping point on a road trip between the two.
Here are some other tips…
Tours can be booked in advance, and for busy dates (summer and other school breaks) it’s recommended that you pre-purchase your tickets, as tickets do sell out. At the official start time of the tour, you board the bus from the visitor center up to Hearst Castle–a ride that takes about 15 minutes. The actual tour begins about 20 minutes after the stated start time of the tour.
If you’re incorporating Hearst Castle into a California road trip, you could budget as little as 2 hours from the time you pull into the visitor center to the time you pull out if you’re going for maximum efficiency, but 3 is probably a safer number. If this is the kind of experience that really fascinates you, spending a half-day here doing multiple tours (as we did) is completely conceivable.
While there is a gift shop, a few exhibits, and a 40-minute film (more on it in the review) that are included with your tour ticket, don’t waste any time on any of this. The content at the visitor center is seriously lacking–the castle itself is the star of the show.
The recommended tour for first time visitors is the Grand Rooms Tour, and while we all really enjoyed the tour, we unanimously preferred the Upstairs Suites Tour (we will cover this tour in a future post). The latter covered more ground and offered a bit more insight into Hearst as a person and the company he entertained (although obviously this is guide-dependent, so your mileage may vary).
Whether we’d recommend multiple tours depends upon how much time you have. There definitely was some redundancy between the two tours, but we did not have a “been there, done that” feeling throughout the second tour. It was different-enough to retain our attention and be worthwhile. If we were tourists on a tight schedule, we probably would have been better suited with just one tour, but that’s a really close call. Our next visit will be in the December so we see Hearst Castle decked out for Christmas and can do the Evening Tour, as it sounds really cool. (You can read about all tours here.)
As for when to visit, presumably you aren’t going to plan your vacation dates around low-crowds at Hearst Castle unless you’re in the Official Hearst Fan Club, but the low season crowd-wise is winter (save for school breaks). This is when we visited, and it was also quite pleasant weather-wise.
From a what time to visit perspective, I’d recommend early morning or late afternoon. Early morning is going to beat the rush of people and late afternoon will potentially provide an opportunity for a breathtaking view of the sunset on the Pacific Ocean. Midday is the worst time, as guests linger after their tours, so this is when crowds peak.
Logistically, early morning also makes sense because you can spend the night in one of the beach cities along the way up, and hit Hearst Castle first thing the next morning. I’ve stayed in both Morro Bay (make sure to head down to the embarcadero and check out the towering Morro Rock), which is about 30 minutes away, and Pismo Beach, which is about an hour away. Pismo Beach has some slightly more upscale places to stay and dine, but both are good picks.
Hearst Castle is located on a high hill along California’s Central Coast. This means dramatic fluctuations in weather: high heat in the summers and cold ocean breezes in the winter. Dress accordingly.
Succinctly put, if you’re taking a road trip up Pacific Coast Highway, Hearst Castle is a must-do experience. While I don’t think it can rival the castles of Europe in terms of grandiosity, it comes close in cultural significance. It’s the preserved ego edifice of one of American history’s most infamous individuals, and it’s artistically stunning.
To my knowledge, there’s nothing else like it in the United States. Sure, there are palatial mansions all over the country, some probably larger and more lavish (certainly by today’s standards) than this, but this is a spectacle of art and architectural history, incorporating pieces into it from cultures around the world that are centuries old.
From these perspectives, it reminds me of a toned-down version of Versailles, as much a spectacle as it is America’s castle. Being high up on the hill above San Simeon, wandering the grounds, and seeing the ornate rooms is an experience that can’t be translated to words properly. It’s all infinitely fascinating, and I suspect there are few houses that say as much as their owners as Hearst Castle does about William Randolph Hearst.
It’s a good thing that visitors who are unfamiliar with William Randolph Hearst can draw their own conclusions from the design and decor, directly. My biggest disappointment with Hearst Castle is its whitewashing of history. This is especially true in the exhibits at the visitor center and in the film Hearst Castle – Building the Dream. If you want the actual history of William Randolph Hearst or the eponymous castle, look elsewhere. This is ironic, as the pretext for the telling of the story in the film is to set the record straight.
I found it especially humorous that the film spends a decent amount of time discussing the rise of his father, George Hearst, but spends zero time doing the same for William Randolph Hearst. Instead, it jumps from his childhood to him as a successful adult, ready to build the house on the hill. Perhaps the story of how he made his millions was too unsavory?
Of course, the filmmakers could have always cut out the unsavory parts, as they did with everything else. I can only assume the production of this film was paid for by the family, as there’s no other justification for glorification of William Randolph Hearst.
The guides themselves are a bit more willing to delve into some of the sordid aspects of Hearst’s life, but even they paint a mostly rosy picture of Hearst and his ambition. I mention all of this not because I expect or want some Citizen Kane-like takedown of Hearst, but because it’s a bit disappointing that the educational component of the experience is basically unrealized.
Sure, there are some biographical half-truths about Hearst, but Hearst was but one (particularly infamous) example of movements in journalism, politics, and high society of the era.
This is American history, and it’s fascinating stuff, particularly with an example as colorful as Hearst. I can’t imagine any of this would be all that controversial or offensive to the tour-going public (today, Hearst can’t possibly be a divisive figure–it’s not as if we’re touring Trump Tower where presenting particular views of its owner might rile up the crowd). The only conceivable explanation for why these topics are not tackled and Hearst is painted as ambitious is due to the family’s continued influence (perhaps their contract with the state provides ‘message’ approval?).
In any case, this is but one quibble in what is otherwise one of my favorite places in all of California. I almost feel bad for devoting so much text to this, as it’s minor, and is more an issue of an area of unrealized potential than it is a true negative. The experience as a whole is still exceptional, this would elevate it to next-level quality.
Overall, Hearst Castle is an unequivocal must-do, even with my minor quibbles in mind. It’s such a rich and unique experience unlike anything you can find elsewhere in the United States. While $25/person for the tours may be a bit tough to stomach, I believe it’s worth it, and your ability to explore the grounds at your leisure post-tour provide more entertainment value for your dollar. Ultimately, it’s a great way to spend a little less than a half-day during a California road trip.
The photos in this post were taken by me with my Sony a7R II mirrorless camera, plus my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and Sony 24-240mm lenses. If you’re planning a California trip, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
Have you been to Hearst Castle? What do you think of it? How did you feel about the educational value of the experience? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!