Hearst Castle, a hilltop mansion built by the late William Randolph Hearst, is located along the beautiful Central Coast of California in the tiny town of San Simeon. The infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst with the aid of San Francisco architect Julia Morgan began construction of his dream mansion in 1919, a project that would continue for the next 30 years. Hearst named the property “La Cuesta Encantada” (Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill”). What began as an open ranch area where Hearst went camping with his family as a child, would later become the location of one of the most famous homes in the United States. The architecturally eclectic property consists of the main building (now often called the “castle”) and three guest houses, which are all filled with artwork and furnishings that Hearst purchased from around the world. In its heyday, Heart Castle had a private airfield, two giant swimming pools (still there), a movie theater (still there and functioning), tennis courts, over 100 acres of gardens, greenhouses, and the world’s largest private zoo (a few animals still roam the grounds). The property was once open only by invitation to A-list celebrities and politicians, but is now a historical landmark offering tours to the public.
The story of Hearst Castle’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, is as interesting as his famous home. The film Citizen Kane is based at least loosely around the life of Hearst. Hearst is known for his participation in politics, use of yellow journalism, extensive artwork collection, and his long-term affair with actress Marion Davies. In his day, Hearst owned the largest print media conglomerate in the world and the Hearst Corporation today is still a powerful player in the media and communications industry.
Basic Information for Visiting Hearst Castle
Address: 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA 93452
Getting Here: Hearst Castle is most accessible for drivers by car. If you are visiting California, it is a great stop to make along the scenic drive along Highway 1 and is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you will not have a car, check out the site’s website page here on other transportation options such as taxis, shuttles, and the nearest airports.
Purchasing Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online at the Hearst Castle website, by phone (1-800-444-4445 ), or in-person at the Visitor Center. However, it is recommended that you purchase tickets in advance to ensure that the tour you want is not sold out. Just note that there is a cancellation fee to change the dates or cancel the tickets. If you are interested in a private tour, you should call for details.
Ticket Prices: There are a number of guided tours available and tickets start at $25/adult and $12/children age 5-12. Children under age 5 are free.
Tour Duration: The public guided tours range from about 40 minutes to 2 hours, but if you add in the 40-minute film at the Visitor Center, bus ride, free time exploring the grounds, and stop at the gift shop you can easily spend a full morning or afternoon here. Arrive at least 15-20 minutes prior to the beginning of your tour to ensure you have enough time to collect your tickets and get on the bus in time.
Website: Heart Castle is owned by California State Parks and they have an excellent informative website.
Our Visit to Hearst Castle
We visited Hearst Castle in Spring 2011. We reserved our tickets online and then brought our printed voucher to the ticket window to collect our tickets. At the time our tour was called “Tour 1: The Experience Tour” and was $24/person, but it seems that since then they have changed the names of the tours. We arrived about an hour before our tour and watched the 40-minute film Hearst Castle—Building the Dream which provides a very good overview of the construction and building of the castle, and includes some vintage film clips from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Then we got in line for the bus that drives you up the 5-mile route to the castle. The buses were clean and there is a recorded narration provided by Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek about the property and grounds along the way.
Once you get out of the bus they sort you into the appropriate groups based on the tour you purchased and you meet your guide. There were some great views of the ocean and some beautiful orange trees at the beginning of the tour. No matter which tour you choose, you’ll get to see some of the gardens, the outdoor statues, and swimming pools. After the tour you are able to walk around unguided along the grounds.
There are about 20 people per group so it can be a bit crowded inside the buildings since at times you have to walk almost single file to stay on the tour carpeting to prevent damage to the original floors and rugs. So we found if we wanted to best hear the guide and ask questions, it was best to try to stay at the front but for pictures if was good to be at the back of the group to linger briefly in some of the rooms. Our guide was very knowledgeable and provided a very good narration along the way and was able to competently answer questions from visitors.
As you walk through the rooms, most of the rooms are furnished and set up as they would have been during Hearst’s occupancy in the early twentieth century. You’ll learn that entire rooms (including the walls and floors) were sometimes taken from monasteries, churches, and castles and transported to California to be reassembled. Hearst had warehouses full of treasures—ancient statues, rich tapestries, Roman mosaics, beautiful paintings, priceless furniture—and many of these are still showcased within the buildings. While it is great to see, it’s also a bit disheartening to think about some of the beautiful places that were torn apart and treasures sold likely for the need of some quick money rather than these treasures staying in their homeland. I believe the oldest pieces in the collection are the ancient Egyptian Sekhmet statues that are on display outdoor in the gardens.
Some of the highlights for us were the gardens which were very pretty in Spring, the two stunning swimming pools (the outdoor Neptune Pool and indoor Roman Pool), the Assembly and Refectory rooms of Casa Grande, and being able to watch some short film clips in the private theater at Casa Grande. Some of the ceilings and doors throughout the buildings are amazing. We also found out from our guide that the Hearst family still visits the property as they wish and even stay overnight occasionally (there is another Victorian house on the property that is not open to the public). Interestingly, the staff actually gets to enjoy the pools once or twice a year—what a pool party!
After the bus ride back down to the Visitor’s Center, we grabbed some food at the cafeteria style dining area at the Visitor Center. Food was OK, but nothing memorable. At the Visitor Center, there are a few dining options (you can sample beef from cattle raised on the Hearst property), a gift shop, the theater, and some exhibits to peruse before or after your tour. If you are interested in learning more about Hearst or Hearst Castle after the visit, some great books are offered in the gift shop.
Overall, we really enjoyed the tour, the scenery, and walking around the gardens. The film was interesting and our guide were very professional and knowledgeable. The food was only mediocre and somewhat overpriced, but this was really the only downside to our visit. We are actually interested in returning some day to do the seasonal evening tours that include a longer guided tour at night with docents dressed up in 1930’s clothing enacting life as it would have been during the time period. The California Parks seems to be doing a very good job in maintaining the property and offering professional tours to the public. There are very few places like this in the United States and we believe this is a place worth seeing at least once.
A Few Additional Tips for Making the Most of your Visit to Hearst Castle
- I would strongly recommend watching the film at the Visitor Center prior to your tour if you have time as it provides some good background information.
- You may want to watch the film Citizen Kane before your trip to learn about the famous fictionalized version of Hearst’s life. Hearst almost ruined Orson Welles’ career in retaliation for making this film. The film would go on to be named one of the best American films ever made.
- It can be hotter or colder on the hill than at the Visitor Center, so dress in layers. Bring a hat and sunscreen if it’s sunny as you will be spending a bit of time outside during the tour.
- There are no food/drinks sold on the hilltop, so plan accordingly and you may want to bring a bottle of water. You can buy water at the Visitor’s Center. Bottle water is OK to take on the tour, but no food or gum is permitted.
- There are clean bathroom facilities in the Visitor Center, and there was one bathroom break during the tour at Hearst Castle.
- If you visit during good weather, you’ll be able to better appreciate the garden and the views of the undeveloped land and ocean surrounding the property.
- There is not much to do directly near Hearst Castle, but you may want to plan some time to drive and walk around the untamed rocky shoreline and see the elephant seals at the nearby Piedras Blancas rookery.
So what do you think, do you think Hearst Castle is worth a visit? Have you visited Hearst Castle—we’d love to hear your thoughts and any other tips you may have for those planning a visit.