Go Inside – And Outside – Central California’s Famous Mansion
When you approach Hearst Castle, it looks like you’re watching a fairy tale movie.
The design looks like a magic castle, it’s high on a hill visible only as a distant dot on the landscape from Highway 1 and it’s full of myths and legends. It’s almost as if it really doesn’t exist and its presence is just an imagined dream.
When you’re there, it’s like being in a fairy tale. And you’re having a ball.
Hearst Castle, the multi-room mansion built by media empire chief William Randolph Hearst, is the central landmark and top tourist attraction in Central California along the Highway 1 Discovery Route. Called “La Cuesta Encantada,” or “The Enchanted Hill” by Hearst, it is now a California State Park and is open to tourists. More than 700,000 people a year visit it.
Here’s what it’s like to walk the grounds and take a tour of this magnificent mansion.
The Process – Booking A Tour
Because it’s so popular, it is advised to book a tour in advance. You can do this on-line at the Hearst Castle website (you have to set up an account) or by phone at (800) 444-4445.
Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance. Do note there’s service fee as steep as the hill to the castle ($8 per ticket) and a strict cancelation policy.
You can, of course, just show up to it. I would not recommend doing this from mid-Spring thru Thanksgiving Weekend.
The Tours & Ticket Prices
The cost for the standard – and by far most popular – Grand Rooms Tour is $25. That’s the same price for the other daytime tours, the Upstairs Suites Tour and the Cottages & Kitchen Tour. The Evening Tour, in which characters dress up as Hearst’s high-roller guests, is $36. While I have not taken it, I have been told the castle looks completely different lit up at night.
I took the one-hour Grand Rooms tour, and while this also includes the Hearst Castle Theater film Hearst Castle – Building The Dream – I did not see the movie during my last visit. Hey, I had to go wine tasting! (The Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room is across Highway 1.)
The Grand Rooms Tour
The tours begin in a bus, which winds its way up from the Visitor’s Center to the castle on a narrow and twisting road that will have you saying on more than one occasion “I’m glad I’m not driving!”
This takes about 15 minutes and if looking out the windows at the passing rolling hills and planted vegetation is not enough entertainment for you, there’s a recorded narration by Alex Trebek (yes, the host of “Jeopardy!”).
There’s a full bus load – nearly 50 people – on your tour.
Once you arrive at your destination, you are greeted by your tour guide. As anyone who does a lot of tours knows, guides can vary tremendously. Ours was a lady in her upper 50s who was very fact-oriented. A guide on another tour that I overheard – okay, I eavesdropped! – was a lot more animated and enthusiastic than our guide.
That’s just the luck of the draw but all the guides are a wealth of knowledge about Hearst, the castle, the construction of this palace and about what went on here during Heart’s days at it (the castle was built between 1919 and 1947 and Hearst died in 1951).
So no matter the guide, you’re not missing out on any information, you’re just getting a different delivery of it.
The tour starts on an outdoor patio that faces the hillside. It goes past the famous outdoor pool, the Neptune Pool, and goes up to that Disneyland-looking building. That’s Casa Grande, the room where Hearst held nightly cocktail parties for his guests. Tho Hearst himself did not drink. You learn guests would have “two or three” cocktails and Hearst did not allow people to have more drinks in their rooms.
The room is impressive not in its size but in its tapestries, the height of the ceiling and especially the gigantic fireplace. On the tour, you learn Hearst loved giant fireplaces.
Next is the billiards room – be sure and notice the fireplace – which today would no doubt be used as a “man cave.”
When we went into the dining room –with a looooong table and place settings as if Hearst’s long-gone guests are coming in later for dinner – I have to admit my mind was distracted from what the tour guide was saying to us. This is because I kept looking up at the Medieval-looking flags that are mounted high on the walls and wondering if there was ever any jousting between the guests.
From there we sat down in the movie theater and watched a brief film.
I have to admit, I found the guided tour of the rooms just a little more than mildly interesting. Part of it was the factual tour guide but personally, I’m not necessarily into furniture, tapestries and paintings. Some people are, of course, and they will find this tour fascinating.
My favorite part, as it turned out, was when the tour actually ended.
After The Tour – Touring The Grounds
Once you finish the tour, you are free to explore part of the grounds on your own. In this, I thrived.
You’re in one of the gardens with walkways and railings overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The castle grounds were designed to resemble ancient Greece and Rome and with the Mediterranean climate of California’s central coast, it doesn’t take much daydreaming to imagine yourself being at a Roman palace in Caesar’s day.
It is also here you can get magnificent photos of Casa Grande – and selfies! – from all different angles.
And here’s the thing: you can stay until the last bus leaves to go back down the hill (and more narration from Alex Trebek). This is why I recommend taking a mid-morning tour because you can take as much time as you want in the gardens and never feel pressured to hurry up, which is always a drawback to taking tours.
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
On the way out, you naturally pause at the indoor pool with water so clear the bottom appears to be only an inch deep.
Hearst Castle Tour Top Tips
Bring a long-sleeve shirt, sweatshirt or jacket, not matter the year. It can get cool and breezy at the top of the hill…Wear comfortable shoes. You’re walking through the rooms, climbing a few stairs (but not too many and not all at once) and of course strolling the grounds after the tour…The tour will take at least 2 1/2 hours from when you start to when you finish. Save enough time to explore the surrounding area – including California’s spectacular coastline – for the rest of the day, although the evening tour is said to be spectacular.
Getting To Hearst Castle – Highway 1 Open/Closed Information
Hearst Castle is in San Simeon on Highway 1, or Pacific Coast Highway. PCH is open in this area and you can get there from Highway 46 in Paso Robles to the north (thru Cambria) or the Morrow Bay PCH route to the south (Highway 41).
What you cannot do, at least until summer of 2018, is continue north through to Big Sur and onto Carmel and Monterey. (Or drive south from Carmel/Big Sur to Hearst Castle.) A landslide has closed PCH south of Big Sur.
Things To Do, Restaurants & Accommodations Near Hearst Castle
Once you’ve finished your tour, there are many things to do around Hearst Castle, including getting up close (but not too close!) to elephant seals at a cove just four miles away, walking on the pier where Hearst had the building materials and his precious possessions for the houses unloaded, and even go wine tasting. There are also great places to eat in the area and accommodations. For details on these places, go to PubClub.com’s guide to the Hearst Castle area.
Hearst Castle Address
Address: 750 Hearst Castle Road