Perched high in the rolling hills that overlook California’s spectacular Pacific Coast Highway, the iconic Hearst Castle is as enchanting as its official name, La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), implies.
Not only does the William Randolph Hearst estate offer a fascinating glimpse of newspaper and movie history of the early 20th century, but it is also drop-dead gorgeous.
From the nonstop views of the distant Pacific Ocean to the sumptuous great rooms in the main building to the extravagant tile art that decorates everything from the pools to the stairways, Hearst Castle is a stunner.
Still, with its 115 rooms, three additional guest cottages, two massive swimming pools, and countless works of art, Hearst Castle can be an intimidating destination to plan for.
A quick look at the website is likely to generate plenty of questions: Which tour is best? When should I arrive? How much time should I allot for the visit?
Here are eight tips to keep in mind when planning a visit to San Simeon’s Hearst Castle.
1. Plan Ahead
Hearst Castle is one of the most popular attractions along the central California coast, so it’s best to reserve your tour in advance. Buying a ticket online will require a couple of steps, including setting up a California state park account and paying an $8 reservation fee. Tickets are available online at the Hearst Castle website.
Once you arrive at the castle, check in at the ticket office to retrieve your reserved ticket. The wristband ticket will come with a pocket map of the castle and instructions on where and when to meet for your shuttle up the hill to the castle.
Tip: If you arrive early and would like to take an earlier tour, don’t hesitate to ask about availability. The castle staff members are very accommodating about switching tour times if space is available.
Tickets can be purchased at the visitor center upon arrival, but reservations are strongly recommended. Tour ticket prices start at $25 for adults and $12 for children between five and 12.
2. Consider Your Interests When Choosing A Tour
First of all, you should probably resign yourself to one reality: You won’t be able to see everything in one visit.
Between the main Casa Grande castle, the three cottages, the lavish gardens, and the countless works of art, Hearst Castle is a multifaceted attraction.
When it comes to choosing a tour, the castle website suggests the Grand Rooms tour for first-time visitors, and it is a good place to start. The tour guides will lead you through the gardens, past the iconic Neptune swimming pool, and into the castle’s enormous lobbies and dining areas. The tour concludes in the theater with a showing of Hearst home videos, complete with movie stars from the 1930s and 1940s as well as Hearst himself.
For those who want more detail, tours of the upstairs suites, cottages, and kitchens are also available.
Consider booking back-to-back tours if you want to see more than the main rooms. Your tour guide will help you get to your next tour, and you can go seamlessly from one area to another without taking the shuttle bus trip up the hill twice.
Hearst Castle also offers a Holiday Twilight tour on select nights in November and December. Evening tours are available seasonally, and accessible tours are available year-round.
3. Take Time After Your Tour To Wander
Remember that you will be able to stroll leisurely through the gardens after your tour. Because of the tight tour schedules, the guides are likely to hurry you along, and those who lag behind will be reminded to keep up with their group. But once the tour is over, you can choose when to take a shuttle back to the visitor center.
A couple of must-see spots for spending some after-tour time include the castle’s two pools: the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool. Each is stunning in its own way.
The Neptune Pool, with its columns and sculptures, gets much of the attention, but the mosaic-tiled Roman Pool, styled after an ancient Roman bath, is also breathtaking.
From start to finish, expect to spend at least 3 hours on your shuttle ride, tour, and after-tour explorations.
4. Pick The Right Seat
Comfortable shuttle buses are on hand to transport tourists from the visitor center to the castle. Getting to the castle from the visitor center takes about 30 minutes, but it is a spectacular ride. The road twists along switchbacks and through tawny hills and valleys. The trip also offers stunning glimpses of the castle on the hill.
Be sure to sit on the right-hand side (facing forward) of the shuttle bus on the way up for the best views of the castle. And in the summer, choose a seat next to an open window to enjoy the warm sea breezes -- and to get a fabulous photo.
5. Allow Extra Time For The Pacific Coast Highway
Getting to Hearst Castle will require quite a bit of driving on California’s Pacific Coast Highway, regardless of which direction you’re coming from. It is a gorgeous drive -- you’ll want to build in some time for photo stops along the way -- but it can also be time-consuming, especially if road construction is underway. Be sure to allow enough time to get to your destination.
You might want to spend the evening before your tour in one of the lovely towns nearby. To the east, Paso Robles, which sits right in the middle of wine country, is a 45-minute drive away from the castle. Monterey to the north is about 2 hours and 30 minutes away. Accommodations are also available in the small town of San Simeon and in San Luis Obispo to the south.
6. Remember To Pack Water
You will learn immediately upon embarking on your tour that you are not allowed to take along any food or drink, with the exception of water. And even water is not available for sale at the castle, so be sure to bring along your own water bottles, especially if you’re visiting during the warm-weather months.
You will be able to buy water and other refreshments at the visitor center, but that is the only location at Hearst Castle where food and drinks can be purchased. We recommend that you enjoy brunch at the visitor center before your tour or plan for a quick lunch on your way out. A number of eateries are available, including Chief’s Galley Café, La Cuesta Coffee Shop & Snack Bar, and Camp Hill BBQ.
7. Don’t Skip The Gift Shop
Along with its array of dining options, the visitor center offers a variety of Hearst-inspired souvenirs and art pieces. If perusing museum gift shops is one of your travel pleasures, the Hearst Castle shop won’t disappoint. Don’t forget to check out the creative scarves, totes, wall art, clothing, and glassware -- many items feature images of the castle’s famous tiles, sculptures, and skyline.
8. Explore Beyond The Castle
The area surrounding Hearst Castle is perfect for an extended visit, before or after your tour.
Just a few miles north of the castle is the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, where thousands of elephant seals regularly congregate, basking in the sun and tossing sand onto their backs. While the experts say late January, April, and October are the best times to visit, the seals are a spectacular sight virtually any time of the year.
Viewing is open to the public from the Elephant Seal Boardwalk, free of charge. Helpful docents are on hand to answer questions.