There’s nothing else in California quite like Hearst Castle (Hwy. 1 and Hearst Castle Rd., 800/444-4445, tours daily 8:20am-3:20pm, $25). Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst conceived of the idea of a grand mansion in the Mediterranean style, on the land his parents bought along the central California coast. His memories of camping on the hills above the Pacific led him to choose the spot on which the castle now stands. He hired Julia Morgan, the first female civil engineering graduate from UC Berkeley, to design and build the house for him. She did a brilliant job with every detail, despite the ever-changing wishes of her employer.
By way of decoration, Hearst assisted in the relocation of hundreds of European medieval and Renaissance antiquities, from tiny tchotchkes to whole gilded ceilings. William Randolph also adored exotic animals, and created one of the largest private zoos in the nation on his thousands of Central Coast acres. Though most of the zoo is gone now, you can still see the occasional zebra grazing peacefully along Highway 1 to the south of the castle, acting as heralds to the exotic nature of Hearst Castle ahead.
The visitor’s center is a lavish affair with a gift shop, restaurant, café, ticket booth, and movie theater. Here you can see the much-touted film Hearst Castle–Building the Dream, which will give you an overview of the construction and history of the marvelous edifice, and of William Randolph Hearst’s empire. After buying your ticket, board the shuttle that takes you up the hill to your tour. (No private cars are allowed on the roads up to the castle proper.) There are five tours to choose from, each focusing on different spaces and aspects of the castle.
Expect to walk for at least an hour on whichever tour you choose, and to climb up and down many stairs. Even the most jaded traveler can’t help but be amazed by the beauty and opulence that drips from every room in the house. Lovers of European art and antiques will want to stay forever.
The Grand Rooms Museum Tour (45 minutes, 106 stairs, 0.6 miles, adults $25, under age 13 $12) is recommended for first-time visitors. It begins in the castle’s assembly room, which is draped in Flemish tapestries, before heading into the dining room, the billiard room, and the impressive movie theater, where you’ll watch a few old Hearst newsreels. The guide then lets you loose to take in the swimming pools: the indoor pool, decorated in gold and blue, and the stunning outdoor Neptune Pool.
For a further glimpse into Hearst’s personal life, take the Upstairs Suites Tour (45 minutes, 273 stairs, 0.75 miles, adults $25, under age 13 $12). Among the highlights are a stop within Hearst’s private suite and a visit to his library, which holds over 4,000 books and 150 ancient Greek vases. At the end of this tour, you can explore the grounds, including the Neptune Pool, on your own.
Epicureans should opt for the Cottages & Kitchen Tour (45 minutes, 176 stairs, 0.75 miles, adults $25, under age 13 $12). Visit the wine cellar first, where there are still bottles of wine, gin, rum, beer, and vermouth along the walls. (After a visit here, actor David Niven once said that “the wine flowed like glue.”) Then take in the ornate guest cottages Casa Del Monte and Casa del Mar, where Hearst spent the final two years of his life. The tour concludes in the massive castle kitchen, with its steam-heated metal counters, before leaving you to explore the grounds on your own.
The seasonal Evening Museum Tour (100 minutes, 308 stairs, 0.75 miles, adults $36, under age 13 $18) is only given in spring and fall. Volunteers dress in 1930s fashions and welcome guests as if they are arriving at one of Hearst’s legendary parties.
Buy tour tickets at least a few days in advance, and even farther ahead on summer weekends. Wheelchair-accessible Grand Rooms and Evening Tours are available for visitors with limited mobility. Strollers are not permitted. The restrooms and food concessions are all in the visitors center. No food, drink, or chewing gum are allowed on any tour.