Having lived in California my entire life, I can’t believe it took me this many years to make a trip up to Hearst Castle. Especially when you take into account that it’s a Mecca for 1920’s enthusiasts, such as myself. But man, it was well worth the wait.
In 1865, George Hearst purchased several thousand acres of land in San Simeon. His son, William Randolph Hearst, had spent most of his youth looking for a career, and by 1887 he was managing the San Francisco Examiner, a local newspaper that is still in print to this day. By the early 1900’s, William had become a full-fledged newspaper tycoon. In 1919 William inherited the large property his father had purchased, and at this time began working with architect Julia Morgan to design his dream home. He called it, “La Cuesta Encantada”, Spanish for “Enchanted Hill”. Hearst’s dream retreat was so intricate and so thoughtfully designed that the two of them spent over 28 years working on it, until 1947 when Hearst’s declining health brought their work to an end. Hearst died in 1951, and seven years later, his home was opened to the public.
In it’s heyday, Hearst Castle was a Gatsby-esque party mansion. During the jazz age and beyond, Hearst entertained many famous guests, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, and Winston Churchill. It was a great honor and a privilege to be invited to Hearst’s beautiful California mansion, and it was always guaranteed that the parties would extend late into the night.
You could spend all day here getting lost in the gardens and enjoying the elaborate decor. I recommend downloading the free Hearst Castle app so you can learn about the property as you explore, and so you don’t get too lost.
As you pull up to the estate, you may be lucky enough to be greeted by a welcome party of zebras. Though most of the animals Hearst purchased for his private zoo were sold when he died, the zebras were never removed from the land and their descendants still roam the hills surrounding the castle.
One of my favorite things about visiting Hearst Castle is that it’s a completely immersive experience. It sits isolated atop a large hill with nothing around for miles, which really allows you to lose yourself in the beauty and the history. To make you feel like you’re one of Hearst’s honored guests, there are people strolling throughout the property, dressed in period clothing (my dream job). It really feels like you’re back in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Or, should I say, “the houses”? In addition to Hearst’s beautiful mansion, there are also several guest houses. I recommend joining a tour if you plan on exploring because the docents are extremely knowledgable and not all the rooms are accessible if you’re roaming on your own.
Hearst Castle is recognized as a National Park, and has been very well maintained over the years. Venturing inside feels like stepping back in time, which is one of my very favorite sensations.
Over the years, Hearst acquired a very impressive art collection.
My personal favorite part of the castle is the theater. Being a newspaper tycoon, Hearst had the luxury of doing most of his work from home. He would sleep all day, wake up in the late afternoon, entertain his guests, and then around midnight he’d allow them to enjoy his home theater while he went into his office to work until the early morning. Basically, he lived my ideal lifestyle.
The Roman pool is my second favorite room. Having been to several ancient Roman baths in my time, this one really helps one imagine what they would have been like during the height of the Roman Empire.
While I was in this room, I couldn’t stop thinking about both the Romans, and the pool scene in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Two very different things, and yet, somehow both very relevant.
In 1924, Hearst was entertaining a group of friends aboard his yacht. One of these guests was director and producer Thomas Ince, who supposedly left abruptly due to indigestion, which led to a heart attack that same night. That is the official story, but rumors soon began to spread that he was in fact murdered. Charlie Chaplin and his secretary were both on board, and she claimed to have seen his body being removed from the ship, and a bullet in his head. It has been suggested by some that Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, were caught in an “intimate embrace”, and that Hearst, in a rage, tried to shoot Chaplin, but accidentally killed Ince. It’s possible, as it was known that Hearst kept a gun onboard, and it is also known that Chaplin, who was married four times, had a weakness for women. To this day, it is still unknown exactly how Ince died, and, since he was cremated, we may never know. Interestingly enough, in 1996, Hearst’s granddaughter Patricia wrote a novel called Murder at San Simeon, a fictionalized retelling of this supposed murder.
Murder at San Simeon isn’t the only fictionalized portrayal of William Randolph Hearst. Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane was loosely based on Hearst’s life. Hearst never saw the film but correctly assumed that it would portray him in an unflattering light, and he unsuccessfully attempted to stop it from being released. The film opens with shots of Kane’s Florida estate, Xanadu, which very obviously resembles Hearst Castle. Needless to say, Hearst was not going to grant them permission to film on his land, so Welles made the genius decision to shoot the montage at San Diego’s Balboa Park, which boasts Spanish-revival architecture surrounded by palm trees, just like Hearst Castle.
I would strongly recommend spending an entire day here. In addition to the many amazing and insightful tours they offer, you should definitely set aside some time to explore the grounds on your own. There is so much to see; far too much to fit into a tour. There’s also a free Hearst Castle app that includes an interactive map, information about the different landmarks and sculptures, and even an audio tour that you can listen to at your own pace.
I’m very picky when it comes to tours. When I travel, I usually prefer to go at my own pace and to see what I want to see, not what a tour offers to show me. However, at Hearst Castle, the tours are a MUST. There are many parts of the area that you aren’t allowed to explore unless you’re in a tour group, and, even if you could, you wouldn’t appreciate it as much as you do with a tour group. The docents are very knowledgable and the information they provide truly enhances the overall experience.
Evening Tour: This is my absolute favorite tour, but it’s only available in the Spring and Autumn. It’s a bit longer than the daytime tours, and it shows you all the best bits of the mansion. Plus, it gives you all day to explore the gardens on your own (and trust me, you want to see the outdoors while the sun is up).
Grand Rooms Tour: This is the tour they recommend for first-time visitors. It doesn’t require much walking, and highlights the most popular rooms.
Upstairs Suites Tour: Explore the upper floors of the main house.
Cottages & Kitchen Tour: This tour focuses on some of the less grand, tucked-away parts of the estate, like the kitchen and some other private rooms.
Designing the Dream Tour: This is the tour for all you architecture and interior design buffs. You’ll learn more about Julia Morgan and how she and Hearst worked together to make his dream a reality.
Art of San Simeon Tour: Art lovers rejoice! Hearst Castle is the only art museum that is operated by California State Parks, and it has one of the most vast collections of art in the whole state.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Tickets start at $25 for adults, and $12 for children, and can be purchased here. All tours include a 5-mile bus ride to and from the castle (departing from the visitor center at the bottom of the hill), during which you will listen to authentic period music, and an informational audio narration from Alex Trebek. You can purchase tickets at the Visitor Center, but tours do sometimes sell out, so I recommend purchasing your tickets in advance.
They do not allow you to bring food or drinks, other than bottled water, onto the estate. The Visitor Center does have a small food court, but if you don’t want to spend money on food, you can bring snacks and eat them in the parking lot.
Any questions about visiting? Let me know in the comments!