Tips When Visiting the Legendary Hearst Castle in California
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High above the hills of San Simeon, California, about a four-hour drive north along the coast from Los Angeles, sits Hearst Castle. Built between 1919 and 1947 by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, this 165-room estate is an iconic destination, something lifted from a fairy tale. Visiting Hearst Castle with kids is a great way to give them a glimpse into a bygone era without boring them.
It’s technically a museum, but calling it just a museum doesn’t do Hearst Castle justice. It’s literally a historical experience. The grandeur of the homes and grounds will keep kids (and adults) mesmerized. The architecture, interior design, furnishings and art collection are eye-popping on their own. Add to it that Hearst kept exotic animals on the grounds surrounding the castle and you can still see zebra herds grazing near the park entrance. It’s like you’ve entered another world.
Buy Your Tickets In Advance
Tours are very popular and the number of guests allowed to go on each tour is limited. Your best bet is to purchase your entrance and tour tickets at least one or two months prior to your visit to be sure you get the options you want. Ticket prices start at $25 for adults; $12 for kids ages 5–12 (under 5 are free).
Pick the Right Tour
With more than 120 acres of pools, buildings, gardens and walkways, there’s a lot to see, so taking a Hearst Castle tour will help you get a good feel for the property.
We booked two tours back-to-back, and it was just enough without the kids getting restless, though with younger kids one tour is probably enough. Those tours took us about three hours total, so schedule yours based on how your family would handle them. Tour times are located on the website sign-up pages (some are longer than others).
There are many choices of tours depending on your interests, including a tour of the Grand Rooms of Casa Grande, which is the largest house at Hearst Castle. That tour is really a must-see. Other options include the Cottages and Kitchen, a tour for anyone interested in architecture called Designing The Dream and another called the Art of San Simeon. There are also tours specifically for those who use wheelchairs or have trouble climbing stairs.
We enjoyed the Grand Rooms tour and the Upstairs Suites tour. Our kids were mesmerized by the enormous living room — it has a fireplace so large you could walk right into it. The Upstairs Suites feature the incredible Gothic Suite, the Library and even servant quarters. It was unbelievable to modern eyes to see the way the wealthy lived during the Great Depression and into World War II. Tip: If you are only going to do one tour, the Grand Rooms tour is the most popular tour.
After the tours, guests are welcome to explore the gardens and pools at their own pace.
Dining is a challenge at Hearst Castle because food and drinks are allowed only at the Visitor Center, located downhill from the grounds. So bringing snacks to keep the kids settled isn’t an option.
We suggest eating before you get arrive, doing your tours and then grabbing something to eat as you leave. The Hearst Castle Visitor Center has a cafe, coffee and snack bar, and a barbecue area during the summer. The food isn’t bad. It’s not inexpensive but the quality and choices are family-friendly. Another option: Bring a picnic lunch in a cooler and enjoy a meal before or after you leave. There are some scenic locations along the route, including the beach and pier directly across from the Hearst Castle driveway.
After your tour, or even beforehand depending on your tour time, you can experience the California coastlines. At the base of the driveway of Hearst Castle sits William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach. The ships that brought workers and supplies during the construction of the castle docked there. A wooden pier still remains along with a long, sandy beach. You’ll even occasionally share the sand with a sea lion or two.
Up the coast a few miles is the elephant seal sanctuary at Piedras Blancas. The best views of the seals depend on what time of year you visit. Optimal viewing is in January, April and October, but viewing areas are open every day and there are no fees or reservations required. Seeing these impressive creatures is really something, and if you time it right, you will also see their newborn pups.
How to Get to Hearst Castle
San Luis Obispo Airport (SBP) is 45 miles south of Hearst Castle. A small regional airport, SBP has direct flights from Seattle via Alaska Airlines, Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth via American Airlines and San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver via United Airlines. If you’re flying from another city, there are many connecting flights on these airlines.
Flying into Los Angeles and San Francisco are also options as they offer more routes, but the drive is approximately four hours from each. This can also make for a nice road trip along the way.
You’ll need to rent a car to get from San Luis Obispo to Hearst Castle. Avis, Budget, Enterprise and Hertz all offer rentals out of SBP. Average rate for full-sized cars, including unlimited mileage, is $42 per day.
Where to Stay
Hotels nearby typically fall into the budget to moderate range, but definitely vary depending on the season. Fortunately, there are many options for using your Choice Privileges, IHG, Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors points, which can help offset your total vacation cost. Here are our some hotels nearby:
The closest property to the castle for using your hotel points is the Quality Inn Near Hearst Castle. This hotel starts at 10,000 Choice Privilege points a night and is the most budget-friendly option. At less than 10 minutes away, it could be the perfect option if you are planning an early morning tour at the castle. Choice also runs promotions quite often where you can purchase its points at a discount.
Paso Robles is about a 45-minute drive and will put you more in wine country. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Paso Robles costs 30,000 IHG Rewards Club points a night, which makes it a great property to use your annual free night certificate from the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card. Those looking to use their Marriott points can stay at the Springhill Suites Paso Robles Atascadero that costs 35,000 points a night. This is another opportunity to use the free night certificate, which are capped at 35k points a night, from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
San Luis Obispo
For those on a California Coast road trip, staying in San Luis Obispo (otherwise known as SLO) can be the perfect stop on your way. If you are driving from south to north, stay in this cute college town the night before visiting the castle. Or, if you are driving north to south, SLO can be a great stop after your visit.
This is where you’ll find the famous Madonna Inn although it is not part of a chain hotel. To maximize your savings, you can use your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and earn 10x miles by booking through Hotels.com Venture (ends Jan. 31, 2020).
Marriott members will enjoy the Courtyard San Luis Obispo for only 35,000 points a night, while those looking to redeem their Hilton Honor points can stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites San Luis Obispo which ranges between 33,000 and 50,000 points a night. If you are planning on a longer stay, both properties give you your fifth night free when you redeem your points. The only requirement for Hilton stays is that you must have Hilton Honors status.
A visit to Hearst Castle is an education in American history and opulence. The grounds are beautiful, the castle is spectacular and your kids will be amazed by the massive pool. (Just prepare them in advance that swimming is a no-no unless you are a member of the pricey Hearst Castle Foundation.) Plan on spending at least three hours there and coordinate your tour time based on where you stay the night before. I highly suggest allocating a day to the iconic Hearst Castle on your next California vacation.
Here are some more vacation ideas in California:
- Southern California’s 10 Best Amusement Parks and Attractions
- Planning a Family Trip to San Francisco
- Exploring San Francisco With Kids: Where to Go and What to Do
- San Francisco on Foot: 5 Fun Hikes for Families
- Planning a Family Trip to San Diego
- Things to Do in San Diego With Kids
- Go Beyond San Francisco: Mendocino Activities for the Whole Family
- 12 Stops to Make on Your Southern California Family Road Trip
Featured image by Nomadic Imager / Shutterstock
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