In Europe, castles are fairly common, but in the United States, castles are hard to come by. Though Hearst Castle is not a “real” castle by European standards, it is the perfect opportunity for your family to see the enchantment of an American “castle” in central coast California.
A Bungalow Becomes a Castle
Set on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, near San Simeon, California, Hearst Castle was owned and built by the famous publishing mogul, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst Castle is the embodiment of the decadent life for the wealthy of the mid 1900s, complete with 56 bedrooms, gold and marble pools, a movie theater, and the world’s largest private zoo. The “castle” was the architectural mastermind of Julia Morgan, the first woman licensed as an architect in California. Though the mansion was originally supposed to be the weekend “bungalow” for the Hearst family, Miss Morgan transformed it into the opulent mansion it is today. Hearst, a collector of European art and architecture, brought his treasures to Heart Castle, including medieval fireplace mantels transported from France, ancient tapestries from Italy, entire ceilings from Spain.
What a History!
Visitors to the mansion can participate in several guided tours, including a Grand Rooms tour, taking visitors through the main entertaining rooms of the house; The Upstairs Suites tour, which takes visitors through the main library, guest quarters, and Heart’s private floor; and the Cottages and Kitchen tour, where visitors can see the wine cellar, the guest cottages, and the large modern kitchen. Hearst Castle docents recount tales of the many parties held at Hearst Castle, with guests such as Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Charles Lindbergh, and Joan Crawford. Even political dignitaries such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill spent time at the “castle”.
You would think all this art would equal a boring time for kids, yet my son and his friend, Katie, loved the tour. Being fans of the book The Great Gatsby, they felt as if we had stepped into Jay Gatsby’s mansion. Though Hearst Castle no longer has a zoo, we were treated to wild zebras grazing by the side of the road on our way to the visitor center. Our favorite sight was the Neptune Pool, a breathtaking wonder of blue tile and glistening marble.
A Few Tips for Visiting Hearst Castle with Children
- Because of the antiques and artwork at Hearst Castle, there are strict rules visitors need to abide by, including where to walk, what to touch, and places guests are allowed to go. The rules may be more difficult for parents of younger children, so the castle is probably best for children six or older. (You know your children though, so use your own discretion.)
- Air-conditioned shuttle buses take guests on a narrow mountain road from the visitor center to the mansion.
- There are several sets of stairs to climb to get to the tour locations when you arrive at the mansion; however, handicap access is available.
- It can get hot at the top of the hill, especially in the summer and fall, so bring plenty of bottled water. Food is not allowed in indoor areas.
- The visitor center has a restaurant, with pizza, salad, and sandwich options. There is also a BBQ grill on the terrace, where visitors can purchase authentic Santa Maria style BBQ beef, as well as a cafe, where visitors can purchase coffee, soft drinks, and pastries.
- If you are heading north on Rt 1, look in the fields to your left, before you enter the Hearst Castle grounds. You might find a few wild zebras roaming about.
- The visitor’s center is open from 9 a.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Tickets for the tours start at $25 for adults and $12 for children 12 and under.