If you have been following our travels for a while, you already know that I am a firm believer in taking kids everywhere and not limiting your experiences to typical “family travel” destinations. This worked out beautifully on our California trip, with many positive experiences visiting wineries in Sonoma and Paso Robles, and exploring the quaint village of Carmel. But I have to say, Hearst Castle is not the most kid-friendly attraction, so I have some tips to help you prepare for your visit.
But first, a little background. Hearst Castle and its surrounding guest cottages, poolhouse, garden and estate buildings, were built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst fell in love with the mountains around San Simeon after camping on the family ranch land in his childhood. After inheriting 250,000 acres in 1919, Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to create a retreat he called La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “Enchanted Hill”.) The building took 28 long years of design, building, and expanding. By 1947, Hearst Castle comprised 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways.
For Hearst, this retreat wasn’t just about creating a showpiece. It was also about entertaining the rich and famous, bringing together politicians, businessmen, actors and actresses in exclusive weekends to rival Victorian-era house parties. The property is so large that you can’t see it all on one tour, so you need to pick what you want to see most — the Grand Rooms Tour, the Upstairs Suites Tour, and the Cottages and Kitchens Tour.
All tours start at the Visitor’s Center, where guests can dine at the snack bar, food court, or the Camp Hill BBQ. Visitors can even pick up some farm-raised Hearst beef or Hearst Ranch Wines, visit the gift shop, or learn about the history of Hearst Castle on the five-story screen of the Hearst Castle Theater. Tickets to “Building the Dream” are included in daytime tours or can be purchased separately for $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 5-12.
At the assigned tour time, visitors board a coach bus for a 15-20 minute drive up the mountain to the Castle. Once there, you are on a strict schedule with your tour but at the end, you can spend some time exploring the gardens before hopping the next bus downhill.
We took the Grand Rooms Tour, which starts out in the Assembly Room and then moves into the Dining Room, Morning Room, Billiard Room, and ends in the Theater. Along the way we learned about the Hearst’s famous guests, like Cary Grant (who visited 40 times and stayed in a different bedroom each time) and Winston Churchill, as well as got a peek into life at the ranch.
During the day, guests would play tennis, go horseback riding, yachting, or visit the beach while Hearst worked. Guests were sometimes hosted by Hearst’s wife Millicent, but more often by his mistress Marian Davies. Guests would meet in the evening for games, puzzles and cards before dinner at 9pm.
The dining room was decorated in gothic style, with a French mantel, choir stalls from Italy and flags hanging above the table. Dinner parties were usually kept small with 10-20 guests to keep conversation interesting. After dinner the guest would move into the Morning Room, featuring 15th century ceilings from Aragon in Spain, which are currently being cleaned and restored to see their original color.
Tips for Visiting Hearst Castle with Kids
- Tours of Hearst Castle are at least 45 minutes of quiet listening and careful following of direction — if your child cannot handle that easily, you might be better off waiting until they are older.
- When on a tour, you cannot step off of the narrow industrial carpet runners put down to protect the floors. This is very closely monitored so kids should be kept within a hand’s reach to make sure they don’t stray.
- You cannot touch anything or wander off on your own during the tour.
- Tour groups can be fairly large (think about the size of a tour bus), so it can sometimes be hard to find space on the carpet where you can still clearly hear the guide.
- You will have time at the end to walk through the gardens and see the two pools (one outside, one inside.)
- You cannot see the castle unless you are on a tour (it is actually five miles from the Visitor Center and only tour busses are allowed.)
- No food or drink is permitted. I recommend feeding your crew before heading up the mountain.
- It is strongly recommended that you book a tour reservation in advance as they do book up and you may otherwise not get a chance to see the Castle.
- If you are staying nearby, I’d recommend scheduling a morning tour when everyone is fresh.
- If you are driving along Highway 1 and would like to make a stop at Hearst Castle, give yourself plenty of time to take your time on your drive by booking a late afternoon tour or, if you don’t want to feel pressured to race through all the amazing views just to get to your tour on time, you can take a chance and see if any tours are still available when you arrive.
- If you or the kids are prone to carsickness, you might want to take something before the winding bus trip up the mountain. When I was boarding the bus a small child vomited just outside the bus yet his parents were still trying to take him on board. Trust me, if I was worried my kid might throw up, I would NOT want it to happen on the Castle’s antiques.
- One way to entertain kids on the bus ride is to have them keep an eye out the window for zebras. Seriously. Hearst kept a small zoo on the grounds including a polar bear, lion cubs, kangaroos, buffalo, zebras, and llama. The zoo was disbanded in 1937 but some of the grazing animals escaped and there are still 120 around that like hanging out with the cows.