Inside the Famous Hearst Castle, a Place Like No Other
During America’s Gilded Age, the nation’s super-wealthy were the first to develop sprawling mansions that seemingly belonged in European capitals. These modern-day palaces had no need to host entire royal courts; they were merely a showing of extreme wealth and good taste.
In Northern California’s San Simeon, situated along the Pacific Coast Highway, the grandest castle of the west is undoubtedly Hearst Castle. Gifted to the State of California in 1957, the registered National Historic Landmark sees nearly 750,000 visitors each year.
A visit to the castle is unlike anything else in the U.S., but if you can't make it in person, you can follow us on this virtual tour as we guide you through its decadent rooms.
George Hearst Mines for Millions
George Hearst, originally from Missouri, moved west like many contemporaries of his time in search of minerals. It wasn’t gold he was seeking but copper. Witnessing copper mining in his home state, he learned the tricks of the trade, along with ranching. As he moved his way westward, he had a hand in the Anaconda copper mine in Montana, Nevada’s Comstock Lode silver mine and, yes, gold in South Dakota’s Homestake mine.
As a self-made millionaire in a time that thousands would do, Hearst began buying up large acres of land, including the 48,000-acre purchase of Piedra Blanca Rancho in San Simeon, California, in 1865. The land became one of his favorite retreats from his work life, which included serving as a California senator from 1887 until his death in 1891.
William Randolph Hearst Jumps Into Journalism
George’s only child with his wife, Phoebe, was born in 1863. William Randolph Hearst was taught about ranching and mining at a young age, yet he was far more fascinated with the newspaper his father had taken over as payment for a gambling debt: the San Francisco Examiner.
William went on to develop Hearst Communications and led the largest newspaper chain in the United States, which continues to this day.
Building a Dream in Hearst Castle
While George had 40,000 acres around San Simeon, W.R. Hearst inherited and purchased more land, eventually encompassing 250,000 acres. He dreamt of creating a retreat on La Cuesta Encantada: the Enchanted Hill. From its hilltop location, one can look out and see the Pacific Ocean to the distance.
Hiring architect Julia Morgan, construction of what is now known as Hearst Castle began.
Hearst Castle’s main building isn’t called a castle at all. Originally, the ranch accommodations featured platform tents in what was known as Camp Hill. William wanted better accommodations when visiting his retreat and directed Julia to build “something that would be more comfortable.”
The main house is called Casa Grande.
More Than a Little Something
Although W.R. Hearst told Julia he wanted to “build a little something,” Casa Grande’s architectural plans consisted of 165 rooms and more than 120 acres of land dedicated to gardens, walkways and pools.
Casa Grande itself has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 19 sitting rooms!
Before entering the Hearst casa, you’ll be wowed by the astonishing details on its façade. Carvings of saints, animals, and Greek and Roman heroes were inspired by cathedrals found in Southern Spain.
Even its twin bell towers were modeled after a Spanish church: the Santa Maria La Mayor in Ronda, Spain.
Touring the Grand Rooms
The most popular tour option for first-time visitors is throughout the grand social rooms of Casa Grande.
The hour-long tour includes visits to the Assembly Room, Refectory (pictured), Billiard Room, Theater, Gardens, Neptune Pool and Roman Pool.
W.R. Hearst’s visitors to Casa Grande would be welcomed into the Assembly Room. This ground-floor space is the main social space and would be where guests could meet Hearst for cocktails and conversation.
It is decorated with sculptures, masterpieces and tapestries dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
If These Walls Could Talk
Hundreds of the world’s most famous people from the era spent time in the Assembly Room and within the castle. From world leaders like Winston Churchill and President Calvin Coolidge to Hollywood icons like the Barrymores, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, the Hearst ranch was the place to be.
It is said that if W.R. found you to be a bore, you were never invited back!
The main dining room of Casa Grande received its name from the dining hall of a monastery. A long dining table, vaulted ceilings and candelabras liken the space to a castle from the Middle Ages. However, Hearst was actually quite informal, and ketchup and mustard bottles would be kept out for dinner guests.
Again, if one bored the host, he or she would be sat at the opposite end of the table.
After dinner, guests could make way into the Billiard Room, where two tables waited. The room’s ceiling was brought in from Spain and dates back to the 15th century with hand-painted scenes of courtly life.
On the wall is a Flemish tapestry from 1500. The rest of the room is decorated with game-themed touches.
A lover of the arts, W.R. Hearst had his own theater within the home. Every night, like clockwork, he would invite his guests to the theater for an 11 p.m. showing of a recent film.
The theater now features scenes of the politicians and celebrities that came to visit for tour guests to watch.
A second theater at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center displays “Hearst Castle – Building the Dream,” which is included with a tour ticket.
Although the castle may be the main draw, its 100-acre gardens are just as palatial as those found along the Mediterranean. Inspiration for the garden terraces came from villas in Spain and Portugal; those ceramic tiles and azulejos can be found alongside statues and columns and sun-loving plants, including citrus trees.
Both native and exotic plants and flowers featured in these gardens have grown since W.R. Hearst himself walked through them.
For outdoor entertainment, the Neptune Pool is the centerpiece of what William called the “Temple Garden.” The stunning pool area is outfitted with a Roman temple replica and sculptures, including one of Neptune, of course.
At 104-feet long and 95-feet wide at its widest, the pool could easily accommodate as many guests that could fit within the castle’s bedrooms — and it’s heated. An oil-burning system can warm up the 345,000 gallons of water that fill it, which is good since the pool is filled with mountain water.
Near the Visitor’s Center, an indoor pool is modeled after Roman baths, right down to its floor-to-ceiling tiles.
Marble statue replicas of ancient Greek and Roman gods add to the ambiance.
Touring the Upper Suites
For a more intimate look into the living spaces of the Hearst family, climb the winding staircases for a 60-minute tour of the upper floors.
This tour includes the Doge’s Suite, Library, Gothic Suite, Deluxe Bedrooms and Celestial Suite as well as aforementioned the Gardens, Neptune Pool and Roman Pool.
Named and styled after Venice’s Doge’s Palace, this suite is as ornate as its namesake. The two-bedroom suite with a sitting area has a show-stopping painted antique ceiling and walls adorned by heavy blue curtains from ceiling to floor.
Statues and candelabras continue in this space, which is also filled with antique furnishing and paintings. An arched marble balcony reminiscent of Venice’s bridges features carved lions, a symbol of the Floating City.
To reach W.R. Hearst’s very own suite, you’ll have to climb a 322-spiral staircase. This third-floor, two-bedroom suite with a living room was his private sanctuary and still contains some of his prized possessions.
Styled like a church with painted arches and high windows, W.R. Hearst shared this suite with his companion, Marion Davies, until his death.
For someone in the publishing business, finding an expansive library within Casa Grande should come as no surprise. Located off of his similarly designed suite, the 80-foot-long Gothic library is filled with more than 4,000 books.
Continuing the Roman and Grecian touches found throughout the property, the library is home to 150 vases from Greece that date back more than 2,000 years.
You won’t visit all 56 bedrooms found in Casa Grande, but the tour gives visitors a glimpse at bedrooms that were available to esteemed guests.
These Deluxe rooms also feature the ornate detailing from carved wooden post beds, large marble fireplaces and intricately designed ceilings one would expect in Spain or Italy rather than in 1920s California.
Della Robbia Room
One guest room of note is named for the tin-glazed earthenware pieces from the workshops of Andrea di Marco Della Robbia, a 15th-century Florentine sculptor. Considered an Old Master, his Renaissance reliefs are considered priceless.
The twin beds in this room were used to accommodate W.R. Hearst’s sons, Randolph and David.
W.R. Hearst may have replaced his tented sleeping arrangements with his casa, but he still wanted the ability to sleep beneath the stars. His original plan called for “sleeping porches,” but he was convinced to enclose the two bedrooms just beneath the bell tower to protect them from the elements.
However, the unique arched windows are covered with a cutout design that allows sun and moonlight to stream in as if through trees. The two bedrooms, located on the fourth floor of Casa Grande, are connected by a sitting room.
Touring the Cottages and Kitchen
While the social rooms were meant to be seen by guests of the property, the Hearst family had private spaces all their own. This 60-minute tour takes visitors to the lesser-seen areas of the property, including two mansions that were private homes to Hearst family members. (In the spirit of calling a castle a casa, they were called cottages!)
The tour also includes a peek into the wine cellar and the kitchen.
You can’t have a grand dining room without a kitchen of ample size to whip up feasts. Here, the décor is that of the 1930s with decades-old stock pots and mixers and some of the first refrigerator styles found in America.
It was one of the most modern kitchens to be envied at the time of its creation.
Guests of Hearst were treated to a fine collection of wine and spirits, even during Prohibition. Found at the north end of the Assembly Room, you’ll have to descend a spiral staircase into the basement to access the cellar. Because of lack of refrigeration, the cellar kept some of the best vintages of wine of Hearst’s time at the right temperature.
But no one was allowed to access the cellar except for W.R., which is why thick iron doors are found at the entrance. He was the only person with the key.
The loft bedrooms connected by two sitting rooms were purposely designed to let in the light in a unique guest-suite configuration.
Adorned with tapestries, its painted ceilings are just as stunning as those found in the more opulent accommodations.
Formerly known as the White Oak Terrace, this terrace project was halted during construction. Instead of razing it, the terrace was covered over in 1929.
It’s called the Hidden Terrace because it was not discovered until 1975.
Fly on In
With the Hearst family’s wealth, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the family had its own airstrip on the land. The fastest way to get to the castle, Hearst Airport was built in the 1920s and is still owned by the family and welcomes privately operated planes of the Hearst family. (Although today’s airstrip location was relocated in the 1940s.)
Howard Hughes, who broke the transcontinental record for flight time in 1937 and flew around the world in 1938 in record time, was a frequent guest.
Hearst Airport is large enough to welcome large jets, too.
Its largest arrival was when Malcolm Forbes (pictured) flew in on a Boeing 727.
Because Hearst Castle is also a working ranch, it’s possible to spot the descendants of zebras roaming the grounds. This is because the family had its own zoo. At the time, it was one of the largest private zoos in the world. Called the Hearst Garden on Comparative Zoology, the zoo was a combination of William’s love of animals and his desire to have his guests drive through a natural and exotic setting en route to the home.
The zoo was home to camels, bears, giraffes, emus and an array of exotic animals from around the world.