Our weekend in Paso Robles/San Luis Obispo ended with a drive home on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1, with a stop at Hearst Castle. We were not exactly on our travel game for Hearst Castle and could’ve improved our experience by planning ahead.
#1 sightseeing tip: Always make reservations in advance for popular sites!
#2 sightseeing tip: Arrive as close to the opening time as possible!
We neglected to do these things, and by the time we arrived at the castle around 11:30 A.M. we weren’t able to get into a tour until 2:00. Doesn’t seem like that big of a deal but when you’re traveling with kids, timing is everything. 2:00 happens to be right at the time of day our daughter normally naps. So we were faced with the dilemma of keeping her up vs. try to squeeze in a short nap and having to wake her mid-snooze. Oh, and we also needed to fit lunch in somewhere.
We decided to drive a few miles down the road to find a restaurant to eat at. By the time we got there, our daughter was asleep. We thought it best to let her sleep as long as possible so we got in the car and drove a few miles north of the castle to an elephant seal viewing area. We took turns getting out of the car to look at the seals who were sunbathing close to the viewing platform. I was able to snap a couple pictures before our next travel mistake…full memory card.
#3 sightseeing tip: Always make sure your memory card and battery are squared away before you leave!
We should’ve had an extra memory card with us, but we didn’t. So we had to resort to scanning through pictures and deleting unnecessary ones in the car on the way back to the castle for our tour. Therefore, we really didn’t have any great pictures of the seals on the beach. Fail.
We made it back to the visitor center of the castle and had just enough time to grab lunch at the cafe inside. Nothing much to write home about here. Burgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, and $8.00 slices of pizza…ouch! Eating before your tour is important though because there is absolutely no food or drinks at the top of the hill where the castle is. We also made sure to allow enough time to view the movie Hearst Castle: Building the Dream in the 5 story theater at the visitor center. Viewing the movie before your tour will help you build an understanding of William Randolph Hearst, the man who built the castle.
Then it was time to board our bus to take us up the hill to the estate. The bus has a narration by Alex Trebeck letting you know what you’re seeing on the way up. Watch for animals as there are still a special type of deer and zebras roaming the hills below the property. Once atop the hill, which is more than a hill but less than a mountain, you are greeted with the gorgeous spanish style mansion and gardens. You will meet a tour guide on the stairs immediately after disembarking the bus. The whole bus full of people is your tour group, so if you’re looking for a small, intimate tour-think again.
This was our first tour in a while, most of the tours we did in Europe were when our daughter was at an age where she was happy to sit quietly in her stroller. I will never forget the tour guide at the Houses of Parliament in London praising her at 5 months old for being “the most well-behaved child on a tour EVER.” Well gone are those days. Now she is an active and mobile 2 year old who has her own opinions on what to do.
If you plan to bring young children to Hearst Castle I will just warn you not to let them touch the pond! There are handlers placed in the courtyard for the sole purpose of making sure no one touches the marble pond. Challenging when the pond is ground height and has fish swimming around in it, tempting even the most well-behaved children to lean in and take a look.
The tour of the home itself was about 45 minutes long. It was informative and often invited you to imagine yourself as a guest of Mr. Hearst and what it might be like. Hearing the stories, seeing the film, and visiting the property made me think of The Great Gatsby. It seemed to be a real life version. My husband didn’t get as much enjoyment out of the tour because he was busy occupying our restless tot. But they had fun looking at the “scary guys” on walls and finding other fun things to look at. The tour ends in the home’s theater where you can see some short reels of William Hearst and his famous friends at the house in it’s heyday. When the tour ends you’re free to roam the gardens and the exterior for as long as you like before boarding a bus to go back down to the visitor center. Sadly, the exterior pool was drained for maintenance during our visit. From pictures and what I saw, it would truly be the jewel of the property when it is full and in working order.
All in all it was a fun visit! Hearst Castle is one of the highlights of the Central California Coast. I would say though not super “kid-friendly” don’t let having kids stop you from making a visit. Just know your own children and plan accordingly! We drove home on the Pacific Coast Highway and saw why you hear so much about it. The views are stunning, and that is an understatement! So ended our long weekend away. Our next getaway will be up to Sonoma Valley, and we’re really looking forward to it! Feel free to leave any Sonoma recommendations in the comments!