San Simeon, a small town located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is known in California (and beyond) for its castle.
A castle in California’s Central Coast? Yes, there is a gorgeous one located over a hill and open to visitors.
In this guide, I am telling you everything about the castle but I am going beyond it. I am trying to encourage visitor’s to stay a bit longer and explore more of San Simeon.
I am about to discuss its coast, pier, lighthouse, campsites, and natural resources. Stand by because I am giving you details on the best things to do in San Simeon.
Things to Do in San Simeon, California
San Simeon tends to be visited as a stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip or as a day trip from other locations on the coast (especially Cambria, located south).
However, an entire day (or longer) can be spent exploring its many attractions. After many visits, I feel like the town deserves its own guide with ideas on things to do. So, I have prepared this article for you. Of course, we have to start talking about a particular famous castle.
Must-See: Heart Castle!
I am pretty sure you have noticed how long the U.S. West Coast is. California alone has a coastline of 840 miles.
Choosing where to stop in such a vast territory can become a nightmare. However, most West Coast itineraries propose Hearst Castle as one of the main attraction in such an epic road trip.
Personally, I agree with the selection. I have visited the “Castle” several times and end in awe after each visit.
What we know as “The Castle,” was called La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) by its owner, Willian Randolph Hearst. Hearst, a media mogul, inherited his fortune and grounds where he built “The Castle” (Rancho Piedra Blanca) from his parents.
Even though the property had a Victorian mansion on it, he wanted to develop it further. He hired architect Julia Morgan for the job. What started as a small project ended up being a complex with 56 bedrooms, 61 bedrooms, 19 sitting rooms, two magnificent pools (one indoor and another outdoor), gardens, sports courts, and even a zoo.
Hearst ended inviting to his property personalities such as Charles Chaplin, Clark Gable, Charles Lindbergh, and Winston Churchill. Years after Hearst death, the estate was donated to the State of California.
The facade of the main building reminds you of a European cathedral. The inside and gardens are full of pieces of arts (as old as from Egyptian and Roman times). From the top, you can see cliffs, promontories, and miles of coastline.
Everything is a spectacle up there!
Hearst Castle is open to the public and can only be visited through guided tours. Visitors can choose among 4 tours (there are more options depending on the season). On a visit, you buy your ticket at the visitors center, wait for your time, board a shuttle that takes you to The Castle, do the tour and are given some time to walk around the exterior. All tours include the Neptune and Roman pools.
Each tour is $25 (cheaper for kids). Now, I know that is not necessarily affordable but this is a unique place. I encourage travel, history and art lovers to check it out.
On-site services include a restaurant, cafeteria, gift shop, and restrooms.
Note: Keep an eye on the Hearst Ranch (the area surrounding The Castle). Zebras, remnants of Hearst’s private zoo, inhabit the hills.
Spend some time at W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach
Portuguese shore whalers were the first Europeans to settle the area. By 1800s, San Simeon Bay was an active seaport, exporting a variety of goods, including mining, whaling, and dairy products.
In 1865, the land in the area (known as Rancho Piedra Blanca) was sold to George Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, in partnership with the whalers, built a wharf in the bay so sailing ships could tie up and load and unload goods.
The whaling industry started to die in the late 1800s. However, in the 1900s, the bay received shipments from all over the world to build and decorate Hearst’s Castle (which is located across the pier).
Today, the bay and the pier (wharf) are part of the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach. Hearst’s descendants donated the coastal property to the San Luis Obispo County. The day use area offers 24 picnic sites, 150 parking spaces, restrooms, water faucets, barbecue grill stands, and easy beach access. Recreational activities include picnicking, swimming, fishing, boating, kayaking and sunbathing.
The pier has signs describing the area’s history. The northern end of the bay has beautifully carved cliffs accentuated by huge roots. Scan the surroundings for the possibility to see big birds flying by. I love this spot since it has some of the most beautiful views in the area.
Visit the Coastal Discovery Center
The Coastal Discovery Center, located next to San Simeon’s pier entrance, has interactive exhibits and educational programs highlighting the natural and cultural resources of the San Simeon Bay and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Admission is free.
There is a kayak, wetsuit, stand up paddleboarding and bodyboard concession at the San Simeon Bay. You can rent equipment or join one of their guided tours (reservations are required).
Check out this unique place from the water. You can also explore the Cambria coast (several miles south).
Have a Burger at Sebastian’s Cafe
In the vicinity of the W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach, you will find the remains of Old Simeon. One of the buildings standing since the mid-1800s, Sebastian’s, serves delicious burgers, chili fries, onion rings, and soft drinks. The place has an excellent rating. Therefore, it is a good option to try if you are visiting The Castle or the beach.
But, wait, there is more. The structure has been declared a National Historical Monument since this was the place used to feed Hearst Castle’s workers.
On top of that, there is a wine tasting room on site (Hearst Ranch Winery, with great ocean views). So, that is yet another idea on things to do in San Simeon!
Observe Huge Elephant Seals
It is impossible not to stop at the Piedras Blancas Rookery. This place is a birthing and resting spot for elephant seals.
If you are unfamiliar with elephant seals, let me tell you these pinnipeds (animal family including seals and seas lions) get their name from the elongated snout of the adult male which resembles an elephant trunk.
These seals can reach humongous sizes. Males can reach a length of 14 to 16 feet and weight more than 5,000 pounds.
Elephant seals give birth in winter. That is the best time of the year to see them at Piedras Blancas (and to see the moms and pups). However, seals hang out on the beach the entire year. These funny creatures have some sweet movements. Go prepared to get a smile on your face.
Members of the Friends of the Elephant Seal organization are daily on site ready to answer questions. They can discuss at length several topics such as elephant seals’ behavior or the area’s geology.
The rookery is located 5 miles north of Hearst Castle and the pier. There are multiple signs pointing to the parking lot. This is one of my top recommendations for the area!
Tour the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
This lighthouse is famous for one thing: part of the upper floors and the Fresnel lens are missing. The structure suffered years of earthquake damage. In 1948, the upper part was removed to avoid a total collapse.
This peculiar lighthouse, without a light, has given place to all sorts of legends (ghosts, curses, monsters, etc.). You can ask locals about the most popular stories.
Access to the site is by guided tours, available every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday year round. During high season, tours are offered Mondays through Saturdays. The fee is $10 for adults; $5 for ages 6 to 17; and free for ages 5 and under. The tour lasts two hours and includes the historic lighthouse and support buildings, wildlife viewing, and spectacular scenery along an easy half-mile interpretive trail. Tours do not take place on Federal holidays.
The Fresnel lens is displayed in nearby Cambria (Main Street).
Hike the Boucher Trail
The Boucher Trail is accessed through the parking lot of the Piedras Blancas Rookery (there is another entry point and parking lot about a mile north).
This 1.9 miles trail (one-way) borders the cove where the elephant seals rest and continues half-mile north of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
The trail offers scenic views of the coast, sea stacks, promontories, and wildlife.
Visit Undeveloped San Carpoforo Beach
For those who want to get out of the beaten track, I recommend visiting San Carpoforo Beach, located 14 miles north of Hearst Castle.
This beach is located in the northernmost part of the Hearst San Simeon State Park. When driving north, you are going to notice a small parking lot after crossing the San Carpoforo Creek bridge. You will be meters away from a wild beach. The promontory to the south is Ragged Point.
Before leaving, drive a bit more north to take a gorgeous photo of the beach.
Camp at the Hearst San Simeon State Park
The Hearst San Simeon State Park protects several non-adjacent areas along 24 miles of the coast (approximation). For example, it manages the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk, the Leffingwell Day Use area (both located in Cambria), the W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach, the Hearst Castle, and the Piedras Blancas Coastline.
I have discussed how to enjoy several of these areas. If you are interested in camping, you can do it in the San Simeon Creek part of the park.
In there, you will find the Washburn (undeveloped, 1 mile inland from the beach) and San Simeon Creek (developed, 115 sites) Campgrounds. Campsites are equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. Restrooms, showers, and hiking trails are part of the facilities.
San Simeon Restaurants
To put it is in simple terms, San Simeon is NOT foodie central.
People rave about the quality of the food in Sebastian’s and that is pretty much what you have in terms of options.
The Hearst Castle Visitors Center has the Chief’s Galley Cafe (serving burgers made with Hearst Ranch meat, chicken sandwiches, Asian inspired dishes, chicken strips, BBQ beef sandwiches and more) and the Camp Hill BBQ (open during warmer months).
For a good meal, you will have to drive to Cambria. I recommend checking out Robin’s, Madeline’s, The Sow’s Ear, Cafe on Bridge Street, The French Bakery and Linn’s as Easy as Pie. You can find more details on my full Cambria guide.
Note: The is an area in San Simeon called Motel Row. There are some restaurants catering to people staying around but I do not recommend eating there. You can find something tastier in Cambria.
There is so much to do in coastal San Luis Obispo County. I completely adore the region and visit more than once per year.
It is very easy to combine a visit to San Simeon with other attractions to the area. Here I am leaving you with several suggestions on how to expand your vacation.
Gateway to Big Sur – You can use a day to explore San Simeon and Cambria and then depart to Big Sur the next day. By staying overnight on the area, you can maximize your time at the most famous stretch of California’s Coast.
Ragged Point (20 miles north) – Those short on time can have a taste of Big Sur by driving to Ragged Point, a spot with impressive cliff vistas, a waterfall, and some hikes. It is a short drive if you are exploring San Carpoforo Creek and Beach.
Paso Robles (40 miles east) – Wine lovers rejoice! Paso is only a couple of miles away from San Simeon. Paso’s east vineyards are even located closer to San Simeon. Use scenic CA-46 to reach the wine area.
Cambria (10 miles south) – Cambria and San Simeon are usually marketed together. So, it makes sense to visit both on a single trip. Make sure you have enough time to check Cambria’s nature preserves, wine tasting rooms, and Monterey pines. This town is a favorite of many. I have an extensive guide on Things to Do in Cambria.
Cayucos (23 miles south) – This small, almost unknown town located north of Morro Bay, is a great place to relax and meet some friendly locals. Did I mention smoked fish tacos and brown sugar cookies are sold in there? That is reason enough to go! I have an entire guide with details on Things to Do in Cayucos.
Morro Bay (29 miles south) – If you want to visit a unique place, Morro Bay should be your choice. The panorama in this town is dominated by Morro Rock, an enormous volcanic plug. It is one of the most beautiful places in California. For more info, check out my article on Things to Do in Morro Bay.
Avila Beach (51 miles south) – This community located has hot springs, a wine trail, several piers, hiking trails, and a colorful center. This is one of my favorite places on the Central Coast! As you can imagine, I have written in detail about this place: Things to Do in Avila Beach
Pismo Beach (54 miles south) – This city, located south of Avila Beach, offers the opportunity to ride ATVs along sand dunes, see monarch butterflies, kiteboard, surf and kayak among caves. For more info, check out my complete guide on Things to do in Pismo Beach.
How to Reach San Simeon, California
San Simeon is located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in San Luis Obispo County. That would be about 230 miles from each of the big cities. It is located 42 miles from San Luis Obispo (seat of the county), 136 miles from Santa Barbara and 95 miles from Monterey.
The closest airports are located in San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Keep in mind these airports are quite small and flying to them may be expensive. Most people reach fly to the San Francisco, San Jose or Los Angeles airports and start a road trip from one of those points.
I recommend exploring the region by car.
You can save some money on accommodations by staying in Morro Bay. Hotels tend to cost less in there when compared to Cambria. Another affordable place to stay is Arroyo Grande, a city adjacent to Pismo Beach.
More of Southern California
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