There’s nothing else in California quite like Hearst Castle (Hwy. 1 and Hearst Castle Rd., 800/444-4445, www.hearstcastle.com , tours daily 8:20 a.m.–3:20 p.m., $24). Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst conceived of the idea of a grand mansion in the Mediterranean style, on the land his parents bought along the central California coast. His memories of camping on the hills above the Pacific led him to choose the spot on which the castle now stands.
He hired Julia Morgan, the first female civil engineering graduate from UC Berkeley , to design and build the house for him. She did a brilliant job with every detail, despite the ever-changing wishes of her employer.
By way of decoration, Hearst assisted in the relocation of hundreds of European medieval and Renaissance antiquities, from tiny tchotchkes to whole gilded ceilings. William Randolph also adored exotic animals, and created one of the largest private zoos in the nation on his thousands of Central Coast  acres. Though most of the zoo is gone now, you can still see the occasional zebra grazing peacefully along Highway 1 to the south of the castle, acting as heralds to the exotic nature of Hearst Castle ahead.
The visitors center is a lavish affair with a gift shop, restaurant, café, ticket booth, and movie theater. Here you can see the much-touted film Hearst Castle—Building the Dream, which will give you an overview of the construction and history of the marvelous edifice, and of William Randolph Hearst’s empire.
After buying your ticket, board the shuttle that takes you up the hill to your tour. (No private cars are allowed on the roads up to the castle proper.) There are five tours to choose from, each focusing on different spaces and aspects of the castle. Tour 1 is recommended for first-time visitors, and you’re welcome to sign up for several tours over the course of one day. Tour 5 is a seasonal evening tour with volunteers dressed in 1930s fashion welcoming guests as if to one of Hearst’s legendary parties.
Expect to walk for at least an hour on whichever tour you choose, and to climb up and down many stairs. Even the most jaded traveler can’t help but be amazed by the beauty and opulence that drips from every room in the house. Lovers of European art and antiques will want to stay forever. The two swimming pools—one indoor and one outdoor—shine with grandeur, all marble, glass tile, and mixed antique and custom-created statuary and fixtures.
The park recommends that visitors buy tour tickets at least a few days in advance, and even further ahead for Tour 5 and on summer weekends. For visitors with limited mobility, a special wheelchair-accessible tour is available. Strollers are not permitted. The restrooms and food concessions all cluster in the visitors center—but no food, drink, or chewing gum is allowed on any tour.