From Highway One, you’ll see this incredible complex of ornately embellished towers and buildings perched high on a coastal hilltop in San Luis Obispo County, like a coastal Shangri-La with 360-degree views. Park in the main lot of the state park grounds of Hearst Castle, then check in at the visitor center to ride one of the park’s shuttle buses up to the castle for a guided tour. (Make online reservations well in advance, especially during the busy summer months.)
Lavishly designed by Julia Morgan (California’s first female licensed architect) as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex, completed in 1947, is an extraordinary temple to opulence and excess. Now showcased within one of California’s most visited state parks, it is a must-see to end all must-sees, an eye-popping extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools.
In fact, the castle’s two pools are standout attractions. The outdoor Neptune Pool, 104 feet in length and with an oil-burning heating system, evokes ancient Greece and Rome, with marble statues of Neptune and Nereid guarding over the aquatic paradise. The second, smaller indoor Roman Pool has the look of a decadent Roman bath, with rich details including cobalt blue and gold smalti, or glass tiles. Look up to see intricate mosaics depicting a star-filled night sky, spreading across the roof and dome. The pool is surrounded by eight marble sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes, carved by Italian sculptor Carlo Freter.
From Hearst Castle, you can take a detour to the wine lover’s magnet of Paso Robles, or head north 15.5 miles to Ragged Point. Take in the views of crashing waves against plunging cliffs from the patio of the Ragged Point Inn. Towering 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean, this oceanfront locale is a prime viewing spot for whales, dolphins, and elephant seals, and is considered the “Gateway to Big Sur.”
Next up, you’ll encounter the most famous panoramas along the Central Coast—Big Sur.