Two coastal areas stood out at once when I was planing our little weekend getaway. While San Luis Obispo enticed with a profusion of enchanting landmarks and historic places to see and equally incredible things to do all year round, San Simeon, California, stole my heart with its secluded beaches and marine wildlife.
The Best Things to Do and Places to Visit in San Simeon, California
After hours and hours of driving and exploring the spectacular California North Coast region, a change in scenery was rather staggering. Instead of lush hills with occasional cows grazing on expansive green pastures fueled by spring rains, rows of houses, restaurants, and hotels clustered close to each other. If you ever wondered what town you’d arrived, numerous road signs never failed to reveal its name.
San Simeon is small. Considered a village not even a town, it looks simple. Classic coastal sights of tidy rows of buildings jammed the rolling hills along California Route 1 are not present here yet. But the heart of the village is unmistakable. The “urban” hub of San Simeon, it houses most of local hotels and diners and a few other places you must see while visiting this part of California.
The most intriguing destinations, however, nestle outside the village center. That’s where you find the most extravagant places one can only dream of visiting and a plentitude of unimaginable things to do outdoors that define and differentiate San Simeon from the rest of the coastal towns in the central part of the state.
With that said, reasons to visit San Simeon far exceed its small size. From a ragged coastline to clumsy marine mammals sunbathing on matchless beaches and a grandiose castle, the village can’t not impress. If you ever long to see all this splendor in person, be sure to visit the following places and do at least a few things from the list below while visiting the picturesque village of San Simeon, California.
TOP 11 THINGS TO DO DO AND PLACES TO VISIT IN SAN SIMEON – THE MAIN REASONS TO EXPLORE THE AREA
1. Tour Opulent Hearst Castle
No places in San Simeon are as grand, no things to do here are as splendid as Hearst Castle. Adorning a hill above the village, once known as “Camp Hill”, the mansion is the epitome of the American opulence.
A formal residence of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the castle protects secrets of the Roaring Twenties and 1930s. Until 1919, however, the hillock that houses the 42-bedroom palace provided the Hearst family and their friends with only a superior camping location.
Longing for more lavish things to do in the San Simeon area, William who inherited the land from his mother collaborated with the prominent San Francisco’s architect Julia Morgan to build a castle. It didn’t take long until the Camp Hill turned into “La Cuesta Encantada” or “The Enchanted Hill”.
Hearst didn’t spare money on his new residence that hosted the most lavish parties during that time. The biggest Hollywood starts flocked to San Simeon to indulge in all the extravagant things Hearst Castle offered and gaze at the most spectacular places in the area.
After the death of Hearst, his family donated the castle to the State of California. On May 11, 1976, the opulent mansion was inscribed on the United Stated National Historic Landmarks list.
To visit the grandest of all San Simeon’s places and imagine the loud parties that once took place here, you need to join a guided tour. Different tour options are available, ranging from Grand Rooms tours, Upstairs Suites tours, Cottages and Kitchen tours, and many more.
2. Watch Elephant Seals – One of the Most Astounding Things to Do in San Simeon
If Hearst Castle provides the main reason to visit the urban side of San Simeon, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery enhances the trip with the most mind-blowing things to do outdoors in the region. Most of the year, the ragged coastline area about 3.6 miles north of San Simeon shelters a large colony of elephant seals.
The clumsy on the land mammals get on the shore to breed and give birth. Normally leading a solitary life, the elephant seals get into groups on the land, playfully reminding the closest neighbors of their lonely nature from time to time. Mammal’s shrills can be heard from a distance. Their awkward crawls are a sight not to be missed.
You can see all sizes of the elephant seals on the beach near San Simeon doing their normal marine-life things – sunbathing under a layer of sand to keep themselves cool. The marine creatures don’t eat while on the land. Yet the smell of rotten fish somehow still lingers in the area.
Regarded as one of the must-see places in San Simeon, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is free to visit. Donations are welcomed, though.
A large observation area with tall fences spreads out along the entire beach, allowing to sneak up on the marine mammals from different angles. Yet be sure to keep it quiet while exploring this area near San Simeon to not disturb the elephant seals.
3. Hike to Ragged Point Beach
Beach lovers should move Ragged Point Beach to the top of the list of the best things to do and places to visit in San Simeon. Located about 15 miles north of the village, the dramatic coastal area provides both solitude and astounding vistas.
Hiking is another thing to do in this corner of the San Simeon region. In fact, it’s the most preferable way to the to the beach. A steep 0.6-mile Black Swift Falls Trail winds down a 300-foot cliff all the way to a splashing waterfall and the black sand beach.
The access to this spectacular place in the San Simeon region can be found behind the Ragged Point Inn and Resort.
4. Learn History of the San Simeon Region at Piedras Blancas Light Station
For someone who likes to delve deeper into the history of San Simeon, there is not better place to visit here than the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Nestled roughly 6.5 miles north of the coastal village, the structure reminds of the bygone era when lighthouses lured the ships home.
The lighthouse joined the family of the prominent places one must visit in San Simeon only recently. After years of service, in 2017 it received its deserved recognition and was added to the California Coastal National Monument.
Similar to some other historic landmarks, the structure is not easily accessible. Visitors must joint a guided tour to walk inside this splendid member of the San Simeon’s historic family.
5. Spot San Simeon’s Zebras
Sadly due to a road construction, we missed a few important places and consequently failed to see some of the most peculiar things while visiting San Simeon last weekend. Spotting local zebras was one of them.
These exotic black-and-white striped animals first appeared in Californian coastal village in the early 1920s. Eager to impress his guests, William R. Hearst acquired the largest private zoo in the world. All kinds of African and Asian animals inhabited the adjoining to the castle area.
The fame of the zoo, however, was short-lived. In 1937 Hearst encountered some financial difficulties. As a result, this unprecedented San Simeon’s attraction was dismantled. Most of the animals found their new homes far away from the coastal area. The zebras have remained, though.
As you drive along the coast looking for the best places to explore and things to do near San Simeon, peer in the opposite direction from the ocean. The striped animals may graze on the fields near Hearst Castle. On a gloomy day, as it was when we visited San Simeon, your chances of spotting the zebras are slim.
6. Explore Cambria – One of the Most Picturesque Places to Visit near San Simeon
Located just 9 miles south of San Simeon, Cambria extends the realm of the unspoiled coastal tranquility. “One of the best places to relax and unwind”, is how visitors describe this seaside village.
Famous for indigenous moonstone found on its beaches, Cambria conceals a myriad of impeccable sights and provides a profusion of unique things to do right on the outskirts of San Simeon.
Start with looking for these sacred and secluded places amidst Monterey pines in one of the native forests nearby. Later as you’ve worked up your appetite, explore local diners or return back to San Simeon for a Mexican feast.
7. Dine at El Chorlito
Speaking about the best places to eat in San Simeon, El Chorlito wins the prize. Situated in the heart of the village, this Mexican restaurant oozes Latin American charm and authenticity. Bright colors both outside and inside the building unmistakably indicate on its Mexican traditions. Blooming flowers festoon its front and tiny backyard. It’s one of the most vibrant fully-functional places to visit in San Simeon, no doubt about it.
The food is as delightful and flavorful as the restaurant’s surroundings. From mushroom fajitas to hearty wraps and Mexican French fries – Dylan’s favorite – a divine feast after a long day of exploring the San Simeon area is guaranteed.
The only downside here are prices. The restaurant is on the higher end so to say. On top of that, no prices are listed on the menu. So don’t be surprised if your bill arrives with the numbers higher than you would expect.
8. Spend a Morning at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach
Named for the wealthy former resident, William R. Hearst Memorial Beach is one of the easy to notice places in San Simeon. The reason behind it is the San Simeon Pier that stretches into the ocean as far as the eye can see.
Ok, it’s an exaggeration. Yet the magnitude and simplicity of the 850-foot structure arouses your curiosity and immediately promises a number of fascinating things to do on and near the central beach in San Simeon. Interestingly enough, the landmark is ranked as the 25th longest pier in California.
The area around the pier boasts scenic views. More than 20 picnic sites, barbecue stations, water faucets, restrooms, plenty of parking spaces, and access to the beach allow to enjoy these glorious surroundings in different ways.
TIP: Keep in mind, though, parking is not free. If you’d rather spend this money in some other places in San Simeon, park outside the paid area and walk to the beach.
9. Visit Limekiln State Park near San Simeon
Located roughly 38 miles north of San Simeon, Limekiln State Park is another must-visit place for both nature and history enthusiasts. The area entices first of all with its old towers.
In the late 1880s, these limekilns were used for extracting pure lime, a main ingredients in cement. Most of the cement used in construction of buildings in San Francisco and Monterey was harvested here.
Apart from the old kilns, the visitors from San Simeon find other incredible things to entertain themselves with. The first in line is Limekiln Falls. Next is a beach, located a short walk from a parking lot.
Note: We were unable to see any of these things and places while visiting the San Simeon region. All hiking trails, except for the beach access, stayed closed due to a recent fire.
10. Drive through Big Sur
The biggest allure and the most sought-after place to visit near San Simeon is Big Sur. Regarded as one of the most gorgeous drives in the world, the area boasts spectacular coastal vistas on one side and sweeping hills and pastures of the other.
A series of waterfalls, impeccable beaches, and secluded coves further emphasize the irresistible magnetism of the area. No roads in California are superior to this scenic route. And San Simeon along with Ragged Point sit at the head of it. Do you need any other reasons to visit the San Simeon area after this? I guess no.
READ MORE: Big Sur Photo Diary
11. Stay at Pacific Coast Roadhouse
For all luxurious travelers, feel free to skip this place and look for other accommodation that offer more excising things to do in or near San Simeon.
Those who need a comfortable, affordable room near the main attractions in the village, this is your place. The hotel enjoys a central location and neighbors San Simeon Beach Bar and Grill.
The 11 Best Things to Do and Places to Visit in San Simeon: Map
How to Visit San Simeon: Location
The quintessential village of San Simeon is located about 42 miles north of San Luis Obispo. Known as the gateway to Big Sur, it welcomes all travelers driving along scenic State Route 1. Situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it features some of the most extraordinary places to visit and offers the most incredible things to do in Central California.