The Châteaux of France’s Loire Valley are one of the country’s most opulent and dramatic sights to visit. This collection of castles contains some legendary names – Chambord, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Amboise. For centuries, the castles along the Loire Valley south of Paris were the homes of French royalty and nobility, with magnificent gardens and estates. Once private residences, many of the châteaux serve as museums and tourist attractions today.
Loosely following the northern part of the 1000 kilometer (620 miles) Loire River and its tributaries, the Loire Valley runs roughly between Nantes and Orléans. The larger and more famous of the Loire châteaux are found in the Centre-Val de Loire region. In fact, there are over 300 châteaux to visit in the Loire Valley region! Many visitors take a car and a few days to see a number of their favourite châteaux. But with so many amazing châteaux to visit, which ones should you focus on for a visit?
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Château de Chambord
Mysterious, colossal, elegant, the Château de Chambord has the honour of being the Loire Valley’s largest castle. This spectacular Renaissance-style castle was completed in 1547, with a central keep and four bastion towers linked by walls. King Francis I ordered the castle built as a luxury hunting lodge and a show of wealth. However, after staying just seven weeks in the Château, the king died. Over the next century, difficulties in keeping the enormous residence supplied and heated, as well as its isolated location led to it falling into disrepair.
King Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil, began restoration works in the 17th century, but over the subsequent centuries the Château was abandoned again. It saw activity during the second world war, where it housed artworks evacuated from the Louvre, and even had an American bomber crash land on its lawn. Today, the restored castle is one of the biggest tourist draws of the region.
Visit Le Château de Chambord if you want a great day trip from Paris (2 1/2 hours drive from Paris)
Château Royale de Blois
The city of Blois on the banks of the Loire is built around its magnificent castle, the Château Royale de Blois. A collection of four different architectural styles, the chateau was once home to the royal family of France. The original castle was named the Blisum Castrum, which was razed by Viking invaders in 854CE. Construction for the current castle began in the 13th century with the medieval fortress. Between 1498 and 1500, the red brick and grey stone Louis XII Gothic Wing was added, along with a terraced Italian garden. The next upgrade came between 1515-1518, when the Francois I Renaissance wing, including the castle’s corkscrew staircase, was added. The latest addition was the Gaston, Duke of Orlèans neoclassical wing.
Blois was home to a number of French kings, which included Louis XII (1462-1515), Francis I (1494-1547), Henry III (1551-1589), and Henry IV (1553-1610). The Château Royale de Bois was even the scene of several assassinations. Henry I, Duke of Guise was murdered the castle by Henry III’s bodyguards, as the king watched (his brother, Louis II, was killed the same way the next day)! Joan of Arc was Blessed by the Archbishop of Rheims in the castle in 1429. Today, the castle is open to visitors, with 35,000 paintings and 10,000 objects on display, as well as the Blois Museum of Fine Arts.
Visit Le Château Royale de Blois if you like stories from history and admiring different architectural styles (2 1/2 hours drive from Paris).
Château de Cheverny
The grand symmetrical facade of the Château de Cheverny is one of the Loire Valley’s iconic buildings. Since its construction on the grounds of a former fortress between 1624 and 1640, the castle has been owned and occupied by a single family, the Hurault de Vibraye family. The castle has been open to the public since 1922, the first Loire Valley Château to do so. Château de Cheverny is recognisable for its inclusion in Tintin comics as Captain Haddocks’s Marlinspike Hall.
Inside is an impressive collection of paintings, tapestries, carvings, busts of Roman emperors, and medieval weapons. Apartments on the first floor recreate life from the 17th century. Visitors can see Les Secrets de Moulinsart, an Tintin comic exhibition. On the grounds are plenty of things to explore, with 6 themed gardens, a 100 hectare forest, and a dog kennels.
Visit Le Château de Cheverny if you love Tintin comics! (3 hours drive from Paris).
Château de Chenonceau
The most visited château in the Loire Valley (and the second most visited castle in all of France, after Versailles) is the iconic Chenonceau. Château de Chenonceau is famed for its raised gallery that spans part of the river Cher. The main part of the castle was constructed between 1514-1522, with the bridge added in 1556-1559, and the gallery in 1570-1576. The castle was built on the site of a former castle and fortified mill, with a medieval keep still remaining of the original structure.
The Château de Chenonceau was the site of the first fireworks ever launched in France, to celebrate King Francis II’s ascension to the throne in 1560. The château has held important places in history because of its use as a bridge. During the French revolution, it was spared destruction because of its usefulness as a bridge. During WW2, the Château was used as a crossing between the Nazi-occupied north bank of the Cher and the free zone on the other bank. Part of the château was damaged by allied bombing, but was rebuilt post-war.
Visit Le Château de Chenonceau if you want to take some breathtaking photos (3 hours 15 minutes drive from Paris).
Château de Chaumont
The mighty round turrets and grey rooftops of the Château de Chaumont are one of the Loire Valley’s most iconic sights. The original castle was built on a hill overlooking the Loire around 1000CE by Odo I, count of Blois, to defend his lands against rivals in Anjou. However the castle was dismantled in 1465 after an unsuccessful royal rebellion. The castle was rebuilt into the beautiful masterpiece that still stands today.
The château has hosted many famous visitors over the centuries. The astrologer Nostradamus visited Catherine de Medici in 1550, and in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin visited the castle, as did Italian painter Jean-Baptiste Nini. The wealthy sugar heiress Marie Say bought the castle in 1875. Today, the château is open as a museum, and visitors can visit the various ornate chambers, admire tapestries and paintings, see the Great Stable, wander the expansive gardens, and admire the collection of historic carriages.
Visit Le Château de Chaumont if you love history and interior design (3 hours drive from Paris).
Château de Brissac
Château de Brissac was built in the 11th century by the counts of Anjou, and later renovated in the 15th century. Known as ‘The Giant of the Loire Valley’, the 7-storey, 204-room château is the tallest castle in France. It was severely damaged during the French wars of religion, and renovated in a 17th century Baroque style. The château was once again damaged during the French revolution, and was abandoned for half a century.
Today, the Château de Brissac is still owned by the Dukes of Brissac family, who have been the owners for 500 years. The château is open to visitors, who can also spend the night in its luxury apartments, admire the ceilings of gold leaf, and taste wines in its vast cellar. It is also famed for its Belle Epoque-style golden theatre, which is home to the Val de Loire festival.
Visit Le Château de Brissac if you want an amazing overnight stay, with wine of course! (4 1/2 hours drive from Paris).
Château de Villandry
The Château de Villandry started life as a defensive fortress from the 14th century, and was expanded in the 16th century to the castle that stands today. While the building is certainly impressive, it is the exceptional gardens which Villandry is most known for.
The gardens of Villandry were first set up in the early 20th century, and covers 9 hectares. There are several zones to the garden that includes a large ornamental vegetable garden, a water garden with fountain displays, kids play gardens, flower gardens, and formal gardens. The château itself is open for visitors, and has a restaurant on site.
Visit Le Château de Villandry if you want to see one of the Loire Valley’s most impressive gardens (3 1/2 hours drive from Paris).
Château Royal d’Amboise
Known as a residence of French kings for several centuries, the Château Royal d’Amboise is one of the most luxurious residences in the Loire valley. It is built on the Châteliers promontory, a defensive rock outcrop over the Loire River. Originally a Celtic town and then a Roman outpost, Amboise fell under the French crown in 1214.
Le Château Royale d’Amboise was the home of the royal court throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, and kings such as Charles VIII contributed to expansions in the Gothic style. Large cavalry towers and an advanced heating system were some of the improvements made to the Château. The unusual death of Charles VIII took place in the château, when he hit his head on a door lintel. One of the castle’s famous residents was Leonardo da Vinci, who lived there between 1516-1519, and is buried at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert. Today, the castle is open to visitors, who can admire the sweeping views, grand council chambers, the spiral ramp, and the castle gardens.
Visit Le Château Royale d’Amboise if you want to see the home of French kings and learn about how they lived (3 hours 10 minutes drive from Paris).
The Loire Valley is one of France’s most beautiful, elegant and historic getaway destinations. With 300 châteaux scattered throughout the area, there is always something new to discover. By narrowing down visits to some of the highlights of the region – such as Chambord, Villandry, or Chenonceau, visitors are sure to find their perfect French castle along the Loire River.