From medieval fortresses to fairy-tale estates, discover 15 must-see castles in this fabled region of central France.
Easily reachable from Paris, the Loire Valley is world famous for its extraordinary artistic and historic heritage. Often referred to as the Garden of France, the region was the favorite holiday destination of French kings during the Renaissance. Considered a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2000, the Loire Valley holds endless appeal for its wines, picturesque villages, air of romance and above all, its magnificent castles. In the valley and the surrounding areas there are around 300 chateaus, making it impossible to visit them all. That’s why we’ve rounded up the must-sees when visiting this famous French region.
Read on to discover 15 of the most beautiful and fascinating castles of the Loire:
1. Chambord Castle
Chateau de Chambord is probably the region’s best-known castle, and for good reason. In addition to being the largest in the Loire, it also lies in the heart of Europe’s largest enclosed forest park. Spread over 5,440 hectares, the garden was commissioned by King François I to be his hunting grounds, while the castle was intended as his hunting residence. Too bad the king only spent a total of 50 days here.
Today a visit to the Chambord castle allows you to glimpse the Renaissance, uncover its history and be amazed by its architectural beauty, which includes the famous keep, symbol of the king’s military power, and the sumptuous double helix staircase with its two intertwining stairs. You’ll also have the chance to see an exhibition on horses, marvel at an equestrian or raptor show, and go for a bike or boat ride.
2. Chenonceau Castle
Château de Chenonceau, also called Château des Dames, is an ode to all things feminine. Originally a medieval castle (only the Tour des Marques keep remains), the chateau was later transformed into a sublime Renaissance chateau thanks to the illustrious women who not only lived there but also managed and protected it. The castle reveals their strength, taste and refined aesthetic. In particular the bridge over the river was commissioned by Diana Poitiers, mistress of Henry II and Duchess of Valentinois. The arches of this Renaissance gem are reflected in the water, casting perfect circles said to symbolize sensuality and motherhood. As an aside, when Henry II died, Catherine de’ Medici, now a widow, drove Diana out and chose the castle as her residence.
While the castles houses an impressive collection of masterpieces by 16th- and 18th-century artists, the main attraction is the gardens. Strolling through the Jardin de Diane de Poitiers of Catherine de Médici, the Jardin Vert or the Orangerie lets you admire the gorgeous array of colored flowers and perfumes, and imagine what it would have been like walking these grounds during the Renaissance.
3. Château de Clos-Lucé
If you want to immerse yourself in the Renaissance, don’t miss the Château de Clos-Lucé in Indre-et-Loire, which is also where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last years. While the castle itself looks more like a noble residence in Gothic style and is less impressive than Chambord or Chenonceau, it has treasures that attest to Leonardo’s genius.
Taking a walk in the garden, among pines, irises and rocks, gives you insight into how Leonardo’s artistic techniques were inspired by nature and you’ll even get to test some of his scientific inventions. It’s fun and fascinating for the whole family.
4. Royal Castle of Amboise
In a round-up of Loire’s best castles, it’s impossible not to mention the Château d’Amboise, a monumental building with distinctive towers and terraces that is immediately recognizable. Of medieval origins, the castle was modified and adapted to the Renaissance tastes of Charles VIII and became a stately residence for the kings of France. King Francis I also happened to invite Leonardo da Vinci to stay; it seems the castle was also connected by an underground passage to the Manor of Clos-Lucé, the last home of the Italian artist.
Highlights include the Saint-Hubert Chapel, decorated by Flemish artists in the Gothic style and where the alleged remains of Leonardo are kept. Two towers, the Minimi and the Heurtault, watch over the north and west sides of the castle and are also impressive.
5. Château of Blois
In Loir-et-Cher you’ll find one of the most famous castles in the entire Loire Valley: the Château of Blois. Not only the place where Joan of Arc was blessed before marching on Orléans, it’s also been the residence of several French sovereigns and has an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from medieval to classicism. You can learn about the history of the castle during its light and sound show, which animates the facade with tales and anecdotes about its illustrious tenants.
The top attraction here isn’t the castle built between the 15th and 18th century, instead it’s the magnificent garden. One of the most well-kept and picturesque in the whole of the Loire, the sprawling green space is divided into six different sections and three terraces, which includes a verdant vegetable garden whose lush fruits can even be tasted. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the gardens were restored by its last owner, Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor who managed to introduce some innovative and contemporary elements, while maintaining its classic Renaissance style.
7. Château de Chaumont
A castle that seems to have come straight out of a fairy tale, the Chaumont-sur-Loire has a long and ancient history. Dating back to the year 1,000, it was originally built for defensive purposes and then razed to the ground by Louis XI out of enmity towards the owners, In 1500 it was rebuilt, this time in an ornamental Renaissance style, and bought by Catherine de’ Medici. She expelled Diana of Poitiers, mistress of her deceased husband Henry II, from another castle and in exchange gave her the Chaumont. While smaller in size, it is (arguably) of equal charm.
Discover the fascinating history of the castle and the eccentricities of its many owners. And don’t forget to take a stroll in the English-style garden built in the late 1800s.
8. Château de Valençay
Described by writer George Sand as one of the “most beautiful places on earth and no king has a more picturesque park”, Château de Valençay is a Renaissance treasure that needs to be included on any trip to the Loire Valley. Rebuilt in the 16th century, it was home of the Prince of Talleyrand, a crafty French diplomat with lavish taste. Consisting of 25 apartments and around one hundred rooms, the castle’s interiors include historical furnishings and are sumptuous to say the least. The grounds also have some gorgeous gardens, including the fallow deer park and one of the largest labyrinths in the country.
Two owners are behind the two very different structures that coexist in the Langeais: the castle of Louis XI, which mixes the feudal style with the Renaissance, and the Tower of Foulques Nerra. For those who love delving into a bit of historical this is the ideal attraction. Firstly, it’s one of the few fortresses that maintain the original access point via a drawbridge, which still rises and lowers when it opens and closes. Secondly, Langeais is famous for being the wedding venue of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany. An event that profoundly marked French history, it’s been eerily recreated in the castle with life-like wax statues.
10. Château d’Azay-le-Rideau
Among the most beautiful castles of the Loire, it’s impossible not to mention Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, an elegant estate that looks like it’s floating on the waters of the Indre River. Of feudal origin, the castle was rebuilt in the early 16th century according to the style of the time, with decorative features typical of the Italian Renaissance. The shimmering facade reflected in the water, the magnificent arch at the entrance and the manicured park behind it are just some of the castle’s many drawcards.
The interiors have been renovated and cared by the Biencourt family and the Salone dei Biencourt is also particularly impressive: it has as many as 80 meticulously restored pieces of furniture.
11. Château de Chinon
The monumental Château de Chinon looms over the river Vienne and a medieval village from the top of a hill. It’s so enormous it’s divided into three separate sections: Fort Saint-Georges, the castle of Milieu and the fortress of Coudray. The complex has also been the venue for some of the most fascinating events in French history. Here the first meeting took place between Joan of Arc and King Charles VII, while its prisons held the last members of the Templar Order.
Discover the castle’s history and many secrets through an array of tablets, interactive videos and multimedia installations. And, for those who love challenges, the chateau can also be the atmospheric setting of an Escape Game.
12. Royal Citadel of Loches
Step back in time around 1,000 years in the small town of Loches. Steeped in medieval history, everyone from valiant soldiers, refined ladies, political strategists, religious institutions and exceptional artists have passed through this imposing Royal Citadel. While the foundation and construction of the first tower was commissioned by the Count of Anjou Foulques Nerra, the citadel continued to expand and evolve over the following centuries until it reached its present appearance.
Must-see attractions include the Saint-Ours Collegiate Church, Loches Castle and the Tower of Foulques Nerra, the oldest building in the whole complex.
13. Château de Cheverny
Cheverny was one of the first castles in the region to open to the public and from 1914 until today it continues to be one of the major attractions of the Loire Valley, thanks to its history and extraordinary beauty. Lived in continuously by six generations of the Vibraye family, little has changed since its construction in the 1600s and its interiors brim with tapestries, ceiling murals and artistic gems and period furniture.
Don’t miss the English park which, during the summer, can be explored via boat or electric car. Animal lovers may also want to make a stop at the kennel inhabited by around 100 dogs; it’s open to visitors in the afternoons from March to September. Cheverny also hosts a permanent exhibition dedicated to the comic Tintin.
14. Sully-sur-Loire Castle
Surrounded by a deep moat of water, the Château de Sully-sur-Loire was originally built for military purposes and while its imposing façade is somewhat uninviting, its interiors exude Renaissance sophistication. The Duke of Sully had the park and towers built and is responsible for giving the estate its more princely aesthetic.
Sully-sur-Loire is a paradise for lovers of history and those fascinated by the strategies of war. Uncover the castles military secrets as a defensive outpost on the river Loire during your visit.
15. Château du Rivau
Last on the list but certainly not in terms of beauty, the Château du Rivau, built in the 15th century, is one of the oldest and most inviting castles of the Loire. A blend of medieval and Renaissance architecture, it’s also steeped in fairy-tale charm, with a quaint drawbridge, moat, turrets and a royal stable that in its heyday housed up to 30 horses. But the real star of the show is the immense gardens that include a maze of hedges, an enchanted forest, vegetable patch and a fantastic collection of roses.
Have a look at our best experiences in the Loire Valley: