After living in France for several years, it’s fair to say I’ve had my fair share of châteaux. From the lavish properties of the Loire Valley to the ruins of the French Riviera, and pretty much everything in between, France doesn’t disappoint in terms of castles. The fact that there are so many – over 45 000! – can be somewhat challenging when planning a trip.
Where to start?
Which ones are worth it?
Which one will make you want to dress up and hold court?
Château de Chambord, Loire Valley
The biggest, most magnificent one of all! Chambord is not just another staple of the Loire Valley – la crème de la crème. Its double-circular stairway was designed by Da Vinci himself, and the terraces on the uniquely ornate roof are worth the trip alone, especially for the views over the massive domain – which is technically bigger than all of Paris.
Château d’If, French Riviera
The castle itself isn’t anything special when compared to other lavish ones within the country. But the fact that it’s on a tiny island out in the sea – hello, cruise on the Mediterranean! – and consequently the amazing views it offers of Marseilles and the harbour is simply too divine to overlook. It’s also where Alexandre Dumas got his inspiration for “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Rumour has it that’s also where the Man in the Iron Mask was detained, although reports on this topic vary greatly.
Palais de Versailles, Paris
That’s a given. Say hello to the ghosts of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, and admire the decadent architectural details that made Versailles so famous and one of the best castles in France. While it would undoubtedly be even more enjoyable without the massive and suffocating crowds, a visit to Versailles is simply not optional, and definitely, the kind of place that must be seen once in a lifetime.
Château d’Azay-Le-Rideau, Loire Valley
Touring the castles of France and not stopping in the Loire Valley would be like going to New York City and not have a cosmopolitan – unthinkable, and regrettable. The Loire Valley has the highest concentration of Renaissance castles in the world, and is a hugely popular tourist attraction in France, with reason. Azay-le-Rideau is mostly famous for its perfect reflection on its surrounding lake, hence why it is nicknamed The Enchanted Castle.
Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley
The small, romantic and feminine castle of Chenonceau is often cited as a favourite amongst both locals and travellers and does not disappoint. The presence of its then inhabitants is still palpable today throughout the different rooms – did you know its long halls were transformed into an infirmary during World War II?
Cité de Carcassonne, Languedoc
Truly one of the best castles in France! While largely reconstructed, the Cité de Carcassonne is a grandiose set of fortifications of over 3 kilometres of walls and 52 towers. The foundations go all the way back to the 5th century Visigoth, but its full glory wasn’t reached until the crusades of the early 13th century when Carcassone became a border town from the kingdom of Aragon in Spain. Few castles in the world can boast having such allure and atmosphere, and therefore give the visitor such an unforgettable experience.
Château de Menton-Saint-Bernard, Savoie
Eastern France’s most beautiful castle makes for an ideal day trip from bustling Lyon and is well worth the detour. Standing on a 200-metre tall rock, the 13th-century castle looms over the turquoise and pristine waters Lake Annecy and offer an unobstructed panorama of the beautiful Roc de Chère mountain range. The steep climb up to the castle will make up for the cheese-fondue induced calories.