Did anyone say “idyllic holiday to France’s most picturesque castles”? Because this is pretty much what you’re getting when you go to the Loire Valley castles. Located just two south-east of Paris, this ensemble has the world’s highest concentration of castles (a few hundreds, just that), some rather small, and some downright Disney-worthy. I visited the region a few times back when I was living in France – here is a list of my favourite castles, including things you should know about them and where they can be found.
Azay-le-Rideau is not the biggest nor the most romanticised castle but it certainly is charming. Often called the “Enchanted mirror” because of the way its western wing is reflected on the river that surrounds it, Azay-le-Rideau is the perfect depiction of what a French Renaissance castle looks like to us 21st-century creatures, with its pointy towers and perfectly symmetric facades. The guided visit is very well organised and full of fun trivia – in fact, did you know that Azay-le-Rideau was one of the first castles to boast dog-legged staircases as opposed to spiral ones?
Amboise is probably the most fun one to visit, not only because of the pretty castle itself but also because of the super cute and lively village around it. The biggest point of interest in Amboise is Da Vinci’s heritage – he used to live in nearby Clos-Lucé, and he is supposedly buried in the castle’s chapel (his remains were never formally found nor identified but there are strong suspicions that he is indeed in Amboise). The castle grounds, which are located atop a small hill, offer a pretty good vantage point on Amboise village and the surrounding valley.
If there was one castle where you could skip the actual indoor visit and just stick to the outdoors, it’s this one. Villandry indeed has the most beautiful, colorful and exhaustive gardens of the area. It has a flower garden, an herbs garden, a vegetable garden and a beautiful pond. Fun fact, this very pond is said to be the shaped after one of Louis XIV’s bedroom mirror! It’s such a nice feeling to simply walk around, smelling the different aromas throughout the garden.
Chenonceau is probably one of the most iconic castles of the Loire Valley. Built across the Cher River (yes, parts of the castle actually form a bridge!), it’s quite small but very cute. Often nicknamed “The Ladies Castle” because of two notable residents, Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médicis, and their obvious influence on the decor. It’s actually the most visited castle in France after Versailles, and I can definitely understand why. Between the highly ornate rooms to the super fun maze outside, everyone is guaranteed a good time at Chenonceau.
My absolute favorite – I mean, have you looked at it? The picture says it all. Chambord Castle is the largest one in the region, and the most ornate too. Its features Da Vinci’s double-helix staircase, 128 meters of lavishly-decorated facade, 800 columns and a 13,000 acre park. In fact, Chambord Castle was first used as the hunting lodge of King Francois I back in the 16th century – which, in retrospect, may explain why the French were so adamant on getting a revolution. I don’t know about you guys but hunting grounds in Canada don’t look like that!
The castle is not furnished but is nonetheless very interesting to visit – especially the sunset and sunrise rooms, as well as Louis XIV’s quarters. The castle, despite its square and logical shape, is an absolute maze, but so much fun to explore.
Loire valley castles: more suggestions
Loire valley castles: know before you go
Visiting a castle in France
Some castles are furnished and some aren’t; don’t expect to see a full 16th century decor every time. A lot of castles updated their furniture in the 19th century (or later on if the castle was used for different purposes), meaning that most of what remains today doesn’t actually date back to the Renaissance.
There are a lot of wineries and vineyards in the Loire Valley, which are well worth a visit if you are a white wine aficionado (whites are a local specialty). Always remember that the blood alcohol concentration limit in France is 0,5 mg/ml ;-)
How to visit the Loire Valley castles from Paris
If you plan on visiting several châteaux you might want to purchase the Châteaux Pass, which you can purchase in any local tourist office. It not only gives you a small discount for each castle, but you also get to skip the queues and go straight inside the castles. Prices vary according to which castle you choose to include in the pass.
If you are visiting on a day trip from Paris and can’t hire a car, this guided coach tour of the Loire Valley Castles from Paris is a great option.
The Loire Valley is a very popular cycling destination, and many tour operators offer organised tours of the region. Well worth looking into if you are an avid cyclist!
Loire Valley castles on a budget
Castle grounds make for lovely picnic spots – save on restaurants by visiting the local market and get some delicious baguette and charcuteries for lunch.