France is the country that welcomes the most tourists in the world. Why is that? Because it offers a wide variety of activities to do in all seasons: From the sea, to the mountains, to the cities and countryside. It’s also rich in cultural and historical sites. The Loire Valley is a great example of this, as it’s the region of France with the highest number of castles. So if you’re looking to visit as many castles as possible without having to drive far in between, the Loire Valley could be a perfect destination for you. Many people also recommend visiting the castles of the Loire Valley as a day trip from Paris. And if you don’t mind the miles, you can even cycle along the Loire!
Let’s go! We are off to discover Loire Valley castles from East to West!
- 1. Chambord
- 2. Blois
- 3. Cheverny
- 4. Chaumont-sur-Loire
- 5. Amboise and Clos Lucé
- 6. Chenonceau
- 7. Villandry
- 8. Azay-Le-Rideau
- 9. Ussé
Chambord is the most majestic and imposing castle in the entire Loire Valley. With its 282 chimneys and symmetrical architecture, it can be a real labyrinth. On top of that, its forest is the largest walled park in Europe, with the same surface area as the city of Paris itself.
It is both massive and delicate. And it was built with this in mind in 1519 by François I. He used it as a hunting reserve and as a tool to impress his visitors, such as the future emperor Charles V.
The identity of the architect remains unknown, but the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s work is evident, as similar drawings have been found in his notebooks (such as the double staircase).
On site, you can discover the castle at your own pace or visit rooms by taking part in guided tours.
The royal castle of Blois has the particularity of being located in the middle of the city centre.
What is fascinating about Blois is that several eras have shaped one castle. Its four wings, surrounding the courtyard, form a unique example of the evolution of French architecture from the 13th to the 17th century. The building evokes, by its diversity of styles, the styles of 7 kings and 10 queens of France.
The castle has been the setting for period films such as the film “Joan of Arc” by French director Luc Besson.
The main attraction on entering the main courtyard is the spiral staircase dating from the renaissance. Through the large windows, the king and his courtiers could be seen walking to the royal lodgings. Its balconies made it possible to see and be seen.
This castle is well known to French speakers, but usually under another name: “Moulinsart”. Does that ring a bell? It is the castle of Captain Haddock in the Tintin comics by the Belgian author Hergé. “Moulinsart” is a fictional castle, but Hergé used the castle of Cheverny to bring it to life in his comics.
Even if you don’t know these stories, you can still enjoy this stately home that has been owned and lived in by the same family for six centuries. You will be able to gaze at the botanical park, the interior of the castle, and the gardens of the forest park.
And because of its connection with the Tintin comics, the castle is very family-friendly. There are plenty of fun activities on offer, such as an investigation during the visit to the castle, the Tintin exhibition, the garden labyrinth, the dog kennels, and a boat trip.
Formerly the property of Catherine de Medicis, Chaumont-sur-Loire is now a majestic castle and a cultural hotspot.
Indeed, the international garden festival is now held there. From spring to autumn, artists from all over the world exhibit their works here: paintings, sculptures, photographs and more.
Located between Tours and Blois, it is definitely worth a visit!
5. Amboise and Clos Lucé
A few kilometers further west, you will come across the Château d’Amboise. It is a royal palace and features a huge 360° balcony over the Loire Valley.
Famous for having been inhabited by François I, it also contains the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in its chapel! It was at Le Clos Lucé, a manor house linked by an underground gallery, that Leonardo da Vinci spent the last days of his life and died in the arms of François I in 1519.
It’s a historic site not to be missed, as is a visit to its gardens with a good pastry in hand!
You probably already know it, as it’s the most visited castle in France after Versailles. And if you have never seen it, it’s time to spend an afternoon there. It is one of the most magnificent sites in the Loire Valley.
This former royal residence built in 1513 is nicknamed the Château des Dames because many women have contributed to its embellishment, including Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médicis, among other very impressive women.
Its history is also intertwined with that of the 20th century, as its monumental gallery which crosses the Cher (a tributary of the Loire) was transformed into a military hospital during the First World War.
Its gardens are also a place to visit with its flowering vegetable garden and its labyrinth.
If you only have one garden to visit, then the gardens at Villandry are for you. They’re among the most quintessential French formal gardens. Straight and true, not a single stem sticking out. Order in nature, with lots of colours and love. In fact, there’s a square called “amour”.
You can wander around this immense property, the sun gardens, the water gardens (with its grandiose fountain), and even get lost in their giant labyrinth.
You can also have lunch in the restaurant adjoining the castle which is supplied by the vegetables grown in the castle’s gardens. A royal moment!
Often forgotten on guided tours of the Loire Valley castles, it is nevertheless a jewel to visit. Each corner of the castle has a turret. Its facades are made of chiseled stone reflecting on the water. The tufa rock is used in most of the castles in the Loire Valley.
If you are staying in the region for a night, try a night in a troglodyte dwelling – accommodations carved into the tufa rock. These are very typical along the banks of the Loire.
Your stay is coming to an end and you feel that there is a bit of magic missing? You stopped at the right castle! Yes, the castle of Ussé, known as Sleeping Beauty’s, is located in the Loire Valley. Charles Perrault was inspired to write his fairy tale there.
Another celebrity is linked to this castle, or at least to the exterior of the castle: The gardens were designed by Le Nôtre, the gardener of Versailles.
If you feel thirsty after all this traveling, stop at one of the many vineyards in the Loire Valley.
Loire Valley castles: the must-sees
1. Chambord: for its grandiosity, a giant of the Renaissance, a real must-see.
2. Blois: for its mix of styles and periods.
3. Cheverny: not to be missed, especially by families.
4. Chaumont-sur-Loire: for its summer festival.
5. Amboise and Clos Lucé: to learn all about Leonardo da Vinci.
6. Chenonceau: the second most visited castle in France.
7. Villandry: for its French formal gardens.
8. Azay-Le-Rideau: for its magnificent reflections on the water.
9. Ussé: to end your stay in magic.
Audrey has been a French teacher for more than ten years now, and a cheese-lover all her life. She comes from the west of France, and after living 2 years in Spain and 4 years in Oxford in England, she has just settled in the heart of France, in Auvergne, a land of cheese, rugby, Michelin tyres and ancient volcanoes. She definitely prefers the first one. She speaks French, Spanish and English and doesn’t intend to stop there! Find out more about her on her website and LinkedIn.