One of the main points of attraction in France, outside the cheap wine and cheeses, is the Renaissance castles. Nowhere else in the world can you find such a high concentration of castles in a small area like the Loire Valley, just two hours south-west from Paris. There are a few hundred castles in the area, some big, some small, but all incredibly beautiful.
There are 5 obvious castles that should be on every Loire Valley Castles bucket list: Azay-le-Rideau, Villandry, Amboise, Chenonceau and Chambord.
My absolute favorite is Chambord Castle. I mean, have you looked at it? It’s the largest one of the region, and the most ornate. Its features include Da Vinci’s double-helix staircase, 128 meters of façade, 800 columns and a 13,000 acre park. It was actually built to be the hunting lodge of King Francois I back in the 16th century – I guess we have different definitions of what hunting lodges are! The rooms are all 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.
Then, the most logical stop on your itinerary would be at Amboise Castle. This is probably the most fun one to visit, not only because off 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 buried in the castle’s chapel. From there, you can also get a pretty good vantage point on Amboise village, which I truly enjoyed exploring as well, tasting several pâtisseries and chocolateries along the way. Chocolate is always a good excuse.
Chenonceau is probably one of the most iconic castles of the Loire Valley. Built across the Cher River, it’s quite small but very romantically 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 (if you can deal with huge crowds).
Now, this castle is not actually famous for its architecture or history, but mostly for its spectacular gardens. Villandry indeed has the most beautiful, colorful and exhaustive gardens of the area and probably of all of France, too. It has a flower garden, an herbs garden, a vegetable garden and a beautiful pond – which has a twist. Its shape is said to be the same exact one of Louis XIV’s bedroom mirror! It feels nice to simply walk around and smell the different aromas throughout the garden. Sensation overload guaranteed!
To finish your itinerary, Azay-le-Rideau is the perfect spot. Often called the “Enchanted mirror” because of its reflection on the river that surrounds it, it perfectly depicts the idea of a French Renaissance castle, with its pointy towers and romantic feel. The visit is very well organized and full of fun, quirky facts – did you know that Azay was one of the first castles to boast dog-legged staircases as opposed to spiral ones?
If you have a bit more time, there are other castles worth a detour in the region: Cheverny (if you’re a Tintin fan), Blois, Clos-Lucé and Ussé.
What are your favorite Loire Valley Castles? Do you prefer to visit them on a organized tour or during a road/cycling trip?