The Loire Valle was once the stomping ground of French kings and the cradle of French royalty – their elaborate French castles each have a different story to tell.
I finally had my dream holiday in France – I explored the Loire Valley and visited the best chateaux of the area. It was a very active holiday: I spent eight days in what can be called the ‘valley of kings’, drove 2,250km and visited 14 castles of the Loire Valley – alongside one of the best French zoos nearby, the Beauval Zoo. I also stopped to explore some Les Beaux Villages de France and now I can highly recommend a trip to the Loire Valley in France. Some advice is that you need to focus on which top French castles you want to see as there are too many. To help you out, I have prepared a list of the best 10 royal French castles of the Loire Valley which I personally recommend.
The best 10 royal French castles of the Loire Valley
1. Château de Cheverny
Château de Cheverny is a beautiful representation of classic style, which is a bit different to the other castles of Loire Valley. The interesting fact is that it was built without any interruptions and it shows in its unity. Another difference to other castles is that it was built from a local white stone that actually gets stronger and more robust with time, and its creamy colour looks beautiful. The castle was famous for its tradition of dog hunting and nowadays there are more than 70 dogs at the castle which tourists can admire; they are fed at 5pm each day.
Another claim to fame is the Cheverny castle’s reference to the Belgian comic book Tintin. Its author Hergé used Cheverny as an inspiration to create his ‘Château de Moulinsart‘.
2. Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord is an enormous, stunning castle of Renaissance style, which is typically the number one French Chateau among visitors. It was a castle of many kings: François I spent a fortune to build his dream castle, after which it became home to Henri II (his son), Louis XIII, Gaston d’Orléans, Louis XV, his step-father, and the former king of Poland Stanislas Leszczynski. In 1809, the Emperor Napoléon gave it to Marshal Berthier and in 1821 it was sold to the Duke of Bordeaux. In the late 19th century the Duke of Parma inherited it and in 1932 the French government bought the Chateau and restored its original appearance.
It is now a National Historical Monument, and since 1981 it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People believe the castle was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, although definitely the famous double staircase (helix staircase) was created by him. Chateau de Chambord has 440 rooms, 335 fireplaces, 12 staircases and 70 main stairsare laid out over an area of 200,000 sq ft.
On top of this amazing castle, there is 32km wall around the huge park which covers 440 hectares. It is national hunting reserve, which is open and free to all.
3. Château de Brissac
Château de Brissac is actually inhabited by its owners, so this added a lot of charm to the castle for me. René de Cossé, first Lord of Brissac, bought it in 1502 and today the 13th Duke of Brissac lives there with his family. There is a guide who will give you a tour because you cannot visit the castle on your own. It is small but tall castle, knowns as ‘The Giant of the Loire Valley’. It is beautifully preserved and rich in decor. The castle has 204 rooms, impressive ceilings, precious furniture and a ravishing theatre Belle Époque, dedicated to opera.
It has small chapel and hidden rooms which we also visited, plus a stable and horses. It is famous for wine production and has vineyards, and has a relaxing and calming atmosphere.
4. Château de Usse
Château de Usse is located in the small town of Rigny-Ussé of the Indre-et-Loire département. It has a romantic appeal and is said to be the castle of Disney’s Aurora princess in Sleeping Beauty. There is a tower in which you see an exposition on the Sleeping Beauty story – a cool activity for kids indeed but I also enjoyed it. The Château of Ussé was built in stages between the 15th and 17th centuries, and incorporates late Gothic and Renaissance features.
In 1885 the Comte de Blacas inherited it from his aunt – the Comtesse de la Rochejaquelein – and today it belongs to his descendent Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps, the 7th Duke of Blacas. It is privately owned but in 1942 it was appointed as a historical monument.
5. Château de Chenonceau
Château de Chenonceau is another must-see, beautiful castle. King Charles VII built it in 1513 and then gave it to Henry II, who passed it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. But once the king died, his wife, Catherine de Médicis, forced the mistress to move to Chaumont and took this castle for herself. It’s famous for having a woman’s touch.
The ladies created beautiful gardens; there are two gardens, equally worth seeing. The most stunning thing for me was seeing the chateau’s reflection in the river that surrounds the castle.
6. Château de Villandry
Château de Villandry is famous for its spectacular Renaissance gardens. Building began in the 12th century and the castle was finally finished in 1536. It was Jean Le Breton, Minister to François I, who built the castle. The amazing Renaissance gardens show typical French-style formal landscaping. They were first created in the 16th century and now cover huge area of 5ha.
To the left of the castle, you can see its ornamental gardens, with the ‘Garden of Love’. It is also worth visiting the water garden for its peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.
7. Château de Valencay
Château de Valencay was built by King Louis XIII but it was the d’Estampes and Talleyrand-Périgord families who lived there. Château de Valencay shows an architectural harmony in its combination of renaissance and classical styles. There is an interesting collection of Louis XVI and empire-style furniture displayed in the ceremonial rooms and private apartment. Due to its luxurious decor, it is said to be the richest among other castles. On top of that, the castle has many gardens: the French gardens, the flower chessboard, the Duchess garden, plus a huge park in which I happened to get lost (it has more more than 53ha).
My final experience was intereseting. I wanted to finish my tour in Napoleon’s maze (Grand Labyrinthe) – who doesn’t dream of seeing the maze they can watch in the movies? But I would never have expected that the maze walls were woody, and I got a bit scared as there was a heatwave, it was difficult to finish and I couldn’t
get out! But I managed to complete it and got the photo of the maze as a reward. It was amazing but make sure you have water and time to finish it.
8. Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire
Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire is a fortress-like castle situated in the Loir-et-Cher department, on the left bank of the river. It is very old yet beautifully preserved. It was founded in the year 1000 and in 1465 King Louis XI rebuilt it. It was later owned by the Amboise family for more than 500 years. This is also the chateau that was bought by Catherine de Medici for Diane de Poitiers in exchange for Chenonceau. She stayed there for some time, then in 1875 Princess Marie-Charlotte de Broglie bought the château and decorated it with Renaissance furniture.
Nowadays it is owned by the Centre-Val de Loire Region and it has been listed as a UNESCO site. The château represents Gothic and Renaissance styles, with beautiful English-style gardens. Each year the International Garden Festival is hosted next to the castle. The event started in 1992 and has become known worldwide since then.
9. Château de Azay-le-Rideau
Château de Azay-le-Rideau was mostly under renovation when I visited, although the price was discounted. It was disappointing that only one side of the castle was without work.
But it is still a beautiful castle, built by a wealthy financier, Gilles BertheloIt in the 16th century, during the reign of François I. The design of this castle was greatly influenced by Italian architecture.
10. Château de Breze
Château de Breze is a small yet elegant castle located in Brézé town, near Saumur. It is fairly old, built around the 11th century, and was reconstructed between the 16th and 19th centuries. Nowadays it is privately owned and belongs to the Colbert family who lives there. In 2000 it was listed as a historic monument and opened to the public. The current structure is Renaissance in style but represents also medieval elements and the rarest examples of neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance architecture.
The Château of Brézé has an amazing underground fortress to discover. This impressive world of rock opens out onto one of the deepest (18m) dry moats in Europe. Another of the castle’s highlights is definitely the Renaissance wing where the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé lived. The Chateau de Breze is famous for its wine production and has more than 30ha of vineyards.
So there are my top 10 castles, although there are many more to explore. Each castle is beautiful and represents a different story, so whichever castle you choose to visit, you will enjoy it. What other castles do you recommend?
Thumbnail credit: Pekka-Ilari Turakainen.