Close your eyes and picture gliding up the stone steps of a French renaissance château, peering out a large open window onto a maze of gardens and a tranquil river floating beneath you. What’s more — it’s the same view Catherine de' Medici gazed upon in the 16th century. If you’re up on your European history, you know by know it’s Château de Chenonceau being described and that immersive experiences at historic landmarks like these are not uncommon in France’s Loire Valley. In fact, they’re commonplace. “Visiting the castles of the Loire Valley offers a plunge into the landscape as well as into history. The Loire Valley is indeed listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a cultural landscape,” Sandrine Mahaut of Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire tells TZR. “And of course, the river is omnipresent; it infuses its poetry and reflects the light like nowhere else.”
The area spans around 170 miles and is a valley that’s situated in the middle part of the iconic Loire River (the longest in France). Getting here from Paris takes around an hour-and-a-half by train and airlines like French Bee make it a budget-friendly trip with affordable routes like $250 one way from New York to Paris Orly, and $351 coming from LAX. The region’s star attractions include the aforementioned châteaux, gorgeous cycling routes, and a diverse range of white, red, and rosé wines. It’s also referred to as ‘The Garden of France’ thanks to its multitude of beautiful vineyards, orchards, and fertile gardens, making it near impossible to have anything short of an idyllic visit. “Visiting the Loire Valley is all about discovering the French way of life through extraordinary landscapes, UNESCO heritage sites, mild enough weather to enjoy nature year-round, and also the historical sites which make the region so unique,” Eva Sindic of Château de Chenonceau says.
While here, Sindic recommends one or two châteaux per day for a weeklong visit (with Mahaut adding that four or five total is a good number to aim for). “It is also nice to intersperse the château visits with a wine tasting, a boat trip on the Loire river, or visiting gardens to have different point of views of the Loire Valley,” Sindic says. That’s the thing about this part of the country — activities abound. “A walk beside the water, a ride in a a traditional Toue boat, or a bicycle ride along the banks of the river; all of these allow you to really appreciate this relationship with the Loire,” Mahaut says. “A hot air balloon flight is also a good way to embrace the landscape and the castles can be seen from the sky.”
During your château visits, be on the lookout for opportunities that extend beyond the traditional tour format. For example, at Château de Chenonceau, there are several programs to choose from to craft a more authentic experience. “Special guided tours are organized when the monument closes at nightfall. It is also possible to organize a master class at the floral workshop with our resident designer (who has been recognized as a “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”), and even a wine tasting in the historical wine cellar Cave des Dômes featuring some fantastic red and white wines from the AOC Touraine-Chenonceaux appellation,” Sindic says.
If you’re looking for a fall travel destination, Sindic notes that it’s one of her favorite seasons to visit due to the changing colors in the gardens. “I would say it is best to avoid the crowded season in summer and enjoy the sweetness of springtime or autumn — or even visit in December and enjoy all of the magical Christmas decorations.” Ahead, your guide to the region’s fairytale châteaux and why this destination should be on your bucket list.
Château de Villandry
Once an 11th-century ancient fortress, Château de Villandry now stands as a pristine example of renaissance architecture; visitors of the privately-owned castle can still see vestiges of the Middle Ages by observing the defensive architecture (one tower of the original fortress has been kept intact). The historic property, plus Villandry’s expansive collection of gardens draws in hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
While inside, explore the uniquely-decorated rooms, including the rare gallery of religious paintings and the drawing room that boasts an ornate Hispano-Moorish ceiling that was relocated from a Spanish palace. You can even climb up the tower for a rooftop view of what it would have been like to stand guard so many hundreds of years ago. Afterward, enjoy a stroll through the several themed green spaces, like the Garden of Love that embodies four facets of the emotion: tender love, passionate love, fickle love, and tragic love. There’s also a sprawling vegetable garden that will inspire those with a green thumb.
Château de Chambord
Pay a visit to Château de Chambord and one of the many fascinating facts you’ll hear about these historic grounds is the sheer magnitude of them — it is the largest château in the Loire Valley and the property covers more acreage than Paris. There are 60 rooms to explore, original ceilings adorned with salamanders, and windswept terraces that might just help you forget you live in the 21st century.
Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of this magnificent structure is the absence of archival construction information (as in, the mastermind behind Chambord remains a mystery, though many posit that it’s the work of Leonardo da Vinci, if not at least inspired by the artist). Perhaps the most beloved feature of this castle is the double helix staircase that is placed in the center of the keep and is designed so two persons walking up the opposing staircases can see each other through the openings but never cross paths. After a tour of the castle, enjoy the grounds with a guided visit to the nature reserve in an all-terrain vehicle or a relaxing bicycle ride around the preserved landscapes.
Château de Chenonceau
Standing regally in front of Château Chenonceau lies one remaining tower of a fortified castle that creates a grand entrance to the 16th-century masterpiece that’s previous residents include Catherine d’Medici and Diane de Poitiers. Impressive design features abound, like the painted wood door at the entrance and the chapel encircled by colorful stained glass windows. Each part of the castle bears fascinating history, including the nearly 200-foot-long gallery, an intimate library with a wood-carved ceiling that dates back to 1525, and the enormous kitchens.
Just outside the château walls guests can discover gardens bursting with aroma and color, including an Italian-style maze that was desired by d’Medici and is surrounded by luscious ivory. Also a favorite is the Queen’s Apothecary, which now presents a rare collection of albarelli, barrel pots, pill boxes, syrup pots, theriac pots, and mortars. You can also visit the historic 16th-century wine cellar for a tasting or book a floral workshop to learn how Chenonceau crafts its iconic arrangements year-round.
Domaine De La Tortinière
If the idea of visiting a Loire Valley château piques your interest, imagine sleeping in one. This can be accomplished at Domaine De La Tortinière, a charming château that was converted into a hotel in 1955. It was originally built during France’s second empire and has played host to names such as Audrey Hepburn, Juliette Binoche, writer Françoise Sagan, and Georges Pompidou (the acting French President at the time of his visit in 1973). With all the characteristics of a nostalgic château and unparalleled intimacy that comes with a smaller property, this is a perfect home base for your visit to the region.
During your visit, enjoy homey amenities like a billiard table, swimming pool, and surrounding wooded park that overlooks the valley. The restaurant is also a highlight, set in a beautiful building designed with a bright glass roof and serving best-in-class dishes featuring regional ingredients such as truffles from Marigny Marmande, pigeon from Racan, or pear tapée from Rivarennes.
Chaumont-sur-Loire was built as a fortress over 1,000 years ago, but was burnt down by Louis XI in 1465. However, just a handful of years later it was rebuilt and afterwards owned by the Amboise family for 500 years (Charles II d’Amboise transformed it into a renaissance masterpiece). The property overlooks the river and is perched atop a hill, adding to its sense of grandeur. Over the years, a mosaic of famous names have graced its decadent halls, including Napoleon I and Benjamin Franklin. And when the heiress of a sugar magnate purchased it in 1875, it quickly became the setting for many glamorous banquets.
Perhaps the most notable feature that lures in visitors is the vast area of land dedicated to its gardens. In fact, from April 21 of this year to November 6, the property’s international garden festival is taking place, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. For the festival, Chaumont-sur-Loire invites garden designers to invent and create a garden based on the year’s chosen theme (this year’s was ‘Ideal Garden’). It’s also a center for the arts, with installations both permanent and rotating conceived by world-renowned modern artists.
Château du Clos Lucé
Famed for once being the residence of Leonardo da Vinci, Château du Clos Lucé is perched atop a hill and a jewel of gothic architecture. Swayed by the mystique of stepping inside the iconic painter’s bedroom and studio, guests flock to the brick structure to see where he lived and worked. While here, you can also see da Vinci’s garden and take in centuries-old pines and Italian cypresses, and enjoy Clos Lucé’s park that features interactive models of da Vinci’s designs.
Taking the immersive quality one step further, make it a point to book a Renaissance-themed lunch at the château’s onsite restaurant. Here, you can order from a menu that mirrors what da Vinci would have eaten during his time (plus the staff is done up in period dress for added effect).
Le Château d'Ussé
It’s been said that Charles Perrault took Le Château d’Ussé as inspiration for his tale of Sleeping Beauty — it’s not hard to see why. Originally built as a fortress during the Middle Ages, it is now a palatial château that evokes classic renaissance architecture. Visitors can step inside this historic home to discover the entrance hall with its famous spiral staircase or the vault, which is the oldest room in the castle and decorated with 17th-century tapestries (the staircase leads below to an underground area that dates back over 1,000 years).
The gardens are also of note; the Le Nôtre responsible for the Palace of Versailles’ gardens also created the ones at Ussé. The green space you see today was built as early as the 17th century and the look and feel of the garden plays with symmetry, geometrical shapes, and perspective with its ornamental lakes and fountains and rows of orange and lemon trees.
Among the more romantic châteaux in the Loire is Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. It was built by King Francis the First on an island in the Indre River and is on the site of a previous feudal castle that was destroyed during the Hundred Years War. The style is a confluence of French tradition and Italian decor and is widely considered a jewel of early renaissance architecture. The feature you’ll likely notice first is the castle’s reflection in the surrounding water that gives the illusion it is rising straight up from the river (sometimes referred to as ‘the water mirror’).
While inside, thanks to substantial restoration work in recent years, you’ll feel an intimate sense of stepping back in time. An extensive and beautiful collection of furniture, paintings, and tapestries adorn the halls of this lavish property, with the staircase being a prominent feature. While spiral staircases are the most commonly found among French châteaux, the one here has banisters on either side and it crosses the main body of the dwelling. It is richly decorated and features wide open bay windows, perfect for daydreaming about how to spend the rest of your afternoon.