France’s Loire Valley is famed for its chateaux, over 40 in all, ranging from large country houses to forbidding fortresses and the grandest of royal castles.
Every visitor to the area wants to see at least a few of these stunning buildings, but it can become tedious simply traipsing through one stately home after the other.
How can you get the best experience of the chateaux, without succumbing to chateau-fatigue? Here we show you four of the top Loire Valley chateaux that you can cover over the course of 24 hours, effortlessly.
Our self-guided itinerary assumes that you have your own car. So away we go.
Seemingly supported by its own perfect reflection as it rises out of the water, Chenonceau has been called ‘the architectural gem’ of the Loire Valley.
In the sixteenth century Chenonceau was the home of King Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. After the king’s death it was taken over by his jealous wife, Catherine de Medici. Both the building and its history epitomise the glamour and romance of Renaissance France.
This elegant and unusual chateau is best viewed from the river, which it spans. La Belandre River Cruises offers a one-hour trip on the River Cher, a tributary of the Loire, which takes you right under one of Chenonceau’s five arches. Our itinerary puts you on the 11am cruise, but there are also afternoon options.
The cruise begins and ends at the village of Chisseaux, which has ample car parking. At 9,50€ per person, this cruise is one of the best value activities on offer in the region.
Unless you drive back to the chateau afterwards, you won’t get to see Chenonceau’s interior, but you’ll have had an unforgettable experience of what makes this building so special – its position literally over the river.
The second of our four top Loire Valley chateaux was once a royal residence itself. Chateau de Chissay is a mere 10 minutes’ drive from Chenonceau and the perfect place for lunch after your river cruise.
Originally a medieval fortress, Chissay mutated into a fine aristocratic residence typical of the Loire area. The chateau is surrounded by gardens and woodlands and has a lovely fairy-tale atmosphere.
Chissay’s restaurant, with its gothic vaulted ceiling, is called La Table du Roy and it does indeed offer meals fit for kings yet priced for, if not paupers, at least more ordinary citizens. Mondays to Saturdays there’s an excellent value two-course ‘Formule’ lunch menu for 18€, and the à la carte menu is also competitively priced. Many of the dishes are regional specialties.
Don’t miss the troglodyte restrooms – yes, you heard that right. This subterranean style of architecture is found throughout the Loire Valley, where the abundance of soft tufa stone enabled people to cheaply construct well-insulated dwellings, burrowed out of the land itself.
Chambord or Amboise
The afternoon is your chance to do some dedicated sight-seeing, and we’re giving you a choice of two must-see Loire Valley chateaux here.
Chambord is the King Kong of chateaux, the lion of the Loire. This huge chateau was the brainchild of François I, the flamboyant king whose long reign defined 16th century France. Intended primarily as a royal hunting lodge, the castle also had the wider purpose of displaying the wealth and power of the French monarch to his subjects and to Europe’s other sovereigns.
Chambord’s best features are its enormous stone fireplaces, the extraordinary double spiral staircase (which may have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci) and the roof terraces, which offer spectacular views over the castle and its gardens.
After touring the building, you may want to hire a bike, boat or golf buggy to explore the vast grounds of the estate.
For a very different take on the phenomenon of the royal French chateau, you could instead visit Amboise. This is one of the few Loire Valley chateaux to be situated within a town, rather than in a landscaped country setting. That’s because Amboise, unlike many other Loire chateaux, was always more for business than pleasure. It was a castle from which kings ruled, rather than a place for them to play.
This greater functionality doesn’t mean that Amboise lacks aesthetic allure – far from it. Don’t miss the elegant Council Chamber or the tiny chapel, which contains the grave of Leonardo da Vinci.
The castle’s elevated terraces provide fabulous panoramas of the town, river and surrounding countryside. Even better is the view from across the river, looking back at the town with the chateau perched atop it like a hen sitting on her eggs.
And so to bed – in your final chateau! There are grander chateau-hotels but for a unique experience of the more down-to-earth side of French chateau life choose to stay overnight at the delightful Chateau de Nazelles.
This manor-house has been continuously occupied since the 16th century, for much of that time operating as the heart of a working farm. Today it offers luxury B&B accommodation in a range of quirky historic rooms, including troglodyte options.
The beautiful garden terraces are open to all guests and there are pleasant walks through the woods behind the property.
There you have it. Four top Loire Valley chateaux in one day. Voilà!
Do you have any recommendations for top Loire Valley chateaux to visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, Roslyn studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.