s I mentioned in my previous posts, David and I recently returned from a long weekend getaway to the Loire Valley in central France. Make sure to catch our other posts about where to stay and how to eat gluten-free in this amazing region!
Amongst its natural beauty and other charms, the Loire Valley is home to a spectacular amount of castles or—as the French say—chateaux. As the former home of the French royalty prior to its relocation to Versailles and Paris, the Loire Valley is full of amazing architecture and historic sites.
Since this wasn't my first time to the Loire Valley, I knew of a few castles that I really wanted to show David. I also knew there were some more that I hadn't been able to access in my student days not having had access to a car. Excited to show David some of my old favorites and check out some "new" chateaus for myself, I planned four chateaus into our three-day itinerary.
Here are the Loire Valley chateaus that we visited and a few highlights of each. With so many chateaus in the Loire Valley, hopefully this list will help you choose which ones to visit too!
Former Royal Residence
The Château Royal d'Amboise is, as its name suggests, the former home of the French monarchy. Not all chateaus housed royalty—there are many chateaus that were built for other wealthy elite—so the fact that this one was home to the king lends it a certain royal mystique.
Easy to Get to
Amboise is a great pick because it doesn't require a car. If you're staying in Tours or another town in the Loire Valley, you can take a train directly to the adorable town of the same name. You can also arrive by car but the castle itself lacks parking, so you'll have to park in a lot and walk from there.
Tip: on Sundays Amboise hosts a massive open-air market. It's a wonderful sight to behold and I highly recommend checking it out. That being said, it brings a lot of people into town and, in our case, made parking trickier to find. All the free lots were full so we ended up parking at the paid lot near Clos Lucé, which was still inexpensive at 4 euros for half a day.
In addition to housing French royals, this fifteenth-century chateau is also the final resting place of renowned artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian was invited to reside in Amboise by King François I who admired his works. Da Vinci lived out the last few years of his life at his own chateau, Clos Lucé (see below), but is buried in the small chapel at the royal castle.
I was particularly excited to see Chambord because it was one of the chateaus I hadn't visited before. Chambord isn't easily accessible via trains or public transport, but it's definitely worth seeing.
Largest Chateau in the Loire Valley
Biggest and best? You'll have to decide that for yourself! But there's no doubt that Chambord is an impressive architectural treasure to behold. It is simply massive and stunning with fairytale-esque Renaissance architecture.
One unique aspect of Chambord's architecture is the amazing double-helix staircase that winds through the chateau's main rooms. In addition to being visually attractive, the stone staircase is a feat of engineering. Two people on the two different staircases could see each other as they ascended but they would never meet.
Beautiful Green Space
Another special aspect of Chambord is the massive property on which it lies. A former hunting lodge of King François I, the castle is in a massive domaine national—basically a giant park. With more than twenty kilometers of paths, visitors to Chambord can bike or walk through the forests that are still home to wild boar and deer.
The grounds are also home to canals, bridges, beautifully landscaped gardens, a food truck, and a café.
Sweeping Rooftop Views
As part of your visit to Chambord, you can head all the way to the rooftop. Here you will find many intricately designed chimneys as well as balconies overlooking Chambord's regal grounds.
Chenonceau was David's favorite chateau. As a lover of water, he appreciated this castle's unique position over the Loire. The castle perches across the river itself, something unique to Chenonceau.
Woodland Setting, Gardens, and a Labyrinth
Chenonceau is nestled into a charming and diversified property. The grounds are home to a paddock of donkeys, a small farm, and a woodland area that reminds me of Hampstead Heath. Both Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers have their own gardens at the castle, each restored to its former glory. There is also a labyrinth or maze on-site, commissioned by Catherine de Medici. Nestled in a clearing in the grounds, the Italian-style maze is home to more than two-thousand yew trees and covers more than a hectare.
Notable and Scandalous Former Residents
In addition to its beautiful construction, riverside setting, and majestic gardens, Chenonceau is also worth a visit for its historic background. The sixteenth-century castle played a role in the turbulent marital relationship between the infamous Catherine de Medeci and her husband, King Henry II. Gifted to Henry's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine only regained ownership of the castle upon his death.
The castle also served an important role in more recent history when it acted as a military hospital during World War I. Later, in World War II, the castle lay on a point of access to the free zone. This enabled its owners of the time, the Menier family, to use it to help smuggle people out of Nazi-occupied territory.
The last chateau on our itinerary was Clos Lucé. Located in Amboise only minutes from the royal castle, Clos Lucé was the last residence of Leonardo da Vinci.
Whilst not the extravagant confection of renaissance architecture one might associate with a Loire Valley chateau, da Vinci's house still offers charm and a realistic look at the artist's daily life during his final years.
Models of da Vinci's Inventions
Most of the draw of Clos Lucé is located in the bottom floor and gardens. Here you can view da Vinci's workshops where he concocted everything from military tanks to mobile bridges. Da Vinci's drawings and ideas prove how far ahead of his time he was. You can even view many of his inventions as full-size models. Some are even somewhat functional, such as a water pump and a rotating tank.
I highly recommend visiting Clos Lucé to those interested in da Vinci, engineering, art, etc.—it's quite fascinating. You should definitely still visit another chateau, though, as Clos Lucé doesn't offer the traditional castle experience (breathtaking architecture, manicured gardens, etc.)
Tip: If you're pressed for time and can't visit more than one town, head to Amboise. Here you can visit both its castles—Château Royal d'Amboise and Clos Lucé. You'll have a more well-rounded experience this way and Amboise is very walkable and easy to get to by train.
This list certainly isn't exhaustive—there are over forty chateaus in the Loire Valley. I think these four offer a bit of everything for a week-long or shorter itinerary, though. Castles are definitely an amazing sight to behold, but they aren't all the Loire Valley has to offer.