So many chateaux, so little time. With more than 500 chateaux in the Loire Valley, where does one start exploring this region which has been called the garden of France? Having been to the Loire Valley a few times, we decided to narrow down the geographical area we would visit on our first trip to the area with the kids. We focussed on the area between Blois (the first chateau you meet when you come from Paris) and the city of Tours. Within this limited area, you will find plenty of sightseeing, including (in our opinion) the five best chateaux in the Loire Valley. It also helps that these chateaux are family-friendly!
Why Are There So Many Chateaux in the Loire Valley?
Running for approximately 1000 kilometres, the Loire is the longest river in France. This part of the Loire Valley has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site for its historical significance, charming towns and pretty chateaux.
During the 100 Years War during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Loire valley was strategically important to the French and fortified against the English. After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the English were in control of Paris. The French did not regain control of Paris again until 1436 but the King of France decided to remain with his court in the Loire Valley.
The French monarchy felt Paris was an unpredictable capitol. After all, it was the Parisians who had given Joan of Arc to the English to be executed. Considering the subsequent history of the French Revolution, the kings were right to be wary of the Parisians. In any event, where the king went, the aristocracy followed like lemmings. They, too, built chateaux around the Loire Valley so that they could be near the king and the good gossip.
Our Pick of the Five Best Chateaux in the Loire Valley
You wouldn’t be in the Loire Valley unless you were planning on visiting at least one French castle. The ancient Cathedral town of Tours is a convenient place to divide the Loire Valley if you are limited on time. With a cluster of chateaux on each side of Tours, each chateaux cluster has winners for attractiveness and gardens. Tours is also a good transportation hub with trains and a small airport.
The Loire Valley tourism board has different types of chateaux passes depending on how many castles you want to see. The 5 Chateaus mentioned below are on their Chateaux Pass No. P which we felt was the maximum our children would visit without open revolt. We stayed near Cheverny and all of these castles are an easy driving distance from each other.
Chateau de Chenonceau is one of the most visited of the castles in the Loire Valley. Spanning the River Cher, it is beautiful and has extensive gardens. During its heyday, it was caught in a royal love triangle between Henri II, his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Medici.
For kids, Chenonceau is fun to visit because it is a small chateau with pretty gardens and a garden maze. There is a handy restaurant as well as a little creperie. You can take boat rides or hire kayaks to go along the river.
The Chateau Royal de Blois was the home of 7 French kings and the centre of a lot of intrigue. Built around a courtyard, each wing has a different type of architecture – Gothic, Renaissance and Classical. Catherine de Medici (she who loved Chenonceau so much) died in the Queen’s Chamber at this chateau in 1589. You can see her study with the secret compartments where she supposedly kept her handy supply of poisons.
For children, Blois has a throne they can sit upon and plenty of random things to examine. Francois I liked to put his salamander seal everywhere. My kids went around the castle playing find the salamander. The chateau also has a great sound and light show in the evenings and is located across the square from the highly-recommended family-friendly Museum of Magic.
Chateau de Chambord is the largest of the Loire chateaux with 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases. The most famous of these staircases is the double helix staircase attributed as a design of Leonardo da Vinci. Built at the behest of Francois I as a hunting lodge, he used it for approximately 7 weeks during his reign. For much of its life, the chateau has lain empty because such a massive structure was hard to heat and impractical to live in.
For children, the highlight of Chambord will be climbing up and down the double helix staircase and walking around the rooftop of the chateau with its hundreds of chimneys (all those fireplaces had to lead somewhere!). Chambord also does regular pageants on its grounds which are geared toward showing children court life during medieval times.
The chateau de Cheverny is still inhabited by the family that built it in the early 17th century. When Diane de Poitiers got ejected from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici, she was housed at Cheverny until she was finally given Chaumont. It’s not bad for temporary housing! You may recognise the middle portion as the model for the chateau that appears in The Adventures of TinTin.
This chateau is not very big but it is an excellent example of how the aristocracy would have lived. It is light, bright and well-furnished. You get the sense that a real family would have lived in this chateau. The royal chateaux leave you with a sense of grandeur but feel cold and barren. My children liked walking in the pretty gardens and watching the French hounds in their kennel.
The Chateau du Chaumont is the home Diane de Poitiers eventually received from Catherine de Medici after being turfed out of Chenonceau. This chateau has beautiful gardens especially if you are skipping Villandry which is well-known for its gardens. The Chateau itself is full of dark furniture from the 19th century . The grounds are well-landscaped with a fabulous view of the Loire valley.
Every summer, Chaumont has a well-known international garden festival which is very family-friendly. Weird garden design to explore – what’s not to love?? We all loved the garden festival and could easily have spent the entire day exploring it.
Practical Information for visiting the Loire Valley Castles
We stayed at the Relais de Trois Chateaux which is a 4 star hotel in Cour Cheverny. The family room has a separate room for the children. Although the rooms are compact (you would think you were in Paris), they are beautifully decorated. We shared one bathroom but each room had its own television. Priorities, right?
If you would like to stay in a chateau itself, there are several chateaux hotels in the Loire Valley.
There is no lounge/reception area worth mentioning at this hotel so you are either on your bed in your hotel room or not at the hotel. There is plenty of parking. The WiFi is excellent. The hotel restaurant, Les Trois Merchands, is very popular in the evening and very good. Located in the tiny village of Cheverny, you are pretty much outside the walls of the Chateau de Cheverny.
You can buy the Chateaux-Pass online which should save you some time. Otherwise, you can buy it at the local tourist office of Blois, Cheverny, Chambord or Chaumont. Keeping in mind that French tourist office hours may not align with your expectations, you can avoid disappointment by just buying it ahead of time.
My husband and I have visited the chateaux on the other side of Tours on previous trips. Azay-le-Rideau is considered a masterpiece of the French Renaissance but has been undergoing renovation the last couple of years. Chateau du Villandry is best known for its French-style gardens (nothing as kooky as you find at the Garden Festival at Chaumont). According to legend, while staying at pretty Chateau d’Usse, Charles Perrault was inspired to write Sleeping Beauty. With Azay-le-Rideau under scaffolding, much of its beauty as a chateau surrounded by water is marred. I personally think Chenonceau is prettier if you are comparing betweens chateaux-on-water. If you have the time (and willingness) this cluster of chateaux is worth exploring, too.
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