For a small town, you can easily visit Conwy for a weekend because there is so much to do in the area. For starters, the must-do Conwy attractions are the medieval Conwy Castle in Wales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Conwy Town Walls. Among the other things to do in Conwy itself include both well-preserved medieval and Elizabethan merchant houses and the smallest house Conwy which has the distinction of being the smallest house in Britain!! The Bodnant Gardens National Trust property is a short drive outside the city walls. In North Wales, Conwy is in a strategic position (for both invading armies and tourists). Nearby there are the attractions of Snowdonia National Park and the Italianate resort town of Portmeirion. You will have plenty of options for things to do in Conwy for great family holidays in North Wales.
Conwy Castle in Wales offers dramatic views over the countryside
Conwy Castle Wales
Conwy Castle in Wales is the best sort of castle as far as many kids are concerned. It’s a huge crumbling wreck that they can explore. There’s no old-fashioned furniture and paintings to walk quietly through and so kids can let their imagination run wild.
Conwy Castle History
Castle Conwy is HUGE even if it is in ruins. It’s difficult to imagine how such a massive structure was created in just a few years.
Edward had good reason to worry – he did get trapped in Castle Conwy during a Welsh rebellion. Of course, to Edward just meant he should add another North Wales castle (Beaumaris Castle) to keep those troublesome Welsh down.
Peering down into the dungeon at Castle Conway in Wales.
Over the intervening years, Conwy Castle was alternatively ignored and then back in favour. The Castle played a part in the War of the Roses as the place where Richard II surrendered so that Henry IV cold come to the throne.
The numerous Conwy Castle towers are a fun climb for kids but I was done after one.
Conwy Castle was held by Royalists forces during the Civil Ward which was unfortunate when they lost the war. The forces of Oliver Cromwell made sure that the castle couldn’t be used for rebellion again by tearing down fortifications. The final ignominy came in 1665 when the last of its wealth was stripped leaving it in a ruined state.
As a big hulking ruin in a picturesque setting, Castle Conwy was beloved of artists. It had a history as a sightseeing destination long before it’s historical importance was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
Conwy Castle Facts:
- In the late 13th century Conwy Castle North Wales and the Conwy walls together cost about £15,000 (about £45 million) to build.
- To put that amount in perspective, £15,000 in the 13th century is about 25X the annual income of a wealthy aristocrat of the time.
- Castle Conwy was built over 4 years and during the peak construction period,, there were about 1500 craftsmen and labourers working on it.
- Dominating the landscape, the Castle is a rectangular shape with 8 towers and 2 barbicans.
- From Conwy Castle you can see three sets of bridges crossing the river – the modern 1958 road bridge, the 1826 Telford suspension bridge and the 1848 railway bridge. These bridges are all an integral part of the history of Conwy.
We clambered up and down and all around the Castle Conwy North Wales.
10 Things To Do Conwy
For a little town in Wales visit Conwy and you’ll have a choice of local attractions from the historic, man-made ones to the natural.
Conwy Historic Houses
One of the best things to do in Conwy is to walk around the little town and admire historic architecture. When you visit Conwy, history is all around you. You might as well embrace it!
When you visit Conwy the historic part of town is must-see.
Before the English, there were the Cistercians who had a monastery in Conwy. Considering they were a religious order who liked to be away from it all, they were probably a bit miffed when Edward I showed up with his troops.
Edward I suggested the monks move somewhere more peaceful. They left behind the Abbey church (now the Church of St. Mary) which was used by the English. Conwy was created as an English town.
Aberconwy House, on the High Street, is a National Trust property and another thing to do in Conwy. It’s the town’s only surviving medieval merchant house and has some interesting exhibits.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to 1576 and Queen Elizabeth I who decided to move the reconfigure the Dublin to London postal route. Conwy was designated an official postal station.
Plas Mawr is an Elizabethan-era Merchant House that you can visit which is also located on the High Street. Honestly, the town of Conwy is THAT small. It was the home of the wealthy Wyn family in the 16th century.
Fast forward more to 1800 and after the unification of England and Ireland, London decided they really did need better mail service to Dublin. Unfortunately the River Conwy was known to be dangerous during bad weather. For example, on Christmas Day 1806, the Irish Ferry capsized and killed 13 of the 15 passengers on board. Thomas Telford built the first suspension bridge in 1826.
In the 19th century, Conwy thrived as a port town, part of the shipping lanes among Ireland, Scotland, Liverpool and even as far away as the Baltics.
Castle Hotel Conwy
Since 1770 there’s been an inn at the site where the Castle Hotel Conwy stands today.. Somewhere in the 19th century, the Harp Inn became the Conwy Castle Hotel. The grander Castle Conwy hotel doubed in size to take over a couple of nearby buildings, including a pub. The Castle Hotel Conwy changed designations from a mere Inn to the slightly grander-sounding hotel. Adding to its glory, the Castle Conwy Hotel also got the distinction of being an official stop on the Royal Mail coach service.
Although it looks older, the neo-Jacobean grand facade of the Conway Castle Hotel was created only in the 1890’s. The history of the Castle Hotel Conwy is intertwined with that of the town of Conwy. This hotel in Conwy has hosted Royal visitors and the architects of Conwy’s bridges as well as been the place for major town celebrations.
Smallest House Conwy
Located in Conwy harbour, the smallest house in Conwy is seriously charming and absolutely tiny. The four of us in our family couldn’t fit in there standing as my son found out when he hit his head on the staircase in the jostle.
Smallest House Conwy is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest house in Great Britain. It is only 6 feet wide and just over 10 feet high. And, in that height they managed to get in a sleeping loft! No vaulted ceilings here though.
Why would anyone build a house this small? Probably because they didn’t have a choice. The town is wedged in-between the sea and the city walls and space is at a premium.
There was actually a fisherman living in the smallest house Conwy until 1900. And he was 6’3” tall! He had a roof over his head, an outhouse in the rear and an easy commute into work.
Smallest House Conwy – one of the most popular things to do Conwy
The town authorities decided that the house was uninhabitable in 1900. A local newspaper took up the cause to save it when they undertook a search to see if it was indeed the smallest house in Britain. Today smallest house Conwy is one of the biggest Conwy attractions in complete disproportion to its actual size..
Conwy Mussel Museum
One of the quirkier Conwy attractions is the Conwy Mussel Musem. This small museum is also on Conway Quay and free to visit. Conwy has been a site of pearl fishing since the Romans stumbled into Wales.
One of the largest pearls found in the area was sent to Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza (she who had the flower beds from Green Park in London removed to stop her husband picking flowers for his mistress). This Conwy pearl is still supposed to be in the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
Conwy Suspension Bridge and Toll House
If you are looking for what to do in Conway with your National Trust membership, go check out the Conwy Suspension Bridge and Toll House. It was one of the first suspension bridges built in the world.
From Conwy Castle, you can see all 3 bridges that span the River Conwy lined up side by side.
Conwy Quay is a great place to just sit and absorb the town life around you. There are great views over the boats and the harbour and plenty of people-watching opportunities, too. The smallest house Conwy and the Mussel Museum are both located on the Quay.
Conwy Town Walls
Among the best things to do in Conwy is walk the medieval Conwy town walls which encircle the town. You can even walk most the way.
Little houses tucked inside Conwy town walls.
King Edward I also had the Conwy town walls built at the time he had his castle built. Conwy town walls are some of the best preserved medieval walls in Europe. These walls haven’t had the heavy restoration seen at Carcassone. They are great for kids similar to the city walls in Tossa Del Mar in the Costa Brava Spain.
In Edward’s day, the town walls were meant to protect Conwy, an English town. The Welsh were allowed inside the walls once a week to bring their goods to market.
Conwy Nature Reserve
Conwy Nature Reserve is a wetland run by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Created out of the landfill from a nearby road tunnel, the Conwy Nature Reserve is a great family walk where children can get muddy looking for wildlife, such as birds and frogs. There are three separate trails at the Conwy Nature Reserve you can take (that range from a short 1/3 of a mile t o the longest which is 2 miles long).
Bodnant Gardens National Trust
We were lucky enough to visit Bodnant Gardens. a National Trust Garden when their spectacular Laburnum Arch was in bloom. And, it really was stunning. The Bodnant Gardens National Trust is good for walks on a nice day.
The Laburnum arch at the Bodnant Gardens National Trust property
Nearby, there is the Bodnant Welsh Food centre has excellent tea rooms and restaurant. It also provides accommodation at the Furnace Farmhouse.
Llandudno is the Victorian resort town across the estuary from the town of Conwy. There’s the ruins of Degannwy Castle which was a stronghold of the Welsh princes. Edward II was having none of that and stripped Degannwy to build Conwy Castle.
A sculpture; in Conwy Castle pays homage to Lllewylln the Great, one of the hero Princes of Wales.
Visit Conwy: The Practicalities
Conwy attractions range from very large to very small! In North Wales, Conwy is definitely a must-visit if only for the Castle Conwy. Yet, I feel if you miss out on some of the other things to do in Conwy, such as the smallest house Conwy and the Conwy town walls, you’ will miss out on some cool Conwy attractions. For a longer visit, here are some suggestions for accommodation in Conwy and/or restaurants in Conwy.
Check out the TripAdvisor Conwy reviews.
Accommodation in Conwy is limited as you can expect from a town this size. There are places to stay in Conwy though that are outside the town walls.
In North Wales, Conwy has its historic town wedged between the Castle Conwy and the Conwy estuary.
Castle Hotel Conwy
Located where the old Cistercian Abbey used to be, you can’t get a more central location to stay in Conwy than the Castle Hotel Conwy. This four star hotel in Conwy has both single and double rooms and a whole lot of history.
Check out the TripAdvisor reviews for Castle Hotel Conwy.
For the latest rates at Castle Hotel Conwy, here are a selection of hotel booking sites: booking.com expedia
The Groes Inn
Located outside the Conwy town walls, The Groes Inn has been around since the 15th century. This historic coaching inn is the oldest licensed pub in Wales. The hotel is dog-friendly.
Check out the TripAdvisor reviews for The Groes Inn.
For the latest rates at The Groes Inn, here are a selection of hotel booking sites: booking.com expedia
The Furnace Farmhouse is a four-star foodie’s delight. The accommodation is part of the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre. It’s located past Bodnant Gardens and so further from historic Conwy. It’s an 18th century farmhouse with 5 bedrooms. Wake up at the Furnace Farmhouse to a breakfast served from the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre. which is seriously good.
Check out the TripAdvisor reviews for the Furnace Farmhouse.
For the latest rates at the Furnace Farmhouse, here are a selection of hotel booking sites: booking.com
Glan Heulog Bed and Breakfast
Glan Heulog Bed and Breakfast is a super-cute B&B in Conwy. Located outside the historic centre of Conwy, it is still a short walk into town. There are 6 bedrooms including two that can be joined to create a family room for four people
Check out the TripAdvisor reviews for Glan Heulog Bed and Breakfast.
For the latest rates at Glan Heulog B&B, here are a selection of hotel booking sites: expedia
Pubs and Restaurants Conwy
Here are some great places to eat in Conwy. The pubs are dog-friendly and kid-friendly so that’s good for a sit-down when you need a break.
Bodnant Welsh Food Centre
The Bondnant Welsh Food Centre has both tea rooms as well as the Hayloft Restaurant and Bar. The Furnace Tea Rooms are set in the old stables and overlook Conwy estuary. It’s open for tea, snacks and light lunches. There’s a cookery school with both day and residential courses similar to River Cottage in England. Hayloft Restaurant is the fine-dining gourmet restaurant.
Fish at the Hayloft Restaurant – a great place to eat in Conwy
Castle Hotel Conwy restaurant
The Castle Hotel Conwy restaurant also serves local Welsh food. You can also have afternoon tea at this hotel in Conwy.
Fun Fact! The Conwy Castle Hotel restaurant served lunch to a young teenage Princess Victoria in 1832 during a visit to North Wales.
The Liverpool Arms is located on Conwy Quay. It’s got great views over the estuary and gets crowded thanks to that feature.
The Liverpool Arms pub is located in a prime position for observing life on Conwy Quay
The Albion Ale House
The Albion Ale House is a 1920’s pub that serves local beer. It serves no food (just nibbles). Why is on this list? It’s won a bunch of awards for being the best pub in North Wales. And, it’s now really rare to find a pub that just serves beer. You can find the Albion Ale House on Uppergate Street inside the walled town of Conwy.
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Conwy Castle in Wales (+ 10 Other Things To Do in Conwy) For Family Holidays in North Wales
Conwy Castle in Wales (+ 10 Other Things To Do in Conwy) For Family Holidays in North Wales
The must-do Conwy Wales attractions are the medieval Conwy Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Conwy Town Walls, but that’s not all. You’ll also find the smallest house in Britain and a lovely town all around.
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The view from the parapet of the neat lines of grape-festooned vines under a pale blue sky could easily fool you into thinking you were in Tuscany. If you look closer though, there were tell-tale touches to remind you that you were in the Napa Valley of California. Perhaps I noted that the lines of the vines were just too precise or the cypress trees were too well-clipped. Most tellingly, the castle and the grounds were lacking a certain amount of benign grime and neglect that rural Tuscany has never managed to shed. Although we were visiting Northern California with kids, we had a fabulous wine tour primarily because we chose to tour Castello di Amorosa, a family friendly vineyard in Napa Valley.
My kids had a blast visiting the Castello di Amoroso
The History of the Castello di Amorosa
From your very first glance, you can tell the Castello di Amorosa is a labor of love. Let’s face it, you have to be very rich and very committed to build a medieval Tuscan castle in California. Luckily for us, Dario Sattui, the owner of the Castello di Amorosa, is both.
Dario Sattui is a fourth generation vintner and also the owner V.Sattui Winery. His great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui was an Italian immigrant who set up the winery in San Francisco in the late 19th century. The Sattui vineyard moved to the Napa Valley in the 1970s.
You could forgive yourself of thinking you were in Tuscany.
When Sattui bought the land on which he would build the Castello di Amorosa, it held a charming Victorian home on 170 acres. He kept the Victorian home as one of his homes and you can see it by the entrance up the hill to the Castello. Although he had originally meant to use the land to replant the vineyards that had once been there, he was also a lover of medieval architecture.
The flag bearing the Sattui crest flies over an artfully distressed tower.
After about 15 years of planning, Sattui had assembled a team of people he was happy could build him his medieval castle in California. He imported Austrian and Italian builders to California so that he could get the authenticity of building materials and workmanship he wanted. The work started first with the underground aspects in 1995. Along the way, Sattui ran through many builders and even more money in order to achieve his dream castle.
Sattui also wanted to show how medieval architecture had evolved from the 11th to the 13th century. So, for example, he built arches and doorways and then bricked them up.
My kids are fans of visiting castles in general. They were also on board with the whole vineyard in California thing because they had seen the 1998 movie The Parent Trap a zillion times. One of the twins that Lindsay Lohan plays, Hallie, lives with her father in a vineyard in the Napa Valley. I think the incongruity of a European castle in California passed my children by.
A Family Friendly Vineyard in Napa
The Castello di Amorosa was opened to the public in 2007. The pain-staking care that went into the work is obvious. Having seen a fair few European castles ourselves, there is nothing plasticky or Disney about this Castle.
The state of California stopped the winery from performing services at the Chapel because it did not have a proper license to do so. party poopers.
The builders used either actual remnants of European castles or built new parts using the techniques used by medieval craftsmen. There were 200 shipping containers sent to California filled with bits and pieces from French and Italian castles dating from the 11-13th centuries.
The 107 room 121,000 s.f. Castello di Amorosa is set on 8 floors (4 floors above and 4 floors below ground). Obviously the below ground floors are wine cellars and tasting rooms. The underground rooms alone run about 80,000 s.f. (or 2 acres).
One of the 5 lookout towers from which to throw burning olive oil when other California wineries attack.
Some of the cool medieval touches of the Castle include a drawbridge, a moat, an interior courtyard, 5 towers, a chapel and a torture chamber. Needless to say, my kids loved the torture chamber and instruments. There were some very cool things on display including an Iron Maiden dating from the Renaissance and an Etruscan helmet from before the Roman Empire.
That child has a wicked gleam in her eye.
The Great Hall took 1.5 years to complete and was created by 2 Italian painters! The tour guide was not precious about how the children behaved which I appreciated. They clearly had more faith in my children’s ability to not wreak havoc than I did.
The Great Hall has a a fireplace which is dated to before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.
A Photo Tour of Castello di Amorosa
The gates to the Castle open up onto gardens which lead to the moat and drawbridge.
The moat surrounding the Castello is very picturesque.
Ye olde Medieval Tuscan car park.
The inside of the beautifully-decorated Chapel which is the start of the tour.
The internal courtyard of the Castle.
A reconstructed original balcony from which a medieval lord would have addressed the crowds below.
Many antiques, like this ancient wine press, are scattered throughout the winery.
Even the basement wine stores are beautifully frescoed.
A small portion of the acres of wine storage under ground.
Farm animals wandered around the castle walls to the delight of the children.
You wouldn’t expect anything other than signs in Italian would you?
The Wine Tasting at Castello di Amorosa
You can’t go to a vineyard in Napa Valley without taking a winery tour! The Castello di Amorosa appreciates this fact which is what makes it one of the most family friendly wineries in Napa Valley.
Our tour group contained several children. When we went for the wine tasting, the children had their own separate table with snacks and colouring to keep them entertained. My children set upon the breadsticks like the ravenous zombies of Z Nation. On the plus side, there seemed to be a never-ending supply of grape juice and breadsticks.
A Vineyard in the sun
My husband likes to think of himself as a wine connoisseur. He has had wine shaped direct from the vineyards of South Africa, is a major contributor to the profits of a London French wine specialist and also is a member of a wine club. He thought the Il Barone Reserve produces by the Castello di Amorosa was superb.
I know nothing about wine except if I like it. Yes, reader, I liked it. A lot.
My kids thought these bottle pourers were great. The red wine dripping down the dragon’s head looks like blood.
Tips For Visiting Castello di Amorosa
The Castello di Amorosa is located at 4045 Saint Helena Highway, Calistoga California 94515. A very popular destination in Napa Valley, you should book tickets for the tour and the wine tasting well ahead of time.
Children under the age of 20 are permitted on the tours when accompanying an adult over the age of 21. There is a reduced price admission for children five years old and above. Thanks to the medieval nature of the rooms, strollers are not allowed on the premises.
The Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley is an authentic medieval Tuscan castle.
Practical Info To Know Before You Go
We stayed at the Villaggio Inn and Spa in nearby Yountville. We rented our car from Hertz as per usual. You will need a car to get around in Napa Valley. Napa Valley have an excellent website geared towards making your visit easy to plan and enjoyable. (You would think all tourist bureaus would do the same!!).
Disclosure – We did not receive any form of compensation from Castello di Amorosa for our visit or this review. This article does, however, contain affiliate links about which more information may be found on the disclosure page.
Did you know that there was a smaller twin of the famous Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy in France on the English side of the Channel? Similar in shape to Mont Saint-Michel, St. Michael’s Mount is a rocky island topped with a castle. St. Michael’s Mount is one of the most famous sites in Cornwall, the southernmost county of England that juts westward into the Atlantic ocean. Although the family still have living quarters at the castle, the mount is now operated by the National Trust.
You can reach St. Michael’s Mount by walking along a granite sett causeway.
History of St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall
Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1044 to 1066, gave St. Michael’s Mount to the Benedictine monks of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy in the 11th century. St. Michael’s Mount was under the control of Mont Saint-Michel until another English king took it back during the Hundred Years War with France.
When the tide comes in, the little island is completely isolated by the sea.
Even though the St. Aubyn family have lived on the island since the 17th century, the story of St. Michael’s Mount predates them. The oldest part of the castle dates to the 12th century.
Cannons protecting this vital little island in the English channel.
My son was fascinated to learn that St. Michael’s Mount was swept by a tsunami in 1755. It was caused by an earthquake in Portugal 1000 miles away!
The Castle, Chapel and Gardens at St. Michael’s Mount
The St. Aubyn family still live in the castle on a lease back from the National Trust which maintains the property. The co-manage taking care of the historic rooms open to the public. As you would expect, the inside of the castle has lots of dark wood and traditional decor. The views from the windows are fantastic.
Here’s the front door to the Castle. Yes, it’s that steep.
Corridors lined with family photos.
The cosy reading nook is just fabulous.
The grand dining room. I can’t imagine that little fire would keep this room warm when the wind whips off the Atlantic.
I love the detail of this fireplace hearth.
A statue of the Archangel Michael to whom the mount is dedicated.
Beautiful stained glass windows in the chapel.
The subtropical gardens are open when the gardens are in bloom.
The subtropical gardens pretty much hang off the rocky surface of the Mount.
We wanted to know how anyone could possibly carry food and basic necessities up to the castle. It would be the perfect place for Amazon to drone drop their items. The National Trust guide told us there is a Victorian train that takes necessities up to the castle. You can see the train hidden behind the cafe near the base of the mount. It’s not so much a train as much as a wagon. On the other hand, it sure beats having to carry up luggage and groceries.
Tips for Visiting St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall
Despite having read about visiting St. Michael’s Mount, we found we were not prepared for the actual visit.
The Easy Part of visiting St. Michael’s Mount:
I found that the things I worried about were actually really easy.
- St. Michael’s Mount has a dedicated parking lot right in the little town of Marazion across from the causeway where you can park your car. National Trust members receive discounted parking.
- The walk across the causeway is very easy and takes about 10-15 minutes.
- Don’t worry so much about the tides coming in. Every National Trust member seemed to know the times of the tides for the day. There are placards placed around the site reminding you of the tides.
- There are places to eat and shop on St. Michael’s Mount. After our trek up the hillside, we treated ourselves to some delicious ice-cream. The Courtyard Shop has a well-curated collection of items I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
Tips for visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall, the English counterpart to Mont St-Michel in France
Here’s what I wish I had known about visiting St. Michael’s Mount:
- Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Some of the stones underfoot really gouge into the soles of thin-soled shoes.
- Dogs are allowed only at the base of St. Michael’s Mount. The area is charmingly called the village and harbor. It is a more limited space than you would think because the walkway up to the castle is off-limits.
- I can not emphasise enough how much you should wear walking shoes. The path up to the Castle is NOT paved. My kids thought it was fun hopping from stone to stone. A well-dressed older gentlemen in front of us though went tumbling because his shoes did not have enough grip on the stones. We were lucky and went on a nice, dry day. I would imagine these stones would be trickier in wetter weather.
- The path up to the castle is pretty vertical. There are not even any front steps for this castle. You clamber up rocks to access it.
The castle looms over the mount.
- Obviously St. Michael’s Mount is not wheelchair or buggy friendly from what I have said. Even toddlers may find it challenging though. I know from my own kids that they when they were toddlers they just wanted to explore by themselves. You’ll need to keep a close eye on them because the stone pathways are not smooth. Even inside the castle, there’s lots of stairs which could present a problem.
- Right near the car park, there is a charming little playground for children to let off some steam.
- Marazion is a charming little town in its own right. It’s got restaurants, cafes and benches that overlook St Michael’s Mount. With the sun glistening of the water and the rocks, it’s a view that you really can’t get tired of.
These men were out crabbing when the tide was out.
- Like other places we found in Cornwall, St. Michael’s Mount is closed on a Saturday.
We thought St. Michael’s Mount was beautiful and lived up to expectations. When the tide is out, the beach is flat and great for children to play. When the tide is in, you can really see the beauty of the little isolated island castle.
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.
The Loire River runs for about 1000 kilometres in France.
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.
There are so many chateaux to visit in the Loire Valley that it’s hard to know which ones to choose.
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.
As this map shows, these castles are relatively close to each other.
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.
The gardens and chateau de Chenonceau are both beautiful.
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.
One of the facades of the Chateau de Blois.
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.
Someone really liked being a pretend French queen.
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.
The French Tricolor flag flies high amounts the many chimneys of Chambord.
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 double helix staircase at Chambord supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. You can climb up one set of stairs and another person can climb down the other set of stairs. Neither of you will pass each other.
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.
The centre part of the chateau de Cheverny is the model for the chateau 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.
Cheverny has regularly scheduled tours through its gardens as well as plenty of places to picnic or just sit down.
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.
The relatively small chateau de Chaumont is perched on a cliff with a 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.
The boutique hotel was small but stylish.
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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There were three of us in this marriage, it was a bit crowded.
Diana, Princess of Wales in an interview on BBC Panorama (1995)
With those infamous words, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, blew the lid off her husband, Prince Charles’s, long-standing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles on prime-time television to a mesmerised nation.
Royalty in previous years did not have the luxury of a publicly televised tear fest to name and shame. Their marital strife was conducted in private but was no less complex. One of the most beautiful chateaus in the Loire Valley in France, the Chateau de Chenonceau, was caught up in such a love triangle.
The Royal Love Triangle
First, the players in the biggest love triangle of the 16th Century.
Poor Little Rich Prince
When Henry II was a prince, he was the spare living in the shadow of the heir, his older brother. His father, Francis 1 was a larger than life figure. Francis I brought the Renaissance to France, waged war to all and sundry, was a notorious playboy and met Henry VIII of England on the Field of The Cloth of Gold. Henry II knew his father preferred his brother. Worse, his mother, the queen, died when he was a child. Amidst this family dysfunction, Francis I lost a war to the Holy Roman Emperor and had to send his two sons (aged 7 and 8) off as hostages until he could pay the ransom. It took daddy 4 years to pay the ransom while his sons languished as foreign prisoners.
When the boys finally returned to France, Francis I gave his younger son into the care of a court noblewoman, Diane de Poiters, a woman almost 20 years older than him. She cared for him so well that they became lovers while he was still a teenager (because he didn’t have enough parental issues). As was the custom of the day, he was married off in a political alliance to Catherine de Medici.
Little Orphan Medici Maiden
Orphaned as a baby, Catherine de Medici was a rich heiress and a pawn in her relatives battle for power. Although the Medicis controlled Florence, they were not royalty themselves but merely glorified bankers. Catherine’s ‘safe spot’ became a convent where she was left in relative peace. Her relative, the Pope, secured a great marriage for her to the second son of the King of France.
Henry II and Catherine de Medici were married in Marseille to much celebration when they were both 14 years old. Henry’s randy old father stayed in their room on the wedding night to make sure the dirty got done. Can someone say awkward?!
Anyway, Catherine de Medici loved Henry II but he was under the thrall of Diane de Poitiers. And, to make matters worse, poor Catherine was hardly a looker and Diane an unrivalled beauty.
Diane and Catherine were both strong women who carved their own future during a period of history when women had little power.
So at age 14, Catherine de Medici found herself in a loveless marriage surrounded by French courtiers who were unimpressed with her lack of royal blood. If you remember the movie, Dangerous Liaisons, the French court really was a nest of vipers. Worse, it took Catherine almost 10 years to have children. Although the French courtiers blamed her, it was likely that Henry had some performance issues. After a doctor was able to solve the couple’s problems, Catherine went on to have 10 kids, making up for lost time. Three of her sons became Kings of France and one of her daughters became a Queen of France.
Despite Catherine’s best efforts, the throne passed onto Henry IV (pictured here as a boy). Although Henry IV was married to Catherine’s daughter, they were childless and he chucked her aside. Henry IV went onto marry another Medici heiress, Marie de Medici.
You can almost forgive Catherine for being bitter and living through her children. If the excellent film, La Reine Margot, is to be believed she may have loved her sons a little too much. French courtiers were convinced that she was a schemer and poisoner, but Catherine came across as positively nice in comparison to her relative, Marie de Medici.
This panelled room was Catherine’s study. The panels hid drawers which is where she is rumoured to have hid her poisons.
The Cougar With the Golden Body
Diane de Poitiers was an acknowledged beauty who had a tendency to make the best of any situation in which she found herself. At the age of 15 she found herself married to a relative of the French King who was 40 years older than her. After his death, she wore black and white for the rest of her life. Not only were these mourning colours, they looked good on her.
Diane’s beauty was immortalised in both sculpture and painting. She reputedly drank liquid gold every day as an elixir to keep herself attractive. A modern-day analysis of her body indicated really high levels of gold which is probably what killed her in the end.
As soon as he was made king in 1547, Henry II gave Chateau de Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers even though Catherine de Medici wanted it. Diane adored Chenonceau and went about sprucing it up.
The Love Story
As is usual in those days of high mortality, the heir to the throne died and Henry II ascended to the French throne. You can only imagine how thrilled the Medicis were. They had only aspired to be related to royalty and hadn’t expected to have Catherine ascend the throne herself. Unfortunately, as the King’s official mistress, Diane de Poitiers had a lot of power and influence. Catherine de Medici found herself sidelined by the king and court. Henry II even gave Diane the French Crown Jewels (and not just metaphorically).
Catherine de Medici took as her personal motto odiate e aspettate (hate and wait). I’d be so afraid of anyone with that sort of motto rather than say something positive like, Every Day is A New Day or Don’t Worry Be Happy. It was probably good propaganda though to scare the French courtiers a bit.
Happily Ever After is for Fairytale Endings
So the hating and waiting paid off. Henry II died from injuries sustained in a jousting tournament where Diane and Catherine were onlookers. He had chosen to honour his mistress by wear Diane’s colours for the tournament. Coincidence? Who knows? Maybe Prince Philip really did have a quiet word with MI5 about his scene-stealing ex-daughter-in-law.
Catherine wouldn’t let Diane say her final farewell to Henry II even though he kept asking for her. Catherine also chucked her out of the Chateau de Chenonceau and took it for herself. Diane retreated gracefully. First, she took up temporary residence at the beautiful nearby Chateau de Cheverny. Then Diane gave her Chateau de Chaumont as a trade for Chenonceau. Chaumont is a beautiful chateau but its no Chenonceau.
Even though this is the Queen’s bedroom, Catherine preferred another bedroom.
The only way a long-standing love triangle ends is when one of the members of the triangle dies. In the medieval version, it was Henry II in a jousting accident and his two women were left to spar on their own. In the modern day version, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car accident and Charles and Camilla went on to get married. I guess it is a happily ever after of sorts.
The bedroom of Catherine de Medici.
The History of Chenonceau
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chenonceau several times. I took a tour with Context Tours with atour guide who gave a colourful explanation of its history.
There has been a chateau at Chenonceau since the Middle Ages. One of the owners rebuilt the chateau in the 16th century. A small portion of the 15th century chateau was kept to let people know that the chateau may be new but the family weren’t. French King Francis I took Chenonceau in 1535 as payment for debts owed him. In 1547, Henry II gave it as a gift to Diane de Poitiers even though his wife wanted it. I can’t decide if Henry II was brave or foolhardy.
The little stump of the medieval keep was kept so people wouldn’t think the owners were new money.
Diane de Poitiers undertook extensive renovations to Chenonceau building both the bridge across the river and an elaborate garden.
These gardens were created for Diane de Poitiers. She had great taste as well as beauty and brains. Pretty much a nightmare mistress if you are the wronged wife.
Diane’s garden was laid out with borders, fountains, and topiary.
Once Henry II died, Catherine turfed Diane out. Catherine loved Chenonceau, too, and undertook renovations as well. She added rooms over the bridge and an Italian garden on the other side of the Chateau. Diane liked to put her initials everywhere but Catherine changed the lettering to make them look like her initials, sort of like people do with tattoos nowadays.
Henry II really liked to have his initials everywhere – walls, floors, ceilings. In the last one you can see how easy it would be to entertwine the initial H with both a C and a D.
Anything Diane could do, Catherine wanted to do better. She even staged the first fireworks display France had ever seen at Chenonceau when her son Francis II ascended the throne.
Even Catherine’s Italianate garden was less interesting than Diane’s.
Catherine had grand plans for massively enlarging the chateau. For example, she wanted to add service buildings to each side of the chateau. Unfortunately only side got built. Nowadays, the chateau’s cafe is on that side.
Catherine’s extra buildings can be seen behind the sphinxes at the gate.
After Catherine, Chenonceau passed through a series of owners, royal and otherwise. It survived the French Revolution because it was one of the few bridges crossing the River Cher. During World War II, the Chenonceau was the link between Nazi-occupied France on one side of the River Cher to the other side which was part of the resistance forces.
Inside Chenonceau and its Gardens
The chateau that the Queen and the mistress both coveted is indeed beautiful. It is one of the most popular chateaus in the Loire Valley and gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. I would suggest you go early or late in order to minimise the tourist crowds. Even when I have been there in the early spring when the gardens were not in bloom, Chenonceau had its fair share of tourists.
Take a walk in the woods to avoid the masses and appreciate the beauty of the estate.
Although the Chateau is pretty, our favourite part were the gardens. My children especially enjoyed the maze.
It was a race to see who could finish the maze first.
I am not affiliated with Context Tours in any way, nor did I receive compensation of any type from them in exchange for writing this article. I paid for the Chateaux of the Loire Tour because I genuine love Context Tours.