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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The Chateau de Chaumont sur Loire doesn’t immediately impress you with its grandeur. Instead you are struck by the country garden charm of the place. Right behind the entrance office, there is a giant rabbit topiary. Garden paths meander past contemporary art and view points onto fields with wonderful views of the Loire Valley. Almost as an afterthought, the Chateau de Chaumont appears on the side, a fairytale vision of silver-tipped turrets on top of alabaster walls. Chateau de Chaumont was where Diane de Poitiers was banished after her lover died. His vengeful wife, Catherine de Medici, wrestled Chateau du Chenonceau at long last from her rival and gave her Chateau de Chaumont as a consolation prize. Nowadays the gardens of Chateau de Chaumont and the internationally-renowned Chaumont Garden Festival are the main draws for its visitors.
The Chateau’s position, once defensive, now gives it amazing views.
The History of the Chateau
There has been a chateau on the site since 1000 A.D because it was a good lookout point over the border territories of two powerful noblemen. The chateau was part of the influential d’Amboise family holdings for hundreds of years until Catherine de Medici bought it in 1550. The current Chateau de Chaumont architecture is a mix of the defensive style of architecture of medieval times and ornamental features dating from the Renaissance period.
The Chateau de Chaumont set like a jewel amongst the lawns.
When Catherine de Medici owned the chateau, she had elaborate parties at the chateau and hosted famous people, like the astrologer, Nostradamus and Cosimo Ruggieri. If the legend is to be believed, Ruggieri showed Catherine the death of her three sons in a mirror at Chaumont.
The Catherine de Medici room has tapestries dating from the 15th century.
Eventually though Catherine forced her love rival Diane de Poitiers to exchange it for the grander Chateau de Chenonceau. Diane de Poitiers only lived at Chaumont a short time even though. As pretty as Chaumont is, it’s no Chenonceau.
Beautiful stained glass windows.
Catherine de Medici left behind her initials on the stonework.
In the 18th century, Chaumont was the beloved chateau of a French merchant who rose up the ranks, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. Le Ray was instrumental in providing French support for the American Revolution. He housed Benjamin Franklin at one of his Parisian homes when Franklin was sent to Paris to drum up support for the American cause. Le Ray not only got the French King to cough up money but also provided money and equipment from his own funds. For example, he sent a gift of a warship to John Paul Jones who is credited with being a founder of the U.S. Navy.
The small chateau with extensive gardens is great for kids to visit.
Le Ray’s son moved to the United States and married an American. The Chateau survived the French Revolution because it was seized by the French Revolutionary government from the absentee landlord. Post-French Revolution, one of the sides got demolished so that you could get a better view of the Loire Valley. Oh, the irony.
The chateau has an amazing panoramic terrace overlooking the Loire valley.
A chateau with a view.
The Chapel had a modern art exhibit.
My eagle-eyed kids spotted a Furby in the installation. Can you find it?
The Gardens of Chateau de Chaumont
The chateau is set in 52 acres of parkland which were created by famed 19th century French garden designer, Henri Duchene. Until the time of Duchene, there was actually a little village of approximately 100 houses located right near the chateau. The Chateau’s owners, the Prince and Princess de Broglie, had all the buildings demolished and then had the village relocated closer to the Loire. Presumably, they had learned nothing from the French Revolution.
Unlike in the movie Poltergeist, even the village church’s cemetery was moved. Duchene, then, created an English style manor-house parkland that affording fabulous views over the Loire Valley and was more befitting a prestigious residence. Taking four years and costing 560,000 francs at the time, the project was a massive endeavour.
The view of the Chateau from the gardens.
One of his Duchene’s innovative designs was the Rustic Bridge which spans a ravine between ornamental gardens. The bridge is actually made of cement and then covered with iron and wood. This creative idea brought the French concept of trompe l’oeil to a garden environment.
The fake rustic bridge really does look like the real thing.
In 1877, the Princess de Broglie instructed an architect, Paul-Ernest Sanson, to build her some stables. These stables were considered the most luxurious in all of Europe at the time. The de Broglie horses were seriously pampered and even had Hermes saddles.
Sadly for the de Broglies, the good times ended. The Princess de Broglie blew through her fortune and the French government had to take over Chaumont in 1938. Even impoverished, the Princess lived among the Ritz and the George V hotels in Paris and her own private Parisian apartment.
The great salon recreates the Belle Epoque style of the Princess de Broglie.
The Chaumont Garden Festival
Chateau du Chaumont is known for its international contemporary garden festival which started in 1992. Running annually from June to October, it has approximately 30 gardens spread throughout the grounds of the chateau. This year is the festival’s 25th anniversary.
The gardens are designed by artists and landscape designers from all around the world. Over the years, the people who’ve worked on the 700+ gardens that have appeared in the festival is a who’s who of art and garden design. They are internationally renowned big names like Shigeru Ban (Japanese architect), Peter Walker (American landscape designer who was part of the design team for the National 9/11 Memorial) and Ernesto Neto (Brasilian artist).
According to the festivals rules, the gardens are in bloom in 6 months with the best of the display supposed to occur in the autumn. Approximately 400,000 people visit the garden festival every year.
The exhibits are kid-friendly. It’s like a contemporary open-air art museum. My kids really liked the garden of the mists which is a permanent exhibition. During July and August evenings, the gardens are lit up at night.
Every year the garden theme changes. In 2016, the gardens’ themes are about the issues facing the world today – climate change, rising sea levels and the link between people and their environment. The festival was overseen in 2016 by Maryanne Pinault, the wife of French retail billionaire, Francois Pinault. The Pinaults know a thing or two about modern art because they have an extensive renowned collection of contemporary art which is housed in its own Venetian palazzo.
I thought the International Garden Festival was fantastic and will dedicate a separate post to them. Not only were they attractive, but they raised a lot of issues about our environment.
Photo Gallery: Gardens of the Chateau de Chaumont
Fields of flowers in the sunshine
More fields of flowers.
So pretty. Sorry I had to throw in more flower photos.
Lush flowers interspersed with lawns.
My daughter thought someone had gone a little artsy/craftsy to the ends of these flowers.
The gardens are very lush and immaculately maintained. Seating areas throughout enable you to rest and enjoy them.
One very noisy frog in the gardens. I can see why the French like to eat them.
Visiting the Chateau de Chaumont
The Chateau de Chaumont is open seasonally. You can easily spend a day here. There are several restaurants on site, too, which are only available to chateau visitors. We liked the garden restaurant which serves sandwiches and salads in an alfresco setting with a pretty view.