The Loire Valley of France, found between the towns of Tours and Blois, offers a fascinating landscape of vineyards, forests, gardens, and stately châteaux (singular château). Château is a general term used for any manor house but, historically, chateaux were used as anything from hunting lodges to residences for important people. They were built between the 10th and 20th centuries, although many of the châteaux in this Loire Valley guide were built around the Renaissance period.
Visiting a Loire Valley château or two and enjoying the surrounding forest and wine regions has been a top tourist endeavor for decades. Although the Loire Valley is home to more than 300 châteaux, this guide focuses on the best of the local châteaux, most of which are situated in a département called Loir-et-Cher. For folks on a tight vacation schedule, this guide is perfect for making the most of your time in the Loire Valley.
Cities of the Loire Valley
Tours is a good city to stay in to discover the Loire Valley châteaux, especially if you are arriving by train. It isn't the most scenic city, being fairly industrial, but the old center was rebuilt after the war and it's a decent hub for visiting the valley. There is an airport outside Tours called Tours Val de Loire Airport that offers flights to and from London, and the high-speed TGV train gets you from Paris to Tours in about an hour.
If you arrive in Tours by train, you still have some distance to travel to get to wine country, but half-day wine country tours on an eight-passenger minibus are offered by the Tourist Office (main office located at 78-82 Rue Bernard Palissy; annex at 1 Place Plumereau). Your hotel in Tours should be able to guide you toward bus tours of the chateaux.
Blois, which is the capital of the Loir-et-Cher, is a city that you may consider staying in and using as your base. It has the added benefit of having its very own Renaissance-era château. There is a train station at Blois, and you can rent a car there to continue your exploration of the Loire Valley.
Montrichard is a historic market town on the River Cher between Blois and Tours. Nearby cottages offer a chance to stay in the area and experience life as a local.
Since châteaux country is part of a rural vacation that might include walking, biking, wine tasting, and visiting open-air markets, a popular thing to do is to rent a country cottage for a week or so. There are more than 140 rural vacation rentals in the Loire Valley département of Loir-et-Cher.
- Château de Chenonceau has been described as the most beautiful of châteaux. The Renaissance château stretches across the River Cher on piers. Chenonceau is one of the few châteaus that you can view without a guide.
- Château de Chambord was commissioned as a hunting lodge by Francois I in 1519. It's the largest of the Loire châteaux with 440 rooms, and if it's second to Chenonceau in beauty, it's a darn close second.
- Château de Chaumont is set on a cliff above the Loire, standing on the foundations of two previous fortresses dating from the 10th and 12th centuries. Check out the Italian tiled floor in the Salle du Conseil, furniture from the 16th and 18th centuries, and the impressive stables built by the Prince de Broglie.
- Château d'Amboise was home to French King Louis XI and his wife Charlotte of Savoy. Visit the Gothic Chapel of St Hubert and find out if the remains of Leonardo da Vinci are really buried in the north transept. Don't forget to see the lavish Kings quarters, the Great Hall, and the Tour des Minimes, which is a tower providing access to the château to carriages.
- Château de Villandry features one of the best examples of Renaissance formal gardens in the Loire Valley.
- Château de Beauregard features an interesting 16th-century kitchen, but most come here to see the Picture Gallery containing 363 portraits of Royal family members and aristocracy.
- Château de Cheverny is an opulent Renaissance-styled château from the period of Louis XIII. The main draws here are the furnishings and the small hunting museum.
Getting There and Around
If you are traveling by train, a rail pass can save you money if you plan correctly. A variety of French rail passes are available.
Heading toward the west coast of France, you can go toward Nantes, or continue on toward Bordeaux to coastal resort La Rochelle. You could also go north to Paris. The A10 Autoroute goes north to Paris and southwest to Bordeaux.