Gorgeous scenery, amazing food and stunning chateaux make it one of my favorite places
Why only see Paris on a trip to France, when you can do as French royalty did – leave the city for the refined pleasures of travel in the Loire Valley.
I’ve visited the Loire Valley twice and it’s one of my favourite places: with over 100 chateaux to explore, it is a treasure of renaissance architecture. And it is easily reachable from Paris, so it’s an ideal way to experience the French countryside for a few days, and a beautiful region for a longer trip.
After two visits, I’ve only seen a fraction of the Loire, and am already planning a return visit. This is a collection of some of the places I enjoyed, chateaux I loved and possibly my favourite hotel in the world; hopefully some suggestions that might help you plan your own dream trip to the Loire Valley.
Travel Guide to the Loire Valley
THE GARDEN OF FRANCE
Known as the Garden of France the Val de Loire is a true pastoral paradise. Agriculture has always been significant in the region thanks to its lush, fertile land, forests and rivers. The produce is unbelievable; I’ve had some of the most memorable meals of my life here.
It is also known for excellent wine, not a surprise, I suppose – it’s France. The Sancerre is delicious and if you like sparkling, try the Saumur mousseux, fermented in the limestone caves of the region’s wine capital, Saumur.
Loire Valley Chateaux
With its pastoral beauty and forests ideal for hunting, the Loire Valley was considered an idyllic region by France’s royalty and nobility. They came in the 15th and 16th centuries with the country’s best architects and landscape designers to construct magnificent manor homes and palaces known collectively as chateaux. (In French cities these grand houses are known as palais.)
Beyond their beauty, the chateaux have historical significance. They represent the renaissance, when France emerged from the dark ages and made strides to unite its cities and regions. And there was a new priority and appreciation for beauty: the utilitarian gardens of the middle ages were abandoned in favour of ornamental gardens.
Of the more than 300 chateaux remaining, about 100 of them are open to the public. To narrow your list, this is a helpful website, with information on 22 of the most notable, and suggested itineraries.
And to simplify even further, here are a few that I recommend, and a couple I intend see on my next visit
CHATEAU de CHEVERNY
Cheverny was one of the first chateau to open to the public, in 1922, and has been in the same family for six generations. I mention it first because I think it has something of interest for everyone, yet the size is not overwhelming, so it’s a nice place to start,
If it looks familiar, it may be because Belgian illustrator, Hergé, used the building as inspiration for Marlinspike Hall, the manor home of Captain Haddock in the Adventures of Tintin books.
The chateau has been restored and decorated to represent the grand life once lived by French nobility. The rooms on the tour include a nursery, music room, study and formal dining room, among others.
The four gardens are beautiful and each represents a different theme. Cheverny is especially known for its tulip garden, best seen in April. We visited in June and I was very impressed by the kitchen garden. If you are with children, there is a maze to explore as well.
HUNTING DOGS of CHEVERNY
These were once the hunting grounds of French royals and nobles and Cheverny embraces this tradition. A kennel of 100 tricolor hounds, France’s traditional hunting dog, are kept at Cheverny and still used on hunts today.
You can learn more about the dogs and hunting tradition at the “feeding of the hounds”, which takes place at 11:30 daily (April through September and four days a week the rest of the year).
Listening to 100 hungry hounds yelp for their lunch is something you won’t forget and the show is interesting, even if you don’t speak French. If you miss the show, you can still visit the dogs at the kennel, next to the kitchen garden.
Chambord is the largest of all the Loire Chateau, the best known and a gorgeous example of the architecture of the Loire Valley.
More than 60 of its rooms are open to the public as well as various exhibitions. Guided tours are cancelled as of June 2020, due to coronavirus, but there are various resources you can access as you tour.
Chambord also has remarkable outdoor environments including extensive formal gardens and the largest enclosed forest park in Europe; a 32 km wall extends around its perimeter, making it around the same size as Paris! Visitors can see stags, wild boar and deer. And if you love birds, as I do,there are 150 species found here.
Chambord would appeal to almost everyone, but I think it is a great choice if you are travelling with children or teens: there is an elaborate show held daily in summer, where French chevalier (knights) joust on horseback. Birds of prey are also showcased at the performance. (The website says these WILL be held daily in summer 2020 but do confirm if you are going. I believe the show requires a separate ticket.)
With all that said, and apologies to Victor Hugo, I was supposed to visit Chambord on my France visit last year, but had to skip it because of a change in schedule. My husband Sean had a chance to tour it a few months ago and was nice enough to take the photos. He promises me it is absolutely worth the hype, so I hope to visit soon.
CHATEAU du BLOIS
The Château Royal de Blois was home to seven French kings and ten French queens. I loved its stunning exterior and the interior has been carefully restored and furnished, with its apartments providing a look at the daily life of French royalty. There is also a notable art collection that reflects its history.
One of the unique things about this château is its setting, in the center of the city of Blois. (Most château are set in the country or in towns on considerable properties.) Although it doesn’t have the gardens of other chateau, you can admire its interesting exterior as you walk through the quaint city. In summer (April to September), the castle has an evening sound and light show which tells the history at the castle.
CHATEAU de SAUMUR
If you are staying at one of my favourite hotels, Le Moulin Bregeon (more below), and are arriving by train from Paris, you will likely arrive in the town of Saumur.
Chateau de Saumur is one of the older chateau and has an interesting history. It was constructed in the 10th century as a stronghold against Norman attacks and so is fortified with a wall, something you don’t see in the typical chateau.
In the 14th century, Duke Louis I of Anjou, the brother of King Charles V, transformed it into a palace and the building it resembles today. It was also a state prison under Napoleon Bonaparte.
There is less to see on the inside than many of the other chateau – two museums are dedicated to tapestries and equestrian pursuits. So, I would not make a special trip here, but if you are in Saumur, a walk up to this chateau will give you wonderful views out over the city and the Loire River, and a chance to admire its beautiful exterior.
Two Chateaux I 'll Visit Next time
Chateau Villandry is known for its beautiful architecture but even more so its spectacular gardens. Apparently even its vegetable garden is breathtaking. The architect, Jean Le Breton, acquired his expertise on multiple projects, including the Chateau of Chambord. And he had an immense passion for garden design.
The Château Chenonceau is known as the “Women’s Castle” because a remarkable succession of women were its owners, proprietors and protectors from the 16th century to modern times. (Learn about its fascinating history here – Château Chenonceau.)
It is said to represent French elegance at its finest with gorgeously restored and furnished rooms, a beautiful display of tapestries, and an incredible art collection including works by Rubens and Van Dyck. I can’t wait to see it.
DAY TRIPS FROM PARIS to the LOIRE VALLEY
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There are organized day tours to the Loire Valley from Paris, which include visits to several popular chateaux. These are typically on a bus with a group, so check availability in 2020, due to coronavirus.
If you want to do your own thing, you can get to Tours or Orleans by TGV from Paris in just over an hour. Both of these cities place you near popular chateaux and trains run throughout the day in each direction.
You can rent a car in Tours or Orleans. Do book ahead to expedite the process; I like EuropCar for France rentals, but Avis and Hertz also have locations here.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE LOIRE VALLEY
The Loire Valley has great roads and beautiful chateaux located throughout, so you really can not go wrong. You could either pick a location based on what chateaux you want to see, especially if you are short on time, or you could just select the accommodation you like best, regardless of location, as we did.
Small hotels in the French countryside are often referred to as auberge or they might use the english bed & breakfast. The beautiful countryside is what the Loire Valley is all about and there are wonderful options of all varieties and price points.
Le Moulin Bregeon
I can highly recommend Le Moulin Bregeon, an old wheat mill turned country retreat, near the town of Saumur, between the larger cities of Tours and Angers. I’ve written a story about my experience because it’s one of my favourite hotels. Ideally you would stay at least three nights, giving you two full days to explore the chateaux and have time to relax at this beautiful inn.
Auberge du Cheval Blanc
If you are looking for something budget-friendly, I stayed at the very well-priced Auberge du Cheval Blanc which has the option to dine at its incredible 4-star restaurant. Although the inn is more quaint than fancy, it is comfortable and charming and has a very nice breakfast. Dinner here was my favourite meal on my last trip to France – that includes everything I ate in Paris. This was my favourite! You will be hosted by a charming couple, Joel, the chef of Cheval Blanc, and his wife Patricia. Auberge du Cheval Blanc is very near Chambord and Cheverny.
TOWN & CITIES of the LOIRE VALLEY
To me, the Loire is about country inns, quiet roads and little villages, but some people prefer staying somewhere larger with options for exploring and walking around in the evening.
Many of the region’s beautiful cities are set on the Loire River; it’s France’s largest river and stretches through the region to the Atlantic coast. (The area between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes is designated a Unesco World Heritage site.)
AMBOISE – If you wish to stay in a larger center, Amboise is a favourite of visitors with its charming old quarter and noteworthy Chateau de Amboise. It was home to French kings from the 15th to the 19th centuries and hosted literary figures and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci who helped design it. The location of Amboise is ideal for touring some of the Loire Valley’s most famous Chateaux, including Chambord, Chenonceau and Cheverny.
BLOIS – I also really enjoyed the town of Blois and would consider staying there with it’s great location and lovely castle. I also had the best quiche of my life at the Forges restaurant across from the chateau.
ORLEANS – If you are pressed for time, the regional capital, Orleans, is a quick train ride from Paris and has many hotel choices. The beautiful Sainte-Croix Cathedral is here and the Joan of Arc festival is celebrated each spring to commemorate the heroine’s liberation of the city.
CHARTRES – Chartres is bigger than Amboise and the main draw here is its Cathedral Notre-Dame. Built between 1145 and 1194, it is considered one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture and has remarkably well preserved stained glass windows dating to the 13th century.
AZAY-le-RIDEAU – If you prefer a small town, Azay-le-Rideau looks absolutely charming and has the wonderful Chateau d’Azay le Rideau, also on my list to visit although I didn’t mention it above.
SLEEP IN A CHATEAUX in LOIRE VALLEY
If your dream is to live like the royals and nobles, there are chateaux that offer accommodation. Although most of the famous ones do not, a new hotel has opened on the Chambord property, the Relais de Chambord, which has rooms facing the castle. Reviews are mixed. Hopefully they are working out the kinks.
This website has a curated list of seven recommended chateaux in the Loire Valley, and allows you to search by a specific feature such as “swimming pool” or “self-catered”.
CYCLING IN THE LOIRE VALLEY
I really enjoyed cycling in the Loire Valley on day outings and would love to do a longer multi-day tour. Much of the terrain is flat with gently rolling hills, with ample stops for delicious food and drink, so it’s an ideal foray into cycling adventures.
If you enjoy active travel and are interested in a cycling holiday, there are many well-regarded tour companies which offer them. Here are a few:
U.S. outdoor company REI has a 6-day guided tour rated “easy/active” and requires cycling between 25-35 kilometers per day. Priced from about US$3400 (Note: all trips cancelled through Aug. 2/20)
Canadian luxury-travel company Butterfield & Robinson also has a 6-day tour. This might be ideal if you have a bigger budget, prefer luxury accommodation and don’t mind a little more cycling to work off the wine and cheese, about 40-50 kilometers a day. Priced from US$4995
U.K.-based Headwater offers several cycling tours of the Loire Valley including gastronomic and winery tours. This is self-guided. Their 6-night itinerary is priced from US$1900
WHEN TO VISIT THE LOIRE VALLEY
I loved visiting the Loire Valley in autumn and would recommend September and October, probably my favourite time in Europe. It was also lovely in June, warm days and cool nights. Summer is a busy time in Europe and can be too hot for some people. If you go in July or August, consider choosing areas that are less popular with European travelers, to avoid the crowds.
Paris is supposed to be lovely in winter, but much of the countryside slows down, so there is less available to visitors, with some hotels and attractions entirely closed. France is also quite damp and grey in winter, although the Loire Valley doesn’t get much snow.
The upsides of winter travel are lower prices and no crowds, obviously. And who doesn’t want a reason to spend half a day touring chateaux and the other half inside, drinking wine and eating cheese by the fire.