One of the perks of expat life in France is that you have dozens of amazing places to visit that are all within driving distance. The Loire Valley offers an excellent vacation destination for those of us with little kids. Heck, it’s a fantastic vacation destination if you have a pulse. Perfect for families, students, seniors, solo travelers, or couples looking for romance, the Loire offers something for everyone.
The Loire Valley is a rolling verdant expanse dotted with small, medieval towns and gorgeous châteaux straight out of your favorite fairy tale. It is impossible not to lose yourself in the magic that permeates this jewel located just an hour and a half outside Paris by train.
Our family of six spent a week this summer exploring the region. We stationed ourselves in the wonderful town of Tours and spent each day venturing to new castles and exploring the little towns that surround them. Here is our (very subjective) list of the top 10 châteaux of the Loire Valley:
We spent the entire day at Chambord. You almost have to as it is absolutely massive. The castle boasts an impressive 440 rooms, 80+ staircases, and 365 fireplaces. The towering structure, crowned with a magnificent array of towers, spires, and chimneys, offers a truly awe-inspiring view as you approach the castle grounds.
The highlight for our family was a double-helix staircase that runs up the center of the château. My four-year-old twins delighted in running up and down the separate, intertwining staircases and poking their heads in the little windows to try to search for each other. For the older kids, they had heard that some of the rooms had hidden doors that led to secret passages. They painstakingly searched each room for camouflaged doors and insist that they managed to spy at least three!
Set on a lake, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is impossibly picturesque. One of the smaller castles in the Loire, this one felt quite manageable, especially with four exhaustingly energetic children. The rooms were beautifully decorated and several had incorporated animatronic elements. For instance, in the dining hall, a beautifully laid out table suddenly sprung to life with twirling fish, spinning bowls, and rising cabbages. The kids called it, “The Dancing Dinner,” and watched the whole show over and over again.
This one was an absolute winner with the kids as it was also housing a temporary Lego exhibition when we were there. According to the château’s website, the exhibition will be on display through June 2018.
Be sure to put up your feet and partake in a little refreshment in the beautiful Orangerie located in the back of the garden.
Château de Blois is a never-ending box of candy for history and architecture buffs. Built over the centuries in Gothic, Renaissance, and Classic styles, the walls of this château brim with stories of intrigue, deceit, and murder.
Its rooms are lavishly furnished and the decorative motifs on the walls, floorings, and ceilings are truly dazzling. The kids enjoyed the opportunity to take a seat on the throne in the cavernous Salle des États with its beautifully ornate ceiling.
The lovely Château de Chaumont happens to be set in some of the most beautiful gardens in France. Although the interior of the castle is worth a look, the gardens are where you should budget most of your time. Each year, the castle hosts an international garden festival that involves multiple artists. Wandering from garden to garden, it feels as though you’re exploring whole new worlds in miniature as each installation has a unique look and feel.
Arguably the most famous of the Loire châteaux, Chenonceau is also its most crowded with tourists. And for good reason as the castle is truly a classic beauty. My advice is to avoid mid-day on a weekend. If possible, go in the middle of the week a few hours before closing time in an effort to miss the thick of the crowds. During the height of the season, the château keeps its doors open until 8pm.
Sometimes described as “the ladies castle,” the Château de Chenonceau we see today is the product of a bitter rivalry between a queen and her husband’s mistress. Henri II gifted the castle to his beloved Diane de Poitiers, who built the bridge that spans the Cher River. After the king died, his widow, Catherine de Medici, forced Diane out of the castle. Catherine then turned the bridge into a splendid gallery that gives the castle its iconic look.
To escape the swarms of people inside the castle, the grounds offer two beautiful, distinct gardens—one is Diane’s and one is Catherine’s. The grounds also contain a hedge maze, which was the perfect place for my kids to run around and play hide n’ seek.
As you travel the little bridge that takes you to Ussé, you’ll find that you’ve crossed over into the fairy tale world. Indeed, Ussé is the very castle that inspired Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, or as the French say, La Belle au Bois Dormant.
In honor of its place in the land of fairy tales, the castle has a whole section dedicated to scenes from Sleeping Beauty. For my kids, the highlight was climbing high up into the open-rafter attic to a narrow staircase that spiraled up to a tiny room where the fairies locked away the evil Maleficent to practice her dark magic far away from everyone else.
We were lucky to arrive at Langeais as the town’s weekly market was getting underway. Any excuse to roam this quaint town, which looks like it leapt straight off the pages of a storybook. Picturesque, enchanting, charming…I need a whole thesaurus to describe this delightful town.
The castle itself offers great views of the town below and puts on a 15-minute play with knights and sword fighting that is fun for kids. I should note that the play is entirely in French and involves audience participation—so if your French is rusty or nonexistent, you may want to practice the fine art of eye contact avoidance with the actors as they search the crowd to pull someone onstage with them.
If you have kids with you, be sure to explore the garden out back, which is perfect for picnics. After a bit of searching, you’ll come across one of the best tree houses my kids have ever had the treat to climb. A must-see!
While the château itself is quite lovely, the real star of Villandry is its glorious, terraced garden. Be sure to take every opportunity to peek out the castle’s windows for spectacular views of the garden as it stretches out below. The formal, rigid lines of the landscaping contain a riot of color.
Once outside, kids can run through the hedge maze while you stroll through the formal ornamental garden or the water garden. It’s amazing how flowers and vegetables are mixed together to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
Rising imperiously over its namesake riverside town, the imposing Château d’Amboise is absolutely striking. Walking through the medieval city center, it’s easy to get swept back into a time long since passed, when chevaliers paraded through the streets, kings held court, and Leonardo da Vinci crafted his inventions.
The château was the setting for some major events in France’s history, and one can only imagine what the walls would say if they could talk. Take as much time as you need to soak in the castle’s history, wander the carefully manicured gardens, and visit the stores, stalls, and restaurants nestled at the building’s base.
This list is only a taste of the many castles the Loire has to offer. Which ones have you visited? Which ones would you recommend our readers explore? Let us know in the comments.