The Loire Valley surrounds the Loire river, the longest river in France that flows from the central mountains northwest towards the Atlantic Ocean.
A popular wine region for its four very distinct wine-growing areas along the river. The area is also well known for the numerous chateau built using the same soils that vinify some of the best wines in France.
Here you will find upwards of 300 château scattered throughout the Loire Valley. They range in size and style from simple 10th-century fortified castles to massive palaces. Many of the structures were built during the renaissance for nobility and royalty who were drawn to the area to build their dream residences.
The one commonality between the many châteaux found within the central region of the Loire Valley is their locations near the rivers.
While visiting the Loire Valley and so many choices of château to visit, here are three royal châteaux offering, not just stunning beauty and architecture, but featuring some of the best storytelling:
Château de Chenonceau
Located in the town of Chenonceaux, Château de Chenonceau is the most visited in the Loire Valley.
The attraction to the property is more than just its stately appearance, but the tales of the women who contributed to the building, rebuilding, protection, restoration, and philanthropy of the property.
If the walls of Château de Chenonceau could talk, they would be filled with famous historians, architects, royals, dignitaries, authors, and artists.
Originally built in the 12th century in the medieval style, the current complex was rebuilt between 1513 and 1517 by a noblewoman who was influential in the design of the current château.
In 1559 the widowed Queen of France, Catherine de Medici took control of the property. She further improved its magnificence by adding and enhancing beautiful gardens that are seen today throughout the property. Making it her primary residence, Catherine used the property as a show ground for some of the best celebrations in France.
The home remained in royal control until the 18th century when it was purchased for Louise Dupin by her husband. They welcomed many popular French literary figures during this time. Louise was responsible for saving the château from complete destruction by revolutionary soldiers during the French Revolution.
In 1864 the empty and destroyed property was purchased by Madame Marguerite Pelouze who bankrupted her finances refurbishing it.
Passing hands multiple times, through the years Chenonceau was sold in 1913 to a member of the family of distinguished French chocolatier, Henri Meunier.
The property was open to visitors proudly welcoming guests until World War 1. During this time it was used as a military hospital, treating 2,254 wounded soldiers led by Meunier’s, granddaughter-in-law.
Again during the Nazi-occupied France of World War II, the property was used as a safe zone. But not without damage as the Nazi soldiers in 1944 took occupancy within the residence. In an effort to retake the region, Allied troops bombed Chenonceau’s chapel.
If the history alone of this residence is not an intriguing reason to draw visitors. The magnificence of the architecture, the gardens, and the stately property make this château top of our list.
Located along the river Loire in the commune of Amboise, this luxurious château is most notable as the residence of French kings starting in the 15th century up to the 19th century.
The property was acquired by King Charles VII in 1434 and later rebuilt by King Charles VIII.
In 1492 construction began in the French Gothic style. After the loss of the French – Italian war in 1495, Charles VII was obsessed with Italy. To create an Italian palace in France, One of Italy’s top designers was hired.
Charles died in 1498 before the completion of the Italian palace. Without heirs, his cousin the new King, Louis XII continued the process of completing the property.
Towards the end of the 1500’s King Francis I, who was raised in the Château, made it his royal residence. Royal residency continued through the next hundred years.
Other notable inhabitants were King Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici. The royal couple raised their young family in the château along with Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) who was betrothed to their son, the future King, Francis II.
There was a period of time during the abandonment of the property when the château was used as a prison under Louis XVI for noble prisoners of the French civil wars from 1648 – 1653.
After almost complete destruction during the French Revolution, King Louis Phillipe began restoration on the property until his abdication of the throne in 1848 when the property was confiscated by the French government.
In 1873 the château was returned to Louis Phillipe’s family and rebuilding commenced. The château to this day is maintained by the descendants of Louis Phillipe.
Beyond discovering the stories of the royalty that has walked the halls. The views from the property overlooking the Loire, the terraced gardens, and the surrounding countryside are inspiring.
Château de Chambord
The third château is one of the most recognized in the region for its architecture.
Unlike the other two previous royal châteaux, this one was not designed as a residence, but as a holiday home for King Francis I.
Located off the river Loire in the marshlands of the central Loire Valley, Château de Chambord is the largest of the châteaux in the Loire region.
It was built by Francis as a hunting lodge for its location within a day’s travel from his royal residences in Amboise and Blois.
The design of the property is Italian with rumored influences from the artist Leonardo de Vinci.
The fortress was constructed over a period of 28 years. The intention was to dazzle sovereigns and foreign ambassadors with architecture, unlike anything that had been seen before in France.
The rooftops were designed with 11 different towers and 3 chimneys to reflect from afar as a townscape. The goal was the resemblance to the ancient city of Constantinople in the distance rather than that of a royal palace.
The centerpiece of the interior was a 274-step double spiral staircase that climbed three floors in the main building without ever connecting.
Francis passed in 1547 before the completion of his showpiece château. So furnishings and wall coverings were not added.
The property remained abandoned for 80 years, falling into ruin. In 1639, the Duke of Orleans was gifted Chambord by his brother, King Louis XIII.
Gaston d’Orleans directed the renovation and restoration of Chambord, acquiring new land to add 20 miles of boundary walls and a park within the grounds.
After Gaston’s death, construction continued under the watch of the royal family. In 1680, King Louis XIV added horse stables and temporarily furnished the royal apartments to use Chambord as originally intended, a hunting lodge. It remained an entertainment facility for the King until 1685 when the Château was once again abandoned for Louis’ new palace in Versailles.
Used sporadically between 1725 and 1750 by King Louis XV, the château mostly sat abandoned.
In 1792 the property was pillaged and vandalized by revolutionaries although it was spared from complete destruction during the French Revolution.
Post-war, Emperor Napolean Bonaparte’s government sold off the remaining furnishings, including the custom woodwork to raise money to cover war costs.
The final ownership of the property was in 1871 to Count de Chambord. He oversaw the restoration of the château and opened it for public access. Upon his death in 1930, the property once again was signed over as government property becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Combine your visit to the Loire Valley with a 7-night river cruise along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in Bordeaux for a full French experience.
Discover more information on river cruising through Bordeaux.