8 French Castles Straight Out of a Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, these storied châteaux and fortresses housed royals and scared off invaders—now they’re open to the public.

A French château with pointy spires and a dark roof overlooking a still pond in which it's reflected

Château de Chambord is a highlight of the Loire Valley, with an adjacent enclosed park filled with wildlife.

Courtesy of Daniel Schoenen/age fotostock

With its many gorgeous castles, France can often feel like a fairy tale. On a simple day trip from Paris or a full castle-hopping itinerary across the countryside, visitors can explore everything from medieval strongholds that have stood the test of time to the elegant Renaissance châteaux dotted across the Loire Valley. Adventures await at these architectural marvels, which are open to the public and offer guided tours, special events, and historical treasures, plus less-expected experiences like winetastings and contemporary art exhibitions. The following eight standouts are especially worth a visit, inviting travelers inside their walls to experience centuries of history, art, and architecture.

1. Château de Chambord

Commissioned by King Francis I, Château de Chambord turned 500 years old in 2019. Its most famous interior feature is a double-helix spiral staircase that twists up three floors, but the grand castle also boasts 426 rooms (guests can peek into 60 of them), 83 staircases, and 282 fireplaces. When visiting, don’t forget to look up: Francis used the salamander as his emblem and had it included more than 300 times on the ceilings and walls. Afterward, head outside to explore the formal gardens and surrounding lands, which, at 13,400 acres, make up the largest enclosed park in Europe. The green space is home to stags, wild boar, mouflon (introduced wild sheep), and, yes, the occasional salamander.

A golden stone château with blue-gray roof and brick chimneys in garden surrounded by trees and topiary cones

Château de Fontainebleau is one of the largest castles in France.

Courtesy of age fotostock

2. Château de Fontainebleau

With more than 1,500 rooms and 130 acres of parkland and gardens, Château de Fontainebleau is one of the largest castles in France and the only royal residence to have been continuously occupied for seven centuries; its 36 monarch residents spanned from Louis VII in the 12th century to Emperor Napoleon III in the late 1800s. Today, it’s a UNESCO site and national museum, worth an easy day trip from Paris. Take a tour to see the study where Napoleon I once worked and the sublime Francis I Gallery, a showpiece of Renaissance art and architecture that predates the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre and the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. You can also check out the notable Imperial Theater, three chapels, and many opulent accoutrements. Outside the castle doors, explore miles of trails in the surrounding Forest of Fountainebleau.

A white stone château, with conical roofs atop rounded turrets and surrounded by dirt paths and green lawns

One of the most beautiful castles in the Loire Valley, Château de Chenonceau was a favorite of Catherine de’ Medici.

Courtesy of K. Thomas/age fotostock

3. Château de Chenonceau

The Loire Valley is nirvana for castle lovers, thanks to dozens of châteaux lining the river. It’s hard to call one more attractive than the next, but Château de Chenonceau is worthy of all of the praise it gets. The castle owes its existence to prominent women who cared for and restored it, including King Henry II’s wife—Catherine de’ Medici—and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Plot twists aside, a visit here takes visitors through the castle’s 11th-century beginnings as a fortress and mill to its transformation into one of the Loire’s most picturesque châteaux.

A highlight is the two-story Grand Galerie, which spans the River Cher and houses Flemish tapestries, paintings by Rubens and Tintoretto, and 15th- and 16th-century furnishings. There’s also a lunch restaurant and crêperie in the former royal stables and winetastings under 16th-century vaulted ceilings in the old cellar.

A pink-red brick castle on a cliff overlooking fields and villages in the distance

From Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, you can see as far as the Black Forest in Germany.

Courtesy of age fotostock

4. Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg

While this 12th-century castle enjoys a strategic position 2,500 feet above the Alsace Plain, it was ultimately looted, burned, and left empty for about 250 years. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the château was restored at the order of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Less than an hour from Strasbourg, the mountaintop Château de Haut-Koenigsbourg is easy to spot from the road, especially given its pink sandstone facade. It’s also ideally located along the Alsace Wine Route. The panoramic view is worth a visit alone—on clear days, you can see everything from castles on nearby peaks to the Alps and the Black Forest in Germany.

If the castle looks familiar, you may recognize it from various pop culture moments: It was prominently featured in Jean Renoir’s 1937 anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion, influenced the design of the Citadel of Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and inspired Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki during the creation of his Howl’s Moving Castle.

An imposing château behind fortress walls with darkened stone exteriors and pointed roofs, surrounded by trees and green lawns

Château de Biron hosts regular art exhibits, concerts, and theater performances.

Courtesy of Clément Philippe/age fotostock

5. Château de Biron

Among the more than 1,000 châteaux in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, the imposing, 12th-century Château de Biron is one of the biggest. Not far from the appealing bastide town of Monpazier, the castle dominates the tiny village of Biron with its 12th-century keep, chapel, Renaissance apartments, and impressive vaulted kitchens. The Gontaut-Biron family owned the château for 24 generations before selling it to the state in 1978. Today, visitors can stop in to see rotating contemporary art exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical productions, plus sweeping views over the Périgord countryside.

A stone castle with fortress walls, rounded turrets, and towers with pointed roofs

Château de Couches was once among the most important defensive castles in Burgundy.

Courtesy of age fotostock

6. Château de Couches

A short drive from Beaune, this symbol of the Middle Ages towers over the Burgundy countryside and vineyards, reminding visitors with its crenellated towers, 12th-century keep, and 13th-century walls that it was once among the most important defensive castles in the region. Visitors to the Château de Couches, also known as the castle of Marguerite of Burgundy, can tour the dungeon and Gothic chapel, sign up for winetastings, or attend concerts, workshops, and a popular medieval festival, held annually in July. For families with children, there are costumed guides who lead shortened tours.

An austere fortress with circular towers surrounded by manicured gardens with colorful flowers

The Château d’Angers is home to one of the most impressive medieval tapestries in the world.

Courtesy of Clemens van Lay/Unsplash

7. Château d’Angers

Most châteaux in the Loire Valley are built with tuffeau, a local limestone that lends the buildings an elegant cream or golden-hued appearance. Bucking that trend is this hulking fortress, with 17 semicircular towers and thick walls mostly composed of gray Anjou schist, a coarse, sturdy rock that seems to say, “Keep out.” Built in the 13th century, the castle sits atop a promontory overlooking the Maine River that has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and was later used as a strategic settlement site by the Romans.

The building now houses the Apocalypse Tapestry. It was commissioned in the 1370s by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, and depicts the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelations. When the work was completed, it was nearly 460 feet long; even though about a quarter is now missing, it’s still the largest known medieval tapestry in the world.

Distant view of fortified medieval town with turrets and castellated ramparts, seen from a nearby green hill

The UNESCO-designated Cité de Carcassonne includes one of the finest examples of a medieval fortified town in all of Europe.

Courtesy of Alain Bonnardeaux/Unsplash

8. Cité de Carcassonne

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, the Cité de Carcassonne is located in the Occitanie region near France’s southern border with Spain and Andorra. It represents the best-preserved medieval walled city on the continent. Gauls, Romans, and Visigoths lived on and fought from this hilltop overlooking the River Aude, although much of the architecture we see today emerged in the Middle Ages, when this was the wild frontier between the kingdoms of France and Aragon.

Within these walls, you’ll find such treasures as the Gothic cathedral and the Château Comtal, or Count’s Castle, complete with ramparts and crenellations used as firing posts. But you’ll also find hotels, bars, galleries, museums, and restaurants serving the local specialty, cassoulet. This is much more of a living, breathing fortified town, like Québec City, than some museum piece. The reason the city is in such pristine condition is thanks to 19th-century French Gothic revival architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was responsible for restoring such medieval treasures as Notre-Dame de Paris and Mont Saint-Michel.

This article was originally published in April 2019 and was updated in January 2024.

Kimberly Lovato is a freelance writer, author, traveler, Francophile, and champagne lover with a peripatetic soul. Look for her books Unique Eats & Eateries: San Francisco and 100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die (Reedy Press).
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