With its many gorgeous castles, France can often feel like a fairy tale. Visitors can explore everything from medieval strongholds that have stood the test of time to Renaissance splendors across the Loire Valley. Adventures await at these wonderful castles, many of which are open to the public and offer guided tours, special events, and historical treasures. We can’t possibly name them all (though we’d sure like to try), but here six French castles to visit on your next trip.
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—King 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.
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. Having housed 34 sovereigns—including Napoleon III and Louis VII—it’s also the only royal residence to have been continuously occupied for seven centuries. 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 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 stunning Imperial Theater, three chapels, and many opulent accoutrements. Outside the castle doors, explore the miles of trails in the surrounding Forest of Fountainebleau.
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 beautiful than the next, but Château de Chenonceau is worthy of all of the praise it gets. The castle owes its sublime existence to prominent women who cared for and restored it, including King Henri 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 Mignard, and 15th- and 16th-century furnishings. There’s also a fine dining restaurant onsite, plus gorgeous grounds that are illuminated on certain summer weekend evenings, adding more enchantment to the fairy-tale setting.
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, complete with a drawbridge and moat. Less than an hour from Strasbourg, the 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.
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 beautiful 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.
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 enjoy a calendar of concerts, workshops, and a popular medieval festival, held annually in July. For families with children, there are costumed guides who lead shortened tours.
This article was originally published in April 2019 and was updated in May 2022.