Photo by Peter Richardson/age fotostock
Photo by Daniel Schoenen/age fotostock
Château de Chambord is a jewel of the Loire Valley.
From abbeys and fortresses to castles, palaces, and manors, France has an endless supply of regal homes to explore. Here are our favorites.
With its many gorgeous castles and châteaux, 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 abbeys, fortresses, palaces, and stately manors, 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 are a few French castles that will leave you dreaming of happily ever after.
Commissioned by King Francis I, Château de Chambord is a jewel of the Loire Valley—and happens to turn 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.
More a fortified medieval town with a 12th-century castle, the Cité de Carcassonne is a gorgeous relic of the Middle Ages, surrounded by nearly two miles of walls and more than 50 towers. When seen at a distance rising in the Aude River Valley in southwestern France, Carcassone looks every bit like a picture book medieval palace. It’s hard to imagine it was targeted for demolition in 1849. Luckily a vocal mayor stepped in, and today it’s one of France’s many impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites. Summer here is full of festivals and fireworks, including a popular display over the medieval city on Bastille Day (July 14). Guided tours of the town’s narrow streets, the city walls and towers, and the château are available.
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What King Louis XIII built as a hunting lodge 10 miles southwest of Paris, his successor, Louis XIV, and Queen Marie Antoinette transformed into a glittering, 721,182-square-foot palace—and symbol of French power: Château de Versailles. Today, visitors can tour magnificent rooms like the Hall of Mirrors, admire thousands of paintings and pieces of furniture, and wander the vast manicured gardens for a look at royal indulgence. Versailles is open year-round (except December 25 and January 1), but the gardens are especially beautiful on summer evenings when its fountains are illuminated. Save yourself the anguish that comes with seeing the hordes of people at the golden gates and book a skip-the-line ticket in advance.
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.
As picturesque as it is imposing, Mont St. Michel is an island, a village, and a monastery perched on a rocky outcrop, about a mile off the coast of Normandy. It was originally called Mont-Tombe but took the name Mont-Saint-Michel in the 8th century and became a pilgrimage stop because of its historical significance. The site’s 1,000-year-old Romanesque church, crowned by archangel Saint Michel, and its surrounding complex, is rightfully called La Merveille (the marvel). It’s also a UNESCO site, accessible by a small road (walking or official buses only) from a mainland parking lot. Once in the village, be prepared to climb, and make sure to walk on top of the ramparts for views of the Gothic spires and surrounding bay.
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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.
This stately brick manor house is famous for being the official and final residence of Leonardo da Vinci; it is located a quarter mile from the beautiful Château Royal d’Amboise, where the artist’s tomb lies. From June 7 to September 8, 2019, the Château du Clos Lucé will commemorate 500 years since da Vinci’s death with an exhibition of his work, including the monumental tapestry of The Last Supper, which hasn’t been displayed outside the Vatican Museum since the 16th century.
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.
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.
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 wine tastings; 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.
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