The Essential Guide to the Loire Valley

So exceptional is the Loire Valley, with its enchanting châteaus, religious landmarks, and award-winning wineries, that the entire 310-square-mile region, located between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Lined with vineyards, orchards, and artichoke fields, it’s known as the Garden of France, but the region is about so much more than agriculture. Come here to sleep in a troglodyte cave, learn more about Joan of Arc, ride a mechanical elephant, and, of course, sample the local Sancerre.

Highlights
2 Rue des Lilas, 49400 Saumur, France
Around since 1851, Bouvet Ladubay in Saumur produces 20 different types of sparkling wine. Try them all during a visit to the award-winning winery—just don’t expect a typical tasting experience. Here, guests can learn about the winemaking process while riding vintage bicycles through Bouvet Ladubay’s three miles of ancient cellars, located beneath the ruins of the 11th-century Abbey of St-Florent de Saumur. The tour, which includes several tastings, takes about 90 minutes.
31 Place Nouvelle Place, 18300 Sancerre, France
At the Michelin-starred Restaurant La Tour on Sancerre’s main square, chef Baptiste Fournier forgoes today’s culinary trends for simple, sophisticated French fare. He offers just three starters (langoustines, salmon, and mussels) and four entrées (fish, chicken, beef, and lamb) on the weekdays, and a superbly priced five-course menu on the weekends, complete with fish and meat, a cheese course, and dessert. For those looking to indulge, there are also three set menus—the Promenade, Pleasure, and Confidence—that adhere to the same minimalism, but surprise with innovative flavor combinations. Whichever you choose, be sure to pair your meal with a bottle of local Sancerre.
37420 Rigny-Ussé, France
Only a 40-minute drive from Saumur, the Château d’Ussé is so magical that it served as the inspiration for the castle in Charles Perrault’s The Sleeping Beauty. Originally built as a stronghold in the Middle Ages, it developed over time into a jewel of Renaissance architecture, then became a splendid residential home in the 17th and 18th centuries. The octagonal Knights’ Dungeon plays a key part in Perrault’s fairy tale, but the castle is also home to enchanting cellars, gardens, stables, a chapel, and a tower with spectacular views over the Loire Valley. Spend some time here and you’ll quickly understand why it’s among the most beloved castles.
Route de Sancerre, 18300 Sury-en-Vaux, France
Sébastien Riffault, son of winemaker Étienne Riffault, started his own label in 2002 with a strong belief in biodiversity, biodynamic principles, and natural winemaking. On his almost five acres of vineyards near Sury-en-Vaux, he grows an array of plants, flowers, and grass among his vines to encourage good insects, and uses horses to plow so his soil is carefully tilled. Without the aid of fertilizers or chemicals, he leaves his grapes on the vine extremely late to ensure they’re completely ripe, then ferments them in large, old barrels with wild yeast. The result is unfiltered, completely natural wine that competes with some of the Loire’s best bottles. To learn more about Sébastien’s unique process, visit the vineyard for one of his informal vendage entre amis (grape-picking with friends), then stick around to taste some of his Sancerre.
3 Place du Général de Gaulle, 45000 Orléans, France
Joan of Arc’s historical significance lies not only in the fact that she played a pivotal role in leading the French army to victory during the Hundred Years’ War against the English, but also that she was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920—nearly 500 years after she was burned at the stake. She’s now the patron saint of France and known worldwide for her bravery. Learn more about her at the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc, a re-creation of the house on Place General-de-Gaulle where she stayed during the Siege of Orléans in 1429. Here, you’ll find a multimedia room with interactive kiosks, a map of her journey, and an illustrated chronology of her life, as well as an animated film about her story. Guided tours are available in French and English, and on Fridays at 5 p.m., the museum also hosts a lively market.
Place Sainte-Croix, 45000 Orléans, France
The Cathédrale Ste-Croix, where Joan of Arc attended Mass on May 2, 1429, during the Battle of Orléans, is most famous for its 10 stained glass windows illustrating scenes from her life. However, the neo-Gothic cathedral—built over 600 years, from 1287 to its official inauguration on May 8, 1829—is worthy of praise in its own right, especially its western facade, with its ornate stonework, 288-foot towers, and three spectacular rose windows. Among the five largest Gothic cathedrals in France, the church is also home to a beautiful choir section and deambulatory, filled with interesting stonework and decoration.
18 Place François Sicard, 37000 Tours, France
Housed in the former archbishop’s palace, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours features one of France’s most extensive art collections, with works by everyone from Rubens, Rembrandt, and Rodin to Monet and Degas. Outside, the courtyard is dominated by a splendid cedar of Lebanon, planted in 1804, and Fritz, a stuffed elephant who was killed in 1902 after a bout of madness during a Barnum & Bailey circus parade in the streets of Tour. After you’ve seen the museum, from its Italian, French, and Flemish galleries to its modern art collection, head across the park and refuel with a coffee and pastry at Aux Délices des Beaux Arts.
Parc des Chantiers, Boulevard Léon Bureau, 44200 Nantes, France
There’s no shortage of boat tours on the Loire River, but for an even more Instagrammable experience, ride a 40-foot mechanical elephant along the water at Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes. Open since 2007 in the town’s old shipyards, this engineering playground boggles the mind with attractions like the Carrousel des Mondes Marines (a massive carousel with sea creatures that move) and the Galeries des Machines (home to a giant mechanical spider and ant). The museum’s newest project, the $45 million Arbre aux Herons with 35 mechanical birds perched in a 115-foot tree, is scheduled to open in 2021.
20 Passage Pommeraye, 44000 Nantes, France
If you’re going to shop for Hermès, you might as well do it in an architecturally stunning building. Inaugurated in 1843, Nantes’s Passage Pommeraye features impressive statues, a glass ceiling, and three floors connected by a spectacular staircase. The shopping mall opened with 66 shops and was the first commercial center to use the concept of storefronts to advertise products. Fresh off a $23 million face-lift, it’s now home to an eccentric collection of businesses, from a T-shirt store and optician to a chocolatier, perfumery, and tea room.
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