What comes to mind when you think of France? Paris, the Eiffel Tower, fine wine and cheese of course… and then what? Maybe French castles? For sure! France is home to thousands of castles and if you want to see some of the best French castles that France has to offer, you’ve come to the right place.
From the Paris region to out by me in the Loire Valley, there’s no shortage of breathtaking castles to visit in France, so let’s check out some of my favorite chateaux in France all worthy of a visit on your next trip!
7 Best French castles you HAVE to see
Château de Chenonceau
Is this the best French château? Well, the Château de Chenonceau may look like a fairytale French castle, but its history is one of gossip and backstabbing. But what do you expect from a château that was gifted to a mistress of a king?
Built over the river Cher, this renaissance beauty in the Loire Valley with its turrets, towers, and beautiful gardens is the second most visited castle in France after Versailles. Just LOOK at it!! I can’t believe it took me until this fall to go see it in person!
Over the centuries, the Château de Chenonceau was designed by a long list of women. Each brought different aspects of design to fruition. Its almost uninterrupted succession of females is why this French castle is also known as Le Château des Dames (the castle of ladies).
The stunning archways and bridge were added by Diane de Poitiers (nice name, eh?), King Henry II’s mistress. But when King Henry II died, Catherine de Medici (the king’s widow) kicked out Diane (who also happened to be her second cousin) and moved back in. Catherine promptly took over the rest of the construction.
The bridge that Diane built is the reason the château is still standing today. It would have been destroyed during the French Revolution but Louise Dupin, the widowed owner, persuaded the Revolutionary Guard not to demolish it. Since it was the only bridge crossing the river for miles, it was necessary for the city’s commerce.
It is currently home to a magnificent collection of art, including embroidered 16th-century tapestries and masterpieces by Rubens and Tintoretto. From 1914 to 1918, it was converted to a military hospital where 2250 wounded soldiers were treated.
Short on time? If you aren’t able to visit this one inside, you can still revel in its beauty from the path along the Cher, where I took the above photo. It’s free to park on the other side of the official castle visitors’ parking lot and you can get a little exercise in as you walk along the river. It’s a great option if you still want to see this magnificent French castle but don’t have time to head inside or show up after hours.
Truly, make the time to see the Loire Valley France castles. Chenonceau is one of the most beautiful castles on my list and worth seeing.
Next up, we’re heading to Amboise for a chateau in France with a rich history. We visited the Château Royal d’Amboise, or commonly shortened to Château d’Amboise, back in the fall. It’s on the left bank of the Loire River not far from Tours and is easily accessible by train.
This luxurious French castle was home to French kings from the 15th to the 19th centuries. They often welcomed literary figures and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci whose tomb is preserved at the château.
If the weather allows for it, take your time visiting the gardens outside in addition to doing the tour that takes you inside the castle’s rooms. You get an interactive tablet on the self-guided tour that shows all kinds of information as you enter each room including what it looked like back in the day. There are stunning views overlooking the Loire River from many of the rooms.
Once you’re done exploring the castle, be sure to take some time to wander around the town of Amboise. It’s incredible with all kinds of restaurants and shops to visit, not to mention a busy Sunday morning market along the river. This is one of the best French castles to visit because it’s right in the town center.
Château de Chambord
Although it is the largest French château in the Loire Valley, it was never meant to be a royal palace. Château de Chambord was only built as a hunting lodge by Francis I to be closer to his mistress.
The original design was created by Italian architect Domenico da Cortona, but Leonardo de Vinci supposedly also had his hand in it.
With a façade more than 128 meters long, 800 sculpted columns, and an elaborately styled roofline, Francis I commissioned it to look like the skyline of Constantinople. The estate has as much land mass as Paris! The forest surrounding this French castle was teeming with wild boar and deer, perfect for hunting.
However, the king was rarely there. Because it was only built as a hunting lodge for short stays, there was no thought given to heating the rooms to make them livable for long periods. With 400 high-ceiling rooms, no amount of fireplaces could keep them warm in the winter.
When WWII began, the castle became a sort of holding center for the national treasures of Paris and the North of France. Art from the Louvre and other museums was relocated there for safekeeping to protect it from the German forces. For years, the Mona Lisa remained there until after the war when it was relocated again to the Louvre where it is on display today.
As incredible as the outside of the Château de Chambord is, the inside is just as magnificent. Not that you’d expect any less with Da Vinci’s Italian touch throughout the French castle. One of the most renowned features is the three-story, double-helix staircase in the center of the keep.
Even though it is only two hours from Paris, the forest surrounding this French castle makes it feel like you are in another world.
Château de Chantilly
Take a day out of Paris’s hustle and bustle and head to Château de Chantilly, only 50 km north of the city. This estate is two castles in one – the Petit Château, built in 1560, and the Grande Château, which was destroyed in the French Revolution and has since been rebuilt.
Besides visiting to see the Château de Chantilly’s grandeur, the Musée Conde holds the second-largest collection of artwork in France, outside of the Louvre. With pieces by Raphael, Botticelli, and Sassetta, it’s tempting to spend the whole day inside. But don’t, there are extraordinary gardens just beyond the castle walls.
Before you head outside, the library inside the Petit Château has more than 1,500 historical manuscripts, 200 of which date back to medieval times.
The final owner and art collector, Henri d’Orléans, bequeathed Château de Chantilly to the Institut of France in 1886. However, there was one caveat – that it remains exactly as it looked from that day forward. So, walking through this French castle is like stepping back in time. The château looks as it was, and the layout of the collections has remained unchanged over the centuries.
Château de Vaux le Vicomte
Nicolas Fouquet (King Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances) built this Baroque French Château from 1658-1661 as a dedication to the king. He hired three of the best artisans who worked together to create an entirely new architecture and design style called Louis XIV style.
To expand the castle grounds, Fouquet bought and demolished three neighboring villages. They hired the now homeless villagers, all 18,000 of them, to maintain the gardens.
The château was utterly lavish and became an object of jealousy. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a French statesman and apparent puppet master whispered in King Louis XIV’s ear a little gossip. He led the king to believe that the château was built using misappropriated public funds.
The King promptly fired Fouquet and hired Colbert in his place. In turn, Colbert evicted Fouquet and had him arrested by D’Artagnan, captain of the King’s Musketeers (as in Three Musketeers). Fouquet was imprisoned for life, his wife was exiled, and Colbert sold everything within the castle’s estate.
But now, the king had to find a better place to spend his time and money. He hired the same trio of artisans to build the palace and gardens of Versailles. After Fouquet was out of the way, three different families bought and sold the palace. Alfred Sommier purchased it at auction in 1875, and five generations later, his descendants still run the estate.
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is another day trip from Paris but in the opposite direction of Château de Chantilly and a bit easier to get to if you don’t want to drive — a simple ride on the RER C. It was the principal royal residence from 1682-1789 and is the most visited castle in France.
In 1661, Louis XIV decided to enlarge and embellish the existing château into a palatial retreat for entertainment on a massive scale. He commissioned the famous trio of architects and landscape designers from the Château de Vaux le Vicomte to make it the most exquisite palace and gardens in Europe. And that he did.
The entire estate was complete over-the-top extravagance. There were fountains, Italian grottos, solid silver furniture (apparently comfort wasn’t a thing), and an exotic animal zoo.
Work on the estate began in 1661, but it took 21 years before Louis the XIV deemed it large enough and opulent enough to move the entire royal court and the French government.
The following kings and royals lived off and on in the palace, but it started to fall into disrepair during the Revolution.
In 1793, the National Convention, a new revolutionary government, forced everything within the palace to be sold at auction. Everything. They sold off the art, the mirrors, the baths, kitchen equipment, and the furniture in 17,000 different lots.
By 1804 it was in such a sad state that Napoleon, the Emperor of France, wouldn’t live there. The cost of renovating it would have been ridiculous, even for a king.
The subsequent rulers of France all had a hand in renovating bits and pieces of Versailles. Still, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century when the real efforts began. Renovations are still ongoing today.
<< Want to stay in Versailles? Check out these top Versailles hotel picks!
Last but not least, let me wrap this up with a French castle in my neck of the woods that dates back to the Middle Ages, the Château d’Angers. You might be surprised to learn it is smack dab in the center of the lively city. Angers is just 185 miles from Paris in the Maine-et-Loire department and our castle is one of the best castles in France. Yes, I’m biased, but really, it is one of a kind.
Founded in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou and expanded in the 13th century, this medieval castle — le Château d’Angers — is easily the most stunning tourist attraction in Angers. Boasting 17 shale and limestone towers to ward off enemies, it overlooks the Maine River and has two distinct architectural components: St. Louis’ fortress and the dynastic court.
But that’s not all! Head inside and you’ll see it also houses the renowned Apocalypse Tapestry, which Louis I the Duke of Anjou commissioned near the end of the 14th century. Once measuring 140 meters long (100 meters of which are on display), this tapestry tells the story of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John.
Really, the Angers castle is a must-see — especially in the spring when the gardens are in full bloom. Be sure to walk the castle walls and take in the view of the Maine River and the La Doutre neighborhood on the other side.
What are the best French castles to visit in your opinion, or should we say chateaux in France? How many castles in France have you had the pleasure of seeing in person?
P.S. While it’s not a castle, another impression site in France is le Mont Saint Michel.
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