Following our recent trip to France, we’ve visited Loire Valley twice, and have spent all of our time there touring the beautiful castles, manors, and country houses that comprise the châteaux of the region. (Well, touring the châteaux and eating!)
Based on our experiences, I thought I’d rank the château we’ve visited. Note that this is not a definitive list. There are dozens of châteaux in the Loire Valley (42, to be precise), and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see them all. However, I still thought it’d be fun to put together this list, and supplement it in the future as we get a chance to see more.
One thing is for certain: we will definitely return to the Loire Valley. It’s a beautiful region of France that alternates between lavishness & grandiosity in the châteaux themselves, and charming & idyllic towns in between the scattering of châteaux, throughout the Loire Valley.
With that in mind, here are my picks for the best and worst castles in the Loire Valley of France…
8. Château du Clos Lucé
We walked to Château du Clos Lucé after visiting Château d’Amboise, having read in one of my resources that this was better than the “overrated” Amboise. I could not disagree more with the assessment that this is better than Amboise, nor that Amboise is overrated. For starters, this is the most expensive château on the list, and that’s assuming that you just go for the basic tour–if you also want to see the da Vinci exhibit, the cost is roughly double what some others on this list cost.
Setting aside price, I’d still rank Château du Clos Lucé last. The spin here is that this was the home of Leonardo da Vinci, which is true, but he only lived the last 3 years of his life here…as an invited guest. It seems like a lot about the experience is contorted to have a da Vinci connection, and some of it feels like a stretch. To be sure, there are some really cool exhibits as well as interactive elements that will appeal to kids, but beyond the connection to Leonardo da Vinci and exhibits on his life, this château would be nothing special. I can’t say I’d discourage people from visiting, as the presentation and angle are unique (and da Vinci was obviously a genius worth celebrating), but it would be lower priority if you only have a couple of days in the Loire Valley.
7. Château de Chaumont
The first stop on this list that we visited to scratch it off our Impressions de France list, Château de Chaumont is…interesting. The spring brings a flower & garden, and an art festival seems to be perpetually ongoing at Chaumont, which is both good and bad from my perspective. The flower & garden component is mostly good. It gives Château de Chaumont added beauty, which is a plus since the gardens aren’t otherwise noteworthy. The downside is that you have to pay a surcharge to visit the main flower & garden area, which makes this a really expensive ticket. When other spots on this list include (arguably better) gardens at no additional charge, this is difficult to stomach.
I’m less keen on the art component. This consists of a number of installments, many of which are modern or contemporary art that are layered on top of the beautiful, historic interiors. The most perplexing instance of this is an installation of overgrown, faux flora and fauna inside the chapel. This would otherwise be a beautiful area to walk inside, with details to savor, but it currently looks like (fake) nature is reclaiming the chapel. I can respect the value of evolving ideas of art, but this is modern art layered directly on classic. I doubt many people would be pleased if a mustache and Spectacles by Snap were painted directly onto the Mona Lisa.
6. Château de Cheverny
I think I was a bit hard on Château de Cheverny in my initial review of it. Part of that was the jarring LEGO art exhibit appearing in some of the rooms (which honestly wasn’t that intrusive, especially after seeing what Chaumont did) and part of that was it having to live up to the sky-high expectations of Chambord and Chenonceau, the other two châteaux we visited on our first-ever day in the Loire Valley.
Having now visited more locations, and having had some time to reflect on that first visit, Château de Cheverny has grown on me. Although I’d put it in the “second tier” of châteaux (along with Amboise and Montpoupon), all three of these are excellent choices that are pretty comparable to one another in quality (albeit very different in style) well worth a visit.
5. Château d’Amboise
Towering high above the city of Amboise (a quaint town where we stayed during our recent visit), this castle has a commanding presence from the outside. Inside, there’s also a lot to see, with rooms that have been restored and offering a glimpse into royal life, and grounds that offer pretty views.
The highlight and potentially hidden gem here is the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, a small building outside the main château. This intimate setting is gorgeous, and it’s also the resting place of Leonardo da Vinci. The history of this chapel is fascinating, so be sure to read the placards inside (or listen to the audio guide tracks on it, should you purchase that). A lot of people accidentally miss Chapel of Saint-Hubert, which is too bad since I find this to be the best part of the experience.
4. Château de Montpoupon
The top of this list is admittedly predictable, but that’s not the case with this hidden gem. The only reason we stopped at Montpoupon was to check it off our list of Impressions de France destinations. It’s definitely an under-the-radar option, with only 189 TripAdvisor reviews as compared to Chambord’s 4,523 reviews (interestingly, both have 4.5-star scores). Heck, it was not even mentioned in my otherwise comprehensive (and highly recommended) Loire Valley Eyewitness Guide.
Upon arrival, there were literally no other guests in Montpoupon. We had the entire château to ourselves, which was a dramatically different experience than the Easter week crowds we encountered everywhere else. I fell in love with the place. From the meticulously staged displays in each room to the fascinating hunting museum to the audio tracks throughout the experience to even the scents (I can’t put my finger on what it was, but it was a lovely smell!), Montpoupon did not disappoint. In part, I must admit that some personal preference is at play: I was raised in a family of sportsmen, and I find hunting to be a very fascinating topic. Seeing French hunting traditions showcased was very interesting to me, but I could see others being put-off by this. Even if you totally skip the hunting museum, I think Château de Montpoupon is worthy of a visit.
3. Château de Villandry
The top 3 here are all unequivocal must-dos, and some of the most interesting places you’ll visit in the world. Château de Villandry has some fascinating interiors, but honestly, those pale in comparison to the gardens. Villandry would not be nearly this high up the list if we were going solely on the interiors.
Conversely, the gardens alone guarantee Villandry a spot in the top 3. The gardens here are incredibly large (perhaps not technically the largest in the Loire Valley, but they’re the best) and you could spend hours exploring their multiple tiers. We did exactly that, devoting around triple the time to the gardens that we did the interior. When we left at sunset, nearly 2 hours after the interior closed, we were the only guests left on the grounds. It was a peaceful and serene experience.
2. Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord is the most-visited attraction in the Loire Valley, the largest château, and one of the highest-rated châteaux. On any (good) list of places to visit in the Loire Valley, this is in the top 5, and often #1. This is for good reason, as the exterior and interior are both stunning, and the educational component is engrossing (by far the best of any spot on this list).
Despite its popularity, even on a busy day, Château de Chambord is going to “feel” less crowded than many other spots in Loire Valley due to the sprawling size of both the interior and outside gardens. During our first visit, these gardens were being refurbished, and many were not open. As of April 2017, all gardens are once again open (we tried to revisit on our recent trip, but ran out of time). This should make Château de Chambord even better than it was when we visited, which is somewhat hard to fathom.
1. Château de Chenonceau
It’s probably impossible for me to be unbiased here. Our experience arriving just before sunset, wandering the near-empty gardens as balloons rose from behind Château de Chenonceau, to leaving after sunset as the gardens were empty ranks as one of my favorite travel experiences ever. Admittedly, it’s going to be a bit difficult to separate my own nostalgia of that experience with the substantive quality of Château de Chenonceau.
Nevertheless, I’m ranking it #1, with a slight edge over both Chambord and Villandry (for what it’s worth, if factoring in my personal experience, it has a huge edge). In addition to beautiful gardens and an engaging interior, the wildcard here is some really interesting and stunning architecture. Not that the other châteaux on this list don’t each also have their own interesting architecture, but Château de Chenonceau is incredibly distinct. It’s the most complete package of any château, and that makes Château de Chenonceau one of France’s top overall attractions.
Overall, even our lowest-ranking castle on this list is going to be an incredible experience unlike anything you’ve ever done if it’s your first time in the Loire Valley. It’s an incredible region, and one that reiterates the amazing and diverse things to do in France. We love the Loire Valley, and plan to return again sooner rather than later to see more of its treasures. While this list is not comprehensive (and should be supplemented with other resources), it’s a good place to start!
Planning your own trip to France? Check out our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with the Rick Steves France and Loire Valley Eyewitness guidebooks.
Have you visited any of the castles on this list? What did you think of the experience? Which one was your favorite? What about least favorite? Any tips or thoughts to add? If you haven’t visited, is France’s Loire Valley a place that is on your travel bucket list? Any questions? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share any remarks you have in the comments!