The old city center of Tours, called Old Town (Vieux Tours), is one of medieval-era winding streets, quaint shops, a bustling square (Place Pumereau) with cafes and restaurants and half-timbered homes that date back to the 14th century. With so much to see here, it's a wonder that the city had at one point slated to tear it all down in favor of a grid street system!
Don't miss the St Gatien Cathedral, the weekly market in Place Jean Jaurès or the garden of the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This is where a cedar tree planted by Napoleon Bonaparte sits, as well as a bizarre stuffed elephant from the 1903 circus that came through town.
Known as the longest river in France, the Loire winds past epic medieval castles, breathtaking French countryside and vast vineyards famous for their sparkling whites and bold reds. Travelers who float down this scenic stretch (which was officially recognized by UNESCO in 2000) will find diverse wildlife, temperate climates and a wide variety of plant and tree species along the idyllic shores.
The river loops through 12 departments of France and streams past quiet towns and lively cities, making it an ideal route for visitors looking to explore the Loire Valley. History lovers architectural buffs will find more than 1,000 chateaux sprinkled along the river’s edge and nature enthusiasts can comb through the Foret d’Orleans, largest forest in France, which sits at the center of the Loire region.
Château de Chambord is perhaps the most iconic of the Loire Valley castles, with its multi-gabled roof, palatial grounds and opulent interior. The 15th-century castle, which took “only” 28 years to build and has had no additions in the ensuing centuries, receives well over half a million visitors a year. And unlike many of the castles in the region, it's possible to spend an entire day at Chambord; there are carriage rides, boat and bike rentals, walking trails through the forest and a full calendar of programs and exhibitions throughout the year.
Of course, that's not to take away from the château itself. From its double-helix staircases to the fantastic views from the rooftop and the interiors that represent several centuries worth of decorating, Château de Chambord is what one has in mind when thinking of the castles of the Loire Valley.
When approaching the moat entrance to Château de Chenonceau, it may seem at first like it is not that big. But the surprise is in what's behind it – a massive gallery that spans the Cher River. In fact, a bird's-eye view would confirm that the entire castle sits squarely in the river! This 16th-century castle was built on the foundation of an existing water mill and has a history of its chatelaines making their own mark on its interior, exterior and grounds – the largest contribution coming from Catherine de' Medici, who was also responsible for showing the first fireworks in France.
After being used as a hospital during World War I and part of Nazi-occupied France in World War II (and thus bombed), today the castle is beautifully restored and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. These visitors enjoy not only a full tour of the interior, including the gallery over the river, but also the extensive gardens and a donkey park.
Those looking for a base from which to visit the castles of the Loire Valley can head to Amboise. Located on the Loire River, Amboise is a pedestrian-friendly town with excellent restaurants, plenty of fresh air, green spaces and lots of history.
Overlooking the town is the Château d'Amboise, which dates back to the 15th century and is available for visitors to see. There's also the 18th-century Pagode de Chanteloup, its Chinese architecture almost jarring in this bucolic medieval town, and the clock tower that straddles one of the main streets. Visitors may notice many da Vinci souvenirs for sale; the world-famous artist and inventor lived his last years in Amboise–a fact that is a source of pride for locals. Look for signs for the “Clos Lucé.”
hâteau de Langeais is one of the Loire Valley's most interactive castles. Far from being just a remnant of the past, the interior features faithful recreations of not only the furniture and art that were once found in the rooms, but also period-correct lighting, mannequins in period dress and guided tours that bring the past to life before visitors' eyes.
In addition, the grounds include an accessible treehouse, a promenade with an observation deck, activities for kids and a nightly show that leads guests through the rooms and unlocks the “secrets” of the past. And those arriving early or leaving late can see the only remaining manual drawbridge in France open and close the grounds! Traveling families should add Château de Langeais to any Loire itinerary.
The Château de Cheverny is an excellent choice for those looking to spend a full day at one of the castles of the Loire Valley. With extensive grounds, a cafe on site and cars and boats for rent, there's plenty to do and see after touring the exquisite castle itself. The unique aspect of this castle is that its owners have always lived here, which makes it less of a museum and more of a peek into just how one does live in a castle!
Also of interest is the Tintin exhibition. The château was used in creating Tintin's Marlinspike Hall, and there is a fantastic collection of Tintin items that bring this world-famous comic to life in its not-so-fictional home!
With 100 bedrooms, three architectural styles and almost 800 years of history, the Château de Blois is a favorite of travelers to the Loire Valley. Although the French Revolution left it in a looted and rundown condition, its use as a military barracks helped save it from being razed and today stands fully restored with period furniture and all of its gilded glory.
In addition, there is a fine arts museum within the castle. And across the street is the House of Magic, a museum dedicated to hometown magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, which is a favorite with kids. Château de Blois is also a popular nighttime destination from Easter through September, with a fantastic light and sound show on the castle's facade. It's popular among the town's residents as well as those who are looking for a different kind of Loire castle experience.
The Chartres Cathedral, known in French as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, is an incredibly well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage-listed cathedral from the 12th century. Considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, this historic church features heavy flying buttresses and imposing spires, as well as stained-glass windows that are considered the most complete and best preserved of their kind.
Religious pilgrims have long come from every corner of the globe to see the tunic that Catholics believe the Virgin Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. Others come to walk the famous labyrinth embedded in the floor of the cathedral, whether in prayerful meditation or simply as an interesting activity. And the wall of statues around the choir are not to be missed, especially since they have recently been restored to their original glory.
The northern gateway to the Loire Valley and a popular day trip from Paris, the historic town of Chartres is quintessentially French – a storybook town of cobblestone lanes, half-timbered buildings and quaint stone footbridges crisscrossing the Eure River. Chartres’ most noteworthy attraction is the magnificent UNESCO-listed Notre Dame Cathedral and most visitors make a beeline for the Gothic masterpiece, renowned for its dazzling 12th- and 13th-century stained glass windows.
Additional highlights of a trip to Chartres include Raymond Isidore’s unique Maison Picassiette, the Bel Air frescoes and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, but the best way to discover its charms is by exploring the shops and cafés of the Old Town on foot, or hiring a boat or canoe to cruise along the river.