Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Loire Valley
Whether you’re climbing aboard a life-size mechanical elephant, riding on a carousel of fantastical sea creatures, or operating a flying machine, a visit to Les Machines de L'île is probably unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Inspired by the creations of novelist Jules Verne, Nantes’ flagship attraction is fun for all ages.
Take your place alongside royalty with a visit to Chateau Gaillard, one of the Loire Valley’s most celebrated palaces, commissioned by Charles VIII in 1496. The chateau is known for having some of the first Renaissance-style gardens in France, and today both its interior and grounds are open to visitors.
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.
The largest and most-visited castle among the 300 found in the Loire Valley, Château de Chambord is a grandiose example of French Renaissance architecture. Commissioned by King Francis I in 1519, and part of the region’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 426-room castle includes a moat and French formal garden.
The Château de Chenonceau is France’s second-most-visited castle (after Versaille). The 16th-century UNESCO-listed castle is built over the Cher river, on top of a series of bridge-like arches, and looks like the scene of a fairy tail. The building is also famous for its relationship with the many powerful women who designed and owned it.
Inaugurated in 1900 and currently undergoing a thorough renovation and extension by the Stanton Williams architect group, the Nantes Art Museum (Musée d'Arts de Nantes) is Nantes’ flagship art museum, celebrated for its large and varied collection of works, dating from the 12th to the 20th centuries.
Highlights of the vast permanent collection include works by Delacroix, Rousseau, Tintoretto, Perugino, Renoir, and Gauguin, among many others, with key pieces including Rubens’ The Triumph of Judas Maccabaeus, Delaunay’s David Triumphant and Chagall’s Le Cheval Rouge. A well-established series of temporary exhibits complement the main displays, with a greater focus on contemporary art, while late openings on Thursday evenings include music, dance and literature inspired events.
With its medieval buildings and fairy-tale turrets encircled by landscaped gardens, lush woodlands, and bursts of lavender and roses—Chȃteau du Rivau is among the most underrated of the Loire Valley castles. Once visited by Joan of Arc, the 15th-century castle is also renowned for its Royal Stables.
For centuries, the cliffs around Saumur were home to cave houses (habitations troglodytiques). Rochemenier Cave Village (Rochemenier Village Troglodytique) is one of the Loire Valley’s most interesting cave-dwelling sites. Its Cave Museum covers two underground farmhouses, including a cave chapel, complete with historic farming gear.
Château du Clos Lucé may not be the country’s grandest castle, but it’s still gained favor among art and history loving travelers thanks to its notoriety as the official final residence of famed artist Leonardo da Vinci. While the castle was once home to King Francis I, today it stands as a museum to the great painter’s works. Travelers can wander the halls and check out more than 40 models and machines designed by da Vinci, as well as wander the underground tunnel that connects Château du Clos Lucé to the royal Chateau d’Amboise.
Situated overlooking the city of Amboise and one of hundreds of UNESCO-listed Châteaux of the Loire, the grand Château Royal d'Amboise was home to French royalty from the 15th–19th centuries. Built in the Gothic and Renaissance styles in the late 15th century, the hilltop castle is accessible on foot, and just over an hour from Paris by train.
More Things to Do in Loire Valley
With its dramatic bridged moat, looming stone-brick watchtowers and gleaming white tufa, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany) is a glorious amalgamation of a grand ducal palace and medieval military fortress, set at the crest of Nantes’ Old Town. This is Nantes’ most impressive historic site, originally built in the 15th-century by François II, the last Duke of Brittany, and it’s an impeccably restored Gothic-Renaissance residence, surrounded by 500-meter-long curtain walls and atmospherically illuminated at night.
Today, visitors can follow the sentry walkway around the castle’s 7 towers, affording impressive views over the city and the manicured lawns and moat below, then find a picnic spot below the walls or dine at the central courtyard restaurant. The extensively restored castle interiors now also house the Nantes History Museum, where a series of exhibitions explore the castle’s former importance, Nantes’ merchant history and colonial years, and the future of the modern city.
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.
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!
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of Christian pilgrimage trails, Chartres Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) is hailed as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in France. As well as boasting panoramic city views from its Bell Tower, the cathedral is home to more than 4,000 sculptures.
Tucked away among the rolling vineyards of the Loire Valley in western France, the imposing French Renaissance château of Petit Thouars has been producing its award-winning wines since the 17th century. The winery is now run by the 11th generation of the same aristocratic family that has inhabited the château since 1634, these days growing Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc grapes on vines that were replanted in 1975.
Tours of Petit Thouars include guided walks through the vineyard and cellar, where the wines have been aged in oak casks in natural limestone caves for four centuries. The tasting room is in the former stable block for sampling the reds, whites and sparkling crémant, after which guests can book in advance to enjoy a pre-prepared picnic of local specialties among the vines, with a complementary bottle of wine chosen from the tasting session.
Alternatively, hour-long guided river trips take visitors out along the Vienne River on traditional wooden boats and also include wine dégustation and the sampling of regional delicacies. A small museum charts the history of the more colorful members of the ancient Petit Thouars clan and accommodation is available in a charming 19th-century farmhouse on the estate. A visit to the winery can be combined with tours of other famous châteaux of the Loire Valley, including the magical confections of Chenonceau, Chambord and Cheverny.
The Château de Nitray may be one of France’s smallest, but its charm and character are unmatched. Built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the castle is currently owned by a family that uses the historic structure to carry on the age-old tradition of local wine making. Visitors love the family vibe and travelers can tour the facility, sample bold reds and sparkling whites while learning about production from expert guides. Travelers should also tour the pigeonnier, which was once home to dozens of domestic pigeons and remains one of the most unique things about this unassuming destination. Because the land—and the chateau—are privately owned, visitors can camp on the grounds free of charge and wake up surrounded the beauty of the Loire Valley.
This picturesque castle was once an impressive fortress known as Colobier back in the 17th century. And while the towering white façade definitely says “royalty” ties to the protective past are still apparent on a visit to Château de Villandry.
Famous for its expansive Renaissance gardens, which include ornamental plants, water lilies and even a vegetable garden, the chateau attracts visitors from across the globe. Many argue that the geometric box hedges, reminiscent of a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and well-kept landscapes are some of the most beautiful in all of France. Perhaps that’s why this castle, which is recognized as a World Heritage Site, is one of the most visited in the country.
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 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.
A scenic hub from which to discover the UNESCO-listed Châteaux of the Loire Valley, historic Amboise is also well worth exploring. The market town was once frequented by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Joan of Arc, and is best known for its own castle—the Château d’Amboise, former home of King Francis I.
Perhaps one of France’s most breathtaking castles, this beautiful grey stone structure appears to be floating on the placid waters of the Indre River. Built between 1518 and 1527, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau was once considered the premier example of French renaissance architecture. In 1905 it became a designated historical monument and later, the castle was included in the Loire Valley UNESCO World Heritage site.
After taking in the impressive exterior, travelers can explore the rich interior, which is comprised of old-world drawing rooms, apartments, a kitchen and bedrooms decorated in 19th-century style. In addition to being a stunning example of French architecture and history, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is also home to a large collection of artwork.
Devoted to the life and works of surrealist writer Jules Verne, who was born in Nantes in 1828, the Jules Verne Museum (Musée Jules Verne) opened its doors on the 150th anniversary of his birth, and offers a fascinating insight into one of France’s most unique and imaginative literary figures. Housed in a 19th-century waterfront residence frequented by the author, the museum’s striking white façade today stands opposite the spectacular Marine Worlds Carousel, part of Nantes’ ambitious Verne-inspired Îles des Machines.
Inside the museum, an eclectic collection of Verne’s personal effects, hand-edited manuscripts and a recreation of the writer's drawing room offer a glimpse into the mind of the literary innovator, while interactive and multimedia displays, and replicas of his inventions serve to bring masterpieces likeTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea andAround the World in Eighty Days to life.
It may not be as famed a wine region as the rest of the Loire Valley, but the vineyards around Nantes still produce some of France’s finest Muscadet wines, and the unique Musee du Vignoble Nantais (Nantes Wine Museum) is the perfect introduction to the little-known wine region.
Tucked away in Le Pallet at the heart of the Nantes vineyard region, the museum’s varied collection of artifacts include grape-picking baskets, corking machines, a Dujardin-Salleron ebulliometer, antique barrels and wine presses, and exhibits cover the history of the region’s wine production, the Muscadet grape and French wine culture. As well as learning all about the local terroir, visitors can climb onboard an original straddle tractor, stroll the surrounding vineyards or enjoy wine tasting.
Anchored at the center of a wide moat, with its four fully functioning drawbridges and majestic turrets, the Château du Plessis-Bourré is undeniably photogenic, and it’s unsurprisingly served as the backdrop for a number of films over the years. Built in the 15th-century by its namesake Jean Bourré, minister to King Louis XI, it’s famed for its transition style, blending grand medieval defenses with lavish Renaissance interiors, and little has changed from the castle’s original design.
Visitors to the chateau can not only explore the library, chapel and bedrooms, take in the views from the parapet walk and brave a tour of the dungeons, but stroll through the idyllic grounds and alchemy gardens, learn how the drawbridges work and discover Bourré’s unique fascination with alchemy. During the summer months the chateau also hosts a number of special events, including Knight’s tournaments, heritage days and themed tours led by costumed guides.
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