The Ultimate Guide to the Chateaus of France

The Chateau is symbolic of France. Poised above immaculately manicured gardens and often man-made water features like lakes, fountains, and canals, the most iconic of these stately French manor homes served as residences for the French nobility—and in many cases, the monarchy.

Feudal lords and French kings started building such manor homes in the middle ages, modeling them after castle keeps and the Roman country villa. But with the advent of the Renaissance, the fort-like features of these castle homes almost disappeared entirely. They shed their outer walls and opened up to sprawling gardens, but kept select features like rounded towers. Soaring chimneys, decorated dormers, and steep roofs were some of the hallmark embellishments that crowned the top of these country palaces, modeled after Renaissance principles and proportions.

 Two of the prime places for seeing Chateaux (the plural of Chateau) in France are Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, which is home to more than 300 such chateaux. The Loire Valley is referred to as the Garden of France for its vineyards, fruit orchards, and stunning scenery, which is dotted with historic towns like Tours, Angers, and Orleans—not to mention a stunning arrangement of Chateaux. If you’d like to catch a bird’s eye view of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, check out this video:

And If you’re wondering what is the best chateau to visit in France, take a look at this list and learn a little about each of these incredible royal residences.

Chateau Chambord

The floorplan of Chambord was designed along the lines of a four-towered feudal keep, but the playful embellishments of spires, cornices, chimneys, and dormer windows transform its appearance into a magnificent symbol of royal extravagance. The rooftop terrace is accessed by a spiral staircase that may or may not have been the brainchild of Leonardo da Vinci, though we are unsure who the general architect of the chateau was. King Louis XIV was particularly fond of this palace, retained a ceremonial bedroom on the premises, and hosted many hunting parties on the grounds. In fact, Chambord was built by Francois I, who selected the very site with hunting in mind, surrounded as it was by a walled enclosure of more than 13,000 acres wherein sported wild deer and boar. The extensive chateau remains unfinished to this very day, but its facade is a magnificent wedding cake of crenellations and flourishes rising above the balanced Renaissance facade of the central keep, which is surrounded by additional wings—the exteriors of which feature simple square windows and arched blind arcades—connected to four exterior rounded towers.

Chateau Chenonceau

Celebrated as France’s first chateau entirely designed in the Renaissance style, Chenonceau would become a hallmark of this royal French building typology. The original keep sits on an island in the middle of the River Cher, and was rebuilt in a very symmetrical Renaissance style of four equal sides by the Royal Treasurer. After his death, it was ceded to the monarchy because of debts and given by King Henry II and given to his mistress Diane de Potiers as a gift. She enlarged Chenonceau by building five bridges across the Cher River and crowning the garden with a fountain that spurted a 20-foot high jet of water. With Henry’s death, his queen Catherine de Medici sent Diane off to the chateau of Chaumont and moved into Chenonceau herself, building a two-story wing above the bridge, which transformed Chenonceau into one of the most unique-looking palaces in all of Europe, straddling the river as it still does and providing a large gallery for entertaining guests right on the water. Chenonceua made it through the French Revolution without damage or destruction, perhaps because its bridge linked the two banks of the Cher.

Chateau Blois

Located on a hill between the Loire and Arrou rivers, the Chateau of Blois provides visitors with an illustration of how French architecture developed from the 13th to 17th centuries. The Tour du Foix is the only extant part of the Medieval structure, and offers incredible views. Louis XII made Blois his royal capital and expanded the palace with a two-story wing with Gothic features such as the pointed dormer windows. The succeeding monarch Francois I further expanded the chateau in a Renaissance style, creating a delightful courtyard with a magnificent spiral staircase that linked the three floors of the new wing and provided a balcony for watching performances in the courtyard. The staircase was particularly admired by the philosopher Balzac, who compared it to richly carved ivory masterpieces of China, and reminiscent of silk lace. Another noteworthy feature of the Chateau Blois is the richly decorated fireplace on the first floor, with scrolling golden vines, winged cherubs, and royal iconography. 

Chateau Fontainebleau

Situated in one of the most extensive forests in all of France, Fontainebleau dates back to the 13th century and King Louis the Pious, who built it as a keep and convent hospital. After it fell into disrepair, Francois I decided to rebuild it as his official residence in a grand Renaissance style, featuring pavilions for every member of the royal family, and a magnificent ballroom with a coffered ceiling and large fireplace, making it the perfect place to banquet. The long Francois I gallery made such elongated rooms popular in European palaces throughout France and England, and its walls were painted with allegories glorifying the king and kingdom. A horseshoe shaped paired staircase leads to a wide promenade, from which one can admire the variety of architectural styles of the various wings of this Chateau. Napoleon himself was a fan of this particular residence, and made it his own. In fact, the courtyard is called “Cours des Adieux,” since it was there that he said farewell to his soldiers before the exile to Elba (though he did come back before being exiled again).

Versailles

Versailles is the very symbol of royalty in Europe, and the model of what a palace should be for kings in every country—though it was never equalled. Versailles’ history actually starts as a small hunting lodge, and Louis XIV (The Sun King) chose it as his residence because he wanted to get away from Paris and the Louvre. King Louis hired the best architecture, landscaping, and artistic talent in Europe to expand the hunting lodge into a grand palace that became symbolic of his absolute reign. Memorable features include the imposing central courtyard, the U-shaped central building of which is decked out in golden flourishes. Also noteworthy is the chapel and the iconic Hall of Mirrors, one of the most celebrated rooms in Europe and in European history. Visitors will also not want to miss a stroll through the enormous park behind the palace, which covers a whopping 12,300 acres and features a grand canal, along with deliberately planned paths terminating in focal points like fountains and monuments. The impressive Versailles remained the official residence of French kings until the French Revolution, after which it was turned into a museum, and today is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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