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We all know that the French have a fine eye for design, but for how long has it been this way? There’s no better way to find out than by taking a look at the homes, or should we say châteaux, of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families in history, many of which are found on the outskirts of the capital Paris, or tucked away in the scenic Loire Valley. While some châteaux are stretched as far as the eye can see, others are small and modest, and while some reflect a simplistic fairytale-like medieval style, others are frilled with the flamboyance of French Renaissance. Yet each château remains unique and has its own story to tell. We have picked the 14 most beautiful castles, inside and out, for you to visit on your next trip to historical, stylish France.
Palace of Versailles, Versailles
Just 12 miles outside of Paris, the Palace of Versailles stands as the largest royal domain in the world. Built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV to whom a show of style and power was of utmost importance, the palace was certain to impress — and that it does.
This intimidatingly grand palace, filled with opulent furnishings and surrounded by opulent gardens, has so much to see that it’s impossible to do in just one day. However, the Hall of Mirrors (containing 350 mirrors, it’s the grandest room in the palace), the infamous Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, the grand canal, and the queen’s hamlet are a great start.
Château de Chenonceau, Chenonceaux
Built atop a stone arched bridge over River Cher in the beautiful Loire Valley, the romantic 16th century Château de Chenonceau may be the fairest palace of them all. Its delicate white structure is typical of the French Renaissance period with tall rounded turrets guarding each corner of the main building, leading onto the extended bridge which holds the gallery and grand ballroom.
Also known as ‘the ladies château’, having been predominantly designed and decorated by influential women over the centuries, Chenonceau’s interior is filled with exceptionally divine furnishings, tapestries and paintings.
Château d’Angers, Angers
Château d’Angers is a menacing 13th century medieval fortification characterised by 17 intimidating towers built into its guarding walls. However, the manicured gardens, endearing château, and grand chapel inside the lofty walls are much more appealing. The château was originally home to the duchy of Anjou, but then became a prison for centuries to come.
While the château’s sombre history has not been forgotten, it now contains something much more inviting — the Tapestry of the Apocalypse. Measuring 104 metres in length, the tapestry, depicting the Bible’s story of the apocalypse, is the world’s longest medieval tapestry.
Palace of Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau
Palace of Fontainebleau is one of the largest and most impressive in France and, having been a royal residence from the 16th century to the 19th century, so much of the country’s history has unfolded within this palace’s walls.
Inside, the lives of France’s great kings, including Francois I who built the palace, and the infamous Napoleon I, are still very much evident; the royal apartments are teeming with their opulent furnishings and impressive artworks. In the palace’s other wings, you will find Marie Antoinette’s chamber and a Chinese museum, but the 130-hectare garden is perhaps the most impressive part of all.
Château de Chambord, Chambord
Although Château de Chambord was built as a hunting lodge for King Francois I, it is still one of the most ornate and flamboyant castles in France, perhaps because one of the greatest minds in the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci, influenced the design.
What’s more, the châteaux enclosed park is the largest park in Europe, and its permanent art collection is 4,500 pieces strong. In the centre of the château is a unique double-helix shaped staircase which leads from the ground floor to the roof terraces where windows, chimneys and bell towers rise from the roof domes like sculptured stalagmites.
Château des Milandes, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
While Château des Milandes, in the charming Dordogne region, is much more modest than most French Renaissance castles, it is certainly one of the most enchanting with its soft limestone exterior and orange-tiled pitched roof.
It also has one of the most unique pasts, having been bought by Josephine Baker in 1947, an American performer who was highly celebrated and much beloved in France. Baker maintained the integrity of the building’s history where she lived with her husband and 12 adopted children, and today you can visit the chateau in its 1930’s art deco glory, and pay tribute to the superstar in the exhibition dedicated to her life.
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Château de Montrésor, Montrésor
Château de Montrésor is a fairly small, yet simply stunning French Renaissance castle overlooking the village of Montrésor, which is listed as one of the most beautiful in France. From the village, which is like a medieval time capsule with cute timbered cottages and no signs of modern life, you can see the whimsical turrets and gables of Château de Montrésor from behind the fortress walls as it soars gracefully toward the sky.
The château itself is tastefully decorated in a Second Empire aesthetic with intriguing treasures up to 1000 years old proudly displayed throughout.
Château de Vaux le Vicomte, Maincy
Just 50 kilometres southeast of Paris, the 17th century Château de Vaux le Vicomte remains one of the most striking castles in all of France. Its giant domed roof dominates the château from the outside in, where its two tall floors open out in a magnificent circular hall to reveal the dome’s fresco of a cloudy sky.
From the top of the dome, you can drink in breathtaking 360-degree views of the château’s entire estate, featuring a moat and a four kilometre stretch of terraced formal French Gardens. It was famed architect Louis Le Vau who designed this new style of château, revolutionising European architecture forever.
Chaumont-sur-Loire is a particularly unique and pretty Renaissance structure distinguished by its exceedingly wide turrets which flank each corner and the ornamental pattern sculpted around the entire exterior. Unlike most castles, Chaumont-sur-Loire’s entrance isn’t on the ground or first floor, it’s at the end of a bridge a few storeys high where its two main wings join together.
The bridge and the château itself offer sensational views of the Loire Valley below, and inside you’ll find a treasure trove of Renaissance furniture, tapestries and original sculptures by Jean-Baptiste Nini, who was previously hosted here.
Château de l’Islette, Azay-le-Rideau
Château de l’Islette is situated in the Regional Natural Park Loire-Anjou-Touraine, a natural grass and woodland sliced by the River Indre and filled with pretty walking trails from which you can spot an array of wildlife. The simplistic Renaissance beauty of the white limestone Château de l’Islette doesn’t overshadow the quaint beauty of the trees and river that surround it.
The château dates back to the 15th century and while it is still privately owned, much of its original features and furnishings have been preserved and maintained over the centuries. Although, a few rooms in the Château have instead been transformed into modern masterpieces!
Château de Langeais, Langeais
Château de Langeais is also located in the Regional Natural Park Loire-Anjou-Touraine, but this medieval structure is much older and bigger than its neighbour, Château de l’Islette. At over 50ft tall, the medieval style château towers cast a large shadow over the town of Langeais below, which spills around its walls.
A functioning drawbridge runs from the town centre into the castle where you’ll find 1000 years of history, which includes France’s most ancient keep, and a much softer Renaissance style facade. Although Château de Langeais has been subject to many wars over the centuries, its integrity and unique splendour remain intact.
Château de Chantilly, Chantilly
Château de Chantilly is one of France’s most attractive châteaux, and one of the most famous, particularly since Pink Floyd played there in 1994! The moated château, located just 30 miles north of Paris, is built in a late French Renaissance style with domed ceilings and asymmetrical layout, since it’s made up of two parts, the Petit Château and the Grande Château.
It was owned by Henri d’Orléans, who was the son of the last king of France and one of the most fervent art and manuscript collectors of the 19th century. Since being granted to the Institut de France, his magnificent collection has been displayed for the public in the châteaux’ Condé Museum.
Château de Villandry, Villandry
Regarded as one of the most spectacular castles in the historical Loire Valley, Château de Villandry will undoubtedly impress. Originally a medieval fortress, the château was later renovated to reflect a more inviting Renaissance style, and has in more recent years been refurbished to reflect this time period.
Although the inviting interiors will certainly lure you inside the château, it’s the gardens that will really take your breath away, as they are known throughout the country as one of the finest examples of French formal gardens. There’s four gardens, the sun, water, flower and vegetable garden, spread over four perfectly pruned terraces in which you’ll find topiary, rare flowers, and brilliant water features.
Le Mont Saint Michel, Avranches
Looking out from the Normandy coast onto the English Channel, you’ll see a small islet rising sharply out of the sea. Built on top of this islet is a tall 900-year-old abbey and monastery known as Le Mont Saint Michel, which throughout its time has served as a pilgrimage destination, a military stronghold, and now a tourist destination with small hotels, cafes and boutiques occupying the medieval village that surrounds the abbey.
There’s a causeway connecting the islet to the Normandy coast, but Le Mont Saint Michel is protected by ramparts that skirt the entire circumference of it, from which you can find incredible 360-degree views of the abbey and French coast.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.