10 of the most impressive châteaux in France

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Creating a list of the most impressive châteaux in France is a challenge. There are dozens, arguably hundreds, of worthy contenders.

Châteaux in France includes many stately buildings. Do you go for the biggest, most architecturally arresting buildings? Or the most sumptuously ornate? What about battle-scarred behemoths with a long, tumultuous history? Pick any château in France and you will find a reason why they are exceptional.

But there is no doubt the entries on this list deserve to be here.  Some well-known, others less visited. Yet all assuredly amongst the most extraordinary châteaux in France.

Château de Chambord

If I have to name one French château that is the epitome of a magnificent royal residence it would be the mighty Château de Chambord.

Not original nor contentious, our first entry is the jewel in the crown of the celebrated châteaux of the Loire valley.

A model of French renaissance architecture, the building was constructed at the behest of Francis I with an ambition to advance late medieval castle designs into the Renaissance era.

Designed by Italian architect Domenico da Cortona, the château took 28 years to build (1519-1547).

The legacy is enduring — the giant corner towers are instantly recognizable, and the majesty of the architecture lifts Château de Chambord to one of the most visited attractions in France.  

The double-spiral staircase is the most talked-about architectural feature: two opposing staircases that snake around a central tower in a double helix pattern, illuminated from above with natural light. Leonardo Da Vinci — a contemporary employee of the royal court — may even have played a hand in the final design.

Set in 13,000 acres of parkland (itself enclosed by a 31-kilometer, or 19-mile, wall) Château de Chambord looks every bit a palace fit for a king. Yet remarkably, the only king who lived there was Stanislas I, the deposed king of Poland.

Conspicuously decadent, the château was built to be a hunting lodge. Lacking a supporting village and with famously drafty quarters, the unfurnished shell was briefly occupied whenever Francis I fancied hunting game. The royal retinue — reputedly 2,000 strong — would carry whatever was needed. Consequently, Francis I spent a mere seven weeks there during his lifetime.

Falling in and out of use and into various states of repair, it passed through the hands of royals, dukes, counts, and even a Marshal of France (Maurice de Saxe), before becoming the property of the state in 1930.

Once briefly home to the Mona Lisa and Venus De Milo during World War II, the building has been painstakingly restored and today welcomes over 700,000 visitors each year.

Easily one of the most incredible ‘hunting lodges’ anywhere, this monumental building tops many lists of must-see châteaux in France.

Where: at the heart of the picturesque, châteaux-rich Loire Valley, in the tiny commune of Chambord in the Loir-et-Cher département, Centre-Val de Loire.

Château d’Angers

Exemplifying the broad variety of châteaux in France, the Château d’Angers is the archetypal medieval fortress.

Famed for no less than 17 hulking semi-circle towers, this austere and imposing castle was the seat of the Dukes of Anjou. It was a near-impregnable fortress at the heart of enduring conflicts between England and France during the middle-ages.

Constructed from rock (schist) and limestone, this substantial fortress was built over the site of an older castle in the 13th Century. 

Lacking the ornamental affectations of later châteaux, Château d’Angers is all about projecting power. The walls are 3 meters thick and 650 meters long, making it one of the most well-defended châteaux in France.

Despite being partially destroyed during the second world war (due to an ammo dump explosion), the building remains in remarkable condition.

A spectacular landmark at the heart of the vibrant city of Angers, the colossal walls hide a cultivated interior of gardens and royal apartments.

Château d’Angers is also home to the remarkable Tenture (or tapisserie) de l’Apocalypse (Apocalypse Tapestry), one of the most significant tapestries from a golden age of French tapestries. An intricately woven work of art; a symbolic statement by the Valois royal dynasty, at the time embroiled in the dynastic wars of succession better known as the Hundred Years War.

An immense fortress looming over the Maine river at the heart of a buzzing city, Château d’Angers is among the most accessible and imposing châteaux in France.

Where: at the centre of historic Angers, capital of the Maine-et-Loire département and the ancient region of Anjou (Pays de Loire region).

Château de Pierrefonds

Château de Pierrefonds bridges the gap between impossibly romantic royal residences like Château de Chambord and impregnable fortresses like Château d’Angers.

Another château from the Valois dynasty, this time commissioned by a Duke of Orleans (Louis, brother to King Charles VI). Construction started in 1393, just ten years after Château d’Angers was completed.

The original castle was structured around classic defensive features. But the castle you see today was rebuilt from ruins during the 19th century under the reigns of Napoleon I and Napoleon III. Extensive rebuilding was necessary to reverse the demolition ordered in 1617 after the château was captured on orders of Cardinal Richelieu responding to a threat to Louis XIII.

The subsequent restoration added a decadent grandeur to the building. The intention was to create an imperial residence. Instead, it became an early monument historique in 1848.

With an elegant façade built around traditional defensive features — including a fortified keep and timeless drawbridge — Château de Pierrefonds has fairytale appeal. Serving as a backdrop to various tv shows (including BBC’s Merlin and the lavish period drama Versailles), the château reportedly inspired Disney animators and their many iconic castles.

With eye-catching Hollywood appeal, Château de Pierrefonds is one of the prettiest châteaux in France.

Where: off the beaten track in Pierrefonds, Oise département, in the historic region of Picardy (now Hauts-de-France).

Château de Caen

If your ideal European castle is a domineering, battle-scarred fortress with a turbulent history, then the château de Caen is for you.  

One of the biggest and oldest châteaux in France, this Norman stronghold has stood strong for over 900 years.

Built by William, Duke of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror) in around 1060, the castle was at the heart of several Anglo-French engagements before and during the Hundred Years War. The solid fortifications even housed soldiers during World War 2, resulting in a damaging bombardment over 800 years after construction.

Covering 5.5 hectares, the austere, sturdy structure is a true fortress. While in later centuries the walls were reinforced and the keep razed during the French Revolution, much of the original structure remains.

A site steeped in history, the château once hosted 3 generations of Plantagenet kings for a royal Christmas like no other.

Perfect for inquisitive children and history buffs, entrance is free, making this one of the best châteaux in France for families.

Where: 15 kilometers from the English Channel/La Manche in Caen, Calvados, Normandie.

Domaine de Chantilly

Domaine de Chantilly has a history far removed from the bloody medieval conflicts that gave rise to many older châteaux in France. Stylish and refined, Domaine de Chantilly might instead have emerged from the pages of a romantic storybook.

Once a favored weekend destination for the rich and prominent of Paris, it is one of the smaller châteaux in France: a delicately constructed façade overlooking formal French gardens, water features, and 19,000 acres of gardens and forest. Most importantly for its bourgeois patrons, it looks out over the high-class Chantilly racecourse.

Honouring the long history of horse racing in France, the château is home to magnificent stables (Grandes Écuries) and the Living Museum of the Horse.

The original châteaux (grand and petit) were destroyed during the French Revolution. The modern Domaine de Chantilly rose on the same land in 1872. One of the newest châteaux in France, it was promptly maligned as ‘one of the saddest specimens of the architecture of our era’.

Yet it quickly emerged as a playground where the rich and famous could indulge their interest in horse racing and art. In 1897, the Musée Condé opened there, housing one of the most important collections of old master paintings, alongside a renowned collection of drawings and a library holding over 1,500 significant manuscripts.

Overflowing with opulence, Domaine de Chantilly is another of those châteaux in France that serves as an evocative backdrop for tv shows, concerts, and fabulous weddings. Famously, it was the lair of Christopher Walken’s James Bond baddie in A View to a Kill.

Where: a short journey from Paris (50 km/30 miles) in the small, wealthy commune of Chantilly, Oise département.

Château de Chenonceau 

Another of the most recognizable châteaux in France, Château de Chenonceau is famed for an extended gallery built on arches that appear to float on perfectly reflected water.

Spanning one of the Loire tributaries, the Cher river, Château de Chenonceau has a storied history as the home and passion project of royal wives and mistresses. Today, it is known as the Château des Dames (Château of ladies). 

The most famous of the notable ladies was Catherine de Medici (widow of King Henry II), who famously hosted many memorable parties in the château, including the first fireworks display ever seen in France.

Built according to late gothic and early renaissance designs, the majestic arches dancing over the River Cher makes this one of the most beautiful and photogenic châteaux in France.

Where: another of the great châteaux of the Loire Valley, spanning one of the great river’s tributaries and adjoining the small village of Chenonceaux, Indre-et-Loire.

Château de Beynac 

If you picture yourself walking the ramparts of ancient fortifications in the footsteps of medieval knights, then head to the Dordogne, home to some of the most impressive medieval châteaux in France.

On the frontline of the warring Anglo-French kingdoms during the Hundred Years War, Château de Beynac played a vital role in protecting French interests.

This 12th Century stronghold rises from a sheer cliff face overlooking the Dordogne river: an imposingly robust structure, protecting the more exposed rear of the castle is a ravine, a moat, and double crenelated walls. Few châteaux in France are as siege-proof, and few offer views as commanding as those from Château de Beynac.

Visible on the opposing horizon is theChâteau de Castelnaud – built to protect the English border in Anjou that separated the warring factions –  an apt reminder of how contested the region was during the Hundred Years War.

A visit to Château de Beynac transports you back to a violent period shaped by warring kingdoms, on a battleline that ebbed and flowed relentlessly. Small wonder it has featured in several movies and tv shows, including the 2021 Ridley Scott film, The Last Duel.

Where: deep in the Perigord region, overlooking the Dordogne river and the ancient, picturesque village of Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne.

Château de Villandry

Ornate, formal gardens are a feature of many châteaux in France. Few compare to the magnificent gardens of Château de Villandry.

Another of the great châteaux of Le Val de Loire, the modern building was rebuilt around the original 14th century keep.

In the early 20th century, a wealthy heiress bought and renovated the property, financing the creation of magnificent, formal Renaissance gardens.

Château de Villandry is noteworthy for once being acquired by Napoléon Bonaparte for his brother Jérôme, and the spot where Richard the Lionheart and King Phillip II of France once met to discuss peace.

Today, it is a world heritage site that draws in over 300,000 annual visitors, attracted by some of the most immaculate, graceful, and gorgeous gardens of any châteaux in France.

Where: another UNESCO recognized jewel of the Loire Valley, Villandry in the département Indre-et-Loire.

Château de Fougères

One of the largest and best-preserved medieval castles in Europe, Château de Fougères is a delight for history buffs and curious children. The long ramparts — punctuated with 13 great towers — are fully accessible, allowing you to walk where castle defenders once looked for threats.      

Sprawled over nearly 5 acres, this imposing granite stronghold is surrounded on three sides by a loop in the Nançon river. With intact towers and a gateway dating back to the 12th century, the castle evolved in step with military advances, providing valuable insight into the changing nature of medieval warfare.  

A highly contested fortification, the castle was subject to two devastating sieges. Despite these existential threats, the château was powerful enough to sustain a town that sprung up around the very first wooden fortifications of the 10th century.

Today, Château de Fougères sits proudly above busy, historic Fougères — history oozing out of the near-impregnable granite and stone walls.   

Where: located in Brittany, home to some of the best-preserved medieval châteaux in France, overlooking Fougères, Ille-et-Vilaine.

Château de Fontainebleau (Fontainebleau palace)

We round out this list with one of the biggest, most magnificent châteaux in France, the dazzling Royal Palace of Fontainebleau.

If you picture châteaux in France as palatial, architecturally arresting buildings that showcase wealth and power, Château de Fontainebleau does not disappoint. 

Fontainebleau was a true imperial residence. More monarchs lived there than Versailles, France’s most visited château.

Wander through Napoléon Bonaparte’s throne room and bedroom, survey an apartment that once hosted a pope, or explore the boudoir of the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette. With a history as rich and colourful as the art adorning nearly every wall, visitors can explore how multiple generations of French power.

A monument to France’s imperial glory, Château de Fontainebleau is also a remarkable architectural feat: famed for clean Renaissance stylings, magnificent fountains centring attractive courtyards, unrivalled wall frescos, and a remarkable horseshoe staircase.

Enriched and expanded by successive monarchs, Château de Fontainebleau is simply a sumptuous feast for your senses.

It is impossible to detail every outstanding feature of this unforgettable château. But the bare facts speak for themselves: a national museum, a UNESCO world heritage site, home to 34 kings and two emperors, this is one of the most captivating châteaux in France.

Where: 55 kilometers (34 miles) outside Paris, next to the well-visited forest and commune of Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne.

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