Here’s a list of the most sublime castles in France. Most of these are famous and will appear in every guide, but some are a bit more recherché and out of the way.
All of our picks are rich in history, but everyone has their own idea of beauty: Some of the most handsome buildings were the sites of notorious sieges, and others have always been plush escapes for royalty and aristocrats.
It’s inevitable that many should be in the Loire Valley, where all the renaissance châteaux are inscribed as one World Heritage site.
Lets have a look at the most beautiful castles in France:
1. Château de Chambord, Loir-et-Cher
Kicking off the list is the most beautiful and prestigious château in the Loire, which is saying something for this part of France.
It was constructed in the 1500s for King Francis I and is instantly recognised by that emblematic crowd of cupolas and turrets on the roof.
Pictures don’t do justice to the size of the building, until you realise that the tiny specks on the main facade’s terraces are people! Leonardo da Vinci is rumoured to have had a hand in the most acclaimed interior feature; a central double-helix staircase that twists gracefully up three floors and is lit from above by a skylight.
2. Château de Villandry, Indre-et-Loire
A short way west of Tours, this renaissance palace is feted for its majestic formal gardens.
These are arranged across four terraces and were restored in the early-20th century by the Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo with the help of texts from the 1300s.
Each has a different theme: There’s a sun garden, water garden, ornamental garden and a decorative vegetable garden, where the patches have been fashioned into neat squares and crosses.
All four will amaze you for their extravagance, scale and precision, even if gardens aren’t your thing.
The castle is in the classic Loire style with mansard roofs and 18th-centruy interiors.
3. Vaux-le-Vicomte, Seine-et-Marne
Visually mind-blowing and historically vital, this mid-17th-century palace southeast of Paris has it all.
It’s a baroque manifestation of Nicolas Fouquet’s fabled ambition, extravagance and sense of taste.
This project also brought together the Versailles designers Charles le Brun and André le Nôtre for the first time.
The grounds are extensive: so large, in fact, that at one time 18,000 labourers were required to look after it.
So you could consider renting a golf cart if you want to see it all and not lose too much time.
It’s a good solution if you have kids with you.
The palace also helps keep little guys entertained by renting them period costumes for their tour.
4. Fort de Salses, Pyrénées-Orientales
Here’s a castle that was actually built for fighting! This colossal and impenetrable Catalan fortress was built by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs at the start of the 16th-century and went up in just seven years.
The building’s history is too long and bloody to sum up in just one paragraph, but it’s fair to say that until it lost its strategic value in 1659 it was besieged many times and a lot of people lost their lives here.
Even if you don’t speak French a guided tour is a must as it takes you to parts of the building otherwise off limits.
5. Château de Chenonceau, Indre-et-Loire
Back to the renaissance, Château de Chenonceau is an achingly beautiful palace, built on arches spanning the River Cher.
No wonder it’s the second most-visited château after Versailles; the setting alone makes it unique, but it’s also connected to important historical figures.
The most famous was Diane de Poitiers who was a favourite of King Henry II and was gifted the palace by the king.
Get all the historical gossip with the help of the English audio guide before finding a quiet corner in the sumptuous grounds – including parterres, a maze, woods and a small farm with donkeys – for a picnic.
6. Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, Bas-Rhin
In Alsace, a part of France that has been disputed for centuries by nations and empires, Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg simply oozes history.
The structure dominates the Alsatian Plain from the Buntsandstein Rock and has panoramas out to the Black Forest.
It’s also built with a pink sandstone that gives it a slightly iridescent quality in the sun.
The castle as we see it now is from the late-19th-century when Kaiser Wilhelm II oversaw a rose-tinted and imaginative restoration more than 200 years after it had been sacked by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War.
7. Château de Cheverny, Loir-et-Cher
If you read Tintin books as a child Château de Cheverny might look familiar; it was the model chosen by Hergé for Marlinspike Hall.
There’s a small exhibition that will delight fans here.
The château has been in the same family for the last six centuries and has opulent 17th and 18th-century interiors, particularly in the apartments.
If the little ones start dragging their heels the guided tour includes a tourist train ride through the English-style ground and a boat trip on the large pond.
You can also visit the kennel, where a hundred hunting dogs are exercised each day, or the orangerie, which has been converted into an elegant cafe.
8. Château de Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne
Southeast of Paris the Château de Fontainebleau was home to French Kings and Emperors for seven hundred years.
So the architecture, interior, art and grounds are a kind of cross-section of French history over this period.
Each new occupant added something, as did Napoleon in the early-1800s when this pile was his favourite residence.
Tours will show you around the Emperor’s apartments, including the study where he once worked.
The exquisite Renaissance Rooms, decorated in the 1500s under the supervision of Francis I and Henry II, are worth the entry alone.
9. Château de Chantilly, Oise
This palace is a 19th-century approximation of the renaissance style, and is as imposing as you’d hope for.
The graceful parterres were designed by André Le Nôtre, and the glorious 18th-century stables are original and now contain a museum for horses and equestrianism.
The headline inside is the Musée Condé, containing precious art, sculpture and a breathtaking library with medieval manuscripts.
The collection is huge and was amassed over centuries by the Princes of Condé.
The most valuable pieces are by Italian renaissance masters like Raphael, Botticelli and Sassetta.
A curious fact about the exhibition is that it has hardly changed since 1898 when it was bequeathed to the state by the Duke of Aumale.
10. Château d’Angers, Maine-et-Loire
There’s none of the renaissance embellishment on the brutal exterior of this castle, with its 17 duotone towers made with layers of schist and limestone.
But when you enter the gothic inner wards with their interior gardens things get much more refined, and you’ll get a taste of court life for the Dukes of Anjou.
They were patrons of the arts, as shown by the Apocalypse Tapestry, 103 metres long, dating to between 1377 and 1382, and the oldest medieval French tapestry still intact.
Like the best historic monuments each new building or room means stepping into another era.
11. Tours de Merle, Corrèze
Ruins can be just as beautiful as flawless palaces, and that is true of this set of crumbling towers in a steep valley on the western side of the Massif Central.
These were part of a row of fortified houses dating to between the 1200s and 1500s.
The buildings were involved in plenty of struggles throughout the middle ages, including the 100 Years’ War in the 14th century when they were occupied by the English.
They’re now part of a 10 hectare park and mingle with the woodland.
It’s a thrill to wander around and see what you can discover, and there’s also medieval-themed entertainment activities in the summer.
12. Château de Vincennes, Val-de-Marne
“Beautiful” might be the wrong word, but this castle in Paris’ eastern suburbs is certainly interesting and has seen a lot of history.
It’s known for its tall keep, the highest of its kind in Europe.
The castle was built in the 14th century and was used by French kings for the next 400 years.
Two kings were married at Vincennes in the 1200s, and three kings died here, including Henry V of England, who died from dysentery in 1422. After his fall from grace Nicolas Fouquet was imprisoned in the keep on the orders of Louis XIV.
13. Peyrepertuse, Aude
Many hilltops in the eastern Pyrenees have the ghostly remains of once dominant castles.
These were fortresses belonging to Counts who sympathised with the Cathars a religious sect that was crushed during the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade.
Peyrepertuse was one such fortress and survived this conflict, but like Fort de Salses was eventually decommissioned in the 17th century.
What’s left now are ethereal white ruins that blend with a limestone crag 800 metres above sea level.
In terms of drama, the photos you’ll take up here will beat any on this list.
14. Château de Langeais, Indre-et-Loire
This castle’s architecture is from the late-15th century after its predecessor had been wrecked in the 100 Years’ War.
What’s amazing is that it has barely changed since then, as it never saw action again.
So inside there’s an awesome collection of original 15th and 16th furniture and tapestries; the detail is just astounding, and you have time to pore over it all as Château de Langeais is quieter than other Loire big attractions.
If you’re with kids the staff do a fine job of bringing history to life for young minds: There are re-enactments with plenty of swordplay, while the drawbridge is still in working order, and is raised and lowered a few times a day.
15. Château de Bonaguil, Lot-et-Garonne
Set on a rock at the confluence of the Theze and Lémance Rivers, Bonaguil is a fortified building in a state of semi-ruin.
It was one of the last of the great feudal castles before artillery required a less ostentatious profile.
Its current appearance is from the early-1600s and is so complete because it seems that no commander was ever mad enough to send his men up against these state-of-the-art defences.
They included seven drawbridges, an untold number of murder holes and newer gun ports.
A tour is a dizzying quest of its own, through regal halls, up spiral stairways and up to the top of the keep for peerless views.