In 1429 Joan of Arc liberated Orléans from a siege by the English, and the city has never forgotten this event. There are statues in her honour, whole wings in museums about the liberation and an annual festival in May to celebrate it with full ceremony and splendour.
Many tourists rushing to the Loire Valley’s châteaux bypass Orléans, but there’s much to uncover in the old centre, which is bursting with timber houses and renaissance mansions where royalty lived and died. Each monument bears witness to the city’s bloody but enthralling history. If it wasn’t the English it was the Huguenots wreaking havoc!
Lets explore the best things to do in Orleans:
1. Parc Floral de la Source
Welcoming more visitors than any other attraction in the department, the Parc Floral de la Source is a semi-wild park next to the university, where Orléans meets the countryside.
Indeed, you can see how the terrain changes here: The flat river plain and the source of the Loiret host the park’s beautiful flower gardens (dahlias, irises, roses and alpine flowers), kitchen garden, butterfly house and aviaries.
And then you can trundle off up the hill to step onto the Sologne Plateau where there’s deep oak and birch forest, and more animal enclosures with Breton sheep and alpacas.
2. Orléans Cathedral
Taking in the solemn cathedral on Place Sainte-Croix it can be difficult to picture the destruction that this massive landmark suffered in the past.
The Huguenots did a good job of razing it to the ground during the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century.
The building, where Joan of Arc had come for mass during the siege of Orléans in 1429, was almost completely rebuilt from the 1700s to 1829. During this time marvellous stained glass windows were installed, conveying the life of one of France’s national heroines.
3. Musée des Beaux-Arts
If you’re the kind of person who likes to go slow and meditate over art a whole morning or afternoon may not be enough to see all of this capacious art museum.
There are many thousands of works, only 700 of which are permanently hanging, including France’s second-largest collection of pastels behind the Louvre.
If you’d prefer more of a condensed visit then seek out the paintings by Vélazquez, Corregio, van Dyck, Breughel the Elder and Younger, Delacroix, Courbet, Picasso and Gauguin.
Also make time for the rare prints by Albrecht Dürer and a sculpture by Rodin.
4. Place du Martroi
Apart from the “Ligne A” tramline that still crosses the square, Place du Martroi has been completely pedestrianised in the last few years.
What hits your gaze right away is the imposing statue of Joan of Arc on horseback, created in 1855 by Dennis Foyatier, atop a large marble pedestal with reliefs from the siege in 1429. On the east side is a fun fountain with jets coming straight through the paving, and there’s also a old-fashioned carousel for kids here in summer.
And if you’ve been on the tourist trail al day you could take a break at one of the cafe tables to take in the Belle Époque and neoclassical architecture with a café au lait.
5. Hôtel Groslot
Orléans’ former city hall started out as a mansion built in the mid-1500s for the city’s bailiff Jacques Groslot.
Over the next few decades it hosted some of the period’s most important people, not least the young king François II, who died in what is now the wedding hall in 1560. Other personalities to have stayed at Hôtel Groslot are Mary Queen of Scots, François’ young wife, Catherine de Medici, his mother, and the later kings Henri III and Henri IV. Go in for a free tour to learn about this royal connection, and savour period furniture, Aubisson tapestries and extra insights about Joan of Arc’s time in Orléans.
6. Historic Centre
Orléans’ old town is unexpectedly large, and ranges far outside the pedestrianised zone in the middle.
Not all of the buildings are historic, but that only makes you value the beautiful half-timbered houses and renaissance palaces even more.
To get to grips with the size of the old quarter you could enter Orléans as Joan of Arc did in 1429, along Rue de Bourgogne, a convivial street of restaurants and bars running east to west, starting several hundred metres from the centre.
There are rustic colombages, many with their timber frames painted, side-by-side with 19th-century mansions.
Soon the street becomes car-free and you can scuttle off down the adjoining streets to make discoveries, Then there is rue de la Bretonnerie, which begins north of the cathedral and is almost overflowing with mansions from the 1400s to the 1900s.
7. Musée Historique et Archéologique
In the 15th-century Hôtel Cabu, one of Orléans’ many beautiful old mansions, there’s a small but interesting array of artefacts from around Loiret.
The Gallo-Roman Treasure of Neuvy-en-Sullias is possibly the most intriguing thing here.
It’s a cache of 30 2,000-year-old bronze statuettes recovered from a sand quarry in the 19th century.
They represent animals like boars, deer and horses, as well as mythological figures such as Hercules and Mars.
You can also see vestiges of the region’s medieval buildings carefully transferred here, like the romanesque capitals from the abbey of Benoît-sur-Loire, or, even earlier, ornate stucco from the oratory at Germigny-des-Prés, dating to the 800s.
8. Île Charlemagne
There’s nature, sport and relaxation just a few moments from the centre of Orléans at a 70-hectare park and lake complex on a large river island in the Loire.
For respite from the heat in summer you can laze on the two beaches, and you’re free to go for swim in the massive 28-hectare lake to cool off.
You could also hire a canoe or kayak and test your skills on the canoe trail with overhanging gates, or let the little ones scramble over the massive adventure playground.
On dry land there are ping pong tables, mountain biking circuits, pétanque courts, and even a pony centre.
9. Collégiale Saint-Aignan
Forever in a state of half-completion, the fragmented Church of Saint-Aignan tells you more about Orléans’ fraught history than a finished monument.
Being close to the Loire and in a suburb of the city, it was pulled down twice during the 100 Years’ War to prevent the English forces turning it into a bastion.
But that wasn’t the last of its troubles, as a century later the nave was wrecked by the Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion.
So only the choir and transept now remain.
But against all, the crypt, dating to the 1000s, has survived, and you can head down to see the barrel vault ceiling and sculpted capitals.
10. Loire à Vélo
The Loire in this region of France is one long cycle trail and every measure has been taken to ensure that your ride is as hassle-free as possible . Orléans is near the eastern limit of the Loire Valley, and if you were so inclined you could ride all 314 kilometres to Saint-Nazaire on the coast, and never lack for stations to service your bike and cycle-friendly places to stay overnight (Accueil Vélo). These establishments even devise special breakfasts for riders.
On this easy-going stretch of the river you’re never more than a few minutes from a château or vineyard, and the river also weaves past orchards, forest and even the odd saffron farm.
11. Fêtes Johanniques d’Orléans
In spring 1429, Joan of Arc arrived in Orléans and defeated the English, who had threatened to take the city for more than six months.
These 10 days, from the April 29 to May 8, have been celebrated by Orléans ever since.
Every year the city re-enacts Joan’s arrival in the city in full medieval livery, parading her through the streets, which is something that happened in the last days of the siege to boost morale.
There are also pop and rock concerts for young people, and the city’s historical attractions put on special exhibitions to retrace the heroine’s steps through Orléans.
12. Maison des Étangs
The Sologne plateau, which begins just south of Orléans differs greatly from the wine-growing regions to the east and west.
This is a land of marshes and ponds that for much of its history was only semi-habitable.
As you’d expect the people from the Sologne had their own ways of life and traditional customs.
The Maison des Étangs is an ecomuseum in old timber houses in the commune of Saint Viâtre, which alone has 135 individual ponds.
Step into the workshop to see how flat-bottomed boats were made for the local fishing industry and how hemp was cultivated for nets and lines.
A traditional fisher’s home has been decorated with period furniture, and you can also find about the freshwater fish and bird species supported by this unique environment.
13. Château de Chambord
At the turn of the 16th century a new kind of stately home for the nobility and royalty started popping up on the banks of the Loire.
Borrowing from the Italian renaissance these châteaux differed from the castles that had come before because they were built for luxury and aesthetics ahead of any defensive purpose.
The largest, and arguably most essential, of the Loire Valley’s plenitude of world-renowned châteaux is Chambord, constructed by François I as a hunting lodge, which makes it sound more modest than it is.
Because Château de Chambord is colossal, and instantly recognised by its forest of chimneys and cupolas on the roof.
There’s a day’s-worth of historical trivia, gardens and architecture, like the central double-helix staircase, to keep you engrossed and amazed.
14. Château de Chamerolles
Slightly closer than Chambord is a palace that looks a bit more like a medieval fortress, as it was built right at the start of the renaissance.
Château de Chamerolles was in ruins until just a few decades ago, but has been fully restored and is the home of an unusual museum.
The Promenade des Parfums is on the first and second floors and gives you insights about regional perfume production from the 1500s to the 1900s.
There’s a historic distillery, interactive exhibits that let you sample fragrances and big cache of perfume bottles throughout the ages.
The renaissance gardens are sublime, and if you haven’t seen a formal French garden before you’re sure to be impressed by the diligent symmetry of the vegetable plots in particular.
15. Local Delicacies
There’s an AOC around Orléans producing very drinkable and straightforward white chardonnays and reds with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.
In the earliest days, when the wine being shipped down the Loire went bad it was no big deal, as it could be salvaged as vinegar.
By the middle ages vinegar-makers even shared a guild with the city’s apothecaries, and master “vinaigriers” branched out into cornichons (pickles) and mustard-making.
Stop by at Martin Pouret, which is one such master vinaigrier, and pick up a gift or souvenir.
Other local specialities include quince jam, pear spirits, Chavignol goats’ cheese and honey from the Sologne.