There’s no mystery why Centre-Val de Loire is such a hit with visitors. Firstly, the landscapes are heart-rendingly pretty, with vineyards sloping down to the banks of this broad semi-mythic river.
And then you have the heritage to contend with, as the Loire Valley was the retreat of choice for France’s renaissance kings, who created the luxurious palaces the region is famous for.
There is so much precious history in this article that it would be easier to point out the monuments that aren’t listed as UNESCO sites!
Lets have a look at the best things to do in Centre-Val de Loire:
1. Chartres Cathedral
This World Heritage-listed monument is held as one of the world’s most beautiful gothic cathedrals and keeps nearly all of its 13th-century architecture.
The wealth of things to see inside and out is almost inconceivable, from the flying buttresses, flamboyant gothic tower, stained glass windows and grand facades, which have more sculptures than any other cathedral in the world, to untold smaller wonders like the labyrinth, ornate monumental screen around the choir stalls and the Sancta Camisa.
This relic is supposedly the silk veil worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, and attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
And then on summer nights the cathedral’s facades are painted with multicoloured light for the unmissable Chartres Light Show.
2. Château de Chambord
The largest of the Loire Valley’s many châteaux, Chambord is a French icon, easily recognised for its crowd of chimneys, cupolas and towers.
It was built in the first half of the 16th century as a hunting lodge for King Francis I, and its exquisite renaissance design and mind-boggling scale were a not so subtle symbol of French royal power.
The size of the château still has the power to make you gasp: There are 440 rooms, 84 staircases and the length of the four facades adds up to 128 metres.
Of the many things to admire inside, the central double spiral staircase demands your attention.
The grounds are absolutely vast too, enclosed by a fence more than 30 kilometres long and still supporting large herds of red deer.
3. Château de Chenonceau
Another of those immortal postcard sights, this gothic and renaissance palace is built on an arched bridge over the River Cher.
Many of French history’s most important women took up residence.
In the 16th century this was Diane de Poitier, mistress of Henry II and prime mover in the royal court at the time.
Then there was Catherine de’ Medici Henry II’s wife, who forced Diane de Poitiers to move out after Henry died and made the updates that we see today.
Finally, Louise Dupin in the 18th century hosted a literary salon at the palace, which saw Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Fontenelle convene here.
The interiors and grounds are magnificent, and in the grand gallery crossing the river there’s an exhibition immersing you in the Château’s long and absorbing past.
4. Château de Blois
Unlike most of the other palaces in the Loire Valley the Château de Blois is in the middle of a town, and is made up of several distinct buildings dating between the 1200s and 1600s.
But just like Chambord it’s a vast complex, more than 560 rooms and 75 stairways, the most spectacular of which is the renaissance exterior spiral staircase on the exterior of the Francis I wing.
The château became a royal dwelling in the late-1400s during the reign of Louis XII, but before that Joan of Arc had come here to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before going on to break the Siege of Orléans in 1429. Among many things, you can tour the chambers of King Henry IV and the “chamber of secrets”, with its finely carved and gilded cabinets.
5. Château de Villandry
More than any château included here so far, the UNESCO-listed Villandry is praised for its sumptuous gardens.
There are six terraces to discover: A formal ornamental garden with tall boxwood hedges, a water garden, a recently plotted sun garden, a hedge maze, a medieval garden and maybe best of all, a decorative kitchen garden.
This vegetable garden is arranged in neat geometric plots, in the French style and is guarded by the château’s 12th-century keep.
The remainder of the building is in the renaissance style and merits a tour for the surprising neo-mudéjar touches left by the turn of the century Spanish owner Joachim Carvallo.
6. Bourges Cathedral
Another of France’s awe-inspiring gothic churches, Bourges Cathedral was completed quickly, in just 35 years up to 1230. It was also designed to be an undeniable statement of French royal power in the face of the Plantagenet-controlled territories to the southwest of the country.
If you know your cathedrals, you’ll also notice that it was built without a transept (the part that forms the arms of a cross on the floor plan). As at Chartres you’ll happen upon all sorts of exciting finds.
But the things to look out for are the sculptures in the tympanum on the west facade and the stained glass windows on the ambulatory, dating to 1215. Bring your camera for photos from the top of the North Tower, but beware the spiral stairway and its 396 steps!
7. Château d’Amboise
On a spur above the Loire, this royal palace has jaw-dropping views of the river from its manicured grounds, especially at sunset.
For just over a hundred years from 1434 it was a favourite residence of the French kings, and Francis I, who would later acquire the Mona Lisa for France, was raised in these buildings at the turn of the 16th century.
The Chapel of Saint-Hubert on the site is the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci, who had spent the last three years of his life in Amboise at the invitation of Francis I. One event at the palace that has gone down in French folklore is the death of Charles VIII in 1498, who fell into a coma and passed away after bumping his head on a doorframe at the Château.
8. Briare Canal
Dug in 1604, Briare Canal is one of France’s oldest man-made waterways, and links the Seine with the Saône River.
It was the first canal in the country to use the pound lock system, but when it comes to landmarks, the most exciting part is the aqueduct that channels it 30 metres above the Loire River.
The Briare Aqueduct at Châtillon-sur-Loire was assembled in the 1890s with the help of Gustave Eiffel, and for more than a century until 2003 this extraordinary structure was the longest crossable aqueduct in the world.
9. Abbaye de Fleury
On the right bank of the Loire near Orléans is one of the original Benedictine abbeys, founded in the 7th century.
It even contains the relics of Benedict of Nursia, the 6th-century saint for whom the Benedictine order is named.
Like almost every other monument here, it’s a UNESCO site and is still inhabited by a community of more than 40 monks today.
The architecture is a mixture of romanesque and gothic, and is acclaimed for its fabulous sculptures from the 11th and 12th centuries.
These can be seen on the capitals in the gatehouse, and on the tympanum and lintels of the northern portal of the basilica.
10. Palais Jacques-Coeur, Bourges
One of the most dazzling sights on a walking tour of Bourges is this flamboyant gothic palace that was built in the 1400s and predates the renaissance châteaux that were soon to sprout all along the Loire Valley.
The palace’s highly ornate architecture and opulent interiors raised the bar for stately homes in the 15th century: It was built for the wealthy merchant Jacques Couer who became a treasurer to Charles VII, but never got to live in his new home because he was sent to prison in 1450. You’ll learn all about this colourful character on the guided tour, and the modern conveniences he ordered, like sanitary latrines, washrooms and extravagantly carved fireplaces in the apartments and reception rooms.
11. Jardin Botanique de Tours
The southern side of Tours’ botanical garden makes a nice change from the regimented formalism of the grounds that you find at the region’s châteaux.
This part of the park is an arboretum with more of a free-wheeling English garden style, while the northern end is a classic French parterre, with magnolias and ponds with lotuses and water lilies.
The park has around 2,000 plant taxa in all, and for kids there are animal enclosures, with tortoises, emus and wallabies.
12. Château de Cheverny
Fans of Hergé’s Tintin comics will notice something familiar about Château de Cheverny, as it was the design copied for Marlinspike Hall, the home of Captain Haddock.
There’s a small paid exhibition about the Tintin connection inside.
The château was confiscated as a royal property in the 16th century after its owner had committed fraud against the crown, but the building we see now was constructed in the mid-17th century.
On a self-guided tour you’ll step through rooms laden with historic curiosities like medieval armour, antique musical instruments, Flemish tapestries and even an 18th-century sedan.
13. Cité Royale de Loches
The 11th century keep of this castle looms over the town of Loches by the Indre River.
It’s the oldest and most distinctive part of the castle, rising like a giant monolith from within the walls.
A metallic stairway has been added inside, so you can go to the top and survey the landscape as watchmen would have done almost a thousand years ago.
The castle was built by the English, and then taken by Philip II at the start of the 13th century.
Now it’s an enjoyable chunk of France’s more violent history, as an alternative to the region’s florid palaces.
To underline that point, the museum has one of France’s largest displays of medieval armour.
14. ZooParc de Beauval
If you’re travelling the Loire valley with little guys you can ditch all the culture and history for a day of family fun at ZooParc de Beauval, which has more animals than almost any other zoo in Europe.
Grown-ups will be intrigued to see the giant pandas, as this is one of only 12 places outside of China to keep this species, and the only one in France.
Also unique in France are the koalas, while okapis and tree kangaroos are found at only a couple of other attractions in the country.
In all there are seven zones, with a spacious gorilla complex nine metres in height and an African savannah environment containing zebras, wildebeest, white rhinos and giraffes.
15. Loire Valley Wine
The dreamy green landscapes of the Centre-Val de Loire region are covered with the vineyards, which are part of the middle and upper Loire Valley wine areas.
A dizzying variety of wines are produced in this part of France, but if you’re looking for a way in, try the impeccable chenin blancs produced by the wineries around Tours.
Further east the climate becomes continental, with hot summers and cold winters, like Burgundy.
This is where the world-renowned Sancerre AOP is set, making some of the world’s best sauvignon blanc whites and sophisticated pinot noir reds.
Sancerre is also your best bet for a wine tour: You’ll be whisked around the local wineries, all the while picking up compelling snippets about the winemaking craft in this fabled area.