It’s no mystery that Tours is a favourite base for people discovering the Loire Valley’s exalted châteaux.
Villandry, Chenonceau and Amboise are moments by car, and with the help of the Loire à Vélo network you can visit them on two wheels with ease.
But you may find that if you delve a little more into Tours’ history and attractions, it could be difficult to leave the city at all.
In the centre are timber houses and renaissance mansions on car-free streets, and museums that draw you into the city’s medieval past.
There are vineyards welcoming inquisitive oenophiles in the countryside and both the waters and banks of the Loire invite you to go wherever your sense of curiosity leads.
Lets explore the best things to do in Tours:
1. Tours Cathedral
Even by the glacial speed of construction in the middle ages, Tours Cathedral took a long time to be completed.
Building began in 1170 and wouldn’t be finished until 1547, but this means we’re met with a perfect summary of the evolution of gothic art.
The ensemble of original 13th-century stained glass windows in the ambulatory chapels and above the choir is one of the finest in France, and seems to generate its own light.
The cathedral has information panels giving you the meaning behind each image.
The marble renaissance tombs of King Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany’s children are also moving, as both died in infancy.
2. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
The riches from Cardinal Richelieu’s 17th-century campaign against the Huguenots and the art seized from abbeys during the Revolution all ended up at Tours’ stellar museum of fine art.
Because of their religious source there’s a good body of Italian gothic primitives from the 14th and 15th centuries, while the two renaissance paintings by Andrea Mentegna are regarded as masterpieces.
You’ve got over a thousand artworks to get through, with sculpture by Rodin, Flemish and Dutch painting by Rembrandt and Rubens, and Impressionism by Monet and Degas.
3. Tours Botanical Garden
The city’s municipal garden has a bit of a troublesome setting, between the Loire and Cher, which made it susceptible to flooding in the past, with two devastating inundations in the mid-19th century that filled the greenhouses with two metres of water.
Even after being hit by bombs in the Second World War there isn’t the slightest hint of a troubled past at these serene gardens.
On your walk you may notice some trees you haven’t seen before, like the Chinese empress tree, ginkgo biloba and the endangered dawn redwood.
The animal park is from 1863 and has farm animals for kids to bond with, as well as more exotic species like wallabies.
4. Le Vieux Tours
Like all the best historic city centres the historic buildings on the pedestrian streets around Place Plumereau aren’t sterile museum pieces but vibrant cornerstones of local life, used as shops, restaurants and bars.
Place de Plumereau is at the nerve centre of one of the largest conservation areas in Europe, with renaissance mansions boasting sculpted reliefs or cantilevered timber houses, going strong for hundreds of years.
If you’re OK with everybody knowing you’re a tourist, jump aboard the little train that departs every hour from Place Plumereau in summer.
5. Musée du Compagnonnage
In the 16th-century Dormitory at the former Abbey of Saint-Julien is a museum devoted to a French workers’ movement that dates back to medieval times.
Roughly, the Compagnons du Tour de France is like a guild of journeymen that preserves historic trades and educates young people about them as part of an apprenticeship.
To complete the apprenticeship and become a “companion” a craftsman had to create a masterpiece for whatever discipline he worked in.
And these dumbfounding creations are presented at the museum, in all kinds of different disciplines, like metalwork, tailoring, shoemaking and woodcarving.
6. Hôtel Goüin
What may be the most beautiful of Tours’ many old building has just come through a long restoration and is open to the public once more.
Hôtel Goüin is an early-renaissance palace on Rue du Commerce, with a balustraded porch and the sort of loggia in which you might expect to see Juliet calling for Romeo.
During the restoration they unearthed fragments of an older building from the 1100s, with four arches and a well, which are on show.
You might just want to stop for a photo of that magnificent facade, but there’s an archaeological museum inside with artefacts from Roman times up to the 1800s.
7. Halles de Tours
Billed as the “Belly of Tours” (ventre de Tours), the city’s indoor market may not be France’s largest, but it’s a gastronome’s idea of heaven.
You may even want to bring your camera or have your phone at the ready, because the cheese, charcuterie, seafood and in-season fruit and vegetable counters are presented with real flair.
If you’re stuck for gift ideas then markets like this tick the box as they’re stocked with all the best from the region.
At Tours that entails wine from the Loire Valley and luxury chocolate.
The city is one of France’s chocolate capitals, and every years holds the Salon du Chocolat de Tours at the Centre de Congrès Vinci.
Come for lunch too: The oyster bar shucks your oyster as you go.
8. Jardin des Prébendes d’Oé
During the French Second Empire from the mid-1800s English-style parks like this one popped up in provincial cities across France.
This was a spot for urban families to take promenades, kids to play and for the city to put on outdoor concerts at the park’s gazebo.
There’s less of the formality of French parterres, as paths weave through tulip flowerbeds and copses of lime, plane, cedar, chestnut and lofty redwood trees.
So if you could do with a moment of repose take a wander by the pond and pause for a tea or coffee at the kiosk.
On warmer days you could load up on cheese and charcuterie at the market and have the perfect French picnic.
9. Église Saint-Julien de Tours
The predecessors of this 12th-century abbey were wrecked by the Normans in the 9th century and then in a war between the feudal houses of Blois and Anjou in the 10th century.
But miraculously the building that followed has survived everything from the French Revolution to the Second World War.
It was part of a long-gone abbey, and the garden next to the church is where the cloister used to be, while the Musée de Compagnonnage occupies the old dormitory.
10. “Toue” River Cruises
Commercial craft floated along the Loire and Cher since antiquity, hauling people, wine, silk, lumber, salt and all sorts of other cargo up and down these rivers.
Because the waterways can get very shallow they used flat-bottomed sailboats called “toues”, and you can too! Toues can carry between 12 and 30 passengers for hour-long trips, or even romantic dinner cruises in the evening.
Their skippers know these waters and banks like the backs of their hands: And with the deck as your balcony, they’ll shed light on the Tours’ river trade, its many colourful characters and perils.
11. Loire à Vélo
If you had to picture some quintessentially French holiday activities, a bike ride next to the Loire with a backdrop of gentle vine-striped hills and châteaux must be one of the first that comes to mind.
About 150km of the of the Loire à Vélo cycle trail’s totalling 800km are in the Touraine region.
The route is clearly-marked, easy -going because it never leaves the riverside and convenient as there are dozens of hire stations along the way.
You could give yourself set destinations like Amboise or Villandry, which are both reachable in about an hour.
Or make more of an adventure of it by going further afield and spending the night at the inns on the route that are happy to accommodate cyclists.
12. Guinguette sur Loire
On the left bank of the Loire, just by Pont Wilson, is where Tours’ “Guinguette” takes place from May to September.
It isn’t officially summer in Tours until this outdoor café by the river is bustling every evening with locals and tourists at the bar terrace, taking part in dance lessons, enjoying concerts or watching movies at the outdoor cinema.
Tours is a student city so the atmosphere is always warm and energetic.
The location is wonderful, under willow trees and string lights, with the river rolling past.
And every year there Guinguette has something new on the schedule.
13. Wine and Gastronmic Visits
If you’re a wine-lover you’ve come to the right place.
There’s an absurd amount of AOCs nearby: A dozen within an hour, and five bordering the city.
The diversity will make your head spin more than the wine itself, with the reds of Touraine-Chenonceau, the whites of Touraine Sauvignon and rosés made in Touraine noble joué.
When it comes to precious foodstuffs there’s a saffron market in Preuilly-sur-Claise and a seasonal truffle market at Marigny-Marmande.
The local cheese, Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine is known to all for its cylindrical shape and the straw that pierces it through the centre.
To know more, pay a visit to the dairy at Les Passerelles or the child-friendly goat farm, Cabri au Lait, which makes Sainte-Maure but also has a petting zoo for the little guys and girls.
14. Château de Villandry
It would be criminal to visit Tours and not call in at one of the abundant château in the region.
Tours is touted as a gateway for these sensational pieces of French royal or noble heritage.
You can reach Villandry in 20 minutes, and it’s one of the finest.
The gardens are the showstopper at this château.
They were restored at the turn of the century by the Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo.
He conceived several terraces of renaissance gardens, all with precisely trimmed boxwood hedges in joyous geometric configurations.
There’s a water garden, labyrinth, sun garden, ornamental garden with high hedges, but the most astounding is the formal medieval kitchen garden, all in neat plots.
15. Château d’Amboise
The home of Francis I and most of the French royalty in the 16th century is a 20-minute car or train ride to the east.
The château had its heyday in the renaissance period after Charles VIII turned it from a fortress into the Loire valley’s first Italian-style palace in the late-1400s.
In 1516 Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to live and work in Amboise, and the polymath’s home at Clos Lucé was actually connected to the Château d’Amboise by underground passageways that you can discover today by prior arrangement.
Da Vinci died here in 1519 and is buried at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Château.
The gardens are embellished with spherical topiaries and the views from this spur above the Loire are divine.