The historic castle at Chateau de Villandry attracts visitors year-round with its intricate gardens. // © 2015 Chateau et Jardins de Villandry
Feature image (above): Amboise lines the shore of the Loire River and is the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci. // © 2015 L. de Serres
It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in France’s scenic Loire Valley without encountering stunning chateaus, charming towns and delicious food and wine. Just an hour on the high-speed TGV train from Paris brings travelers to the bustling town of Tours, a popular starting point within the Loire Valley for a multiday exploration of the region.
Walking through Tours is a pleasure, as it’s full of picturesque streets, historic sights and great local shopping. Be sure to see the impressive Cathedrale Saint-Gatien and pay a visit to indoor market Les Halles to taste different varieties of goat cheese, a regional specialty. To sit down for a bite, lunch at La Cuisine de Georges makes for a memorable meal — the one-room restaurant houses a small open kitchen, and the whole homemade, delicious operation is run by just one man working alone.
Twenty minutes from Tours is a must-visit attraction in the region: Chateau de Villandry. While the furnished indoor spaces are attractive — don’t miss the Oriental Room’s stunning 15th-century ceiling — it’s the sprawling, impeccably groomed gardens that deserve much of your time here.
A 15-minute drive from Tours in the other direction takes travelers to Chateau Gaudrelle in Vouvray for noteworthy wine tours and tastings. Visitors can take their pick of multiple tour options that include visits to the vineyard and wine cellar, white-wine tastings, cheese pairings and more.
Perched on the banks of the Loire River, Amboise is about 30 minutes from Tours and draws visitors with its beautiful chateaus and historical connection to artist and Renaissance leader Leonardo da Vinci. Start with a tour of Chateau d’Amboise, which dates back to the late 15th century and served as a residence for multiple French kings.
Be sure to check out its St. Hubert Chapel, the final burial place of Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his final years at nearby Chateau du Clos Luce, just a short walk away and also open to visitors. Of particular note there are the extensive and peaceful gardens, which feature lush flora and interactive models of da Vinci’s inventions. Before leaving Amboise, head to family-owned Patisserie Bigot for fresh, delicious pastries and outstanding chocolate.
Just under an hour from Tours is Chateau de Cheverny. The impressive manorial estate was built around 1625 and is still privately owned, but much of the splendidly furnished interior and beautiful outdoor gardens are open to the public. The chateau also served as the inspiration for Marlinspike Hall, the country house from popular European comic “The Adventures of Tintin,” and houses an exhibition dedicated to the series.
Near the chateau’s entrance is Maison des Vins de Cheverny, where a system of electronic dispensers pouring a variety of local wines offers one of the most unique tastings around. Make sure to sample the Cour-Cheverny, a white varietal grown exclusively in the nearby area.
From Cheverny, it’s a 20-minute drive to Chateau de Chambord, one of the region’s most striking structures. This UNESCO-designated site, built in the 16th century and spanning a sprawling 426 rooms, is an awe-inspiring example of Renaissance architecture. Standout features of the property include its famous double spiral staircase and flat roofs that offer close-up views of the chateau’s stunning turrets.
Where to Stay
To stay directly in Tours, Chateau Belmont offers comfortable, contemporary rooms and an on-site spa. In Cheverny, peaceful Chateau du Breuil has 39 charming rooms with modern amenities, as well as an excellent gourmet restaurant and welcoming public spaces. In Nazelles-Negron, just 10 minutes from Amboise, the beautiful Chateau de Perreux is a luxurious hideaway focused on relaxation. Each of the property’s 11 recently renovated rooms is unique, and the resident chef has held a Michelin Star.
Air France operates daily flights between various U.S. cities and Paris. From Paris, Rail Europe offers easy train trips to and between cities throughout the Loire Valley, available with individual tickets or a multitrip rail pass. Alternatively, visitors can rent a car, bike between destinations using the Loire a Velo cycling route or book with a tour company such as Loire Valley Tours, an excellent choice for small groups.