Many of the most famous chateaux in France are in the Loire Valley, and for many people that is reason enough to visit - but it is not the only reason! There is attractive countryside, interesting towns to explore, and the River Loire itself is now a listed World Heritage Site - all very good reasons to pass time exploring this popular region.
The Loire Valley region is situated in the centre of northern France, south-west of Paris. The 'official' French region that includes the Loire Valley is called 'Centre', although this name is not well known outside France.
This region includes three historical regions of France that you will also come across in tourist information although they have not been officially used for hundreds of years: Orleans to the north, Berry to the south-east and Touraine to the south-west.
There are six French departments that together make up the Centre region: Eure-et-Loir (to the north), Indre-et-Loire (west), Loir-et-Cher in the middle, Loiret (to the east), and Indre and Cher (to the south-west and south east respectively).
The Loire Valley is only the central part of the Centre region, principally in the Loir-et-Cher and Indre-et-Loire departments, and also in the Maine-et-Loire department to the west of here within the Pays-de-la-Loire region.
You can get a general guide to the region below, then visit the individual travel guides for each department for lots more ideas and places to visit...
The most popular attraction in the region is of course the large number of impressive castles along the Loire Valley, and many visitors base their entire trip around their visits to these chateaux.
We suggest you visit some castles, of course, but don't overlook the chance to explore the villages and countryside, to take a boat trip along the river, or hire a bike to spend a day exploring the quiet lanes of the region.
You will also find some of the most famous abbeys and cathedrals in France in the Centre region, and lots of gardens classified as 'remarkable gardens'.
Last but certainly not least, remember you are here to relax. An hour spent enjoying a drink in a cafe in the local town can be as much pleasure as looking around another chateau full of luxurious furniture! The local restaurants are often of a very high quality and no visit would be complete without sampling the local cuisine.
Many of the castles here in the Loire Valley were originally medieval fortresses that got substantially rebuilt during the 15th-17th centuries to make them more comfortable for living in. This is why you will often see defensive structures that remain from these earlier buildings in the castles you visit, such as towers (now with windows added) and moats (now purely decorative).
Travelling from east to west through the region the most visited chateaux include:
West of Tours: the Château de Villandry with its renowned gardens, the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, and Chateau du Lude a little to the north-west. Towards the western border of the Centre region are Château Chinon and Château du Rivau
The scenic backdrop of the river and countryside of the Loire Valley provides the perfect setting for the chateaux, but even without these famous landmarks the region would be attractive to visitors with its beautiful scenery, pretty villages and important historic towns and monuments to explore.
One of the most important religious monuments here is Chartres Cathedral, one of the finest gothic architecture buildings in France and situated at Chartres to the north-east of the Centre region in the Eure-et-Loir department.
Another unmissable religious monument is Bourges Cathedral, now a UNESCO world heritage site and in the Cher department to the south-east of the region in the town of Bourges.
Also recommended and in the Loiret department to the east of the region, the Abbey of St-Benoit-sur-Loire is one of the most impressive roman style abbeys in France. As an interesting contrast, the later gothic style of architecture can be seen at the imposing abbey at Vendome in Loir-et-Cher.
To the north-west of Bourges at Mehun-sur-Yevre you can see a 15th century castle that has fallen to ruin and the southern Cher has several other interesting castles at Culan, Meillant and Ainay-le-Vieil and an abbey at Noirlac to visit.
All across the Loire valley and Centre region you will come across 'less important' castles, churches and other historic monuments. Sometimes these are rather overlooked by visitors because they are not part of the established tourist routes, so we do suggest you ask about other local highlights in the nearest tourist office when you visit.
Although visitors naturally associate this region with the scenery and activities based on and near the Loire river itself, there are several important tributaries of the Loire that also cross the region, passing quietly through the landscape of fields and woodlands, fruit orchards and vineyards.
These smaller rivers provide an interesting alternative view of the region and provide opportunities to discover the Centre region with less crowds. The most important of these tributaries are the Cher, Indre and Vienne rivers, and each has its own distinct charm, leisure opportunities and highlights.
You will find that you discover some of the most interesting towns and villages in the region simply by visiting the castles, because many of the towns first developed around the local castle in medieval times - and are still there!
Among the larger towns that are interesting to visit in the Centre region are Tours, Orleans (capital of the region) and Blois. We also suggest you visit Beaugency, site of one of the famous battles of Joan of Arc, Loches and Valencay.
Whenever we explore a region of France we try to include visits to some of the most attractive villages in the region, and the Loire valley / Centre region has several that are classified among the 'most beautiful villages of France' to discover and explore.
These include Lavardin (near Blois), Candes-Saint-Martin (near Saumur); Apremont-sur-Allier (near Nevers); Montresor (near Loches); St-Benoit-du-Sault and Gargilesse-Dampierre (near Argenton-sur-Creuse); and Crissay-sur-Manse (near Tours).
Another is Yevre-le-Chatel which is slightly outside the most visited part of the Loire valley at 40 kilometres to the north-east of Orleans but recommended when you are passing.
Note that although villages classified among the 'most beautiful in France' are a good starting point for exploring, there are very often equally pretty villages that don't appear on the list, for example if they don't have the two 'historic monuments' necessary to qualify, so allow plenty of time to explore for yourself!
You can find lots more information, suggestions for places to visit and attractions in the individual travel guides for each department of the Loire Valley:
The region of the Loire Valley and central France pack a culinary punch – from wild game to fresh fruit they offer an unforgettable experience for the lover of fine food. Sample some of the best goats cheese to be found in France, or try the famous cherries, as is, or in Guignolet liqueur.
French version: Loire Valley (Francais)