I get it now.
I have to admit, the first time I visited France, I found it a bit underwhelming.
A few years back, Holly and I spent a couple of days in Paris, so it’s not like I really experienced much of the country. Still, the feeling I took home with me was that Paris – and France itself – was OK. I definitely didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t in a huge hurry to go back.
Boy, am I glad we did.
In October, Holly and I planned a European getaway with our two children (ages 8 & 6 at the time). The first leg of our journey included a stop in Spain, where we spent the majority of our trip in Barcelona. After an enjoyable time there, we hopped a short flight to Paris. Then, we picked up a rental car and made the easy 2 hour and 15 minute drive to Amboise in the Loire Valley.
Honestly, this place is absolutely magical.
The Loire Valley at a Glance
The Loire Valley is named for the Loire River which runs mainly east and west through the center of France. For centuries, the river has been considered the boundary between the northern and southern halves of the country. Slicing its way straight into the heart of France, the river has also been important militarily for obvious reasons.
This part of France is well known for its vineyards, orchards, and – of course – its chateaus. Wealthy families, including some royalty, built castle-like farm houses that now pepper the region. More a display of wealth than for protective purposes, I absolutely adore them.
The Loire Valley is so culturally rich that UNESCO recognized the entire central valley on its list of World Heritage Sites. There are over 100 chateaus open to the public, including some of the most famous castles in the world. (More on that in a bit!). These chateaus have served as the inspiration for dozens of other major castles around the world.
If you’re a fan of Disney movies, you’ll almost certainly recognize the designs as well. Many of the fantasy castles seen in their movies are modeled after the now familiar look of the chateaus in the Loire Valley.
In all honesty, the Loire Valley is one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. The people were super friendly, the pace was much slower than I remembered in Paris, and there were chateaus around practically every corner.
The Loire Valley is a vacation area, so it feels really laid back. Still, everything has a touch of class here. Not stuffy, just classy. It isn’t the cheapest place to vacation either, so that may have something to do with it.
Although we ran around in shorts and t-shirts most of the trip, some dinner spots call for a bit more formality. Guys can usually get by with a nice pair of pants/shorts and a collared shirt. Women will feel very comfortable in a simple sundress or a blouse with pants or shorts.
Amboise: The Heart of the Loire Valley
As I mentioned, we chose the small town of Amboise as our home base. Located right on the Loire River, this village was absolutely awesome! The town is super easy to get around, and it’s located right in the heart of the Loire Valley. Amboise is small enough to be less touristy than nearby Tours and Blois, but there are still plenty of things to do and restaurants to enjoy.
If you’re staying in the Loire Valley, I highly recommend you rent a car. The chateaus are somewhat spread out, so it’s not like you can just take a city bus to visit everywhere you want to go. Driving through the French countryside is easy peasy, and it’s also a ton of fun.
Like I said, Amboise is located right in the thick of it all. From there, it’s only about an hour to Chambord, 45 minutes to Cheverny, 45 minutes to Villandry, and just 20 minutes from Chenonceau. Amboise even has 2 chateaus of its own: Chateau d’Amboise and Chateau Clos Luce, both of which we’ll cover more in a bit.
Where We Stayed
When traveling to Europe with our kids, we typically like to find an apartment to rent.
As you may know, finding European hotel rooms that allow four people for a stay can be difficult. Additionally, it’s really nice to have a kitchen and a place to do our laundry – especially on the longer trips. Plus, it just makes the kids (and the adults) feel more at home.
Holly did quite a bit of research prior to our trip, and we settled on this awesome 2 bedroom apartment right in the heart of Amboise. The pictures aren’t great, but it was actually a nice place… and perfect for what we needed. Everything was clean, plus it was just a 5 minute walk to the main “tourist” area of Amboise – which is basically just a couple of blocks of stores and restaurants near the chateau.
It was fantastic, and we’ll definitely be staying there the next time we visit!
Tips for Sightseeing in the Loire Valley
Although the food and wine are delicious, for me, the Loire Valley is all about one thing: visiting chateaus! I’m a huuuuge castle lover, so this place is an absolute dream for me.
As I mentioned earlier, the Loire Valley has over 100 different chateaus that are open to the public. There’s absolutely no way you can see them all in one trip, and you definitely don’t want to get “chateaued out.” So, I think it’s really important to do a little research ahead of your trip.
Also, while the city has the Paris Pass for sightseeing, there is no pass that covers all the chateaus in the Loire Valley. To avoid ticket lines, you may want to grab your tickets online before you go.
Where We Went
Since this was our first time in the Loire Valley, we definitely didn’t want to feel rushed. Because we only had about 3 days here, we decided to stick with the two most popular chateaus plus spend some time in Amboise. Here’s where we went.
Chambord is the granddaddy of all the chateaus in France. This place is absolutely spectacular, and it immediately vaulted into one of my top 3 spots for my all-time favorite castles. (From a castle connoisseur like me, that’s saying something.) With over 7 million visitors a year, Chambord is also the busiest attraction in the region.
I could keep coming back to this castle over and over again. Chambord was built by King Francois I, with construction starting in 1519 and finishing about 20 years later. Inside, you’ll immediately see the gigantic spiral staircase in the center of the building that winds up from floor to floor. After walking through the staged rooms, we enjoyed some beautiful views of the gardens from the upper balconies. Seriously, I love this place.
It’s hard to believe that this huge building was merely used as a hunting lodge, but it’s true. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast lovers will also find this place very familiar looking, having served as the inspiration for the castle in both the animated and live-action movies.
After visiting Chambord, we made our way to the absolutely lovely Chateau Chenonceau. This elegant looking chateau stretches gracefully across the water, a sight that is even more breathtaking in person.
Chenonceau is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. After touring the small but beautiful interior, we spent over an hour enjoying the views from the chateau’s gardens. Watching the hot air balloons float by while kayaks glided down the river was absolutely heavenly. The kids also enjoyed playing in the hedge maze and petting the animals who lived on site.
Here’s a funny story about Chenonceau: This small castle was given to Diane de Poitiers, the favorite mistress of King Henry II. After the king’s death, his widow Catherine de’ Medici (of the famed Medici family of Florence, Italy) kicked out the mistress and claimed the chateau as her own residence. Hell hath no fury like a Medici scorned!
Whenever we travel, especially if we’re with the kids, we try to leave a day or two without plans so we can go and do whatever we want. This time, since it was just a few blocks from our apartment, we decided to visit the Chateau d’Amboise. I’m glad we did.
The chateau itself was nice, and it wasn’t too big. I think you could allocate just an hour or two to see the whole thing thoroughly. While we were there, we learned that this chateau was actually the boyhood home of King Francois I, the king who really kicked off the French Renaissance.
Most importantly for us, Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the chapel on the chateau grounds. My oldest daughter has loved the Mona Lisa since she was in Kindergarten, so she got a thrill being here. (There’s also some really great views of Amboise and the Loire River below.)
We also decided to stop by Clos Luce, the official residence and last home to Leonardo da Vinci. Also located within the town of Amboise, the chateau itself is a nice little museum dedicated to da Vinci’s works. However, the best part is walking around the relatively sprawling grounds.
Even though Amboise is fairly small, the grounds of Clos Luce make you feel like you’re miles from civilization. As we walked around, we also enjoyed the different workable models of da Vinci’s different inventions. It is very similar to the da Vinci museum we visited in Florence over the summer, but it’s outside. The entire place was a nice break from all the sightseeing that we had done so far on the trip.
Our Loire Valley Trip: Final Thoughts
Holly and I are absolutely in love with the Loire Valley. Between the delicious food, the great wine, and the lovely chateaus, I think we could come back here every year and never get tired of it.
When I imagine the French countryside, the Loire Valley is it. Amboise and the other villages in the valley are so quintessentially French that it’s like you’re stepping onto the pages of a French fairytale. As I said earlier, I totally get it now… and I can’t wait to go back. We’re already talking about a return trip sometime in the very near future!
Thanks so much for reading about our trip to the Loire Valley. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. Until next time, happy traveling!
Have you ever been to the Loire Valley? What did you think of it? Let us know below!