Explore Castles, Chateaux, and Wine in France’s Valley of Kings

Live out your fairytale dreams in the Loire Valley.

There’s a part of France that looks like a live-action fairytale. Known as the Valley of Kings, the Loire Valley was the playground and home of French Royalty in the 16th century, at the height of the French Renaissance. Around 300 historic chateaux—including the onetime home and now gravesite of Leonardo da Vinci—tower over the 170-mile stretch of rolling hills and vineyards that line its namesake riverbank. The transportive area has been deemed such a significant cultural landscape that a large portion of it (from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes) has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Obviously, it’s top-notch for history geeks, but the valley still retains its charm to present day, with numerous activities to entertain even us peasant folk as well as the King Louis of today’s world.

The storied wine region boasts world-class wineries (including an ever-growing contingent of natural wine-focused producers), fantastic French food, incredible places to stay, a world-famous cycle route, and fanciful views at every turn. And it’s just an hour and a half TGV train ride from Paris. From wining and dining to cycling to nerding out on history, here are the best things to do in the Loire Valley.

loire valley chateaux
Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock

Tour unique castles and chateaux experiences

No matter where you are in the Loire Valley, chances are you could throw a rock and hit a chateau (the French word for castle). There are plenty worth visiting just for the pure beauty and history, but given the sheer volume of options, you might as well find an interesting way to do so. Drink sparkling wine in the gardens of Chateau D’Amboise, where da Vinci spent his final days and is now buried. After your bottle, walk through town to Chateau du Clos Lucé, the OG Renaissance Man’s former home that’s been transformed into a museum dedicated to him. Then grab a prix fixe lunch at L’ecluse (call to book a reservation).

If you want to sleep like actual royalty, book a stay on grounds of Château de Chambord at Relais de Chambord, neoclassical Hôtel Château du Grand-Lucé, 15th-century Château du Rivau, or near the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Henry II at Hôtel Fontevraud, set inside Abbaye de Fontevraud. The latter allows visitors to stroll the grounds at night after the historical site is closed to the public and boasts a modern art museum (only open during the day) featuring nearly 900 works of 19th- and 20th-century artists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Albert Marquet. Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire is another chateau that offers impressive modern art juxtaposed by medieval architecture.

loire valley wine
Château Gaudrelle

Sip your way through the region’s renowned wines

The Loire Valley has long been a respected wine region and there are countless wineries worth checking out. However, the area has become an epicenter of the natural wine movement with a new generation of vintners who focus on organic farming and low intervention techniques. If that’s your thing, consider booking tastings at La Grange Tiphaine near Amboise, Domaine Breton’s La Dilettante shop in Chinon, Domaine Delaporte in Chavignol, or stop by Francois Chidane’s The Unusual Cellar in Montlouis-sur-Loire.

If sitting around tasting flight after flight isn’t for you, a number of wineries offer other experiences to go along with your day drinking. Put your brain to work at Pierre et Bertrand Couly’s wine-themed escape game, or sign up for a fun oenology course at Domaine FL, hosted by its resident sommelier who bears a shocking resemblance to Martin Short in Father of the Bride. Attempt to blend your own wine in the former chapel of Chateau de la Ragotiere. Or watch the chateaux roll by while sipping wines on a boat cruise with winemaker David Retiveau of Domaine des Champs Fleuris.

loire valley restaurants
The Gardeners Restaurant

Dig into local culinary specialties

Just like every other region in France, the Loire Valley boasts a number of local specialties. One of the most famous is the Atlantic oysters and seafood paired with Muscadet, a wine from the subregion of the Loire that highlights the Melon de Bourgogne grape. Try it at La Cigale, an 1895 brasserie with a stunning art nouveau interior, in Nantes.

Tarte Tatin, the beloved upside-down apple pie known around the globe, also hails from the Loire. It’s on the menu at most restaurants, but if you want to get hands-on, consider signing up for a wine-fueled cooking class at Chateau Gaudrelle. The chefs here run through other classics that highlight local ingredients, like Sainte-Maure de Touraine, one of the five Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) goat cheese variations. (Also make sure to try cheese plates wherever you eat.)

Again, like everywhere else in France, local produce is revered all over Loire Valley, which has also earned the nickname “The Garden of France.” This is due not only to the abundance of vineyards, but also thanks to its actual gardens, orchards, and ample agricultural land. One standout destination to get a taste of the local produce is Restaurant le Jardiniers, where chefs serve prix fixe menus with ingredients from their own garden inside a repurposed train station in Ligré, right near the town and (of course) Chateau of Chinon.

Loire Valley bike
nicolamargaret/E+/Getty Images

Pedal the Loire Valley Cycle Route

La Loire à Vélo is a nearly 500-mile cycle route that forms the western section of the EuroVelo 6 route, linking the Black Sea to the Atlantic. Cyclists often take multi-day trips that pass by the sandy banks and islands of the river while taking in views of the castle-topped, vine-covered slopes that rise up on both sides. There are various tour operators that offer inclusive packages; however, it’s a fairly easy route to plan out yourself, if you keep an eye out for hotels and restaurants that boast the “Loire à Vélo” label.

loire valley france
Tomsickova Tatyana

Get a bird’s eye view of the valley from a hot air balloon

Interested in taking in the castles, river, and vineyards of the Loire from a different perspective? If you’re not afraid of heights or floating in the sky without a regular aircraft engine, consider booking a hot air balloon ride. Trips start at Gennes-Val-de-Loire (between Angers and Saumur) and float over the chateaux of Saumur, Brissac, and others before landing back at different points along the river, depending on which direction the wind is blowing.

France boat hotel
Loire Vins Aventure

Stay in one-of-kind hotels and Airbnbs

The Loire Valley offers plenty of castles that have been converted into high-end hotels; however, it also boasts other unique accommodations that would merit a trip on their own.

Hotel Le Gaimont is a family-run estate, part of which is carved directly into the tufa stone that abuts the maison (i.e. house). The husband-and-wife team that run it are warm and welcoming, offering guests a solid breakfast spread and possibly a mezcal nitecap to those who want to hang out in the well-designed living room.

Retiveau, the winemaker who offers wine-tasting river cruises on his traditional shallow-bottomed Gabare boats, offers a different kind of stay. The owner rents out both of his vessels for overnight stays on the edge of the river with prime views of Candes and Montsoreau villages and their castle.

There’s also an entire cave category for the region on Airbnb. No matter where you choose to stay, chances are it’s not far from some dreamy castle views.

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Sara Ventiera is a former editor at Thrillist.