While the British have their palaces and the Germans their castles, the French have chateaus. These grand houses served as permanent or temporary residences of some of France’s most noteworthy nobility, royalty or otherwise important historical figures from kings and queens to Napoleon III. Today, many are open to the public. You can walk the grand halls and personal quarters of past occupants or stroll through their gorgeous gardens. Among the thousand or so in the country, this week’s Bucket List features seven of the most famous chateaus. Most are located in the Loire Valley, dubbed the Valley of the Kings, but a few others are scattered elsewhere throughout the country.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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Chateau de Chenonceau is one of the Loire Valley's most famous and the second most visited in France next to Versailles. Like many notable French chateaus, Chenonceau has had many owners and undergone multiple transformations through the years. The earliest version of the estate was burned to the ground on royal order as a punishment to the original owner for an act of sedition. Rebuilt and then rebuilt again, followed by numerous expansions and renovations, the Chenonceau that stands today dates back to between 1514 and 1522. It features Gothic and Renaissance architecture and is recognized by the fact that it was build over the Cher River. Among its most notable and influential owners was Diane of Poitiers, King Henry II's mistress who turned Chenonceau into a thriving estate. It was later taken over after the king's death by his widow. Since 1913, and still today, the chateau has been owned by the Menier family of Menier Chocolate fame. They opened it to serve as a military hospital during WWI and during WWII, Chenonceau notoriously straddled the border between Nazi-occupied and unoccupied France. The main entrance is reported to have opened into the former, while the south door into the latter. Many are said to have used the chateau as a means to escape from the occupied to free zone of France and, as a result, the chateau was bombed by the Germans in 1940. In 1951 it began a massive renovation, during which it was restored to shine once again and remains open to the public today.
Photo by Marc Poppleton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Chateau de Versailles needs little to no introduction. While not the largest of the French chateaus, it's by far one of the most famous. Often referred to as the Palace of Versailles, it's located just 12 miles southwest of Paris and stood as the primary residence of French kings from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. It covers more than 720,000 square feet and contains 700 rooms, 1,250 fireplace and over 2,000 windows. Versailles features French classical architecture, but was inspired by the Baroque style of Italy. Countless architects and landscape artists have left their mark on this grand chateau. Versailles and its surrounding gardens are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are open to the public, including tours of Marie Antoinette's estate.
Photo by CpaKmoi, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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From a pop culture standpoint, Chateau de Chantilly has numerous claims to fame. It has hosted concerts by Pink Floyd, served as the wedding venue for famous Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo and is featured in a James Bond movie, to name a few. Historically the chateau is noteworthy, as well. The original grand chateau was destroyed during the French Revolution and rebuilt to its current state between 1875 and 1882. Chantilly is currently owned by the Institut de France, who maintains the Musée Condé within its walls, which is considered to hold one of the most remarkable collections of French paintings in the country.
Photo by Philippe Rouzet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Featuring quintessential French architecture from the 12th through the 19th centuries, Chateau de Fontainebleau is one of the largest royal chateau in the country. Today it functions as a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, but for eight centuries is served as the royal residence of "Capetiens, Valois, Bourbons, Bonaparte and Orleans, all members of French ruling dynasties," states the chateau's website. From Louis VII to Napoleon III, the home contains relics of its past inhabitants you can view while touring the chateau and its surrounding gardens.
Photo by Philippe-Alexandre Pierre, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Chateau de Villandry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sets itself apart from the numerous other Loire Valley estates with its gorgeous formal Renaissance gardens, which include ornamental flower gardens, vegetable gardens and a water garden. From a Medieval fortress to Renaissance estate, the chateau and gardens have undergone several transformations since Villandry first opened in 1532. Among its owners include Jerome Bonaparte, who acquired it from his brother Napoleon. Since 1906 until present day, the chateau has been owned by the Carvallo family, who have orchestrated a massive repair and rebirth of the entire estate.
Photo by Hocusfocus55, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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The remarkable Chateau de Chambord was built by King Francis I starting in 1519 and, while under construction for 28 years, was never technically finished. Despite this fact, the chateau is considered one of the most remarkable of its kind. It features French Renaissance architecture and is considered the largest in the Loire Valley. It includes 440 rooms, nearly 85 staircases and more than 280 fireplaces. Among its unique history, Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have been involved in the original design and it also served as a safe house for works of art from the Lourve during WWII.
Photo by Miwok, CC0 1.0
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Chateau de Cheverny has a complicated history that saw it pass to and from the hands of various owners multiple times for numerous reasons, but during that time it never fell vacant and remarkably has remained in the same family for more than six centuries. Located in the Loire Valley, the land for the chateau was purchased by a lieutenant-general and military treasurer for King Louis XII named Henri Hurault. In 1624, his son Philippe Hurault began construction and it remains occupied today by a descendant. It was one of the first French chateaus to open its doors to the public, some time between 1914 and 1922, and today continues to invite visitors to tour its grand interior and gardens.
Photo by Anna & Michal, CC BY 2.0