France is not short of fairytale castles. There are well over 40,000 châteaux sprinkled across the country, from crumbling ancient fortresses to sprawling royal palaces. From the ninth century, they served as strongholds for noblemen to control and protect their landholdings. With the French Revolution, France dissolved its nobility. This, combined with industrialization, meant the concentration of wealth moved from agriculture to the city – hence why there are so many dilapidating castles to see today. Looking to visit one? Here are seven of the best fairytale castles in France that you can actually visit.
French Fairytale Castles
Top of our list is one of the most obvious fairytale castles in France, but that shouldn’t detract from its supermodel good looks. When it was originally built in the 1630s, Versailles was just a country village. Today, it’s a wealthy Parisian suburb, just 20 kilometres from the capital. Louis XIII used it as a hunting pavilion, then his son Louis XIV installed the Court and government here in 1682.
The palace now spreads over 63,154 m2, comprising 2,300 rooms. The gardens are extraordinary but it’s worth poking your nose inside if only to walk through the iconic Hall of Mirrors.
At 156 metres long and 56 metres high, Château de Chambord is the largest castle in the Loire Valley. It’s also one of the best looking, no easy feat considering the region is home to the densest concentration of castles in the country. Five centuries since its construction the architect is still a complete mystery, with some claiming it could be Leonardo da Vinci himself. Ostentatious, over the top and extraordinarily extravagant, it’s one of France’s most impressive examples of Renaissance and Medieval Revival architecture.
Francis I originally designed the Château as a hunting lodge to serve all his Loire Valley needs. It features 426 rooms, more than 282 fireplaces and over 13,000 acres of pristine parkland.
This pint-sized palace might be smaller than most, but it’s no less impressive. Once a medieval fortress, it was home to Marguerite of Burgundy. You can still see most of its original architectural features and rooms, including the 12th-century dungeon, the 13th-century turrets and the gothic chapel. You can even become a princess or prince for the night by booking a room at the chateau too.
Shaped like a bridge, connecting one side of the River Cher to the other, Château de Chenonceau is located in the Loire Valley. King Henry II gifted the castle to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, but when he died his widow Catherine de Medici booted her out and moved into the castle herself. Countless powerful women have lived in the castle over the centuries, hence its nickname, ‘‘Le Château des Dames”.
Described as a ‘family home’ for the kings of France, the Palace of Fontainebleau passed from generation to generation from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Francis I redeveloped the old keep in the sixteenth century and reimagined it as an Italianate palace fit for a king. After the French Revolution, Napoleon I transformed it into the Imperial Palace, and it’s home to the only throne room still in existence.
Today, visitors can take a tour around the lavish State Apartments, including the Francis I Gallery which is bursting with fabulous frescoes and stucco. There’s also the ballroom, the King’s Staircase, the Baroque Trinity Chapel and the Pope’s Apartment to explore too. In spring, the castle hosts the annual Rencontres Musicales de Fontainebleau chamber music festival in its flower-filled gardens.
Château du Grand Lucé survived the French Revolution almost completely intact and is now one of the country’s finest examples of 18th-century neoclassical architecture. A small army of famous faces have stayed here over the years; Voltaire and Rousseau sought refuge here during the Enlightenment. During World War I the castle served as a military hospital. Then, in World War II many of the Louvre’s most celebrated works were hidden under the floorboards. It’s now a stylish hotel, with 17 glorious rooms to choose from.