Photo of Chateau Chantilly.

Travel Guide: A Few Lesser Known French Castles to Visit other than Versailles

Versailles is the most well-known French castle and likely one of the most famous structures in the world. But it is for a good reason, as Versailles is a grand and beautiful palace that offers an insightful look into the lives of French royals and the historical ultra-wealthy. But the building also tends to eclipse the other French castles in the public eye, despite the fact many of them are equally as interesting a place to visit.

Below is a collection of French châteaus that are often overlooked and underappreciated by travellers but are absolutely worth a visit if given a chance.

Why visit castles, anyway?

An illustration of a french castle.
Image by Iceberg90.

Castles are physical gateways into the past. They are some of the oldest structures still standing, and they are carefully maintained to preserve their original appearance. Often castles have guided tours available that go further in-depth on its history and notable residents. Visitors get the privilege of physically walking through history, making it a memorable experience for anyone.

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, many people will agree castles are beautiful pieces of architecture. The rich would employ the best architects to design their castles, resulting in unique builds that were cutting edge for the time. So for anyone with an appreciation for fine architecture or just simply beautiful things, castles would make for a satisfying stop on any vacation.

Finally, many castles are in rural areas but often close to charming small towns and hamlets. These quaint villages are full of heritage to discover, and combined with castle tours; they make for a calm and insightful trip. It is perfect for travellers who naturally lean towards relaxing by visiting quieter places.

Château de Villandry

Photo of the French castle Villandry and a section of its ornamental gardens.
Image from Chateau de Villandry’s official website’s Press Space.

Château de Villandry is a beautiful castle located in the Loire Valley. The château is open to the public for tours, but its own gardens may surpass the castle itself in terms of popularity.  Villandry’s award-winning gardens are massive and divided into six distinct sections that visitors are free to explore.

Events are held throughout the year at the gardens, ranging from historical craftsmanship exhibitions to dedicated days where visitors can learn from the masterful gardeners who maintain the gardens. The Wimbledon-style lawn tennis court located on the grounds is also open during some of these events for professionals and amateurs to play and spectate. And for those who pride themselves on their sense of direction the long and winding garden maze is open daily for visitors to explore.

The château is also open to the public for tours, and a visit to Villandry is not complete without a look inside.  Although originally built in the 16th century, Château de Villandry’s interior was revamped entirely 200 years later by the Marquis de Castellane. There are 15 fully furnished rooms to explore and an extensive collection of Spanish paintings to view that date back to the 17th century. Tours of the château also include access to the keep’s terraces which provide a breathtaking view of the gardens below.

Château de Villandry is a must-stop on any trip to France. The magnificent gardens and beautiful castle will wow anyone who lays eyes upon them.

Château de Chambord

A photo of the French castle Chambord overlooking the Cosson river. Chambord is a large renaissance castle.
Image by Julia Casado.

The largest château of the many castles in the Loire Valley, Château de Chambord is a magnificent building originally constructed in the 1500s.  King Francis I had it built to serve as a royal hunting lodge he could use to show off to his contemporaries. The project was influenced by some of the greatest minds of the renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci.

The décor and architecture are the highlights of this château.  The twin grand spiral staircases in the center of the keep are phenomenal. They’re built in a way that when two people each ascend one of the staircases, they can see one another through windows but never once cross paths.

Visitors to the château have the option of exploring either on a self-directed visit or a guided tour. Tourists can choose to be taken through the castle by a knowledgeable staff member or enjoy an interactive tour with special tablets that add virtual reality elements. There is even a special children’s tour where kids and their parents explore the castle with colorful characters from the 1500s.

The estate is host to festivals and events thrown throughout the year.  The annual Chambord festival held in the early summer is the most notable one. During this event, a wide range of musical acts perform in and around the estate grounds. Entrance to the château itself is free with a purchased ticket to the festival, making it a perfect time to visit to make the most out of your trip.

Château de Chambord is a breathtaking window into the past. Travelers with a deep appreciation of architecture, history or the arts will find plenty to enjoy at Château de Chambord.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

A woman in a white dress walking on the grass towards Chateau vaux le vicomte
Image by Carsten Sprotte.

Located 500 kilometers from Paris,  Château de Vaux le Vicomte has plenty of activities to keep both kids and adults entertained and awed.

Designed in the 17th century by a trio of artists who would go on to lead the work on Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte is beautifully built and lavishly decorated. Adults can learn about the period as they admire the décor on the weekend guided tours through the château. After the tour, visitors may enjoy a walk through the carriage museum: a stroll through time told via the lens of this specific mode of transportation.

Another great leisure activity available is viewing the large estate gardens, done in the classic Jardin à la française style. The famed gardener André Le Nôtre designed the castle’s 115-hectare landscape. Onsite electric buggy renting has made the grounds far more easily accessible for visitors to tour and enjoy.

On the other hand, children will enjoy the free game booklet that contains questions and activities they can solve as they venture through the château. Kids also get the chance to immerse themselves in history thanks to the available costume rental that allows them to explore Vaux le Vicomte dressed as princesses or musketeers.

And for those brave of heart, families can attempt The Styx: River of the Underworld. Using the diverted underground river underneath Château de Vaux le Vicomte, this attraction at the castle takes inspiration from the tale “The Love of Cupid and Psyche.” Families can enjoy a fun and exciting bonding experience as they work together and solve puzzles so they can reach the end of the mythical river.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte is an interactive look back into the past that will provide plenty of fond memories for everyone in the family. It is an excellent way to spend a day during a trip to Paris.

Château de Chenonceau

A photo of the French castle Chenonceau over the water.
Image by Laure Gregoire.

Yet another highlight of the Loire Valley, the Château de Chenonceau has a rich and storied history on display. King Henry II gifted the castle in the 1500s to his favorite mistress, who owned it for many years.  But after his death, his widow, the famed Catherine de’ Medici, gained ownership of the castle through a forced trade.  Catherine conducted most of her reign as regent at Chenonceau, and it became her favorite residence.

Another famous owner of the château was Louise Dupin and her husband. During the enlightenment period, Louise held some of the most popular literary salons at the castle. These events attracted some of the most popular thinkers of the time, such as Voltaire, Condillac and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

During the first world war, Chenonceau’s owner, Gaston Menier, converted the castle into a military hospital. Menier set up and staffed one hundred twenty beds. He even personally covered all of the operations costs himself.  Chenonceau’s nurses treated over 2000 wounded soldiers during the war effort right up until the end in 1918. Currently, the château has a dedicated room that serves as a tribute to everyone who worked treating the injured soldiers.

Chenonceau is also home to an extensive collection of artistic masterpieces on display for visitors’ viewing pleasure. Artwork from greats such as sculptor Mino da Fiesole and painter Peter Paul Reubens highlight the gallery.

Once visitors finish admiring the château’s collections, they can stop in at one of the château’s two restaurant options.  The self-service creperie now sits where the royal stables did. It offers quick and tasty lunch options for guests to eat on the shaded terrace or inside the dining room. For a more elegant option, The Orangerie is Chenonceau’s fine dining restaurant and prides on using only local ingredients. Patrons can choose to eat in The Orangerie’s sizeable indoor space or picturesque terrace tearoom.

Perhaps the crown jewel of an area renowned for its beautiful French castles, Château Chenonceau has a little bit of everything. Visitors can enjoy delicious food, beautiful artwork and the colorful history that occurred within the castle walls. It would be the highlight of any trip, guaranteed.

Château de Chantilly

Photo of French castle, Chateau Chantilly.
Image by David Mark

Fifty kilometers north of Paris lies the Château de Chantilly, originally built in the 16th century. Fully open to the public, Chantilly provides plenty of activities to explore in and around the castle.

The most renowned attraction at Chantilly is the Great Stables. A later addition to Chantilly in the 18th century, the Great Stables is currently the largest stable in Europe. The Museum of the Horse is in this building, featuring art and history all based around the namesake animal. The Great Stables also holds frequent horse shows and productions. These events range from skill demonstrations to acts featuring poetry, music, and acrobatics. After the show, guests can enjoy a quick bite to eat at Les Écuries café, also situated in the building.

But the Great Stables is not the only draw to Chantilly. The château itself is home to the second-largest antique painting collection in France, right after the Louvre. One of the estate’s former owners, the Duke of Aumale, curated and designed the collection during his lifetime. Respecting his last wish, the Duke’s layout of the rooms has been maintained. Chantilly’s art galleries are an incredible glimpse both at historic artwork and into the layout of 19th-century museums.

Château de Chantilly is decorated lavishly and open to exploring. Visitors can choose either audio or an app to guide them through the decadent halls. After the fact, guests can enjoy lunch at the château’s restaurant La Capitainerie.

A walk through the gardens of Chantilly is a great way to end a visit to the château’s gardens. The estate grounds have three sections available to explore: Le Notre flowerbed, the Anglo-Chinese garden, and the English garden. Each is visually distinct from one another and takes visitors through a breathtaking journey through nature. Visitors have yet another restaurant option located in the Anglo-Chinese garden with Le Hameau.

The best quality of Château de Chantilly is how many options for activities it boasts. With three restaurants, three gardens, a museum, art gallery, and frequent equestrian shows, there will be something for everyone. Travelers can customize their visit to the castle to get a unique and fun experience each time.

Further Reason to Visit

Chambord, Villandry, Chenonceau, Vaux le Vicomte and Chantilly: these are five fascinating French castles to visit that are criminally overlooked compared to the palace of Versailles.  These châteaus would elevate your trip to France and wow your friends.

More than that, each of these French castles is a unique window into France’s history. The times of kings, queens and royal courts are a distant memory. But a walk through these various châteaus each provides a look into this renowned period of France’s history and culture that nowhere else can replicate.

So when you’re planning your next vacation, be sure to consider adding one of these magnificent French castles to your itinerary.

5 thoughts on “Travel Guide: A Few Lesser Known French Castles to Visit other than Versailles

  1. A beautiful look into the architectural and historical with these reviews! I will most definitely take each area into consideration the next time I plan to travel.

  2. Horses, festivals, history, art, architecture, and fine as well as casual dining in castles no less. What more could you ask for? Thank you Corrin Lewis for opening my eyes to new places to explore once the world opens up again.

  3. I’m happy to hear you’ve been inspired by my article! Thank you very much for your comment, and I hope you might be able to enjoy some of these places once travel is available again.

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