In France, every castle is a château, but not every château is a castle. The French word can be used to describe most of the thousands of castles, palaces and stately homes scattered around the country. Many France’s best-loved castles are nestled in the verdant Loire Valley, but there are great examples of medieval fortresses and fairytale castles in every part of the country. From the romantic ruins of Château de Loches to the nearly fully restored Cité de Carcassonne, no visit to France is complete without exploring the best castles in France.
A medieval castle located in the town of Vitré in Brittany, the Château de Vitré was built at the end of the 11th century after a wood fortress on the site suffered a series of fires. The castle was expanded during the 15th century with the addition of a gatehouse, a drawbridge and an imposing tower. The fortified citadel was nevertheless surrendered without a fight in 1487. In 1820, the town bought the castle for 8,500 francs and restored its outer structure. Today, the château houses a small museum and a town hall.
Located near the city of Rennes in Brittany, the Château de Fougères was built in the 11th century on a rock surrounded by the Nançon River. The original wood structure was destroyed when the fortress was taken by Henry II of England, and a second castle was built by Henri II Plantangenet from stone. Two massive towers were added to the fortress in the 13th century. One of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe, the château is today owned by the city of Fougères and is operated as a tourist attraction. Audio guides lead visitors through the fortress with music and sound effects that help recreate the feeling of castle life during the Medieval Era.
Built on the site of an abandoned Roman settlement in the 9th century, the Château d’Angers is one of the most visited castles in France. Located in the Loire Valley in the city of Angers, the château is home to the world-famous Tapestry of the Apocalypse, a set of beautiful tapestries woven between 1373 and 1382. Commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, the tapestry illustrates events from the Bible’s Book of Revelation in astonishing detail and color. With its 17 watchtowers and forbidding black-stone construction, the castle is impressive as well. Guided tours of the château are free and self-guided audio guides are available for a small fee.
Perched on a hill overlooking the Seine and the city of Les Andelys, the Château Gaillard is one of the prettiest sights in picturesque Upper Normandy. Richard the Lionheart built the castle between 1196 and 1198, but despite its concentric fortification and deadly machicolations, the fortress was taken by Philip II of France just six years later. Château Gaillard continued to change hands between the English and French until it was ordered destroyed by Henry IV of France in 1599. The thick castle walls resisted destruction, however, and the citadel remains an impressive sight. Most of the castle’s ruins are open to the public year round. The inner keep, which contained the king’s accommodations are open from March to November.
Located in the Paris suburb of Vincennes, the Château de Vincennes began life as a hunting lodge for Louis VII. The site was improved during the 14th century with a heavily fortified keep, and a rectangular-shaped outer wall was added in the 15th century. A wide moat and two drawbridges helped secure the keep, which served as a royal residence until the mid 1600s. In 1860, Napoleon III gave the château and the nearby Bois de Vincennes to Paris for use as a public park. Today, the keep and the 16th-century royal chapel are open to visitors.
The château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg is nestled at a strategic location on a high hill overlooking the Alsatian plain in the Vosges mountains, France. It was used by successive powers from the Middle Ages until the Thirty Years’ War when the castle was burned and pillaged by Swedish troops after a 52-day siege. After this the Château was left unused for a few hundred years and became overgrown by forest. In 1899 it was given to the German emperor Wilhelm II and rebuilt as it was on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War. When the French confiscated the castle after WWI it was considered fashionable to sneer at the castle because of its links to the emperor but today its one of the most popular castles in France, attracting more than 500,000 visitors a year.
Built about 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the banks of the Indre River in the Loire Valley, the Château de Loches is as famous for its mammoth square-shaped central keep as it is for its connections to French and English royalty. Constructed in the 11th century, the castle was held by Henry II and Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century and later became a favorite residence of Charles VII of France. It was in the great hall of the castle that Joan of Arc convinced Charles that he should be crowned at Reims. While older sections of the château now lie in ruins, the 16th-century royal lodgings have been fully restored.
Standing tall on a fortified hill overlooking the city and river below, the Château de Saumur is one of the most beautiful of the castles situated along France’s longest river, the Loire. With its octagonal corner towers and mullion windows, the château looks as if it’s been lifted out of a fairytale, making it an ideal destination for families. Originally built as a fortress in the 10th century, the château achieved its light and elegant look in the late 12th century when it was rebuilt by Henry II of England. Now owned by the town, the castle is home to several museums, including the family-friendly Musée de la Figurine-Jouet, which features a collection of antique figurines and toys.
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Located in Avignon in Southern France, the Palace of the Popes is considered one of the most important medieval structures in Europe. Construction of a convent began on the site in 1252, and in 1309, it became the seat of the Papacy when Rome rebelled against the election on Pope Clement V. The Palais remained the center of Western Christianity throughout the 14th century. Attracting around 650,000 visitors a year, the fortress is Europe’s biggest Gothic building and is one of France’s top ten tourist attractions. Tour highlights include 14th-century frescoes painted by Matteo Giovannetti and secret chambers hidden in the palace’s 3 meter (10 foot) thick walls.
Perhaps more of a fortified town rather than a castle, the Cité de Carcassonne is one of the country’s oldest and most impressive fortifications. Due to its position on the historical routes across southern France the location has been occupied for more than 5,000 years. Sections of the citadel’s walls date back to the heyday of the Roman Empire, and Visigoths occupied the structure during the 5th century. The castle’s successive rulers continued to improve the fortress until the 17th century when it began to fall into decay. A 19th-century restoration project of the Cité turned Carcassonne into a popular tourist destination. Guided tours take visitors into the citadel’s innermost chambers.