There are some things that typically come to mind when people think of France. One of them may be some kind of castle or palace. It might be a particularly famous one, like Versailles, or maybe it’s just a composite, an idea of light-colored stone and high, elegant towers, possibly with a medieval princess or king standing beside it.
The good news is, this isn’t a myth: France is full of castles, from medieval ruins, to 19th century reconstructions. You might even be able to spot a medieval princess or king standing near one, since many French castles are open to tourists and host events like medieval festivals and historical reenactments.
That might sound fine and good, but unfortunately, it’s not really possible to travel to France right now – and even for those of us here, castles aren’t open for visits. Luckily, there is still a way to get to know many French castles. A number of them offer virtual visits, and sometimes even more.
Let’s discover what exactly makes a castle “French”, learn about some of the most famous French castles (and palaces), and find out how you can visit French castles online and, hopefully soon, in real life.
What is a French castle?
Here’s a strange fact: To some extent, no one can really say what a castle is at all, let alone a French castle. The reason for this is that the term “castle” itself is vague, and the French word château even more so.
To get to the bottom of this, first we have to know…
What is a castle?
Basically, a castle, usually built sometime in the years 1000-1450 AD, is a fortified building that served several purposes: a residence for nobility or royalty; a point of defense; and a place where the local population could be housed in times of siege.
When we imagine a castle, we typically think of a large stone structure with towers, turrets, and a drawbridge. All of these features would contribute to a castle’s defense: height that made it hard for enemies to get in once the drawbridge was shut; space for soldiers as well as villagers who might be housed or take refuge there.
This is what you could say about a typical castle, but if you’re a fan of castles, architecture, history, or even movies, you’ve probably noticed that not all castles look alike. Like just about anything manmade, there are different styles of castle. You can read more about them in this informative article.
Of course, defense isn’t the only thing we think of when we hear the word “castle.” Nowadays (and as long ago as the 18th century, when old-style castles were obsolete), we often associate them with fairytales and a romantic past. Most modern-day people think of castles as beautiful or striking architecture of bygone days, not masterpieces of military strategy.
Around the time of the Renaissance in France (ca. 1500 AD), the palace became more fashionable. Fortresses and fortifications were built for defense – when it came to where they lived and worked, kings and nobles decided to go for elegance and grandeur, rather than protection. The trend is at least partially due to the development of artillery. It was harder for a castle to resist canon fire than arrows, so they weren’t as impenetrable as before.
Palaces showed the grandeur of a king or noble, and large ones would house a family as well as servants, staff, ministers, courtiers, and so on.
What do we picture when we think of a French castle?
When we think of a French castle today, we might picture a medieval fortified castle, but we might just as well imagine an elegant structure like the Château de Chambord, or the sprawling palace of Versailles.
When it’s the palaces we’re imagining, the most famous ones in France, which were built in the 16th and 17th centuries, have a particular architecture – the French Renaissance style.
A fusion of Italian Renaissance architecture, and the height and freer forms of the Gothic style, the French Renaissance style is so typical that you’re familiar with it even if you’ve never heard the term. Think of a building like the Louvre or Versailles. Boom: French Renaissance architecture!
French castles and palaces from the 1500’s or so, on, tend to be made of white or cream-colored stone with high slate roofs in dramatic shapes including high, pointed turrets and decorative circular vaults. It’s the perfect combination of balance and drama, which is why the style is still so striking today. You can see some photos of typical French Renaissance castles and palaces here.
French castles are often surrounded by (a) French formal garden(s) (un jardin à la française) -a landscaping style featuring geometrically cut and arranged trees and plants. Landscape architect André Le Nôtre was the master of French formal gardens, and designed those of many famous French palaces, including the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles. You can learn more about French formal gardens here.
How do you say “castle” in French?
Yes, a typical medieval fortified castle is un château, but a palace can sometimes be referred to this way, too. Not to mention a manor house where the local nobility lived, or a house on a large domain that might also have vineyards on the property – hence the reason many wines have the word château on their label.
Château can even work as a sort of memory – for instance, Versailles is technically a palace. But because there was once an actual castle on the property, the word is still often used – even the official site of the palace in French opts for “Château de Versailles”.
So if a French person talks about a château, keep your mind open – they might mean a traditional medieval fortress, a grand palace, or a large house (with or without a vineyard). Luckily, the context usually helps, and if they’re taking you to see a château, whether you end up discovering a castle, palace, or manor, it’s bound to be really lovely.
If it is particularly important for you to differentiate when you talk about French castles and other buildings, you could say:
- un château-fort –this is the way to specifically designate a medieval castle built for defense.
- un palais – this is the word to use to specifically designate a palace.
- un manoir – a manor.
Where can you see castles in France?
You can find castles throughout France, but the highest concentration of famous French castles is without a doubt in the Loire Valley. Located in north-central France, about a two hours’ drive or train ride from Paris, this region used to be a strategic place during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Afterwards, nobles liked having castles there so much, that they stuck around, eventually building grandiose Renaissance palaces, rather than structures used for protection or defense.
There are more than 300 castles in the Loire Valley today.
That may sound intimidating if you’re planning a visit; fortunately, there are lots of different tour packages and independent driving or even bike tours that will let you discover particular ones.
But if you aren’t headed to the Loire Valley, there are so many castles in France that you won’t be far from at least a few, no matter where you go.
What are the most famous French castles and palaces?
There are over 11,000 castles, palaces, and manors in France. Really. We’ll talk about that more a little further on.
Even though there are so many French castles, a few in particular stand out from the pack. Some of them may be stunning, while others are better-known for the history that’s taken place in them (not that they’re that bad to look at).
Here are ten famous French castles and palaces, roughly in chronological order:
There was a Gallo-Roman fortress on this spot, but today the castle is like something out of a medieval-set fairytale – well, where the story’s villain would live. With massive 13th century striped towers made of bands of schist and limestone, it rises from the elegant surroundings of the Loire Valley like some lurking, evil thing.
Not to say it’s not beautiful. And maybe you could really consider it a misunderstood villain, or one who’s redeemed by the end of the story. Within its walls, the castle hides more delicate Gothic buildings. It’s also surrounded by French formal gardens.
As this article explains, the castle’s 14th-century owners, the Ducs d’Anjou, were patrons of the arts at the time. One non-architectural treasure they’ve left behind there is the frighteningly-named but actually very lovely Apocalypse Tapestry.
The Château d’Angers has been a part of many interesting moments of French history and housed a number of royals over the centuries. You can read about all that here.
If you prefer a château-fort to a French Renaissance-style palace, the Château de Roquetaillade is for you! For one thing, the property actually has two castles, the first a romantic ruin dating to the early 9th century AD. The other château, meanwhile, “only” dates to the early 1300’s, and has belonged and been home to the same family for seven centuries! This Château de Roquetaillade is all strong towers with crenellated tops, massive stone, and a tall keep (watch out for this faux ami: in French, a castle keep is called un donjon…and a dungeon is un cachot.).
3. Le Louvre
Believe it or not, the most-visited castle in France is the Palais du Louvre. There was originally an actual castle on the site, but Renaissance king François I wanted to modernize things a bit. Starting in the 1500’s and continuing for several centuries, parts of the castle were demolished and an enormous, sprawling palace took its place.
The Louvre palace is a mix of several subtly different architectural styles, but overall you can consider it an example of French Renaissance architecture, with its repeating windows and facades, beige-colored stone, and baroque rooftop.
Unlike the other castles and palaces on this list, though, people mostly go to the Louvre to look at the art within its walls, rather than its architecture. And even if they are interested in its architecture, it’s often I.M. Pei’s 1989 glass pyramid in the courtyard that will capture their imagination.
You can read more about the Louvre’s history as a castle and then a palace in our post about the museum.
Tall and imposing, with high, graceful towers, the Château d’Amboise, built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, is the perfect picture of castle meeting palace.
Although some of the other buildings on this list have seen their share of deaths and imprisonment, the Château d’Amboise has the unique honor of actually killing a king – that would be Charles VIII, who died after hitting his head on one of the door lintels!
Despite that, the castle continued to flourish. It was a longtime royal residence. One notable royal guest was Leonardo da Vinci, a dear friend of King François I, champion of the Renaissance in France. He invited the artist to live at the nearby manner house of Clos Lucé, which was connected to the palace by a secret underground tunnel. Leonardo died in Amboise and is buried there (you can visit his tomb in the castle).
Although it’s no longer an important site for the French government, the château is still impressive, rising above the town like a fairytale vision.
If you’ve ever studied or dreamt about visiting a French castle, you probably know the Château de Chambord. The largest castle in the Loire Valley, it was commissioned by French Renaissance architecture fan King François I and built from 1519-1547. The castle’s main architect was Domenico da Cortona, but François I’s dear friend Leonardo da Vinci may also have been involved.
The château’s famous roof of pointed towers topped by different kinds of cupolas and turrets is a riot of forms, contrasting wonderfully with the rolling symmetry of the floors below. Inside, its famous “double helix” staircase was possibly designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself.
Built in a series of steps, from 1514-1576, the Château de Chenonceau, one of the most famous of the Loire Valley, is known for its stunning gallery that spans the Cher River. With its ideal location and gorgeous architecture, it’s attracted a number of notable royal residents over the years, including King Henri II’s notoriously beautiful mistress Diane de Poitiers and Henri’s (understandably) vengeful wife Catherine de ’Medici.
This is the only castle on the list that was never actually intended to be a royal or noble residence. Built on a small island off the coast of Marseilles in 1524-1531, the Château d’If was constructed as a defensive structure to protect the city from attacks by sea. Later, it became a prison.
You might already know this if you’re a fan of Alexandre Dumas’ classic book The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s cool to think that you can actually visit the Château d’If just by taking a short boat ride from Marseilles. The château itself is what you’d expect: stark and imposing. Heading towards it, you can imagine you’re Edmond Dantès for a moment. Closed as a prison in 1890, today the château is a registered historical monument and a museum.
The building itself is pretty, though somewhat squat and heavy compared to many of the other, more graceful castles and palaces on this list. But the château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is notorious for its grandeur and a vital influence on the most famous French palace.
It’s said that Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, the young and ambitious Nicolas Fouquet, bought three villages, had them demolished, and then hired the inhabitants to work the magnificent French formal gardens (designed by André Le Nôtre), that surrounded the new French Renaissance-style palace he was building for himself (construction “only” took a few years, from 1656 to 1661).
That was a precedent to the extravagance that the château came to be known for. Filled with tapestries and art, regularly hosting literary megastars (and personal friends of Fouquet’s) Molière and La Fontaine, the château was the height of high living.
And then came the notorious party. Fouquet would host King Louis XIV himself, and wanted a celebration befitting a king. Legendary chef François Vatel prepared the sumptuous feast. There was the premiere of a new play by Molière. There were fireworks and dancing. The party was so extravagant that it was enough to confirm the king’s suspicions that Fouquet was embezzling money from the government. And so, the minister was immediately imprisoned for life.
Still, the king was impressed by the party and the château itself. He hired Le Nôtre and architect Charles Le Brun to build his new palace…the Château de Versailles.
A short distance from Paris, today, like many other French châteaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte hosts events like fireworks displays and novelties like candlelit evenings. It may not be exactly the same as a celebrity-filled extravaganza that would make a king envious, but it’s still pretty nice.
Although it’s often referred to in French as “Le Château de Versailles”, the building is actually a palace. Like the Louvre, it’s also one of France’s top tourist attractions – but in this case, people do primarily come to admire its famous architecture and French formal gardens.
Inspired by the gardens and architecture at Vaux-le-Vicomte, where he attended that legendary but ill-fated party, King Louis XIV had the palace built on top of what was once Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge (a small castle existed alongside it). It was constructed, embellished, and expanded from around 1634-1715.
The palace’s immensity is partially due to the fact that from 1682 until Louis XVI and his family were forced to return to Paris in by Revolutionaries in 1789, Versailles was the primary residence of the royal family, as well as the entire royal court.
The palace’s symmetrical and grandiose architecture relies heavily on geometric illusion. It’s impressed and influenced a number of other architects around the world.
Although it was no longer a royal residence after the Revolution, Versailles continued to be a part of history, with a number of treaties signed in its stunning, world-famous Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces), including the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
Versailles was looted during the Revolution, but it’s been restored and many original furnishings have been returned and are on display today. Its famous French formal gardens and fountains can also be visited, not to mention secondary buildings le Grand and Petit Trianon. The latter is part of a fake, surprisingly Disney-like pastoral village where Marie-Antoinette liked to go with her friends to pretend to be milkmaids.
The most colorful castle on our list, the château de Haut-Koenigsbourg is made of red sandstone, making for a striking contrast against the hills and flora it rises above. Set on high mountains not far from the city of Colmar, in the Alsace region, the castle has been a presence of one kind or another for nearly a thousand years. Its current appearance is due to a late-19th century restoration by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The castle is breathtaking when you see it from far away, and offers stunning views when you visit.
What about other French castles?
There are so many more French castles to discover. In fact, they’re so numerous that there’s no exact count of them.
The Ministre de la Culture lists 11,000 châteaux that have been classified as historical monuments, but there are others that may not have applied for this qualification or may have been partially rebuilt, etc. Taking that into account, this article estimates that there are up to 45,000 castles and palaces in France!
That may sound ridiculously high, but it is true that many locales in France, even if they’re just small towns, have their own castle, palace, or castle ruins. So if you’re headed somewhere in France, check if there’s a castle- chances are, there will be, or there will be one very close by.
You can find a long list of French castles and palaces here.
How can I visit a French castle?
A number of French castles are open to the public in some way, whether as full-time museums or monuments, or sites open to the public on specific days or for specific events. Some even allow you to host events like weddings and conferences, while others have been converted into B&B’s.
You can find out what you can visit and when, by visiting a castle’s website. If you don’t have a particular French castle in mind, you can also do a search for something like “châteaux” and a region that you’ll be in or are interested in.
Other options would be to search by century, style, historical figure who might have lived there, or even categories like châteaux for weddings, to spend the night in, etc.
Of course, travel right now is impossible. Luckily, many French castles offer virtual visits. These can help you escape your own surroundings for a while, learn something new, and even plan your next real-life trip. Many of the castles on our list offer virtual visits, including:
le Château d’Angers
You can find various types of virtual visits of the castle, as well as activities, here.
le Château de Roquetaillade
There’s not an official virtual visit of the Château de Roquetaillade, but you can watch a bird’s-eye view video of it here.
There are virtual visits of several parts of the palace, including the foundations of the old medieval castle (which you can visit in real-life, too). You can also visit parts of the museum’s extensive collection and a few exhibitions. Click here to see all of your options.
le Château de Chambord
As I shared in our recent article about free French resources, the Château de Chambord has gone all-out, offering a virtual tour and fun activities for all ages, including fun printables that let you create your own French formal garden!
le Château de Chenonceau
Google Arts & Culture offers virtual visits of several Loire Valley castles, including this one.
le Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
Thanks to Google Arts & Culture, there’s a virtual visit and an online exhibit about the Château’s history.
le Château de Versailles
The palace’s official site features several online exhibits, including one about Nicolas Fouquet’s influence on the palace.
How to visit other French castles online
If you’re interested in a virtual visit of another French castle or palace, remember that you can take virtual tours of many of the other Loire Valley castles, via Google Arts & Culture. Or if you’re interested in a castle or palace that’s not on that list, just type its name into your internet search engine of choice, followed by “virtual tour” or “visite virtuelle”.
If you can’t visit in that interactive way, you can also discover French castles through documentaries. Just look for your favorite castle followed by the word “documentary” or, if you want to watch in French, “documentaire”.
French castles run the gamut from ruins, to fortresses, to elegant palaces. But all of them are beautiful and fascinating. Whether in person or online, we hope you enjoy visiting them!