15 must-see chateaux in France

Climb citadels perched on towering peaks, dip into a fairy tale at a medieval fortress, stroll through refined rooms of Renaissance residences... There are around 45,000 chateaux in France - something to please all tastes. Discover castles from a canoe or on foot, explore royal vegetable gardens that have now become organic farming laboratories, and gardens reinvented as havens of biodiversity. Take a regal tour of France with these top 15 Chateau visits.

The most alternative: Château de Chambord (Centre-Val de Loire)

Take home some heritage vegetables - grown at the most dazzling of the Loire chateaux, some varieties date from the days of the Renaissance... At Chambord, the vegetable gardens cultivated on the estate since the 17th century have been restored and there are more than five hectares of organic plots. There are fruit and nut trees, vegetables, aromatic and medicinal plants. The site, which aims to be a laboratory of innovation, also offers guided tours, permaculture workshops and weekends in the vegetable garden. Alongside the fabulous interior decor of this most majestic of Renaissance chateaux, don your gardener's boots and walk in the footsteps of the kings of France.

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The most surprising castle: Versailles (Ile-de-France)

Explore the Château de Versailles off the beaten track... In the shadow of the Sun King’s sumptuous Chateau and formal gardens, discover a wild side to Versailles. 315 hectares of woodland of this former 17th century hunting reserve have been preserved and developed by the chateau’s managers and are now home to a biodiverse nature reserve. Wetlands have been created, pollinating beehives have been added, and species are tracked... Open your eyes and listen carefully - you're bound to come across grey herons, warblers and squirrels.

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The most civic-minded: Château des Ducs de Bretagne (Pays de la Loire)

No trip to Nantes would be complete without a stop at its chateau which has stood at the heart of the medieval quarter of the former capital of the Dukes of Brittany since the late 15th century. Behind the beautiful façade, complete with sculpted decorations in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance, the 32 rooms of the museum tell the story of Nantes. And, beyond that, of other universal stories - sometimes darker ones such as the slave trade, the Second World War and industrialisation. The exceptional collections contain more than a thousand objects, some of which have been collected from local residents. The chateau has been awarded the Tourism & Handicap label.

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The most aquatic castle: Chenonceau (Centre-Val de Loire)

Whether you visit by bike or by canoe, all roads lead to the Château de Chenonceau... Built overlooking the River Cher, a tributary of the Loire, this Renaissance building is best visited at a gentle pace - the better to take it all in. Follow the cycle paths that line the Cher valley, meandering between mills and forests, or paddle past in a canoe, watching for carp and wild birds and admiring the lock gates designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The highlight of the voyage by water takes you beneath the arches of the castle’s gallery. Delicately spanning the river, it is an especially enchanting sight at dawn or dusk.

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The highest: Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg (Grand Est)

What an eagle's nest! Perched on the Stophanberch mountain at a height of 755m, this former stronghold of the Duke of Swabia has always been a strategic point. It’s at the crossroads of the wheat and wine routes of the north and the salt and silver routes of the south. From the north tower to the south tower, you can wander through the 1.5-hectare pink sandstone fortress and admire the impressive structure which was restored in the 19th century by an architect with a passion for the Middle Ages. Then head to the castle’s restaurant where you can enjoy medieval cuisine and organic specialities served on plates made from spelt.

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The most ‘stony’: Château des Baux (Provence)

At the heart of the Alpilles, discover a fortress with a very distinguished patronage. The princes of Baux who built it in the 11th century, claimed to be the descendants of Balthasar, King of the Magi. The legend suits the spirit of this medieval chateau, a fantastic collection of remains and ruins from a tumultuous timeline in history. There is a 13th century keep and the Val d'Enfer, which now houses the Carrières de Lumière digital art centre. The village is embedded in the chateau and there are troglodyte houses. This visit takes you on a journey to the centre of the white rock of Les Baux de Provence, the stone used to build the complex. It was also used at the neighbouring ancient site of Glanum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

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The Most decorative castle: Villandry (Centre-Val de Loire)

If you want to know why the Château de Villandry is called the garden of France, go to the top of the dungeon, the only part of this fortress that became a jewel of late Renaissance architecture. It's from this viewpoint that you can really appreciate one of the most remarkable gardens in France. Crosses and heart shapes formed by thousands of plants are enclosed by green boxwood hedges that are trimmed to perfection, enhancing the colours of the seasons: from the ruby red of spring tulips to bright blue of forget-me-nots. A water mirror reflects the sky’s hues... There are six gardens, including the decorative vegetable garden which spreads out in nine huge squares forming checkerboards in the purest Renaissance style. You can also sample 40 varieties of organic vegetables which flourish here.

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The most wine-focused: Château du Clos Vougeot (Bourgogne-Franche-Comté)

At the Château du Clos Vougeot, a beautiful Renaissance building deep in the vineyards, go back in time to the source of Burgundy wines. The most sought-after wines have been produced here for more than 900 years. The winery, with its four ancient presses, cellar and dormitory, are all reminders of the patient work of the winegrowing monks who shaped the Burgundy landscape. Following in the footsteps of the brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin, whose headquarters are here, the visit ends with a tasting experience. On the menu are five wines of the Tastevinage paired with gougères, scrumptious savoury choux pastries with cheese. A fabulous way to savour the good life in Burgundy - from glass to plate.

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The most foodie: Château de Chantilly (Hauts de France)

The French style garden of the Chateau de Chantilly was designed by France’s most famous gardener Andre Le Nôtre in the 17th century. It’s exceptional collection of mirrors and water features have been restored in the traditional way. There is a 2.5 kilometre long Grand Canal, and a hamlet which inspired Le Trianon in Versailles... Explore the 115 hectares of the Château’s park on the little tourist train, by bike, little car or electric boat. Look out for some of the wild animals that live in the nearby forest. The château, which hosts the Condé museum is home to the second largest collection of old paintings in France after the Louvre. Afterwards, head to the Hameau restaurant, which serves - of course - authentic Chantilly cream!

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The most Impressionist: Château Gaillard (Normandy)

Perched on a cliff at a bend in the river Seine, for more than eight centuries the former fortress of Richard the Lionheart has kept watch over the river and surrounding area which holds a Natura 2000 classification. The chalky, grassy hillsides are crowned with ramparts and towers which are now home to numerous protected species and plants. This privileged environment inspired the Impressionists, whose paintings immortalised one of the most photogenic landscapes in Normandy.

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The most fortified: Château de Carcassonne (Occitanie)

Eight towers, two dungeons and ramparts... Within the walls of the UNESCO-listed city, the 'château comtal' of Carcassonne is a fortress within a fortress. A model of fortified castles, its 12th-century military architecture would have been forgotten had it not been for the enormous restoration work undertaken by architect Viollet-Le Duc in the 19th century. Put on your walking shoes and wander through the old palace to discover the barbican, the main courtyard and the watchtower. Browse collections dating from the Roman era or the time of medieval knights and admire Romanesque frescoes which depict the knights’ battles against the Saracens (only rediscovered in 1926).

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The most eclectic: Château d’Abbadia (Nouvelle-Aquitaine)

Gargoyles, crocodiles and snakes embedded in the walls...It’s certainly a strange bestiary of sculptures at the Chateau d'Abbadia. Perched on the Basque coast overlooking the sea, this Irish neo-Gothic building designed by architect Viollet Le-Duc, is every bit as eclectic as its owner Antoine d’Abbadie. He was passionate about travel and linguistics and made this his home and his observatory. Don’t miss the cabinet of curiosities when you take a fascinating guided tour through the rooms which mix oriental and medieval styles. The highlight of your visit is the master bedroom decorated in flamboyant Gothic style. While you’re there, take time to explore the Abbadia estate, classified as a Sensitive Natural Area, with its varied landscapes, from steep cliffs to moors carpeted with heather, gorse and wildflower meadows.

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The most literary: Château de Grignan (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes)

On one side of the castle are oak and pine tree woods and moors speckled with evergreen broom. On the other side are sun-kissed lavender fields and vineyards. From the vast terrace of the Château de Grignan, the spotlight is on the landscape of Drôme Provençale with its breath-taking panoramas over Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail. This former medieval fortress, perched on a rocky outcrop and transformed into a Renaissance style chateau, was for a long time the holiday home of the writer Madame de Sévigné. Enjoy concerts and plays, wine tastings and yoga sessions. Here you can enjoy contemporary Provencal living alongside the history of the Renaissance age.

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The most romantic: Château de Combourg (Brittany)

At the Château de Combourg, you probably won't come across the ghost of the Count with the wooden leg. But you will plunge into the depths of French romanticism. This medieval fortress, restored in the 19th century in a neo-Gothic style, was one of the first homes of the writer François-René de Châteaubriand (1768-1848). His childhood bedroom was in the tower and the grand staircase is where the wooden leg "sometimes walked alone with a black cat" as he wrote in "Les mémoires d'Outre-tombe”. The spirit of the father of Romanticism fills this entire place, including the 25-hectare park which was restored in the 19th century by Denis and Eugène Bühler using descriptions from the writer’s posthumous work. Like Châteaubriand, who felt he was in communion with nature, recharge your batteries as you wander amongst the alleys of oak, lime and chestnut trees.

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The most breath-taking: Château de Quéribus (Occitanie)

Hikers, get your boots on! On a stage of the GR367 Cathar Trail, the Chateau de Queribus sits atop a 729m high peak. You must cross three enclosures and then climb a few hundred metres or so before you reach the keep which crowns the ancient fortress. It is a spectacular climb and from the top you have a 360° panorama which extends from the Pyrénées to the Mediterranean. At the foot of the chateau, the village of Cucugnan perched on a hill surrounded by vineyards is a must see with its medieval remains, 15th and 16th century houses, and an authentically restored 17th-century mill. Don’t miss the bakery where bread and cakes are made from heritage flours.

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