Castles in France run the gamut as far as architectural styles go, from pre-romanesque and gothic designs to French renaissance, baroque, and even a bit of Hollywood flair.
The reasons behind why so many incredible fortresses and châteaus were commissioned and built in France over the centuries vary widely as well. From sturdy citadels built to dissuade the machinations of would-be invaders to opulent garden estates acting as backdrops to the decadent ways of the monarchs and noble classes, France is truly a nation of amazing stately structures.
Here are 10 of the most extraordinary châteaux and palaces in France, where you can enjoy a glimpse into how the upper crust of French society once lived.
Château de la Roche Courbon, Saint-Porchaire
Less than an hour’s drive from La Rochelle, on France’s western coast, the privately-owned Château de la Roche Courbon is a prime example of a fortress built on the edge of marshland for security reasons, then later transformed into a fairytale palace.
The original castle here dates back to 1475 but received a luxurious upgrade by the Courbon family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The modern château’s grand main building, enormous keep, and thick towers give Château de la Roche Courbon a very distinctive, imposing silhouette.
Two of the key draws of this historic monument are the immaculate flower gardens and massive pond, along with the double-level staircase leading down toward the gardens, located in front of the main structure.
Also, of note here are the Stone Age burial caves, located near sandstone cliffs by the river Bruant, on the castle grounds. Finds from these prehistoric caves are stored in the keep museum.
Palace of Versailles, Versailles
Sprawling in vast grounds just outside Paris, Versailles is a massive complex and estate and could take the better part of a day to visit entirely.
The palace began life as a château and hunting lodge in 1623, built by King Louis XIII.
King Louis XIII’s son, Louis XIV, kicked off extensive expansion efforts in Versailles during the 1660s.
The work led to the many palaces, gardens, lakes, and even the Grand Canal (a locale hosting many extravagant celebrations over the years) that the palace is known for today.
Inside this lavish French baroque estate, you’ll find a dazzling display of elaborate frescoes, gleaming gilt, ornate carvings, and smooth marble.
Some of the must-sees include the Grands Appartements of Louis XIV, The Sun King, and his queen, many of which are decorated with themes from ancient Roman mythology.
The amazingly well-designed—acoustically and artistically—Royal Opera, once the largest opera in Europe. The Royal Opera is also known as the Théâtre Gabriel and was built for the marriage of Louis XVI to Marie-Antoinette.
Make sure you also visit the lengthy Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), which is perhaps the most famous room in the entire palace, boasting an impressive 357 mirrors, glittering chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows through which the afternoon sun streams.
Set time aside to explore Versailles’ magnificent gardens, which are a marvel unto themselves, with statues, fountains, the Royal Promenade, the circular Colonnade Grove, and plenty more for you to enjoy.
Château de Roquetaillade, Mazères
The stark, yet noble-looking Château de Roquetaillade, at first glance, doesn’t seem like a fortress that potential invaders would have much fun or success trying to breach.
Located in Mazères, on a limestone plateau south of Bordeaux, the medieval castle is a formidable, fortified structure.
The bastion comes complete with tall, rounded towers, reinforced ramparts, and even a large dungeon, perfect for enemies whose siege engines weren’t up to the conquering task.
This awe-inspiring castle is now, in fact, an estate made up of two fortresses joined together. Over the centuries, these beautiful historic sites have benefited from various upgrades, including a bright and sumptuous interior overseen by renowned French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century.
The result is a mixture of defensive prowess on the outside, and true elegance in the interior. On a visit, you can explore the ramparts and dungeons and marvel at the sumptuous interiors.
Château de Vincennes, Paris
While the grounds of the Château de Vincennes might be a little spartan for some, the long history here—plus one of the tallest turrets in Europe—make this fortress worth visiting, especially if you’re spending more than one day in Paris.
Château de Vincennes, located near the city’s green “lung”, the Bois de Vincennes park, once served as a royal residence, with looming medieval towers, a massive keep, and a large moat (now filled with grass) protecting the royal family.
For several centuries, the château was regarded as one of the most important residences for French kings. In 1682, however, Louis XIV moved his court to the more lavish Versailles.
Up until the 19th century, the château also served as a prison; the Marquis de Sade was one of the more famous inmates, while the alleged spy Mata Hari was executed here in 1917. As well as a prison, the castle has served as an arsenal and military barracks.
Today, you can climb around this former stronghold, which once guarded the entrance into Paris. Combine a visit to Château de Vincennes with a stroll in the leafy Bois de Vincennes, just to the south.
Château des Baux de Provence, Les Baux-de-Provence
The rugged-looking medieval hilltop fortress of Château des Baux de Provence, northwest of Marseille in Provence, will offer you a wonderful opportunity to step into the region’s past.
While much of the fortified castle is now in ruins, if you opt for a tour here, apart from the splendid views of the village of Les Baux-de-Provence below, you’ll be given a window into the minds of the builders who designed the château. You’ll learn why they chose this location for optimal defense.
Château des Baux de Provence was built in the 11th century on a high, rocky outcrop. You can easily see why the Lords of Les Baux selected this site, as it features views in all directions; you can see as far as Arles on clear days.
Elevation offers many advantages when it comes to frustrating attackers trying to gain entrance to your stronghold.
As you wander through the ruins, now an official historic monument, take note of the Saracen and Des Bannes towers, which watch over the southern end of the castle. The Paravelle tower and Castle Keep guard the northern side of the fortress.
You’ll also come across the remnants of different chapels, like the Chapelle de Sainte-Catherine, plus several courtyards, giving you a sense of what this once-formidable citadel must have been like during its heyday.
Palais des Papes, Avignon
The Palais des Papes, or Popes’ Palace, is another one of the many castles in France that comes with tremendous historical significance attached.
Located in Avignon, and built over 20 years, starting in 1335, this palace was home to nine popes—before and during the Papal Schism—before the Catholic pontiff eventually returned to Rome for good.
The Popes’ Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest gothic palace on earth and is absolutely breathtaking to behold, towering over the elegant streets of beautiful Avignon, one of the best walled cities in France.
The structure is actually a combination of the Palais Vieux (Old Palace), built by Benedict XII, and the more lavish Palais Neuf (New Palace), commissioned by Benedict’s successors, Clement VI.
Today, you can take in the structure’s chapels, ceremonial halls, private papal apartments, splendid frescoes painted by Matteo Giovannetti, and more during a tour here. A visit gives just a glimpse of the astonishing wealth of the church in the Middle Ages.
You can even walk out onto the remains of the Pont Saint-Bénézet, which once crossed the Rhône River. The bridge is the subject of the famous French nursery rhyme “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. Now, alas, you’ll only get four arch lengths out into the water as the bridge ends abruptly, mid-river.
Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes
The lovely Château des ducs de Bretagne, located just north of the Loire River, in Nantes, less than two hours north of La Rochelle, is an enormous marvel of 15th-century architecture, dominating the city to this day.
The medieval Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, home to the Nantes History Museum, impresses visitors with its still-intact, 1,650-foot-long curtain parapet and seven enormous stone towers.
The exterior of the castle and the sizable moat were meant to discourage invaders. The luxurious interior residences, built out of white tufa limestone, were designed to support the royal lifestyles of the nobility, including François II, Duke of Brittany, who lived within.
The Château des Ducs de Bretagne, located in the Old Town of Nantes, combines gothic and renaissance architecture in a creative way. And you’ll be further transported back in time at the superb Nantes History Museum, thanks to the cutting-edge use of multimedia, which tells the story of this fascinating city.
Musée de la Castre, Cannes
Located atop Le Suquet hill, in the old quarter of Cannes, this medieval château once served as a residence for monks from the nearbyLérins Abbey, on nearby Saint-Honorat island.
Visiting here is one of the best things to do in Cannes, thanks to the breathtaking vista of the Bay of Cannes, all sparkling blue Mediterranean, wooded coastline, and superyachts.
The best vistas are from atop the castle’s square medieval tower, built as a lookout. The château’s gardens, with their shade-giving pine trees, are glorious, too.
Today, Saint Anne Chapel and the museum, located in the castle grounds, are home to a fantastic collection of musical instruments collected from around the world, including Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Read: Best Museums in France
Château de la Napoule, Mandelieu-la-Napoule
The Château de la Napoule, with its stone walls right up against the glittering Bay of Cannes, has seen several different owners over the centuries.
This prime seaside real estate eventually ended up in the hands of an artistically-minded American couple, Henry Clews Jr and his wife, Marie.
The castle was originally constructed by the Countess of Villeneuve in the 14th century. For many years, the château was used as a glass manufacturing facility. In 1918, the Clews, both artists, bought the property.
The couple spent almost two decades transforming the castle into a mixture of gothic, Moorish, romanesque, and Venetian architecture, with a bit of Hollywood glamor thrown into the mix as well.
Today, this unique site, on the Côte d’Azur, features Henry Clews’ impressive sculpture collection. Marie Clews focused on the elaborate gardens, mixing French, Moorish and English designs.
You’ll find a Venetian well in one of the gardens, and many wonderful views of the sea. The couple are interred in a mausoleum here in the gardens.
The Château de la Napoule also manages the La Napoule Art Foundation, which offers artists residencies on the property, giving them an enriching environment to live and work in, where they can let their imaginations run wild.
Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau
Château de Fontainebleau will offer you some insight into how the French ruling dynasties lived, from Louis-Philippe to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Situated south of Paris, Château de Fontainebleau served as a residence to 34 French kings and two emperors. The château is a colossal imperial estate, one of the largest in France, with more than 1,500 rooms, four central courtyards, and main gardens spanning 130 hectares.
During your promenades here, you’ll encounter the Grand Parterre formal garden, built in the mid-1600s, the handsome English Garden, the Carp Lake, which you can ride across on a small row boat, and so much more.
Tours of the grounds, and the Renaissance Château de Fontainebleau itself, could take several hours, at least.
Some of the highlights include Marie-Antoinette’s Turkish boudoir, the salon of Empress Eugenie, who was married to Napoleon III, and the Chinese Museum. Take a guided tour, as a good guide really brings the secrets of this magnificent structure to life.
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