Picture rolling fields peppered with historic towns, fairy tale châteaux, and an abundance of vineyards, as far as the eye can see. With the River Cher winding gently through the heart of the Loire Valley, and the Canal de Briare connecting the Upper Loire with Western Burgundy, this idyllic part of the French countryside is a stunning setting for a luxury barge cruise.
As the Loire Valley is known for its many châteaux and fantastic scenery, it can be hard to choose exactly which places to visit. If this gorgeous region isn’t top of your destination visit list, then we’re sure it will be after you see this list of the best things to do! Read on for our pick of its many attractions…
1. Cruise through the Loire Valley on a Hotel Barge
Enjoy the scenery of the Loire Valley from the tranquillity of your very own hotel barge. With a slow travel-pace of 4 miles per hour, you’ll be gently guided through the French countryside at a leisurely pace. Drift down the Canal de Briare aboard the 8-passenger hotel barge Renaissance, or the River Cher aboard the 6-passenger hotel barge Nymphea.
With idyllic aqueducts and bridges crossing the canals and rivers at intervals throughout the rolling hills, barge guests can take in the surrounding sights from the peace and comfort of the deck of a European Waterways barge. There really isn’t a more sympathetic way to visit the Loire Valley, than aboard Renaissance or Nymphea!
2. Cruise Below the Magnificent Château de Chenonceau
Visiting the Château de Chenonceau really is a magical experience if you’re passing through the Loire Valley. This fabulous castle was first built in 1522 and had many prestigious owners, including the mistress of Henry II, Diane de Poitiers, and his wife, Catherine de Medici. Château de Chenonceau’s grey slate roofs and bright stoneworks are flanked by turrets and punctuated with dormered windows. The walled gardens to its rear are also one of the Loire Valley’s highlights.
Book a cabin on hotel barge Nymphea for the remarkable opportunity to float beneath the five-arched bridge of the Château de Chenonceau, that spans the River Cher. This incredible bridge dates to 1576 and had a gallery built above it under the instruction of Catherine de Medici. Nymphea is, in fact, the only motorised boat with permission to pass beneath it as it is the only flat-bottomed vessel that is able to navigate the sandy reaches of the River Cher. Make sure you don’t miss a chance to appreciate this unique experience!
3. Learn about Leonardo Da Vinci at Château du Clos Lucé
Another of France’s Loire Valley châteaux we recommend visiting is the Château du Clos Lucé. A former royal residence to Charles VIII, it was transformed into a pleasure palace because of its proximity to the Château d’Amboise. Given to Leonardo da Vinci to live in during the 1500s by King Francis I, Château du Clos Lucé was linked to the King’s château via a secret tunnel.
The close friendship between Francis I and Leonardo da Vinci is the reason that many of Da Vinci’s artworks remain in France. The chapel at Château du Clos Lucé has frescoes with religious motifs that were painted by Da Vinci’s students. Visitors to this area of the Loire Valley, France, can explore the château to see Leonardo’s bedroom, kitchen and study. To delve deeper into Da Vinci’s scientific interests, wander the grounds to see recreations of his inventions.
4. Learn the Histories of the Château d’Amboise
Home to King Francis I during the sixteenth century, the Château d’Amboise received many important visitors and was sketched by the King’s good friend, Leonardo da Vinci. With its gothic architecture and reputation at the centre of the Amboise conspiracy of 1560, Château d’Amboise is one Loire Valley châteaux that history lovers shouldn’t miss.
Much of Château d’Amboise has now been lovingly restored following its occupation by German troops during the World War Two, and subsequent bombing by the allies. Visitors can visit the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley, to learn its stories and see its restored interior décor. You can visit this Gothic château on a week-long cruise aboard hotel barge Nymphea.
5. Experience Italian Architecture in the Loire Valley at Château de Villandry
One of the best things to do in the Loire Valley, France, is to visit the Château de Villandry. Without a shadow of a doubt, its magnificent gardens will inspire you. They are laid out in the Renaissance-style with perfectly trimmed box hedges and neatly planted borders. Inspired by Italian architecture, the château is built symmetrically in a defining U-shape around the extensive gardens.
As one of the last of France’s Loire Valley châteaux to be built, the Château de Villandry was decorated with no expense spared. The interior of the château was extravagantly filled with the most exquisite furnishings by nineteenth century tastemaker, the Count of Castellane. Experience gilding galore, sumptuous silks, and old master paintings throughout its neoclassical interior.
6. Visit Sancerre for a Vineyard Tour and Tasting
Home to over 4000 vineyards, Sancerre is known for producing some of the best wine in the Loire Valley. With its production of red, white, and rosé wines, the wineries of Sancerre all have a fruity speciality that’s worthy of a wine tasting. With over 60 miles of vineyards to explore, the vines stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s hardly any wonder this part of the Loire Valley is known as the ‘Garden of France’.
France’s Loire Valley is known for producing some of the best sparkling wines in the country, and it has been claimed that its Crémant de Loire is ranked second only to champagne. With the viticulture industry in Sancerre dating back to Roman times, many of the vineyards proudly offer tastings and tours, so that you can see the vines and taste the wines made from them. Barge with us aboard Renaissance and you will have an opportunity to visit La Perrière winery, which boasts spectacular cellars set in an expanse of underground caverns.
7. Cruise across Gustave Eiffel’s Briare Aqueduct
At over 670 metres long, the Briare Aqueduct in the Loire Valley held the record for the longest aqueduct from 1896 to 2003. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the bridge is an engineering marvel because of its ingenuity and practical features. With eight sluice gates at intervals across it, the Pont-Canal du Briare can be fully emptied to prevent the water freezing at low temperatures.
Lined with 72 historic lampposts and flanked by two towpaths as it spans the majestic River Loire, the Pont-Canal du Briare is impressive to behold. Each end of the bridge bears an elaborate coat of arms that shows off the landmark’s prestige. Why not take a cruise over the Briare Aqueduct on hotel barge Renaissance, to enjoy the views of the surrounding Loire Valley?
8. Visit a Troglodyte Dwelling at the Bourre Caves
If you like the sound of slightly more subterranean architecture, then why not step into a remarkable underground world, by taking a trip to the Bourre Caves? Situated in the Loire Valley, the Bourre Caves were created from industrial quarrying. Tufa rock from this area of the Loire Valley hills was excavated from the landscape for use in some of the region’s châteaux. Many of the caves and tunnels left behind became homes and shelters for the quarrymen who worked the sites.
Known as ‘troglodyte’ caves, these subterranean spaces became a fascinating part of the history of France’s Loire Valley. Because of their cool, dark, damp, nature, some of the caves were transformed for use in silkworm factories and mushroom farms. One thing is for sure: we guarantee that you won’t be able to find an equivalent attraction to the Bourre troglodyte caves anywhere else in the world!
9. Enjoy Cycling Along the Loire Valley’s Waterways
You simply can’t avoid the pretty canals and rivers when you visit the Loire Valley. Weaving their way through the landscape, these historic waterways were the region’s secret to success. The fertile landscapes have been pivotal to the wine industry of Sancerre, and the waterways helped to provide a means of transport in and out of this extraordinary area. It seems obvious why the Loire Valley was chosen as a retreat for the French monarchy during the Renaissance era.
Don’t miss an opportunity to admire the scenery with a walk or cycle along the towpaths that line the Canal Latéral à la Loire. Hosting a section of the Loire à Vélo, cyclists can discover much of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed area. Journey through the Loire Valley’s very own ‘Valley of Kings’, passing sandbanks, valleys, châteaux, and vineyards. Be sure to experience the wildlife on the rivers and canals, and see a place where nature and civilisation intertwine harmoniously.
10. Visit the Gothic Marvel of Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral is a marvel of the French Gothic architectural period. With its beautiful 12th and 13th Century stained-glass windows, exceptional sculpture, and iconic western façade set with three portals, this magnificent cathedral has been a place of worship since the 12th century. Having seen the coronation of the French King, Henry IV, Chartres is unusual within French history because it was not the traditional coronation cathedral.
Seeking to strike a balance between realism and idealism, Chartres Cathedral was ahead of its time and heavily influenced the art of medieval Christianity. Don’t miss a chance to see the tympanum over the north transept, which is lined with extraordinary carvings showing the Virgin Mary ruling the heavens with her son, Jesus Christ. With architecture to equal other famous buildings in the Loire Valley, it’s a destination not to be missed when you visit.
Barge through the Beautiful Loire Valley with European Waterways
There’s no better way to see the Loire Valley than on a luxury hotel barge cruise. Pass through the region’s waterways on the Canal du Briare and Canal Latéral à la Loire from the comfort of the 8-passenger Renaissance or the 6-passenger Nymphea. With your own cabin, you can glide through France’s Loire Valley feeling like royalty.
With everything you could need onboard, you’ll dine like a king, with gourmet dishes created by a professional chef, served by professional hosts. Each meal will be offered with wine pairings, and you’ll have the opportunity to try cheeses and fresh produce from the local area. With itineraries bursting with excursions to many of the Loire Valley châteaux, and guided tours of some of the towns in the region, you’ll get to experience some of the best things to do in the Loire Valley.