Rick Steves

The 4 Most Gorgeous Châteaux in France's Loire Valley

They say that in real estate, it's all about location, location, location. And the French royalty and noblemen of the Renaissance period certainly found the perfect place for their greatest castles and palaces -- the charming Loire River Valley.

Close to Paris (a two-hour drive nowadays), yet far enough away from city commotion, and with plenty of fertile land, the valley became France's most desired area for luxurious chteaux during that time. Today, visitors can roam the palaces like a noble and admire the architecture, history, and opulence of these great structures.

On this episode of "Rick Steves' Europe," our host shows us a variety of places to stop in chteaux country. While the area offers a lot of estates to visit, Steves suggests choosing wisely. We recapped the four absolute must-sees from the episode to give you a little inspiration for your next trip.

Watch more episodes of Steves' travels twice a day on weekdays, at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. For his full adventure through France's chteaux country, check out the video above.

1. Chteau de Chambord - Grandest of Loire Chteaux

Start your chteaux-hopping at the "granddaddy" of the Loire chteaux. That's was Steves calls it, and when you see the majesty of this castle, it's no wonder why. Built in 1519 by the French king François I, this huge country estate has 440 spacious rooms. Don't worry about crowds, the Chteau is huge enough to escape the masses and roam on your own. Chambord is also surrounded by acres of enclosed green forest, creating the perfect landscape for a bike ride around the grounds.

2. Chteau of Chenonceau - Graceful and Elegant

Steves calls Chenonceau the toast of Loire. This sophisticated 16th century renaissance palace sits beautifully on the Cher River and is immaculately maintained. Because it hosted a number of famous ladies, including François I's mistress, its nicknamed the "chteau of the ladies." An audio tour helps tourists fully understand what they're seeing as they roam the estate's interior. This is a popular stop for tourists, so Steves suggests planning ahead and avoiding peak hours.

3. Chteau de Cheverny - the Stately Hunting Palace

This regal home was built in the early 1600s and stayed in the same family for five centuries. While the family's actual living quarters are off limits to the public, visitors can explore much of the rest of the palace, admire the ornate painted ceilings, and see a collection of suits of armor.

Hunting was and still is a big part of chteau life, and the residing marquis hunts regularly during season. One of the coolest things to do at this palace is watch a trainer gather and feed the marquis' 70 hunting dogs each day at 5:00 p.m. Imagine rounding up that many hungry canines...what a sight to see.

4. Chteau de Villandry - Gardens Galore

Each chteau in the valley has something special to offer. But no matter which ones you choose to visit on your trip, save the most impressive for last: the Chteau de Villandry. Completed in the mid 1500s, this was the last great Renaissance chteau built on the Loire. But what really brings travelers here is its incredible, perfectly manicured gardens. The extensive grounds feature hundreds of thousands of plants all arranged in elaborate geometric patterns along the exterior. From its flower gardens and fruit trees to its decorative ponds and arbors, this chteau is a gardener's dream. You'll leave the Loire Valley completely awe-inspired.

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Chteau of Chenonceau | Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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