Château de Chambord

Chateau in Blésois

Image by Martin Ruegner Getty Images

One of the crowning achievements of French Renaissance architecture, the Château de Chambord – with 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases – is the largest, grandest and most visited château in the Loire Valley. Begun in 1519 by François I (r 1515–47) as a weekend hunting retreat, it quickly grew into one of the most ambitious – and expensive – building projects ever undertaken by a French monarch. A French-style formal garden opened in 2017.

Construction was repeatedly halted by financial problems, design setbacks and military commitments (not to mention the kidnapping of the king’s two sons in Spain). Ironically, when Chambord was finally finished after three decades of work, François found his elaborate palace too draughty, preferring instead the royal apartments in Amboise and Blois. In the end he stayed here for just 72 days during his entire 32-year reign. Still, Chambord's 500th anniversary will be celebrated with great pomp in 2019.

Inside the main building, a film (subtitled in five languages) provides an excellent introduction to the château's history and architecture. On the ground floor you can visit 18th-century kitchens, while the 1st floor is where you'll find the most interesting (though lightly furnished) rooms, including the royal bedchambers. Rising through the centre of the structure, the world-famous double-helix staircase – very possibly designed by the king’s chum Leonardo da Vinci – ascends to the great lantern tower and the rooftop, where you can marvel at a veritable skyline of cupolas, domes, turrets, chimneys and lightning rods and gaze out across the vast grounds.

To get a sense of what you're looking at and add virtual-reality furnishings to some of the rooms, pick up a Histopad tablet computer (€6.50, 1½ hours), available in 12 languages and in versions for both kids (including a treasure hunt) and adults. From July to September there are hour-long guided tours (adult/child €5/3) in English – ask at the ticket counter for times. Outdoor spectacles held in the warm season include a 45-minute equestrian show featuring horses and riders in colourful, François I–themed dress and birds of prey.

From about April to December there are several places to eat just past the new entrance pavilion, plus a cafe inside. In winter dress warmly – the castle is no easier to heat now than it was five centuries ago.

Chambord is 16km east of Blois, 45km southwest of Orléans and 18km northeast of Cheverny.