If you only have time to visit one château in the Loire, you might as well make it the grandest – and Chambord is the most lavish of them all, and the most visited. It’s a showpiece of Renaissance architecture, from the double-helix staircase up to the turret-covered rooftop. With 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 77 staircases the sheer scale of the place is mindboggling – and in the Loire, that’s really saying something.
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.
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. A French-style formal garden opened in 2017.
Visiting the château
Inside the main building, a film (subtitled in four 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 center 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.
Tickets and practical information
Tickets can be bought online in advance and are valid for one visit until the end of the year. Alternatively, buy your day ticket on arrival.
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 (€5, up to 1½ hours), available in 12 languages and in versions for both kids (including a treasure hunt) and adults. From July to September ask at the ticket counter to see what guided tours are available. Outdoor spectacles held in the warm season include a 45-minute equestrian show featuring horses and riders in colorful, 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.
Getting to Chambord
Chambord is 10 miles (16km) east of Blois, 28 miles (45km) southwest of Orléans and 11 miles (18km) northeast of Cheverny. There is parking on-site, and a shuttle bus service runs to between Blois and Chambord.