Loire Valley towns and cities offer so much. You’ll discover stately cathedrals and churches, unusual attractions, good hotels and accommodation of all kinds. The Loire Valley is known as the ‘Garden of France’ so you know there’ll be plenty of great restaurants and bistros, not to mention the Loire Valley wines.
And of course, in the UNESCO World Heritage section of the Loire Valley, the glorious châteaux for which the Loire Valley is famous are all worth a visit.
When you hear about the Loire River, you think of the Loire Valley in central France. But the river stretches so much further than this short but fabulous section.
I have taken a few liberties here and have called the whole Loire river the Loire Valley because I wanted to include the first major town the river goes through which is very close to my house in the Auvergne. I love discovering different river sources. Last year I went to the source of the Allier and the Loire. This year if it’s possible, I plan to visit the source of the Dordogne, the Tarn and the Lot. Visiting the source of a river adds to its fascination. You’ve seen where it is born born and for me it makes me determined to follow it to its final destination into the ocean. So please bear with my slight deception here.
This article takes in nine towns on the course of the Loire river from east to west. You’ll be familiar with some of the towns, but I hope others will inspire you to visit.
The main Loire Valley towns start with Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne where the river is modest. Then it goes through Nevers, Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers, Nantes and St-Nazaire where the Loire finishes its journey to the sea.
Le Puy-en-Velay, the first of the Loire Valley towns and cities, is very near my house in France so I am particularly fond of this strange place. You can’t miss its main features as you approach. The religious statues and buildings sit on volcanic pinnacles that rise up from the streets and give the town a theatricality out of all proportion to its fame.
Climb 134 steps up a steep pedestrianized hill past lace shops, small restaurants and cafés to reach the Cathédral Notre-Dame. Just be thankful we’ve moved on from the Middle Ages when pilgrims went up the slope on their knees.
Just next to it the Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe stands on an impossibly sharp pinnacle. It’s a much stepper climb up 268 steps. But it’s worth it for the fabulous view over the town and the surrounding hills.
The red terracotta statue of Notre-Dame de France is something different. It was built in 1860 from 213 canons seized from the Russians by the French at the siege of Sebastapol in 1855 during the Crimean War.
Don’t miss Le Puy’s magical illuminations in the summer and at Christmas. And if you’re here in the third week in September, you’ll catch the great Renaissance festival, the Fête du Roi de l’Oiseau.
Le Puy is the start of one of the most popular, and best organized pilgrim routes to St James of Compostela in Spain.
Le Puy-en-Velay is the capital of the Haute-Loire department in the Auvergne, a superb dramatic region of France and it’s very little known. Well worth a visit!
Where to Stay in Le Puy
In Le Puy
Le Bristol is a delightful, old-fashioned hotel in the centre of town with a good restaurant.
Outside Le Puy
For the best value, simple décor, superb views and a meal fit for a king (or a hungry pilgrim), book at La Grangette. This bed and breakfast just beyond St Pryvat d’Allier is a delight and if you’re walking and without transport, the welcoming owners will pick you up in the evening and drop you off the next day at a nearby village.
I have to confess: the owners are friends of mine. But it’s not just me who recommends La Grangette; many of the guests return again and again.
Le Puy-en-Velay Tourist Office
How to get to Le Puy-en-Velay from Paris
By train: There are several routes by train from Paris to Le-Puy-en-Velay. All of them involve changes.
Via Lyon: TGV trains leave from Gare de Lyon taking 1 hr 57mins to Lyon Part Dieu. The connecting train from Lyon to Le-Puy-en-Velay takes around 2 hrs. Total journey time around 4 hrs 30 mins.
Via St Etienne: Trains leave Gare de Lyon taking from 2hrs 54 mins to get to St Etienne Chateaucreux. The connecting train from St Etienne to Le-Puy-en-Velay takes around 1 hr 30 mins. Total journey time around 5hrs 50 mins.
Via Clermont-Ferrand: Intercity trains leave from Paris Bercy Station taking from 3 hours 28 mins. At Clermont Ferrand you have to change onto a TER express train to St Georges D’Aurac, taking around 1 hr 15 mins.
At St Georges d’Aurac you have to change again onto a local train taking around 50 minutes to Le Puy-en-Velay. Total journey time 5 hr 54 mins. This is the most scenic route but you need time and patience.
By car: Le Puy-en-Velay is 543 kilometers (338 miles) from Paris and takes around 5 hrs 30 mins.
Nevers in Burgundy
Nevers is a strange mix of a city located where the Loire and the Nièvre rivers meet in Burgundy. Since the 17th century it’s been famous for its faïence but it’s also a city tied to Bernadette of Lourdes, the saint born in 1844. There’s a concrete modern church dedicated to her, but of greater interest is the Espace Bernadette. Located in the convent of St-Gildard where the saint died, it tells the story of her life. Nevers isn’t one of the great sacred sites of France but pilgrims come to see her small, embalmed body in its glass-fronted shrine.
Nevers is part of a collection of Villes Sanctuaires, or Sanctuary Towns. It’s also the capital of the Nièvre department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region.
Start with the glorious Cathedral of St-Cyr. Built from the 12th to 16th centuries with Romanesque and Gothic features, it’s also known for its amazing gargoyles.
The Musée de la Faïence et des Beaux Arts in the restored Abbaye de Notre Dame shows world-famous pieces from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Excellent multimedia presentations take you further into the art.
The hugely enjoyable Loire à Vélo route starts just west of Nevers.
Where to Stay in Nevers
The Hôtel de Clèves is a good comfortable choice in the centre of town. It has smart, simple rooms, a friendly welcome and good value prices.
If you fancy a more luxurious bed and breakfast, try the pretty Chateau de Prye. The 18th-century building is set in the countryside east of Nevers in a fabulous park.
Nevers Tourist Website is run by Burgundy Tourism.
How to get to Nevers from Paris
By train: Intercite trains from Paris Bercy direct to Nevers take 1 hr 56 mins.
TER trains take from 2hs 32 mins.
By car: Nevers is 242 kms (150miles) from Paris and takes around 2 hrs 45 mins.
Orléans is one of the major Loire valley towns and cities. It’s a popular starting point for trips around the Loire Valley but it’s a delightful city in its own right and worth a stay. Gracious 18th– and 19th-century streets are lined with neo-classical buildings and galleried arcades. It’s a green town with plenty of gardens and the Parc Floral de la Source du Loiret just outside the centre is well worth a visit, particularly in the heat of the summer.
Think of Orléans and you think of Joan of Arc. During the Hundred Years War (1339-1453) she led the French troops who forced the English to abandon their Siege of Orléans on May 8, 1429. References to the liberation of the city by Joan are seen all over the town, in her statue and in the stained glass windows in the cathedral.
Don’t miss: The Cathedral Sainte-Croix, the Musée des Beaux Arts with its excellent art collection including beautiful 18th-century pastels, and 20th-century masters like Picasso, Gauguin and the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who was born just outside the city.
The excellent son et lumière nightly show takes place from May to September.
Here’s a detailed Guide to Orléans including places to stay.
How to get to Orléans from Paris
By train: Intercity trains from Gare d’Austerlitz to Orléans take from 1hr 12 mins.
By car: Orléans is 132 kms (82 miles) from Paris and takes around 1 hr 40 mins.
Drive the Loire Valley between Orléans and Blois
If you are driving around the Loire Valley take the Orléans to Blois route which has some glorious châteaux to visit. You may know Chambord but have you visited Beauregard? The Jardins de Roqeuelin are not to be missed and there’s a great Sunday market in the charming riverside town of Meung-sur-Loire.
The huge Château de Blois dominates this bustling Loire Valley town. It’s right in the centre, surrounded by winding streets that are lined with old houses, cafés, shops and restaurants. Built over four centuries, the château is an extraordinary mix of styles.
It was the grand home of seven kings and ten queens, place of royal intrigue, the scene of the death of the infamous Duc de Guise…You’ll discover more on a trip through the château which was built as an urban palace.
Do book for the summer evening son et lumière (sound and light show). As the sun sets and the shadows gather, the story of the château comes alive. Scenes flicker around the walls, music, the sound of carriages and horses, speeches and more echo in the enclosed courtyard. It’s really ripping good yarn stuff!
There’s also the strange but fascinating House of Magic (Maison de la Magie), full of odd automata and clocks. You can’t miss it. Opposite the château a show takes place on the outside of the house every half hour in summer.
The old town is lovely to wander through. Pick up any of the four maps from the tourist office for walks taking you on trails over the river, to sections of Renaissance town houses, old streets around the château and the churches and abbeys of Blois.
Where to Stay in Blois
The Hôtel Anne de Bretagne is in the centre of town in a leafy square. Simple but pretty, light-filled rooms and a good breakfast in the garden in summer make this a favorite.
If you’re after a chic bed and breakfast, try La Maison de Thomas. It’s in a pedestrianized street and has just 5 rooms. The décor is stylish; the welcome friendly. There’s a good breakfast served in a pretty room and they are well geared up for cyclists.
How to get to Blois from Paris
By train: Intercity trains from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz to Gare de Blois Chambord take from 1 hr 26 mins.
By car: Blois is around 185km (115 miles) from Paris and the journey takes from 2hrs 10 mins.
Drive the Loire Valley between Blois and Tours
The Loire Valley drive from Blois to Tours takes in more treasures. Two glorious châteaux used as pawns in a power game between a Queen and a Mistress; Leonardo da Vinci’s last home and some wonderful gardens are in store.
Tours is a big city, located where the Loire and Cher rivers meet in the Val-de-Loire department. Less well known to visitors than other Loire Valley towns and cities, it makes a good base for visiting the châteaux and attractions of the western Loire.
In the Middle Ages, Tours was an important centre for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It was a starting point for French pilgrims and for others coming from Boulogne, Tournai and the Low Countries who met up here to begin the long walk.
The lovely old town clusters around two different quarters. Around place Plumereau – a lively meeting place full of cafés and bars, the winding streets are lined with old houses, many of them half-timbered. There’s also a Romanesque basilica and cloisters to visit.
The cathedral quarter makes up the second historic area. The Cathédrale St-Gatien is a flamboyant Gothic building dating from the 12th century. Inside highlights include the 16th-century tomb of Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne’s two infant children and some stunning stained glass.
There’s a market here every day except on Mondays. Check out the annual markets which include the Foire de Tours (first weekend in May usually but in 2021 Jul 2-11), the Garlic and Basil Fair (July), a huge flea market (first Sunday of September) and a Christmas market (three weeks before Christmas).
Where to Stay in Tours
In Tours: The 2-star Hotel du Manoir is an old-fashioned, comfortable hotel between the cathedral and train station. The 19th-century townhouse has 20 individually decorated rooms and offers an excellent breakfast in the vaulted cellar.
Outside Tours: You’re in the Loire valley so why not go posh? The Château de Beauvois fits the bill perfectly. In Luynes, just 15kms/9.3 miles from Tours, it’s a peaceful, grand place. It is pricey but worth it if you want to splash out.
How to get to Tours from Paris
By train: TGV trains from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Tours take from 1 hr 20 mins.
By car: Tours is around 238km (148 miles) from Paris and the journey takes from 2hrs 35 mins.
Saumur lies between Chinon and Angers. This Loire Valley town is famous above all for two things: its excellent sparkling wine (you can visit many of the producers), and its military associations.
The Armoured Corps Academy and the French Cavalry Academy are housed in 18th-century buildings around a dusty square. Once the extensive parade ground, now it’s a car park. The Musée des Blindés is a must for military fans with over 200 armored vehicles from the German Panther to the U.S. M3 Lee Grant. For an expert view on this, check out Mech Traveller’s review.
Horse lovers should visit the National Riding School (Le Cadre Noir) just outside the center where you can see riders training horses for those complicated dressage moves.
The Château de Saumur stands above the town, catching the sun with its fairytale white towers, delicate stone tracery and mullion windows. Built in the second half of the 14th century by Louis I it was depicted in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the 15th-century illuminated manuscript. It houses a museum showing decorative and fine arts from ceramics to those tapestries for which France was so famous.
Where to Stay in Saumur
The 18th-century Château de Beaulieu is just near the banks of the Loire. Built in the 18th century, this grand bed and breakfast has just five bedrooms going from grand to cosy. With a lovely garden and outdoor pool, it’s just 2 kms from the center of town.
Le Londres is a good value and centrally located hotel with an individual approach to its fun decor. Views of the château and a good breakfast make up a very good package.
How to get to Saumur from Paris
By train: TGV trains leave from Paris Montparnasse to Angers St Laud where you have to change onto a TER tain to Saumur. It takes from 2 hrs 44 mins.
By car: Saumur is 321 kms/199 miles from Paris taking from 3hrs 5 mins.
The capital of the ancient county of Anjou is a wonderful find. Better known to the French than to foreign visitors, Angers has a château and an extraordinary tapestry. And Angers does have a history with England through marriages and wars. Fifteen Plantagenet monarchs from Anjou ruled England between 1154 and 1485.
The formidable château, more a defensive fortress, was started in 1231. Today it’s relatively intact along its 1-kilometre long wall with its 17 round towers.
But it’s the Tapestry housed inside that will conjure up the horrors of the end of the world. The Apocalypse Tapestry is 100 metres (326 ft) long. The gallery is dimly lit, protecting the fragile dyes of the extraordinary work of art, woven in Paris between 1373 and 1382 for Louis I of Anjou. It displays, in grotesque and often horrifying detail, the last chapter of the New Testament of St. John about the Apocalypse.
Where to Stay in Angers
In Angers: The Hôtel du Mail is a former 17th-century convent has gone a long way since its spiritual beginnings. A startling red hallway with a winding staircase, bold colour schemes in a classical setting and a delightful leafy courtyard.
Outside Angers: Château de Briottières is set in 120 acres of parkland. There are ten beautifully decorated rooms in the château, a swimming pool, home cooking to be enjoyed on the terrace and bike rides (bikes provided free) in the nearby forests. Or book the cabin in the woods which comes with its own sauna. It’s 28 kms (17 miles) north of Angers and takes around 38 minutes to drive.
How to get to Angers from Paris
By train: TGV trains from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Angers Saint-Laud take from 1 hr 28 mins.
By car: Tours is around 294km (183 miles) from Paris and the journey takes from 3 hrs 03 mins.
When you get to Nantes, you can feel the ocean. The city might be on the Loire but it’s an estuary city, living between land and sea, pulling you towards the west coast and the Atlantic. And it celebrates the estuary each year with its summer-long Voyage à Nantes, a trail of public art works that twists its way from Nantes out towards the sea.
It’s also a fabulous and gracious city which has reinvented itself over the last 15 years or so.
Nantes was once the capital of an independent Brittany. It owed its later 18th-century fame and fortune to the Atlantic trade to America, exporting Africans into slavery from here. There’s a very moving Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in an underground passage near the river.
There’s plenty to see in Nantes, starting with the Château des Ducs. Built in the 15th century it started its life as a great palace then became a prison. Bluebird was incarcerated here then publicly executed in 1440. I’ll leave the other intriguing prisoners for you to discover on your visit.
Most famously, it’s home to Les Machines de L’Ȋle, an innovative, extraordinary company that makes huge machines in the shapes of carousels, elephants. Most recently they have built the Dragon of Calais.
There are lovely old parts, well worth wandering through before sitting in a pavement café watching the world go by. The former industrial part has been mightily spruced up, and don’t miss a trip along the estuary itself.
Where to Stay in Nantes
The 4-star La Pérouse Hotel is chic and contemporary. Light and airy with pastel shades and a very good use of pale woods on the floors and walls, its 1930s furniture fits right into the 46 good sized bedrooms, bar and breakfast room.
L’Hôtel opposite the château is another hotel that has gone for the contemporary look and does it very well. Its 31 rooms are decent sized (try to book one with a great view); there’s a good breakfast, a small outside area and a warm welcome.
How to get to Nantes from Paris
By train: TGV trains from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Nantes take from 2 hrs 55 mins and you have to change at the Gare de Nantes onto a regular train to Haluchère-Batignolles station, Nantes.
By car: Nantes is around 385km (240miles) and the journey takes from 3hrs 30 mins.
Saint-Nazaire – The Last of the Loire Valley Towns
Saint-Nazaire is an industrial city with one of the biggest shipyards in the world. The Chantiers de l’Atlantique has built superliners from SS Normandie to RMS Queen Mary 2 and MS Symphony of the Seas, the largest passenger cruise ship in the world. Try to visit it; the sheer scale of what they do is pretty impressive.
Most of the attractions in Saint-Nazaire are industrial such as the Wind Turbine Museum, the submarine Espadon, and Airbus.
Saint-Nazaire is in the Loire-Atlantique department of Brittany.
Where to Stay in Saint-Nazaire
The top luxury hotels in Saint-Nazaire are away from the industrial centre at La Baule-Escoublac. Try the Hôtel Le Castel Marie-Louise, a Barrières group and Relais & Châteaux Hotel with a Michelin star restaurant and all the luxury a 5-star hotel offers.
If you’re on a more modest budget and want to stay near the sea and visit Saint-Nazaire for the day, try Le Manoir des Quatre Saisons at La Turballe on the sea. It’s a 26 kms/ miles, 26 minute drive into Saint-Nazaire.
How to get to Saint-Nazaire from Paris
By train: TGV trains from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Saint-Nazaire take from 2 hrs 52 mins.
By car: Nantes is around 438 kms (272 miles) from Paris and the journey takes from 4hrs 21 mins.
Loire Valley Drive in Sections
Loire à Velo Route – Where to stay, how to book and attractions to see on this great cycle route
Budget Hotel Chains give you some good options on cheap (and good) accommodation in all parts of France