If the Loire Valley conjures up images of musty old castles to you, you’re only partly right – as well as some of France’s most spectacular, if sometimes crumbling, architecture, the region has various attractions specially for kids that make it a good destination for family holidays, offering something to please everyone.
The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage site by virtue of its castles, the legacy of its time as home to the French court for a century and a half. But the landscape is stunning too, the River Loire’s width giving a real feeling of space and freedom even when the tourist season is at its height, as do the vast old hunting forests still full of stags and wild boar. So there’s plenty of scope for child-friendly outdoor activities as well as history-gazing, whether you fancy cruising or canoeing on the water, cycling along the banks of the Loire or exploring cave homes.
The Loire Valley, confusingly, is not part of the Pays de la Loire but of the region known rather prosaically as Centre.
Things to do with kids in the Loire Valley and Centre
Ogle the impressive châteaux. But first, get children interested by taking them to Amboise’s Parc des Mini Châteaux, a landscaped park with 44 models of the Loire Valley’s loveliest castles and manor houses, plus miniature railways and boats.
Among the best real-life châteaux to visit with kids are Cheverny, mainly by virtue of its Tintin exhibition (the cartoonist Hergé is said to have used the castle as inspiration for Marlinspike Hall), and the almost ridiculously extravagant Chambord, the Loire’s biggest castle. Built as an outsized hunting lodge for François I, the latter boasts 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases, one of them a famous open double-helix staircase supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. In school holidays you can take family tours led by costumed actors, though they’re only offered in French, as are the kids’ booklets.
Then there’s the Château d’Ussé, which may look familiar – writer Charles Perrault stayed here and it’s believed he based Sleeping Beauty’s abode on the castle when he wrote his 17th-century classic. As a result, Ussé contains a schlocky waxwork exhibition recreating scenes from the tale. Fashion-fiend girls may also like the display of sequined-bedecked outfits from the 1920s and 1930s.
There are more waxworks at Chenonceau, arguably the most beautiful of the Loire castles, straddling and reflected in the Cher river. The mannequins here represent the famous women who built and inhabited this castle, known as the ‘Ladies’ Castle’. Summer sees workshops for kids, with huts built for them around the maze, and from April to October there’s a free play area for young children. Older children can borrow iPods taking them on a tour of the castle and grounds, from the kitchens to the medieval mill.
It’s worth noting for family holidays that Chenonceau is one of the stops on the Trail of the Child King (PIste de l'Enfant Roy), a Tourist Board devised itinerary of the Loire Valley for kids 7–12 and their parents. Each of the 53 participating sites has leaflets, activities and events for kids. Another castle on the list is Villandry, famous for its incredible gardens: its booklet of puzzles and games is themed on gardening and vegetable growing, and there are children’s workshops, a playground and a maze, a shop selling kids’ gardening books and utensils, and a restaurant with both a babies’ and a kids’ menu featuring hot pancakes, home-made ice-cream and more.
As well as various castles and other sights, the Piste de l’Enfant Roy includes the Troglodyte des Goupillières – three cave farms that were found hollowed out of the local tuffeau (soft rock). As well as exploring the farms’ wells, stables and so on, kids can get close to a variety of animals here, play in a wooden fortress and more. In summer, there are even special days when kids up to 10 can dress up as peasants and learn farm tasks.
Another site on the Piste is the Clos Lucé, the mansion where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, with stunning grounds featuring around 40 interactive models of the artist-inventor’s prototype machines in a spellbinding woodland setting.
The Loire river itself is best discovered by boat: the 66-seater St-Martin-de-Tours offers 50-minute guided tours taking in hidden islets, troglodyte dwellings and lots of birdlife as well as châteaux. For information on canoeing in the Centre region, plus a downloadable map, see the Comité Régional Centre website, canoe-regioncentre.org.
Not far from Amboise and Chenonceau, the Zoo de Beauval is a reliable bet for a morning or afternoon outing – this is a large wooded zoo with unusually large enclosures for its animals, which include elephants, gorillas and koalas. A good standby for a rainy day is the Aquarium du Val de Loire between Amboise and Tours, with fish species from everywhere from the Loire itself to the tropics.
Lastly, if you’re heading back out of the Loire towards Paris, make sure to swing by for a peek at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Chartres, UNESCO World Heritage listed and widely regarded as France’s finest Gothic cathedral. Enquire at the town’s tourist office about school-holiday family tours by costumed actors (in French). There’s also a Museum of Natural Sciences and Prehistory offering children’s workshops.
Like the rest of France, the Loire Valley and Centre has great food – and the region is also famous for its wine. It’s easier to eat out here on family holidays than in many places because the area is a tourist hotspot: we can recommend the simple and homely restaurant/crêperie of Le Relais Chenonceaux near the famous castle (spelt without an x, in distinction from the inn and village), with a cosy fireplace and three terraces in summer.
When to go to the Loire Valley and Centre
Summer is the time for the fine weather in the Loire Valley and Centre, but also for the crowds, which come in coach-loads from Paris as well as staying in the area. Spring can be beautiful and autumn an even better time for family holidays.
The Loire can even be at its most picturesque in winter – if it happens to snow, the castles look even more like something from out of a fairy-tale – but most other attractions will be closed, as will some hotels and restaurants.
Chartres' Notre-Dame Cathedral
As elsewhere, your holiday expenditure in the Loire Valley and Centre depends on your choice of accommodation and the season in which you travel. Expect to pay £650/wk for a 3-bedroomed farmhouse without a pool in the high season. The strength of the Euro means that France is not the great-value option it used to be for family holidays.
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