How to explore France’s beautiful Loire region, car-free (2023)

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By now, we all know that French cities are handily accessible by train. I bet that, at least once, you’ve taken the Eurostar to Paris. You’ve known the glorious ease of the seamless arrival straight into the city’s heart; felt the satisfaction of travelling more sustainably, without the heftier carbon footprint of flying or driving. Perhaps you’ve even ventured to Gallic cities further afield, getting to Lyon, Marseille or Avignon by rail.

But rail adventures into France go further than its cities. Only a train’s zoom onward from the capital lies the bucolic Loire Valley – a rambling landscape of epic chateaux, eclectic wine tastings and river-carved landscapes – which is just as rewarding when done sans-auto.

As I discovered over a weekend break, once you get there, you don’t need four wheels to experience the region’s riches – though it does help to have two. With hundreds of kilometres of dedicated cycling routes, the Loire is a fabulous area to explore by bike.

Of course, I didn’t see the whole valley. Spanning around 800 sq km of central France, bisected by a river leading to the Atlantic Ocean, the area is more than anyone could tackle on a quick trip – even with a car. Instead, I explored it over two days, seeing the pretty towns of Blois and Amboise in an itinerary that gives you a highlights reel of the region – a taster of the Loire’s scenery, sights and culinary delights.

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Stepping off my train at Blois-Chambord station, just an 83-minute morning ride from Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, I was met by my guide, Stephanie Ladonne.

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You don’t need a guide to see the Loire Valley car-free – there are plenty of specialist cycling outfits, for example Vélo de Loire, who will drop off hire bikes at the spot of your choosing, then collect them when you’ve finished. (They’ll take care of shifting your luggage between your hotels, too, so you can focus on the scenery.) But in my case, I wanted context. I wanted to know all about the Loire’s complex history. And on that, Stephanie is an expert.

It turned out that Blois was a perfect place to start the lesson. A pretty town built in cream stone and over opposing banks of the Loire River, and linked by an 18th-century bridge, it’s best known for its imposing Royal Chateau de Blois (entry £12), just a 500m walk from the train station.

Cycling this route in one go would take two to three hours at a decent pedalling speed - but this is France, and there is wine to be drunk, cheese to be eaten

And what a chateau. While the Loire has hundreds of palatial country piles to view – stay long enough and they start to feel as common as pubs in London – this one is special. As we pedal up to the gate, Stephanie explains that, for centuries, from pre-Joan of Arc to 17th-century Louis XIV, it was the Loire, not Versailles, that housed the royal court. On top of this, Blois intrigues history fans because it’s something of an architectural mishmash.

Its medieval banquet hall is clad in simple stone; a brick-fronted wing was built by Louis XII; a formal 17th-century facade was constructed by Gaston of Orleans. And, most magnificent of all, its indoor-outdoor spiral staircase is intricately carved in local tuffeau limestone, dating back to the prolific reign of François I.

Stephanie and I tour the maze of tiled floors, painted fireplaces and ghostly statues, gossiping about former residents like Catherine de’ Medici. We see the original wood beams in the medieval hall rafters, which date back to 1214 – older than those that burned in Notre-Dame’s devastating 2019 fire (note: seeing this bit requires booking onto a special tour, costing an extra £5).

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I could have hung around Blois, snapping pics from its pretty bridge, poking around its Fine Arts Museum or shopping in its cute old town, for days. I certainly wouldn’t have minded hitting the spa at luxe new hotel Fleur de Loire (doubles from £270, room only). But it was time to hit the road. And by road, I mean cycle path.

The official Loire By Bike route is what really makes this region a win for car-free travellers. A full 900km of well-signposted, well-maintained cycling route weaves from inland Cuffy, in the east, all the way to coastal Saint-Brevin-les-Pins on the shores of the Atlantic.

It’s a joy to cycle, too. Pedalling southwest from Blois, the valley’s landscape reveals itself: flat farming fields lined with dykes, rushing river with sandy banks, sleepy hamlets backed by vine-carpeted slopes. Despite the occasional steep slope, zipping along is easy when you’ve got an electric bike. Keen to experience it under my own steam, I said goodbye to Stephanie for the day – we’d meet up again the next afternoon.

To cycle the whole Loire by Bike route, you’d need weeks, even with the relative ease of an electric bike. For my long weekend, I tackle a 45km stretch of it, starting in Blois and ending west at photogenic Amboise. Cycling this route in one go would take two to three hours at a decent cycling speed – but this is France, and there is wine to be drunk, cheese to be eaten, fields of flowers and riverbanks to photograph.

With this in mind, I’d planned to break my journey with a night’s stay halfway along, in Chaumont-sur-Loire, a town that also happens to be home to the region’s newest hotel, Le Bois des Chambres.

In the honeyed light of early evening, Aurelian Turpin whisks me down the tranquil Loire River in his traditional wooden boat

Flanked by a field of horses, it’s a former farm transformed into an artsy pad. Rooms painted in French grey or dusty pink have reinforced thermal insulation, eliminating the need for heating systems. Contemporary art brightens public areas. At the centre of it all, an avant-garde restaurant – somewhere between a giant haystack and a circus tent – serves sturgeon from the nearby Sologne forest and guinea fowl from Orleans.

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Sightseeing is easy here: the hotel is set on the wider grounds of another chateau, Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, this one stuffed with contemporary art. I spend the afternoon viewing the installations, seemingly lifted from the Tate Modern: a vast web of dried flowers in a stained glass-lined chapel; a giant glittering gold ball in the stables.

After exploring the Domaine’s colourful manicured gardens, also studded with sculptures, I hit the water.

In the honeyed light of early evening, local guide Aurelian Turpin whisks me down the tranquil Loire River in his traditional wooden boat, styled after merchant vessels used during the Middle Ages (from £18 for a river tour). Puttering steadily down the shallow waters, there’s no traffic, no noise – just the sight of trees, hillside chateaux and Aurelian’s dog seated at the bow. If I thought I was travelling slow before, this trip just got even slower.

The next morning, it’s onwards to Amboise. Setting off from Chaumont-sur-Loire, the diversity of the valley’s landscape becomes obvious. After a short stretch hugging the river, I’m plunged into dense forest, festooned with mistletoe. It soon melts away into vineyards, hung with ripening grapes, and neat fields. Hills (thank heavens for the e-bike) wind me up past farmhouses and horses. Plus the odd winery with an open tasting room.

Out come platters of local goat’s cheese – aged to perfection here in the limestone caves – and Pascal pours tasters of impossibly old vintages

I’m craving a glass of the local stuff at this point, and reunited with Stephanie, I’m led to Caveau des Vignerons D’Amboise, set in the photogenic centre. You’ll find it steps from popular chocolate shop Bigot, in the shadow of the vast Chateau d’Amboise – and right by the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci.

Her other tip is just outside town, by the banks of the river: Caves Ambacia. After a tour of the medieval troglodyte cellars with owner Pascal Mineau, I sit at the bar, a flight of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc wines glittering before me.

Out come platters of local goat’s cheese – aged to perfection here in the limestone caves – and Pascal pours tasters of impossibly old vintages (his oldest bottle for sale? A Vouvray demi-sec from 1874).

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As I linger over my favourite of the bunch, Pascal’s 2020 Chinon – full of fresh, lively red fruit and hints of spice – I overhear the couple next to me. They’re weighing up which of them will get to enjoy the wine and which has to be the designated driver.

As for me? No car in sight; and my bike has been safely dropped off in town. My train ticket – Amboise station, served by direct trains back to Paris, is just a walk away – is already downloaded on my phone. So, I take another sip of my glass. And I settle in.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Rouelib can provide rental bikes for a cycling tour of the Loire Valley, while Detour de Loire can organise bigger packages with luggage transported between stops, so you can cycle backpack-free.

Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Onward trains to Blois and Amboise depart from Paris Austerlitz with SNCF.

Staying there

Le Bois des Chambres in Chaumont-sur-Loire has double rooms from £128, room only.

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More information

For more on the Loire Valley, see valdeloire-france.com.

FAQs

Do you need a car for Loire Valley? ›

With its proximity to Paris, stunning castles and charming towns, the Loire Valley is ideal for an excursion from the capital. Fortunately, it's also one of the easiest regions to visit without renting a car, which can be both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Where is the Loire Valley? ›

The Loire Valley (French: Val de Loire, pronounced [val də lwaʁ]; Breton: Traoñ al Liger), spanning 280 kilometres (170 mi), is a valley located in the middle stretch of the Loire river in central France, in both the administrative regions Pays de la Loire and Centre-Val de Loire.

Is it easy to drive in Loire Valley France? ›

If you are driving to France and the Loire Valley from mainland Europe or beyond you should find the journey fairly straightforward as France like all major European countries has an excellent road network.

Where can I go on holiday in France without a car? ›

Best Car Free Holidays
  • Le Clarys Plage, Vendée. From Nantes Airport, take the shuttle bus to Nantes railway station for the train to St Hilaire-de-Riez. ...
  • Le Ruisseau, Gascony. ...
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  • La Sirene, Roussillon. ...
  • La Chapelle, Roussillon. ...
  • Les Sablons, Languedoc. ...
  • Le Beach Garden, Languedoc. ...
  • El Garrofer, Costa Dorada.

How many days should I spend in the Loire Valley? ›

Three days is the perfect amount of time for enjoying the Loire Valley and its châteaux! The starting point of your itinerary is the city of Amboise. Situated just 2hr 10min by car from Paris (226 km), you can easily travel here in a hire vehicle.

How do you get around the Loire Valley? ›

Public transport: An invaluable train line runs alongside the Loire River from Orléans to Angers, with options to connect to key valley destinations such as Blois, Tours and Saumur. Local bus services are less frequent and – as they are intended to primarily serve school children – can be fairly irregular in summer.

What three things is the Loire Valley known for? ›

The Loire Valley, in central France's Loire River, is known for its abundant produce, famed wine industry, vibrant culture and stunning châteaux.

How do you spend two days in the Loire Valley? ›

How to spend two perfect days in the Loire Valley
  1. Chateau du Rivau. Small but perfectly formed, the Chateau du Rivau is a genuine medieval castle which has been painstakingly restored. ...
  2. Richelieu. Close by, the town of Richelieu is well worth a trip. ...
  3. Wonderful views. ...
  4. Loches and Montresor. ...
  5. Montpoupon.

Is Loire Valley worth visiting? ›

Known as the Garden of France, the Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that enchants visitors with fairy-tale like castles, exquisite gardens, charming towns, and unforgettable wine. It's no wonder it's considered one of the best places to visit in France.

How do you get around the Loire Valley without a car? ›

There is a shuttle bus that only costs 3 Euros that will drop you off at Château de Chambord and then pick you back up and return you to Blois for another 3 Euros.

How can I get around France without a car? ›

Explore rural areas of France by bus

These include FlixBus and the cross-Europe coach network run by EuroLines. Buses are widely used for short-distance travel around cities, and within départements (regions), especially in areas with relatively few train lines such as Brittany and Normandy.

Can I travel France without a car? ›

You certainly don't need a car to get to France.

What is the best time of year to visit the Loire Valley? ›

Our favorite months to go on a Loire Valley driving tour are May, June, July and September. Although the average maximum summer temperature is around 24°C/74°F, it can get much hotter, especially in August. In 2022, parts of the Loire Valley had temperatures of over 40°C/104°F.

Where is the best town to stay in Loire? ›

If you want to see the region's most famous castles, Amboise or Cheverny will be the best places to stay in the Loire Valley. However, if you prefer a more urban setting, many Loire Valley tours depart from the lovely town of Tours.

How long is the train ride from Paris to Loire Valley? ›

The riverside villages, vineyards, and magnificent chateau of the Loire Valley are about a 1.5-hour train ride from Paris.

Are Tours worth visiting? ›

Is Tours worth visiting? Tours is one of the largest cities in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France. It is worth visiting not only for the impressive Saint-Gatien Cathedral and the Renaissance Hotel Gouïn, but also for the picturesque half-timbered houses.

Can you do a day trip to the Loire Valley from Paris? ›

The good news is that the Loire Valley is relatively close to Paris so it is possible to get a glimpse of this wonderful region on a Loire Valley day trip from Paris. Actually, a day trip to Loire Valley – self-guided or with a guided tour – is one of the most popular day trips from Paris!

What is the main city in the Loire Valley? ›

The administrative capital is Orléans, but the largest city is Tours. Like many contemporary regions of France, the region of Centre was created from parts of three historical provinces: Touraine, Orléanais, and Berry.

Why is the Loire Valley so popular with tourists? ›

The Loire Valley is famous for its world-class wines. The Valley is laced with vineyards all the way from Sancerre to the ocean, and it offers wines ranging from to suit every palate from sparkling vouvrays to vibrant sancerres. Lots of the vineyards offer public tours of their vines and cellars as well as tastings.

Is Chambord worth visiting? ›

Chambord is a city in Centre-Val de Loire, France. It has many popular attractions, including Chambord, making it well worth a visit. Chambord is a city in Centre-Val de Loire, France. It has many popular attractions, including Chambord, making it well worth a visit.

Does it rain a lot in the Loire Valley? ›

The total amount of precipitation varies from 52mm in August to 58mm in June — rainfall is relatively low and very constant, in other words. You may expect between 11 and 16 days with some kind of precipitation per month during the summer season. The valley enjoys 7 to 9 hours of sunshine per day at this time of year.

How many days do you need in Loire Valley? ›

Three days is the perfect amount of time for enjoying the Loire Valley and its châteaux! The starting point of your itinerary is the city of Amboise. Situated just 2hr 10min by car from Paris (226 km), you can easily travel here in a hire vehicle.

Is the Loire Valley worth visiting? ›

The Loire Valley has a mix of French experiences

The place is magical and like nowhere else in the world. Of course, you have stunning Loire Valley castles that will take you through great stories from the French court and fairy tales. And the Loire Valley would be worth visiting just for this!

How do you get to the Loire Valley? ›

Head to the “Train de Grande Vitesse” (TGV) train station in Terminal 2 of the airport. Trains will speed you to the Loire Valley in 1.5 hours. Take a TGV to either Angers St Laud or Tours Saint Pierres-des-Corps. There are direct trains to both destinations from Terminal 2.

What is the best time of year to visit the Loire Valley? ›

Our favorite months to go on a Loire Valley driving tour are May, June, July and September. Although the average maximum summer temperature is around 24°C/74°F, it can get much hotter, especially in August. In 2022, parts of the Loire Valley had temperatures of over 40°C/104°F.

Where is the best town to stay in Loire? ›

If you want to see the region's most famous castles, Amboise or Cheverny will be the best places to stay in the Loire Valley. However, if you prefer a more urban setting, many Loire Valley tours depart from the lovely town of Tours.

Are Tour Tours worth it? ›

Is Tours worth visiting? Tours is one of the largest cities in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France. It is worth visiting not only for the impressive Saint-Gatien Cathedral and the Renaissance Hotel Gouïn, but also for the picturesque half-timbered houses.

How do you spend two days in the Loire Valley? ›

How to spend two perfect days in the Loire Valley
  1. Chateau du Rivau. Small but perfectly formed, the Chateau du Rivau is a genuine medieval castle which has been painstakingly restored. ...
  2. Richelieu. Close by, the town of Richelieu is well worth a trip. ...
  3. Wonderful views. ...
  4. Loches and Montresor. ...
  5. Montpoupon.

What is the main city in the Loire Valley? ›

The administrative capital is Orléans, but the largest city is Tours. Like many contemporary regions of France, the region of Centre was created from parts of three historical provinces: Touraine, Orléanais, and Berry.

What three things is the Loire Valley known for? ›

The Loire Valley, in central France's Loire River, is known for its abundant produce, famed wine industry, vibrant culture and stunning châteaux.

Can you do a day trip to the Loire Valley from Paris? ›

The good news is that the Loire Valley is relatively close to Paris so it is possible to get a glimpse of this wonderful region on a Loire Valley day trip from Paris. Actually, a day trip to Loire Valley – self-guided or with a guided tour – is one of the most popular day trips from Paris!

How far is Loire Valley from Paris by train? ›

Known for its delicious wines and many beautiful chateaux, the Loire Valley is only a short train or car ride from Paris (110 miles/175 km).

Which chateaux is best in the Loire Valley? ›

The Château de Chambord may just hold the crown as the best château in Loire Valley! As the biggest château in France, and the most magnificent, it was constructed by King Francois I in 1519 as a purpose-built hunting lodge (and to impress foreign dignitaries).

Is there a direct train from Paris to Amboise? ›

There are 4 direct trains from Paris to Amboise each day. Though there may be fewer direct services available depending on your exact departure date.

Is Amboise worth visiting? ›

The castle is not over elaborate, but the history with Leonardo grave in the Chapel on the grounds and the view overlooking the River and the town are incredible.

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