This post was written in collaboration with the French Tourism Board on their campaign on the Top French Cities
After spending my entire summer in the Loire Valley, it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most magical places in all of France. From the magnificent castles with sprawling gardens to the giant river that runs through villages and towns, there’s a distinct French charm to this area of the country.
It’s unlike anywhere else in the world!
The Loire Valley is filled with quaint cities, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Three cities located in this beautiful region, Orléans, Tours, and Angers, are celebrating their 20th anniversary of this prestigious status.
Considered to be among the top French cities, keep reading to learn about Orléans, Tours and Angers, and what makes them so special.
Orléans: The Stunning Capital of the Loire Valley
Sitting on the banks of the Loire River, you’ll find Orléans, the official capital of the Centre-Val de Loire. Due to its strategic location just south of Paris, it’s easily accessible. It’s also the gateway to the rest of the Loire Valley, especially in terms of train travel.
Homage to Joan of Arc
Orléans is a gorgeous city seeping history at every turn. Saved from English siege by Joan of Arc in 1429, you’ll find the city has gone to great lengths to keep this heroine’s memory alive through the ages.
On a trip to Orléans, you’ll find Joan of Arc around every corner. You can find scenes of her life depicted in the stained glass in the looming Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, a statue of her sitting tall on a horse in the heart of the city at Place du Martroi, and in the recreation of her timbered house, Maison de Jeanne d’Arc which is open to curious visitors.
There’s even the La Johannique beer, a local white brew with honey and spice that pays homage to Joan d’Arc’s fiery personality!
Nature in the City
Orléans is home to 16 parks, perfect for picnicking on a sunny day, each of them beautifully designed and remarkably different.
But the true natural beauty in Orléans is by the banks of the Loire River. On the riverside is a gorgeous path to enjoy nature, whether you’re keen for a quick stroll or want to settle on a bench for a while to admire the scenery.
The Loire is a common stop for migratory birds, so you’re able to see dozens of species in just a single glance… How cool is that?
Then there’s the Loire à Vélo bike path, a true highlight of the region, which passes through Orléans. There’s no better way to get your blood pumping than by hopping on a bike and cycling around the Loire Valley, stopping in small villages, at large castles, and at the foot of glorious gardens. Just remember to pack your bike shorts!
For some culture, head to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, one of France’s oldest provincial museums, with a European collection that’s out of this world. Highlights include works from Correggio, Velazquez, and Bruegel, as well as a show-stopping collection of pastels by Martin Quentin de la Tour.
If you’re more into modern art, there’s also the stunning Frac Centre-Val de Loire, a contemporary art museum housed in a curving metal structure, bringing Orléans into the 21st century.
Eating and drinking in Orléans is a fantastic experience, as the local products set the city apart from many others.
Throughout history, spoiled wine has been offloaded into Orléans, giving the locals an opportunity to create vinegar and mustard. This tradition stuck with the citizens and now Orléans is the premier place for these kinds of products, with the leading producer being Martin Pouret.
On the sweeter side, you’ll also find macarons aux fruits d’Orléans in dozens of local flavors like strawberry glazed with vinegar, rose petal confit, and pear and ginger… Yum!
When it comes to drinking, Orléans has AOC wines that are crafted from local grapes that are some of the best in the region.
One thing we love about this top French city is that it’s home to some awesome annual festivals!
Every June, there’s a free jazz festival where locals and tourists alike gather to listen to music.
Also in June is the Fetes Johanniques, a celebration of Joan d’Arc’s liberation of Orléans. During this time, you’ll find medieval reenactments, street theater, concerts, a grand parade and plenty of local delicacies to feast on – how fun is that?
And finally, every other year, there’s the Festival de Loire, which is the largest inland marine festival in Europe.
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Tours: A Charming Blend of Old and New
While Orléans is the capital of the Loire Valley, Tours is the largest and most popular of the cities in this region. It’s full of cultural sites, good food, and shopping galore, making it an unforgettable destination for anyone traveling through Centre-Val de Loire.
Filled with charm and an equal blend of old with new, a trip to Tours is a guaranteed good time. Life here is centered around the riverside, with bars and open-air restaurants lining the banks. It’s a great place to settle down for a drink and watch the sunset among city locals.
History, Culture, and Art
While visiting Tours, you’ll want to make your way through Vieux Tours, the medieval district in the city. It’s one of the best preserved in all of France, with remarkable half-timbered buildings and large city squares. You’ll find plenty of small streets to stroll around and small cafes and bars tucked away, exuding old French charm.
For more history and culture, the Cathédrale Saint Gatien de Tours is a stunning sight, with a mix of architectural styles since it was constructed from the 12th century all the way until the Renaissance.
Also worth visiting is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which sits in the former Palais des Archeveques. Here you’ll find a little bit of everything, from Old Masters like Ruben and Rembrandt to impressionists like Monet.
Tours is famous for its markets, where you can find all things local.
Twice a week, the Carreau des Halles de Tours is held in the heart of the city. Marche Velpeau happens every Sunday and you can find more than 180 vendors here, making it a great place to wander around and practice your French!
Besides the markets, you can head to Quartier Colbert to pick up old books and antiques, and Rue Scellerie for all things fashion and design.
Unbelievable Food & Wine
While there’s plenty to see and explore, eating in Tours is one of the best activities you can do here. As the sun goes down, the locals come out, flooding Place Plumereau, a giant pedestrian zone filled with loads of bars, cafes, and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot to spend your evening!
Local specialities like rillettes and rillons are perfect for any meat lover as this fatty, shredded meat is a great afternoon snack when spread on a baguette.
You’ll also find some exquisite cheeses in this city, made of full fat goat’s milk — keep your eyes out for Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine! For the sweets lover, don’t leave without trying nougats de Tours, cake made from sweet dough, almond paste, candied fruit, and apricot jam.
Tours is also part of the third largest wine region of France (Touraine AOC), so enjoy sipping on Vouvray and Montlouis, or Noble-Joue and Chinon rose — ideal for a hot summer’s day. Check out Le Dago’Bar, a swanky wine bar where you can try the region’s specialties.
Angers: Time Travel Back to the Middle Ages
Ancient Angers: a visit here is like a trip back in time. This thriving medieval city gives visitors an idea of what this area of France was like during the Middle Ages, with a towering fortress, half-timbered houses, and a 12th century cathedral.
Angers sits on the edge of the Loire Valley in western France. With the Loire River to the south of the city and the Maine River running through the heart of Angers, natural water is central to life here and an integral part of society.
Incredible Castle and Medieval District
Château d’Angers is the main draw of this top French city, as the fortress is the largest in the Loire Valley and it’s home to the showstopping Apocalypse Tapestry. Not only is this work of art the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry, but it is also the largest medieval tapestry in the world!
Besides admiring the masterpiece, visitors are free to roam this amazing Loire Valley castle and take in stunning sights over the river.
Also worth visiting in Angers is Cite, the historic center, which allows you to travel back to medieval times. Wander the cobblestone streets and admire the ancient architecture before settling down on a terrace for a tall drink.
For any outdoor lover, Angers is one of the top places to cycle in France as three routes converge here.
Ride around the scenic Angers loop of the Loire à Vélo to take in marvelous sights of the river, small villages, and local wildlife. You can also follow the Loire à Vélo out of Angers to visit other châteaus in the region if Château d’Angers sparked your curiosity!
Top-Notch Drinking & Dining
Like most French cities, eating and drinking is nothing short of magnificent in Angers.
As the birthplace of Cointreau, you can find this sweet alcoholic beverage at every turn. To pair with your sweet beverage, feast on the local specialty fricasse de poulet a l’angevine made of chicken, onions, mushrooms, cream, and Anjou wine. And don’t forget to sample Cremet d’Anjou, a dessert made of whipped dairy topped with berries.
When it’s time to eat, head to La Doutre to break away from the tourist crowds and dine like the locals do at one of the many small restaurants around Place de la Laiterie.
Besides Cointreau, Angers is one of the best places to sip on Anjou wines, as they’ve been sourced from the surrounding vineyards. In fact, you can even follow a wine route along the Loire in Angers to visit small villages where wine production is common!
Art and Music Festivals
One last noteworthy draw to Angers is its annual festivals.
In January, the city holds the Festival Premiers Plans, an outstanding film festival showcasing all different types of works. Every September, there’s Levitation France, a psychedelic rock music festival (with a twin festival in Austin, Texas).
After reading about all that Orléans, Tours and Angers have to offer, aren’t you just dying to make it out to the Loire Valley? It’s a spectacular blend of old and new, with a constant contrast of natural versus manmade, medieval against modern.
There’s nothing quite as lovely as wandering down to the banks of the Loire River (a quick walk from the center of each of these cities) or an early morning cycle along the Loire à Vélo path.
Once you’ve spent time in this region, you’re sure to fall in love and understand why Orléans, Tours, and Angers are among the top cities to visit in France!
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