What to see and do in historic Tours in the heart of the Loire Valley

Written by on May 16, 2019 in Centre

Cobbled streets, lined with half-timbered houses and shops in ancient buildings in Tours, Loire Valley

Tours in the department of Centre is the gateway city to the Loire Valley. It makes for a great base to visit the area. But, it’s a terrific place to visit in its own right with wide and grand avenues, a charming old town and Haussmanesque style architecture mixed with medieval, Renaissance and modern. In parts it’s reminiscent of Paris and has in fact been acting capital of France on more than one occasion.

The city centre has a lively air. The old part of town is home to a famous cathedral and winding cobbled streets lined with cafés and restaurants and half-timbered houses.

Discover museums, pretty streets to roam, quirky boutiques and lots of shops. There’s loads to do when you’re not tasting wine in vineyards or chateau hopping in the countryside around.

At just an hour from Paris by train it’s very easy to reach…

Cobbled streets and captivating cafés

Colourful umbrellas over tables set out in Place Plumereau, a popular square for aperitifs in Tours, Loire Valley

Tours has a laidback vibe and nowhere is this more obvious than in the charming pedestrianised Place Plumereau in Vieux Tours (the old part of town). Once called the carroi aux chapeau, the hat market, it is lined with 15th century wood-framed and stone-gabled houses, many of them have been converted into cafés, bistros and restaurants.

This little square was voted the best place in France for an aperitif – it’s easy to see why. Tables and chairs spill out onto the square, colourful umbrellas add a splash of colour, an ancient mulberry tree presides. An exuberant atmosphere hangs over the square thanks to it being popular throughout the day for coffee, lunch, ice cream, aperitifs and dinner. Take your pick from a whole raft of excellent eateries (try Les Trois Rois for somewhere atmospheric, pretty and loved by the locals).

All round Place Plumereau are a hodgepodge of cobbled streets with more cafés, restaurants and shops.

Historic Tours

Woman walks down a cobbled street to a leafy square in Tours, Loire ValleyIf you’re a history lover, Tours will make you happy as you wander its pretty streets. Joan of Arc had a set of armour made for her here in 1429. Balzac, the French writer who was born in Tours in 1799, hung out in Vieux Tours. The station and town hall were built by Victor Lalou who also built the Orsay station in Paris which later became the Musée d’Orsay.

The Cathedral of Tours is a masterpiece of architecture ranging from flamboyant Gothic to Romanesque and Renaissance. There are some truly spectacular stained glass windows, some of them almost 800 years old. Started in 1239 it took some 300 years to complete and the charming cloisters of the Cathedral featured in Balzac’s Curé de Tours (the character of Madame Garnard lived there).

Inside, a marble tomb is the last resting place of the heirs to the Valois dynasty, the young sons of Charles VIII and Anne of Bretagne. When Charles VIII died (1498) she married his cousin, Louis XII, as he wanted her lands. He had to divorce his wife Jeanne who was interrogated in Tours by church judges who ruled the marriage had never been consummated. The result left him free to marry Anne (Jeanne was later canonised to became Saint Joan of Valois). Anne and Louis had two daughters, one of whom married Francis I, which led to the formal union of France and Brittany.

Where old Tours meets new Tours

Woman holding a printing block demonstrates how wallpaper is made to centuries old traditions in Tours

There really are enough historic buildings here to please the most ardent history lover. Don’t miss the Musée de Beaux Arts which is located in the former Archbishop’s Palace. It houses a wonderful collection of paintings, ceramics and furnishings including silk panels. Tours was once a thriving silk production centre with 20,000 weavers, after Louis XI (King from 1461-1483) moved production from Lyons saying people were too lazy there.

It’s a mix of old and new here. And they’re not done yet. There’s an ongoing programme of opening up walkways along the river, providing more places to eat, drink and shop. In 2017 a brand new and unique art centre opened, the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré. It is contemporary, innovative and hosts mesmerising exhibitions.

And, bringing the old and new together, visit the Atelier d’Ofard, where wallpaper is made by hand to the old methods used in the 17th century. If you’ve ever wondered how the amazing wallpaper you see in Chateaux, such as in the bedroom of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, then this visit reveals the secrets and history of wallpaper making using wooden blocks and hand mixed pigment. It’s a unique and fascinating tour.

All this discovery builds up an appetite. Luckily you’re in the right place to truly indulge – click here to read about where to eat out in Tours, the places the locals love!

Practical Information for Tours

A vibrant brasserie in a half timbered house on a narrow cobbled street in Tours, Loire ValleyTram & bus service. You can buy a rechargeable bus/tram ticket for €1.60 from a bus driver (including the first journey), which can be recharged at major bus/tram stops for €1.50 per trip or €13 for ten trips. These machines take card and change, but not notes. Simply tap the card on a reader to pay for a journey once on the bus.

Top tip: Book tours of chateaux from the tourist office. Many of the greats are easily accessible from here, Chenonceau, Villandry and Chambord to mention just a few.

Where to stay: Splash out and indulge at the 4* Hotel Oceania L’Univers. This historic hotel has welcome Rockefeller, Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway amongst many prestigious guests. Wonderfully plush, old school glamour, in a fabulous location and friendly staff. (Parking available).

Great value at Le Grand Tours. There’s a range of rooms styles (and prices) in a terrific art deco building. Friendly staff and conveniently close to Tours station.

Get there: Train from Paris takes a little over an hour.

What to see nearby: Chateau de Chenonceau, the castle of flowers which you can reach by train. You can also take a train to Amboise and Blois from here…

For more information on what to see and do in Tours visit the tourist office: 78-82 Rue Bernard Palissy www.tours-tourism.co.uk

For more information on what to do in the Loire Valley see: www.loirevalley-france.co.ukuk.france.fr

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