One of the crowning achievements of French Renaissance architecture, the Château de Chambord – with 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases – is by far the largest, grandest and most visited château in the Loire Valley. Begun in 1519 by François I (r 1515–47) as a weekend hunting lodge, it quickly grew into one of the most ambitious – and expensive – architectural projects ever attempted by a French monarch.

Construction was repeatedly halted by financial problems, design setbacks and military commitments (not to mention the kidnapping of the king’s two sons in Spain). Ironically, when Chambord was finally finished after 30-odd years of work, François found his elaborate palace too draughty, preferring instead the royal apartments in Amboise and Blois. In the end he stayed here for just 42 days during his entire reign!

Inside the château's main building, an interesting film (in five languages) relates the history of the castle’s construction. The 1st floor is where you'll find the most interesting rooms, including the king’s and queen’s chambers, complete with interconnecting passages to enable late-night high jinks. Rising through the centre of the structure, the world-famous double-helix staircase – reputedly designed by the king’s chum Leonardo da Vinci – ascends to the great lantern tower and the rooftop, where you can marvel at a veritable skyline of cupolas, domes, turrets, chimneys and lightning rods and gaze out across the vast grounds.

To get a sense of what you're looking at, it's well worth picking up an audioguide (1½ hours; €5) or a Histopad tablet computer (1½ hours; €8); the latter has a treasure hunt for kids, but the former has better information about the castle's history. In summer there may be hour-long guided tours (€5/3 per adult/child) in English – ask at the new Halle d'Acceuil (entrance pavilion). Outdoor spectacles held in the warm season include an equestrian show.

From April to December there are several places to eat right around the château, including a cafe inside. In winter dress warmly – the castle is no easier to heat now than it was five centuries ago!

Chambord is 16km east of Blois, 45km southwest of Orléans and 18km northeast of Cheverny.