Built as a hunting lodge, this colossal edifice is a masterpiece of architectural derring-do. Some say Leonardo da Vinci had something to do with it, and when you climb the amazing double spiral staircase, that’s not too hard to believe. The staircase is superimposed upon itself so that one person may descend and a second ascend without ever meeting. While da Vinci died a few months before construction started in 1519, what emerged after 20 years was the pinnacle of the French Renaissance and the largest château in the Loire Valley. The castle’s proportions are of exquisite geometric harmony, and its fantastic arrangement of turrets and chimneys makes it one of France’s most recognizable châteaux.

Construction continued for decades; François I actually stayed at the château for only a few weeks during hunting season, though he ensured Chambord would forever carry his legacy by imprinting his “F” emblem and symbol, the Salamander, wherever he could. After he died, his successors, none too sure what to do with the vast, unfurnished, and unfinished castle, basically abandoned it. Finally, Louis XIII gave it to his brother, who saved it from ruin; Louis XIV stayed there on several occasions and saw to restorations, but not a single monarch ever really moved in. The state acquired Chambord in 1932, and restoration work has been ongoing ever since, which most recently involved the replanting of its 18th century formal gardens.

Four monumental towers dominate Chambord’s facade. The three-story keep has a spectacular terrace from which the ladies of the court watched the return of their men from the hunt. Many of the vast rooms are empty, though several have been filled with an impressive collection of period furniture and objects, giving an idea of what the castle looked like when parts of it were occupied. The château lies in a park of more than 5,260 hectares (12,992 acres), featuring miles of hiking trails and bike paths, as well as picnic tables and bird-watching posts.