Although ischemic heart disease remains the leading cause of cardiac-related morbidity and mortality in the industrialized countries, a growing number of mainly elderly patients will experience a problem of valvular heart disease (VHD), often requiring surgical intervention at some stage. Doppler-echocardiography is the most popular imaging modality used in the evaluation of this disease entity. It encompasses, however, some non-negligible constraints which may hamper the quality and thus the interpretation of the exam. Cardiac catheterization has been considered for a long time the reference technique in this field, however, this technique is invasive and considered far from optimal. Cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is already considered an established diagnostic method for studying ventricular dimensions, function and mass. With improvement of MRI soft- and hardware, the assessment of cardiac valve function has also turned out to be fast, accurate and reproducible. This review focuses on the usefulness of MRI in the diagnosis and management of VHD, pointing out its added value in comparison with more conventional diagnostic means. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00330-007-0731-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.