Contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) improve anatomical visualizations. However, owing to poor image resolution in whole-body MRI, resolving fine structures is challenging. Here, we report that a nanoparticle with a polysaccharide supramolecular core and a shell of amorphous-like hydrous ferric oxide generating strong T1 MRI contrast (with a relaxivity coefficient ratio of ~1.2) facilitates the imaging, at resolutions of the order of a few hundred micrometres, of cerebral, coronary and peripheral microvessels in rodents and of lower-extremity vessels in rabbits. The nanoparticle can be synthesized at room temperature in aqueous solution and in the absence of surfactants, has blood circulation and renal clearance profiles that prevent opsonization, and leads to better imaging performance than Dotarem (gadoterate meglumine), a clinically approved gadolinium-based MRI contrast agent. The nanoparticle’s biocompatibility and imaging performance may prove advantageous in a broad range of preclinical and clinical applications of MRI.