“What’s next on the itinerary, Dan?” I asked as we drove away from gorgeous Lake Garda, passing through a part of Lombardia known as the Garden of Italy. Surrounded by endless fields full of vineyards, ripe fruit and olive tree plantations we slowly approached the city of Mantova – a city none of us had ever heard of before!
How had we never heard of a city with such a rich history, a city home to the second largest palace residence in all of Europe, complete with spell-binding hallways that would give Versailles a run for its money.
A city, it turns out, that even Shakespeare has referenced – being the hometown that our famous Romeo was banished from in Shakespeare’s famous “Romeo and Juliet”.
Our visit to Mantova was made all the more interesting thanks to the facts and anecdotes told to us by our fantastic guide Lorenzo, a local art historian who was an absolute pleasure to tour the city with. While you can very easily visit this city alone and without guidance – a guided tour really bright the history to life.
Where is Mantova, Italy?
Mantova, sometimes referred to as Mantua, is a historic city in the north of Italy located in the Lombardia Region. It’s less than a one hour drive from Lake Garda and is also quite accessible by car or public transport form the cities of Verona and Milan. It’s best visited at the same time as Cremona, another historic city in the same area.
It’s best known for being home to the infamous Gonzaga family and for being the place Romeo was in exile for some time in the Romeo and Juliet story.
Visiting Mantova: Things To Do in Mantova
Before I go into detail on all the top places to visit in Mantova, let’s look at what makes this small fairytale-like Italian city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so unique.
With a population of just 49,000, you might find it hard to believe a city this small could be home to quite so many important historical buildings and monuments.
It’s all thanks to one family, the noble Gonzaga family, who are credited with commissioning the city’s most important palaces, turning the city into a musical and cultural power house and for constructing the three artificial lakes that circle the city – the family’s ingenious method of protecting their empire.
From the Palazzo Te, a palace that was once a stable yard, to the immense Palazzo Ducale, the unique Rotonda di San Lorenzo and the tiny but perfectly formed Teatro Bibiena – here’s how to spend a perfect 24 hours in Mantova, Italy.
NOTE ABOUT THE NAME: The Italian name for the city is Mantova while the English name is Mantua. I’ve been told that both names are used and are interchangeable and there’s isn’t really any right or wrong.
Walk across San Giorgio bridge
To get your bearings in this historic city, it’s best to start on San Giorgio Bridge which dates back as far as 1198. In fact it’s best to walk across the bridge, walk down to one of the small floating piers on the lake and to take in the best panoramic views of the famous Palazzo Ducale and the castle from across the water.
I was also told this is one of the best sunset spots of the city or if you come really early in the morning you can get perfect reflections shots of the place reflecting on the water.
Once you walk back over the San Giorgio bridge, you’ll see boats on the right hand side and a small cafe by the water which is nice to stop off at for a morning coffee with a view.
Castel San Giorgio Mantova
Once you’ve walked across the bridge, the first building you’ll come across is the Castle San Giorgio – which we later learned is actually part of the Palazzo Ducale complex. Complete with a water-filled moat surrounding the outer walls and three impressive draw-bridges.
Like most buildings in Mantua, the castle was built by the Gonzaga family on the remains of an old church.
Some of the highlights to be visited inside include the beautiful spiral staircase, the bridal chamber (which we were told was actually where important guests were hosted and contains detailed paintings on the Gonzaga family), and the Sala dei Soli on the ground floor which houses stunning 15th century frescoes painted by some of the most famous artists of that era.
You can buy a single ticket for the Palazzo Ducale which will allow you to visit the palace, the castle and any other adjoining buildings inside the large complex.
Guided tour of Palazzo Ducale
I highly recommend doing a guided tour of the Palazzo Ducale to fully understand the vastness of this incredible palace and to learn more about its interesting history. Our guide, Lorenzo, told us some great stories along the way that made our visit so memorable.
As previously mentioned, the Ducale Place belonged to the Gonzaga family who were the longest lasting ruling family in Italy during the Renaissance. They ruled the city from 1328 to 1707, and it was here in this palace that they kept the most precious art collection in all of Europe – an art collection they later had to sell to the King of England when they went bankrupt in the 17th century!
There are many stories of how they went bankrupt, but after visiting this vast palace where colourful frescoes (that took decades to finish!) adorned almost off of the 550 rooms and no expense was spared for lush hanging gardens, ceilings painted in gold and an almost-overwhelming collection of Renaissance artwork – it isn’t easy to see how they ran out of money!
When you first enter the place and work your way upstairs, you’ll notice how long and flat the stairs are – almost like a ramp rather that steep steps. Crazy as it sounds, this was so the Gonzaga men (and any highly important visitors) could ride their horses right up to the first floor!
It’s in this palace, at moments like this, where you will wonder why you never heard of the city of Mantua before.
It will hit you as you enter room after room covered in frescoes, as you walk down spellbinding hallways and through the finest chambers, that you are visiting one of the largest and most impressive palaces in all of Europe – in a city most of your friends have probably never even heard of.
Cattedrale di San Pietro
Sadly the Cathedral is dwarfed by the size and beauty of the Basilica, which is only a few minutes walk away.
That said, you will find the miss-match architecture interesting (if not slightly displeasing!) to the eye with a strange mix of a Romaneque bell tower, Gothic sides and a Baroque facade. It seemed like the age-old tale of too many chefs spoiling the broth, with rulers in each new century wishing to add something new to their taste, while not being allowed to completely changed the original architecture.
It certainly makes for an interesting site, giving visitors the chance to see many styles of architecture with the glimpse of an eye.
Rotonda di San Lorenzo
This tiny, church is the oldest in the city dating back to the 11th century. It was inspired by the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem – and there are many similar churches dotted around the world for pilgrims to visit.
Walking through the small, church doors and into the tiny, rotund building had me captivated. The churches unique matroneum (upper gallery inside the church) and the ancient frescoes still visible on some of the upper walls make it a joy to visit – even if it is just for a few minutes.
Lunch on Piazza delle Erbe
There’s almost so much sightseeing you can do, especially in the immense heat of an Italian summer, before needing a food or drink break.
Luckily for you, Mantova also happens to be a foodie heaven. Situated right in the middle of the incredibly fertile region of Lombardia and bordering Emilia-Romagna, also known for its food, if there’s only one dish you try here it should be pumpkin Ravioli!
Grab a table on the main Piazza Delle Erbe with views of the palace, sip on an Aperol Spritz and let the perfectly cooked pieces of pumpkin melt in your mouth as you watch the world go by, revelling in the fact that you’re eating on a famous square in a city hasn’t really changed since the Medieval Ages.
Be amazed in Basilica of Sant’Andrea
After lunch, it’s time to be WOWed by the impressive Basilica of Sant’Andrea. The first thing we learned about this was how important balance is in Italian architecture, as in life.
Although a large church was wanted, it would have looked out-of-place on the relatively small square where they planned to build. Thus the front-facing facade of the church is small and fitting with its surroundings, but also very deceiving! As you enter the Basilica, as with most people, the word “wow” will slip out of your mouth as your eyes open wider at the incredible large interior of the church – almost twice as large as the front facade would have you believe!
This stunning basilica is most famous for the precious relic that lies beneath – a crypt that can only be opened by a set of 8 keys – which in a Dan Brown / Da Vinci Code style have been given to 8 high members of society to hold and protect. The relic itself is said to be sand covered in the blood of Jesus after he was crucified in the cross.
Attend the Opera in Teatro Bibiena
Visiting the Teatro Bibiena was the highlight of my trip to Mantova – a theatre now etched in my memory forever. The only way it would have been better was if I could have seen a live opera performance in one of the world’s most beautiful theatres.
Said to be the birthplace of opera (the first opera in the world was performed here), and home to stage graced by a 13-year-old Mozart, this tiny theatre (it holds only 360 people, most in private boxes with balconies) dating back to 1767 is one of the most magical places I’ve ever stepped foot in, straight from some sort of mix between a fairytale and a Shakespeare play.
And it’s not just me that was overly impressed. The Father of Mozart said about Teatro Bibiena,
“In all my life, I have never seen anything more beautiful of its kind”.
Visit Palazzo Te
While the Palazzo Ducale is the largest and most famous in Mantua, it is not the only palace. The Palazzo Te is another impressive place to visit in Mantova – especially seeing as these impressive buildings were once merely an old stable yard for the horses of the Gonzaga family!
It was transformed form the site of the stables to a place of leisure from 1524 – and you can still see an ode to all the horses inside the main hallways in the form of beautiful and very large frescoes that adorn the walls.
Take about an hour to walk at a leisurely pace around the castle, allowing the paintings that cover some of the rooms in their entirety to impress you…again and again and again.
Sunset cruise on the lake
You can’t visit Matova without spending some time by the artificial lakes – after all these lakes that cut the city off from the rest of the region are a large reason why Mantova hasn’t changed for decades.
We signed up for a sunset cruise and were pleasantly surprised to find out it took us through a nature reserve and past some of the largest lily pads I’ve ever seen in my life. It was great to see the city from a different view and to get a unique glimpse at the houses and nature areas around the lake.
Once you disembark, there are some cute cafes and bars next to the lake where you can enjoy Apertivo hour with a view. Alternatively walk back to the busy Piazza Sordello to have dinner and drinks with a more vibrant atmosphere.
Where to stay in Mantua: A house with a history
Looking for somewhere unique to stay while visiting Mantova? You won’t find a better place to stay than ‘La Casa del Pittore‘. A typical Mantova-style house – the building once belonged to the Gonzaga family and formed part of the right-wing of a much larger palace complex.
It was bought by a local painter, Osvaldo Trombini, over 45 years ago who restored the house as best he could to its former glory using Scientific methods. The original building dates back almost 500 years and includes 3 rooms, a small kitchen and garden.
As you can (hopefully!) see, there’s so much on offer in this small yet historic town. Whether it’s a day trip from Milan, Verona or even Lake Garda, this city of Mantova should most definitely be on your Italian bucket list.
A dream destination for art lovers, culture vultures and even for foodies, Mantua really is one of Northern Italy’s true hidden gems.
Note: This article was written following an 8 day blogger trip to Italy entitled #DoubleYourJourney – a collaboration between Lombardia Tourism Board and Puglia Tourism Board.