Dear Traveller friends,
Today I’ll talk you about the incredible city of Mantua, one of the most suggestive in Lombardy.
As many other Italian towns, Mantua is deeply connected to the history of a particular family, which ruled and determined the town’s fate. The Gonzaga family was crucial for Mantua than any other. In fact, its members gave the town prestige and funded imposing construction projects.
Most travel blogs suggest a one-day tour of Mantua, but I disagree with this choice. Mantua has much to offer, and many monuments and attractions require long and detailed tours, so a one-day tour would force you to a mad rush through the city or to leave behind interesting discoveries.
The best solution is to spend one or better two nights in town.
If you want to save a little while visiting Mantua, you can buy the Mantua Card. With a 20 euros spending, you’ll be able to visit most of the attractions and use the public transport. In some instances, such as the visit to the Room of the Bride and Bridegroom by Andrea Mantegna, you must pay a small additional charge.
Since the Mantua Card allows you to visit all the attractions in Sabbioneta, it’s convenient if you plan to visit this small town too.
When to go
Mantua is like every other town in the Po River Valley, boiling in Summer, freezing and damp in Winter. The best seasons to visit Mantua are the last part of Spring and the first part of Autumn. This way you’ll be able to avoid the Summer heat and the Winter chill.
How to arrive
The best way to reach Mantua is by car. If you are touring Northern Italy, you can include it in your tour and visit it after going to Bologna, Milan or Verona.
If you don’t have a car, the main reference point to reach Mantua by train is the railway station of Verona Porta Nuova.
Where to stay
When choosing your hotel, you have two possibilities: the city centre or further districts.
If you decide for the city centre, consider that this means fewer chances to find a parking lot, and that parking lots inside or nearby the city centre are very expensive. Even the facilities with a private parking charge a high fare for those places. Another point against a hotel downtown are the difficulties of driving in the city centre where most areas are limited traffic. However, if you reach Mantua by train, finding a hotel nearby the city centre will ease your visits.
As an alternative, you can choose a facility (a hotel or a guest house) further from downtown. From here you must take the car or bus to reach the points of interest, but you’ll easily find a free parking lot and the rates for the rooms are cheaper.
We chose the Hotel Meublè Abatjour, in the Belfiore district, a few kilometers from downtown. Even if it’s a one-star hotel, the rooms are big, clean and equipped with all comforts. There are plenty of free parking lots nearby. Even if the hotel doesn’t offer breakfast, you can choose among several cafes in the vicinity.
This facility proved optimal for us, because we could take the bus to go visit the town (the bus stop is right in front of the hotel), while we could reach downtown by car in the evening and park after 8 pm, when the parking lots become free. The best place to find a spot for your car just outside the ramparts is near the Mincio’s riverfront.
What to visit
The place to begin your tour of Mantua is Piazza Sordello. It’s the most important square and showcases some jewels: the Dome, the Bishop’s Palace, the Uberti Palace, the Captain Palace and the Ducal Palace.
The Bridegrooms Chamber and the Ducal Palace
The Ducal Palace has been the symbol of the city power for centuries and the symbol of the Gonzaga family, which dominated over Mantua for almost four centuries.
Planning the visit of the Ducal Palace can disorient you a little. The complex is gigantic and made of many different buildings. Among those there is San Giorgio Castle.
The ticket office overlooks Piazza Sordello. Here you can purchase a ticket to visit one or more parts of the complex. Among the many solutions, don’t forget to include the Bridegrooms Chamber, decorated with the famous frescoes by Andrea Mantegna.
The Chamber is situated in the most ancient part of the palace, San Giorgio Castle. A maximum of 1500 visitors per day can access the Chamber, so if you plan to visit Mantua during the peak season it’s better to book your ticket in advance.
You’ll be able to visit the Chamber in small groups of 25 people and you’ll be allowed to stay inside for five minutes. During the waiting, spend some time reading the explanatory panels so you’ll be able to grasp every detail of the frescoes once inside the room.
The frescoes inside the Bridegrooms Chamber strike the visitor for the minute details and the splendid state of preservation. Andrea Mantegna choose episode from the Gonzaga family history and used them as subjects for his frescoes. This way he could both celebrate the power and the influence of the family and introduce pictorial innovation One of them is the tondo on the ceiling, that amples and expands the perspective.
After admiring Mantegna’s masterpiece, you can go on with your visit through the other rooms. They present refined decorations and frescoed ceilings and often house temporary exhibitions of objects and work of arts. However, this part pales in front of the magnificence of the Bridegrooms Chamber.
Once outside San Giorgio Castle, you’ll be back in the main courtyard of Ducal Palace. From here you can proceed in your itinerary in different ways, depending upon the ticket you purchased. Together with the Bridegrooms Chamber ticket, you can buy the access to other parts of the complex.
The National Archaeological Museum is part of the package. Here you can see finds from the Neolithic to the Renaissance, coming from the area around Mantua.
If you plan your tour during a weekend, you can visit the Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara, which is open on Saturdays and Sunday only. The access is free. The church was built around 1550 at the behest of the Gonzaga family, who wanted it for the family liturgical celebrations. You can enter the church from a side courtyard of the Ducal Palace. The building’s most interesting feature is a big raised presbytery with an apsis decorated with ceiling coffers. Surely noteworthy is the imposing pipe organ decorated with paintings.
Once outside, you’ll be back in Piazza Sordello. Walking along the Ducal Palace, you’ll find the entrance to the Old Court (Corte Vecchia), the most important part of the Ducal Palace.
The visit of this part of the complex requires some time and you have to walk a substantial distance among decorated halls and imposing rooms, however it’s worth both the time and effort. The first part of the Old Court contains a collection of work of arts, while the second part gives you access to the magnificent noble floor of the palace, richly decorated and painted with frescoes.
Once back outside, cross Piazza Sordello and devote a quarter of an hour to the Dome of Mantua. This church developed from a Romanesque core that Giulio Romano expanded during the XV, leaving the facade unaltered but changing the interior.
The building presents a Latin cross plan with five aisles. In the side chapels you can see altarpieces painted by the most important artists of the Mantuan mannerism.
If you started your day in this part of town, your morning is coming to a close and it’s time to find a place to have lunch.
Make the most of your need to find a restaurant and take the chance to explore another area of the city centre: Piazza Broletto and Piazza delle Erbe. Here you won’t have problems finding a place to satisfy both your taste and your wallet.
I strongly recommend two restaurants: La Masseria and the Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso. Both offer local cuisine and have a good value for money.
If you are touring Mantua during the weekend, I suggest you to make a reservation for dinner since lunchtime. From Friday evening to Sunday evening, in fact, restaurants are often overcrowded.
In Piazza delle Erbe, a characteristic and charming spot, you can find some of the most important points of interest, that you can visit after restoring your spirit with a good lunch.
Rotonda di San Lorenzo
This curious building is the most ancient church in Mantua, built around the end of 1100. What makes it interesting are the circular shape and the fact it’s almost a thousand years old.
Unfortunately, the frescoes that once decorated the inner walls aren’t visible anymore because of centuries of neglect. Now you can see only traces of the paintings here and there.
Palazzo della Ragione
Next to the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, you can see the Palazzo della Ragione, easily recognizable for the tower adorned with an astronomical clock.
For centuries the palace has been crucial for Mantua. In fact, it was both courthouse and notary’s archive of the city. Today it houses exhibitions and events.
Cathedral of Sant’Andrea
A few steps away from Piazza delle Erbe, there is the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea. Even if it isn’t the most important religious building, it’s the most valuable from the artistic point of view.
The original design was the work of Leon Battista Alberti, however the building was completed only many years after his death, with substantial deviations from his primal idea.
The facade remembers a Roman arch of triumph; it’s emblematic and preludes to the magnificence of the interior. The structure presents a single aisle, surmounted by a barrel vault decorated by coffers.
Among the other important works of art in the side chapels, you can admire some altarpieces by Giulio Romano, an artist deeply connected with Mantua.
A fresco depicting the last judgement decorates the central dome; its circular movement increases the sense of height.
After your long day, it’s time to enjoy a walk among the shops, before going back to the hotel or head to the restaurant for dinner. You deserve a hearty meal consisting on local specialties, such as the pumpkin ravioli, overcooked beef with polenta and one of the famous cakes of Mantua’s pastry.
If you are touring Mantua during Summer, you have to take a ferry and navigate the Mincio river. The ampler traits of the river are called lakes, so don’t be surprised to find Lago di Mezzo, Lago Superiore and Lago Inferiore on your map.
During the months from the end of June to the first half of August, you have a stronger motive to take a ferry. In fact you’ll be able to see the blooming of the lotus flowers. These fascinating aquatic plants aren’t local and, even if they are a problem for the maintenance of biodiversity, their flowering is worth to be seen.
If you want to enjoy a tour on the ferries, the most convenient pier is near the complex of the Ducal Palace.
After taking a tour of the lakes on the ferry, you can go on with your tour of Mantua and visit a small jewel — the Bibiena Theatre. Built around the half of the XVIII century at the behest of the Gonzaga family, this theatre underwent several restoration works and changes in time, however it’s still one of the most charming Italian theatres. What makes it unique is the richness of the interior decoration and its several wooden daises.
Since it’s close to the monuments you visit on your first day, you can plan to see the theatre during the first day too. However, make sure it’s open to the public. There are often private events and conferences preventing the visits.
Your next destination is not far but you have to cross the historical city centre from one end to the other. I assure you the destination is worth the walk.
I’m talking about Palazzo D’Arco. The history of this building starts during the XII century. Throughout its existence, the most important families of Mantua, Gonzaga included, took residence here. In 1740 it became property of the D’Arco family, whose members performed massive restoration works, removing the earlier decor and enlarging it.
This palace is unique. It remained in the hands of the D’Arco family up to 1978, when it was transformed into a museum by the will of its last owner, Giovanna D’Arco.
Palazzo D’Arco is completely furbished but, beside the wonderful original period furnishings, it contains several collections of objects that tell the family and society history through the centuries.
Visits are guided only, but don’t let this discourage you. The tour guides accompanying you around are extremely knowledgeable and will tell you interesting stories about the objects and the family, allowing you to appreciate the richness of the palace and its history.
The most ancient and interesting part, from an artistic point of view, is the Sala dello Zodiaco (Zodiac Room). Situated in a separate building detached from the main mansion, it was part of the most ancient core of the palace. This room houses a cycle of frescoes dating back to the beginning of the XVI century and created by Falconetto.
The incredible state of preservation allows the visitors to admire the frescoes in all their glory. As the name of the room suggests, the subject are the zodiac signs and myths, legends, and beliefs linking specific characteristics to each sign.
For the next stop you need to move from the core of the historical centre and reach Palazzo Te. You can go there by car and park nearby or by bus number 8. You can take it near Palazzo D’Arco. If you are not tired and walking doesn’t scare you, you can also go to Palazzo Te on foot. It’s a walk of approximately 2 km.
Together with the Ducal Palace, Palazzo Te is the most renowned and important monument in Mantua, built around the first half of the XVI century by the Gonzaga family on a design by Giulio Romano.
The Gonzaga family wanted this palace for their leisure time and entertainments. Its construction was an imposing work because required the reclamation of the swamp area all around.
You can take a tour of the palace on your own, without a guide. You can ask for an audio guide at the ticket office or read the explanatory panels present in every room and describing the most interesting features.
Most of the rooms and halls of the noble floor are decorate with motifs and frescoes based on the Greek and Roman mythology, nature and animals.
The room that will leave you open-mouthed is the Sala dei Giganti, with the colossal fresco covering the walls and the ceiling, representing the Fall of the Giants. This room was decorated in occasion of the visit of Charles V to the Gonzaga family.
Museo della Città
Your visit of Mantua is now concluded. However, if you still have time and energies, you can make the most of the ticket you purchased in Palazzo Te and visit the city museum; Museo della Città Palazzo San Sebastiano.
Your two-days tour of Mantua is at an end. However, I strongly recommend adding another day to your visit, if you can, and go see two other beautiful places nearby.
The first is Sabbioneta, a small town which is part of the UNESCO heritage sites, and the second is San Benedetto Po, where you can visit an incredible Abbey.
Don’t miss our next destination!