It was chosen as the Italian capital of culture for the year 2016. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a castle with a moat. A round church that captures the attention of passersby. Waterside promenades. Piazzas lined with cafés. It would be easier to name the things Mantova doesn’t have, because that list is significantly shorter.
Located less than two hours from Milan, Mantova – also known as Mantua – is perhaps the most rewarding day trip you can take from the city. Full of history and gorgeous architecture, this town of 48,000 people has more charm than a city of such a size typically should. It’s blessed, you could say, in the beauty department.
Arriving in the city of culture
A walk from the train station to the old city will take you past Teatro Sociale, built between 1818 and 1822. It’s a beautiful event space, but also a perfect spot for a coffee. We recommend you sit outside and watch modern Mantova in action.
Old world charm
Once you’ve had your caffeine fix, continue your walk to the historic center. There, you’ll find the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, an entirely round church built in the late eleventh century. It is believed to stand on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Venus.
The inside of the church is highly impressive, with columns and arches circling the interior. Small lights let out of a faint glow, contributing to the peaceful setting.
Next to the church is Piazza delle Erbe, where you can dine al fresco at a number of lively cafés. The waiters aren’t in a particular hurry, but use this as an excuse to sit back with a glass of wine and watch the world go by. You won’t find a prettier backdrop for lunch or dinner.
Try the local speciality, tortelli di zucca (pumpkin tortelli), in the autumn and winter months. This dish can be found at most restaurants, but Enoteca delle Erbe, located right in the piazza, does it extremely well.
Perhaps the best thing about Mantova is that it’s precisely what you always imagined Italy to be – historic architecture that has withstood the test of time, grand piazzas where locals congregate, and church bells that ring with beautiful melodies. Every archway and alleyway leads to something utterly charming.
One of those charming finds is Piazza Sordello, a square dedicated to the thirteenth century poet Sordello da Goito. One step into this piazza and you’ll realize Sordello is pretty lucky to share his namesake with such a beautiful slice of Italy.
Other hidden squares and piazzas are found throughout this magnificent city, and none of them disappoint.
Keep wandering through Mantova and you’ll find Palazzo Ducale, a series of elegant buildings which were joined as one in the sixteenth century. The structure has various courtyards and gardens, along with tons of history. A visit inside costs €12.50, but entry is free on Sundays. More information can be found here.
Palazzo Ducale is also home to St. George’s Castle, which is complete with a moat, three gates, and several drawbridges.
Cobblestone streets add to the character of the city, and remind you just how old Mantova really is. It was, after all, established in the year 2000 BC.
The city’s churches are magnificent, but one stands out more than the others, purely because of its tiny size.
Mantova offers busy shopping streets, quiet backstreets, and everything in between.
If food shopping is your desired retail activity, be sure to check out the independent meat and cheese shops, which are a treat for both the eyes and the taste buds.
Nature in the city
In addition to offering beautiful streets and ancient buildings, Mantova is also home to some rather beautiful green spaces.
A beautiful courtyard sits behind a main piazza, waiting to be discovered.
A city park offers a beautifully landscaped respite from the busy streets.
Mantova sits beside three lakes, and its waterside promenades are home to cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, and fisherman.
You can even have a waterside picnic against a backdrop of ancient ruins. Not too shabby.
Free fun for the whole family
If you’re on a budget (or even if you’re not), you’ll want to check out the Fire Brigade Museum, which takes you on a tour of Italy’s historical fire rescue vehicles. It may sound dull, but it’s actually quite interesting – and free! Kids will particularly love it.
Trains to Mantova depart from Milan’s Central Station and take 1 hour 50 minutes. One-way tickets start at €11.50. For more information, check out the Trenitalia website.