Tiny overlooked Mantova (Mantua in English) in Lombardy has gotten a lot of air-time on this humble blog.
I’ve written about my three-hour long lunch in a local osteria and talked about a road trip from Milan to Venice with a stop in the cultured city on the Amateur Traveler’s podcast, but in case you have any doubts let me be clear:
Your next stop in northern Italy should be Mantova.
1) It was the 2016 European Capital of Culture and the 2017 European Capital for Gastronomy
In 2016 Mantova won a million dollars as one of the European Capital of Culture with a project to “remake itself into a smart city with digital tourism to set off its jewels,” according to ANSA. This allowed it to create clear paths to follow for tourists, a Mantova Tourism App (putting the city fourth in the Smart City Index 2016, Ernst & Young’s ranking of the most technological Italian cities) as well as completing various restoration projects throughout the town.
2) Its centro storico and nearby Sabbioneta are UNESCO World Heritage Sites
According to the UNESCO website: “Mantua and Sabbioneta are exceptional testimonies to a particular civilization during a specific period of history, with reflections on urbanism, architecture and fine arts. The ideals of the Renaissance, fostered by the Gonzaga family, are present in their urban morphology and architecture … which have mostly been preserved over time.”
3) It’s equidistant from Venice and Milan and just a hop, skip and a jump away from Verona
It’s possible to visit on a day trip from Milan (we did it), but I’d definitely recommend an overnight to those who are able. The town is about 2 hours away by train from Milan and about the same by car. Still, instead of taking the high-speed train between Italy’s big-hitting cities, why not slow down and see some of the gems the train passes along the way?
4) It’s a small, easily manageable city with a ton of history.
It’s the hometown of the poet Virgil, the setting of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto as well as Romeo’s exile in Romeo and Juliet. Vivaldi lived and worked there, it’s mentioned in the Divina Commedia and Mozart made his debut as a 14-year-old in the Bibiena Theater. Mantova is also the home of Mantegna, a Renaissance painter perhaps most known for his Lamentation over the Dead Christ – famous for the shocking image and unique angle of Christ as a corpse… and I could go on.
5) Its powerful Gonzaga family are Lombardy’s answer to the Florentine Medici family
Though the Medici’s hog all of the “rich, powerful ruling family and patron of the arts” claim to fame, the Gonzaga’s can hold their own. The ruling family of Mantova and its surroundings for roughly 400 years, from the 14th to the 18th century, they built the city up until it was a veritable hub of art, culture and music. They built palaces, churches and even entire cities (Sabbioneta). They brought up artists and brought in poets, musicians, nobles and wealth. Their court created new dishes, new roles and new neighborhoods of the city and their family includes a queen, two empresses, bishops, cardinals and even a saint.
6) It’s small, but there’s plenty to see
Tour the Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo Te, Teatro Bibiena, the Astronomical Clock Tower and nearby Palazzo del Podestà, the oldest public Medieval building. Also the Cathedral, the Basilica of Sant’Andrea with Mantegna’s tomb and of course nearby Sabbioneta.
7) It has incredible local cuisine
The area has an incredibly rich local cuisine that remains strong today. Order the pumpkin tortelli, risotto and even donkey or horse stew. Your meat or cheese platters will most likely be served with mostarda or pickled fruit or you can eschew meat for freshwater fish or frog legs. After close with a piece of sbrisolona, the famed Mantuan cake made from sugar and almonds.
8) The unique geography makes for fun activities
Mantova is surrounded on three sides by three different lakes, each fed by the Mincio River. The river gives its name to the province’s most important natural park, which encompasses more than one nature reserve. Water rules everything in greater Mantova. Visitors can take a river cruise along the Mincio River, the Mantova lakes or the Po River. Kayakers and canoers can explore the marshes and cane grass and get a unique view of the city from the water and the banks of the lakes and rivers boasts miles and miles of well-maintained bike paths along secondary roads or traffic-free paths. Those wanting to explore the city by bike as well can use Mantova’s bike sharing system.