You arrive in Mantova at sunset, but nothing can quite prepare you for the view that welcomes you into the city. As you approach the glittering waters of the Mincio River, hugging the walled city, its lights slowly begin to flicker to life. Taking visitors to the iconic domes and towers of the Palazzo Ducale, the Bridge of St. George neatly cuts through two artificial lakes in Mantova. In the historic center of the city, orange, pink, and red splashes of light reflect off the stonework.
This somewhat regal arrival befits a city like Mantova which boasts an impressive resumé of awards for its beauty, rich food scene, and history. Mantova’s achingly picturesque historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. Its theaters have also played an essential role in the history of opera music. And in 2016, Mantova was named the Capital of Culture in Italy. The following year, the city earned the title of European Capital of Gastronomy. These accolades, when infused with the city’s gently vibrant hum, rustic storefronts, hidden bookstores, and unique bursts of nature, make Mantova one of Lombardy’s most alluring destinations.
A Hidden Gem
And yet, many travelers have never heard of Mantova. This may be due to the city’s compact size—only 48,000 inhabitants. Mantova is probably overlooked because of its location, given that the city is sandwiched between larger, more famous destinations like Verona, Bologna, and Padova. It could also be the city’s climate. Mantova is known for being one of the hottest and most humid summer destinations in Italy. It’s possible that Mantova is simply best experienced exactly as it is. Dripping with tradition and basking in the untouched glow of the striking nature which surrounds it. Whatever the reason for its little-known reputation, if you’re yearning for an authentic Italian experience, Mantova is a destination that should be quickly added to your bucket list.
One day in Mantova is all you’ll need to fall in love with its food, people, architecture, as well as its sheer Italianness. Here’s everything you need to see in 24 hours.
Enjoy an Aperitivo in Piazza Sordello
Dating back to the Etruscans, Piazza Sordello is Mantova’s most iconic square. Here, awe-striking rows of elegant building and palaces (most notably, Palazzo Ducale), frames the piazza. Piazza Sordello is also home to a couple of bars, whose tables spill out into the square’s ample center. Enjoy a glass of wine in the early evening and listen to the chatter of locals as you work up an appetite for dinner.
Taste Local Cuisine at Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso
Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso is one of Mantova’s best-rated restaurants, and it isn’t difficult to see why. This traditional osteria is located down a narrow alleyway behind the iconic Rotonda di San Lorenzo. It’s also the perfect introduction to Mantova’s rich cuisine. Start with an order of affettati misti to sample Mantova’s famous salamis. Afterward, treat yourself to freshly caught luccio in salsa, a freshwater fish served in a flavorful caper and vegetable sauce. End your meal with a hunk of sbrisolona, a crumbly, biscuit-like cake, a local delicacy.
Save Room for Gelato at Gelateria Loggetta
No evening meal in Italy is complete without a scoop (or two) of delicious gelato. And Gelateria Loggetta is the best place in Mantova to satisfy your cravings. Husband-and-wife duo, Cesare and Agnese, founded Loggetta in 2013. It’s considered to be one of the best ice cream parlors in Italy. The gelato is handmade on the first floor of the building itself. Loggetta produces 24 flavors of gelato with seasonal ingredients so you are always guaranteed a fresh, artisan taste. Don’t miss their award-winning fior di latte and creative flavors like panna cotta with caramelized figs.
Sleep in a Historic Suite in the City Center
Located right in Piazza Sordello, the 14th-century Palazzo Castiglioni boasts the best location in Mantova. This historic B&B features luxurious suites with elegant furnishings, four-poster beds, and beautiful views of the Palazzo Ducale. The Torre Suite is located in the historic tower and features impressive frescoed walls (including one of Europe’s oldest secular frescoes). It also boasts a spiral staircase that leads to an exclusive rooftop terrace where you can see the entire city.
Wander into an Elegant Garden for Breakfast
Crossing the narrow Rio River from the heart of Mantova will lead you to the garden of San Domenico. The city’s iconic stonework surrounds this small green space. Head to the garden’s kiosk for coffee and pastries before wandering through the pebble pathways along the water. If you find yourself in Mantova on a Saturday, be sure to check out the Mercato Contadino del Lungorio, as well as the nearby Campagna Amica riverside farmer’s markets for fresh, local produce.
Browse the Shops in the Centro Storico
Heading back towards the city center from the river, you’ll follow either Via Roma or Corso Umberto I. If small independent boutiques and traditional botteghe are what you’re looking for, then these parallel cobblestone roads should be your next port of call. Elegant stone portici cover the neat rows of shops, interspersed with quaint cafés and bars. Perfect for that inevitable caffeine craving. Bookworms should certainly pay a visit to Libraccio, a beloved Italian chain of used bookstores that can be found on Via Giuseppe Verdi.
Stroll through the Gardens of the Palazzo Ducale
Palazzo Ducale was the royal residence of the Gonzaga family that ruled Mantova from 1328 to 1708. The complex is composed of graceful buildings connected by a series of corridors and courtyards. One of the largest city palaces in Europe, it boasts more than 500 rooms, 8 courtyards, and 7 gardens. There’s a lot to explore here. Especially the world-famous fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, painted by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1400s. Wander into the gardens of the Piazza Lega Lombarda to get a real feel for the palace. This beautiful shady oasis is hidden just behind the city’s bustling Piazza Sordello.
Try tortelli di zucca at Trattoria Cento Rampini
It would be remiss to visit Mantova without sampling the city’s most renowned dish: tortelli di zucca. The region of Emilia-Romagna is known for its cultivation of pumpkins and squashes. And it has long put these ingredients to good use. Whilst the recipe differs from city to city, traditional tortelli from Mantova are often filled with pumpkin, mustard, and amaretto. As a result, the pasta obtains a sweet yet tangy flavor entirely unique to Mantova itself. One of the best places to try this local delicacy is Trattoria Cento Rampini, located in the heart of Piazza delle Erbe, a bustling square with medieval buildings. Wash down your tortelli with a generous glass of local Trebbiano white wine.
Take an Afternoon Walk along the Mincio River
One of Mantova’s crowning jewels is its unusual river, which folds itself snugly around the ancient walls of the city. Here, the Mincio River was expanded during the 12th century to provide a defense to the city. This created three artificial lakes, named the ‘upper’, ‘middle’, and ‘lower,’ before joining the River Po further south. Today, the river is bordered by a string of manicured gardens, each with a gravel path that hugs the waterside. Runners should make sure to pack their sneakers for a late-afternoon jog, as this is one of the area’s most picturesque routes.
Start your walk at the Giardini Marani, and follow the river beneath St George’s bridge over to the Giardini Fraccalini. As the sun sets on your 24 hours in Mantova, there is no better way to celebrate than with a cocktail at Papa’s Cafè, which opens each summer on the banks of the river. Whether you’re facing the sparkling surface of the Lago di Mezzo or the elegant towers of the Palazzo Ducale, the view will not disappoint. And neither will the cocktails.