Arrive in Mantova at sunset. Nothing can quite prepare you for the view that welcomes you as you approach the glittering waters of the Mincio River which hugs the walled city – its lights slowly beginning to flicker to life. The Bridge of St George neatly slices through two of Mantova’s artificial lakes, guiding visitors towards the iconic domes and towers of the Palazzo Ducale. As the daylight sinks into the water to your right, splashes of orange, pink, and red bounce from the stonework of the city’s historic centre.
This somewhat regal arrival is befitting for a city like Mantova, which boasts an impressive resumé of awards for its beauty, its rich food scene, and its history. The city’s achingly picturesque historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 and its theaters have played an essential role in the history of opera music. In 2016, Mantova was dubbed the Capital of Culture in Italy, while the next 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, are what makes Mantova one of Lombardy’s most alluring destinations.
And yet, many travelers have never heard of Mantova. Perhaps this is due to the city’s compact size, with only 48,000 inhabitants. Perhaps Mantova is overlooked because of its location – sandwiched between a handful of larger, more famous destinations like Verona, Bologna, and Padova. Perhaps it’s the city’s climate, which is known for being one of the hottest and most humid summer destinations in the country. Or maybe Mantova is simply best experienced exactly as it is: dripping with tradition, basking in the untouched glow of the striking nature which surrounds it. Whatever the reason for its little-known reputation, Mantova is a destination to be quickly added to your bucket list if you’re yearning for an authentic Italian experience.
One day in Mantova is all you’ll need to fall in love with its food, its people, its architecture, and its sheer Italian-ness. 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, framed by awe-striking rows of elegant buildings and palaces (most notably, the Palazzo Ducale). Piazza Sordello is also home to a spattering of bars, whose tables spill out into the square’s ample centre. Settle yourself here in the early evening with a glass of wine and listen to the chatter of contented locals while working up your appetite for dinner.
Taste local cuisine at Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso
It’s not difficult to see why the Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso is one of Mantova’s best-rated restaurants. Tucked down a narrow alleyway behind the iconic Rotonda di San Lorenzo church, this traditional osteria is the perfect introduction to Mantova’s rich cuisine. Start with an order of affettati misti to sample Mantova’s famous salamis and 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 which is 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. Founded in 2013 by Cesare and Agnese, a husband-and-wife duo, Gelateria Loggetta is considered to be one of the best ice cream parlors in Italy, with all gelato made by hand on the first floor of the building itself. Loggetta products 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. The historic B&B features luxurious suites with historic furnishings, four-poster beds and beautiful views of Mantova’s Palazzo Ducal across the main piazza. Located in the historic tower, the Torre Suite has impressive frescoed walls (including one of the oldest non-religious frescoes in Europe) and a spiral staircase that leads to an exclusive roof terrace where you can see the entire city and its monuments.
Wander into an elegant garden for breakfast
Crossing the narrow Rio River from the heart of Mantova will lead you to the San Domenico gardens: a small green space surrounded by the city’s iconic stonework. Head to the garden’s kiosk for coffee and pastries in the sun before wandering through the pebble pathways along the water. If you find yourself in Mantova on a Saturday, make sure to check out the Mercato Contadino del Lungorio and nearby Campagna Amica market 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. Neat rows of shops are shaded by elegant stone portici, interspersed with quaint cafés and bars for that inevitable caffeine craving. Bookworms should pay a visit to Libraccio, a beloved Italian chain of used bookstores which can be found in Via Giuseppe Verdi.
Stroll through the gardens of the Palazzo Ducale
The royal residence for the Gonzaga family that ruled Mantova from 1328 to 1708, Mantova’s Palazzo Ducale 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, including the world-famous fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, painted by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1400s. To get a feel for the palace, wander into the gardens of the Piazza Lega Lombarda, a shady oasis 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 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, giving the pasta a sweet yet tangy flavor which is entirely unique to Mantova itself. One of the best places to try this local delicacy is at Trattoria Cento Rampini 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 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 widened during the 12th century to provide defence to the city: this created three artificial lakes (named the ‘upper’, ‘middle’, and ‘lower’ lakes) before going on to join 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 be sure to pack their sneakers as this is one of the area’s most picturesque routes for a late-afternoon jog.
Start your walk at the Giardini Marani before following the river beneath St George’s bridge and 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, open 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.