As the end of summer approached, we wanted to make one more day trip before the start of the fall school schedule. When considering day trips from Milan, it’s hard to choose. There are just so many beautiful places to visit within a relatively short drive from Milan. A short drive in any direction from Milan will bring you to a beautiful place. We decided to head southeast to the city of Mantua, a picturesque, small medieval town in Lombardy that is only a 2-hour drive from Milan.
Mantua, a UNESCo World Heritage Site
Mantua (Mantova) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Surrounded by three artificial lakes that were built to protect the city, Mantua was once a powerful kingdom ruled by the famed Gonzaga family (1328-1707). This noble family help shape the city and their influence can still be seen today. The history of the city goes back to the Etruscans. The town was colonized by the Romans about 220 BC, and the great Latin poet Virgil was born at the nearby Andes in 70 BC.
I loved walking the streets of this medieval town. It’s like stepping back in time. Around every corner, there was a surprise, a narrow street leading to a small courtyard, a fresh pasta shop selling every kind of pasta imaginable. It is no wonder that this city is a World UNESCO site. It’s breathtaking. It’s not only beautiful, but it’s a genuine town, where the locals live and work. I confess that at times it’s disheartening to visit some of Italy’s more popular tourist destinations because they’ve been converted from an active and lively place to live to a shell of town catering to tourists. I didn’t get that impression at all from Mantua.
Although we only had a day to explore this gem, we were able to see most of the highlights due to the compact size of the city center. The major sites are within walking distance, linked together with quaint streets filled with interesting shops, beautiful churches, and countless restaurants to rest and refuel at.
Palazzo Ducale is a massive 1,000 room palace that feels more like a city. Its construction began in the late 1300s and it was home to the powerful Gonzaga family from 1328-1707. The palace has a rich art history from late gothic frescoes by Pisanello to baroque paintings of Rubens, the walls are a feast for the eyes. The palace houses a museum complex which includes Corte Vecchia (Old Court), Camera degli Sposi (the Bridal Chamber), Castello di San Giorgio (Saint George Castle), Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archeological Museum). You can purchase one ticket to visit all museums but please note that due to Covid-19 they limit the number of people in the museums. It’s best to make a reservation. We arrived without a reservation and had to wait an hour before we could enter.
Basilica di Sant’ Andrea
The Basilica is one of Europe’s largest churches. It was commissioned by the Gonzaga family and its construction began in 1472 and took 328 years to be complete. It’s a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture. Its massive dome can be seen for miles! There are many churches in Mantua, but this one truly takes the cake. It’s simply stunning.
La Torre dell’Orologio
La Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) shadows over Piazza delle Erbe. This astrological clock was built in 1473 by Bartolomeo Manfredi, mechanic, mathematician, and astrologer to the Gonzaga Court. It houses a museum and under normal circumstances, you can climb to the top. Sadly, during our visit, there was construction in progress so access to the tower and museum were closed.
Rotunda di San Lorenzo
The Rotunda di San Lorenzo sits right next to la Torre dell’Orologio. Built at the end of the 11th century, it is the oldest church in Mantua. It’s a small circular shape designed to look like a smaller version of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is no longer a church but serves as a local event space. Admission is free!
This palace was built in the 1500s by the Gonzaga family as a second home. Today it houses Mantua’s civic museum. This massive palace is a beautiful place to take a stroll and enjoy its art and rich history.
Insider Tip: You can save money if you buy the Mantua Sabbioneta Card for 20 euros (valid for 72 hours) which includes all the locations mentioned above and much more. Here’s a complete list:
Palazzo Ducale, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Palazzo Te, Palazzo San Sebastiano, Museo Diocesano, Testro Scientifico Bibiena, Museo Tazio Nuvolari, Palazzo della Ragione e Torre dell’Orologio, Tempio di San Sebastiano, Museo Palazzo d’Arco, Museums of Sabbioneta.
What to eat and drink:
As I made plans to visit Mantova, I do what I always do when I visit a new town, I researched what the locals eat. Each town in Italy has its own culinary traditions. Mantova is known for several dishes but the one that surprised me the most was Stracotto alla Mantovana, donkey meat marinated in wine for hours then braised. I’m usually up to trying new foods but I had to pass on that local dish. Call me weak, but I just couldn’t go there.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but here are a few of the local traditions my family and I enjoyed:
Tortelli di Zucca
Zucca (pumpkin) is used a lot in Mantova. You can find Tortelli and risotto made with pumpkin. The tortelli are usually served with a butter and sage sauce and topped with Parmigiano Reggiano.
Risotto alla Pilota
This is a drier risotto with pieces of local pork sausage (Salamella Mantovana), butter, and Grana Padano cheese.
A delicious pizza topped with mozzarella and local sausage (Salamella alla Mantovana). This was a hit with my son!
Lambrusco Mantovano DOP
Coming from the U.S., I confess that I’ve only had bad Lambrusco wine. I wasn’t particularly excited to try the local Lambrusco. What a surprise! It’s light, fruity but not too sweet. It’s absolutely wonderful.
I can’t wait to return to Mantua to explore this medieval gem more!