MANTUA: THE CITY OF CULTURE, ART AND GOOD FOOD
In this article, I would like to tell you about the five things to see in Mantua, a Lombard city a few kilometers south of Lake Garda.
On the banks of the Mincio river and within the homonymous park lies Mantua, a jewel where culture, art, history and nature meet. World Heritage Site since 2008, Italian Capital of Culture 2016 and European Gastronomic Capital 2017, it is known as the queen of the lakes. The Superiore, Inferiore and di Mezzo Lakes almost entirely cover the city perimeter. These river basins were created by the engineer Alberto Pitentino in 1198 to regulate the course of the river and make the city safer.
Did you know that in the past there was also a fourth lake? Lake Paiolo was drained in 1700 to make the area healthier and encourage urban development!
The lotus flower, an aquatic plant root native to the East, is a very typical vegetation on the Lago Superiore. According to the legend, a young oriental woman died falling into the lake and her lover scattered the seeds of this flower in her honor.
Every year in July and August this plant gives a flowering unique of its kind, the largest after those in Japan. The white, yellow, pink, orange and red petals come together in a chromatic dance, offering an extraordinary natural sight. Delicate and pure, they are today the symbol of the city.
If you want to fully enjoy their flowering or simply take a ride among the reeds of the lake, I recommend one of the organized river cruises!
Mantua doesn’t only offer wonderful views. The city is also very rich in history and culture. If you want to discover some interesting facts related to this beautiful place to visit near Lake Garda, read the next lines…
Mantua is the birthplace of Virgil, the famous poet who pronounced the sentence “Mantua me genuit” (Mantua begot me), also sung by Dante in Hell.
Dante focused on the figure of Manto, a fortune-teller of Thebes who left Greece and settled in an uninhabited land in the middle of the swamp. The city that takes its name from her, Mantua, was built in the exact place where she used to live. However, there are still several legends about the mythological origin of the city, whose plots are often intertwined, giving rise to intricate theories.
According to history, Mantua was founded by the Etruscans in the 4th century BC. In the following centuries the city was a fortified center in which great families such as the Canossa, the Bonacolsi and the Gonzagas followed one another. Under the Gonzaga court (1328-1707) it reached its maximum splendor and became one of the most important art centers in Italy. Giulio Romano, Andrea Mantegna and Leon Battista Alberti are just some of the great artists and architects who were welcomed in this period.
Walking through the streets of the city is always a discovery, a way to breathe history and get involved in its romantic atmosphere.
YOUR GUIDE: FIVE THINGS TO SEE IN MANTUA
The itinerary that I propose will allow you to get to know the five things to see in Mantua that you absolutely cannot miss.
But before starting, let me give you some suggestions to orient yourself and not miss any of the beauties of the historic center. Raise your eyes to the sky, observe the buildings and take a turn in the square. Wherever you look, you will find something interesting to imprint in your memory.
First of all, I recommend that you allow yourself at least half a day to stroll through the narrow streets. The center is quite small, so forget about the means of transport and wear comfortable shoes, suitable for the historic cobblestones of the streets. Visit all the churches, squares and monuments, one of which is dedicated to Virgil in Piazza Virgiliana, the green lung of the historic center.
Admire the Social Theater, wanted by the citizens in 1822, stroll along Corso Umberto and enjoy an aperitif in Piazza Marconi, the center of Mantuan nightlife. In front of you, there is Piazza Mantegna with the imposing Basilica of Sant’Andrea, the work of Leon Battista Alberti and a must on your itinerary.
Nearby is Piazza Matilde di Canossa with the Church of the Madonna del Terremoto and the old newspaper kiosk. Just think that the newsstand has been embellishing the square since 1925 and today it is one of the FAI assets!
This place to visit near Lake Garda hides beautiful and suggestive corners and palaces you can’t miss! Here are some of them…
Not everyone knows that if you walk down the tiny alley to the right of the church, you will have an incredible glimpse of the Basilica of Sant’Andrea’s dome. So, enjoy the view and don’t forget to take a picture!
Along Via Verdi and returning to Piazza Mantegna, you can admire the beauty of Piazza Erbe. Here you will find the Clock Tower located between the Palazzo della Ragione and the Rotonda di San Lorenzo.
In the evening the square lights up and becomes a magical location where to dine or enjoy a drink.
Continuing on the walk you will come across the characteristic Piazza Broletto, until you reach Piazza Sordello, the heart of Mantua. Here you can visit the Duomo and Palazzo Ducale, the palace of the Gonzaga family. On the way, don’t forget to stop in Piazza Leon Battista Alberti, which has just been renovated. A dinner in one of its romantic restaurants is almost a must!
In your walk you cannot miss the tasting of some typical dish! Mantua is well known and appreciated for its cuisine. The specialties? Pumpkin tortelli, risotto alla pilota and the inevitable sbrisolona. A real treat for the palate!
After this overview, I just have to talk to you more in detailed about the five things to see in Mantua that cannot really be missing on your list!
1. PALAZZO DUCALE
The first of the five things to see in Mantua is undoubtedly Palazzo Ducale, an imposing palace between Piazza Sordello and the shore of Lake Inferiore.
Known by all for being the home of the Gonzagas, it was built in 1200 and is inspired by the municipal buildings of the Lombardy area. With the Gonzagas, Mantua experienced a period of great splendor and their residence, so imposing and rich, is proof of this.
The Palace is a succession of small rooms, galleries, courtyards, stairways, rooms, studios and hanging gardens. Lose yourself among the tapestries, visit the study of Isabella d’Este, get amazed by the Gallery of Mirrors and breathe culture in the Hanging Garden. The Hall of the Zodiac is one of the most fascinating, you will be captivated by the constellations represented and you will feel like you are in an open-air museum.
But what you really can’t miss is a visit to the two main pictorial cycles. You will find that of Pisanello and that of Andrea Mantegna, who here created the Camera degli Sposi, his most famous work.
A visit to Palazzo Ducale represents a real journey into the past between the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Neoclassicism. I warn you, you will never want to leave it, this place is addictive!
2. THE CASTLE OF SAN GIORGIO
Through the Scalone di Enea of Palazzo Ducale you reach the Castle of San Giorgio, built by Bartolino da Novara at the end of 1300. Consisting of a square plan and four corner towers surrounded by a moat, the building is today one of the symbols of the city. Imposing, marvelous and emblematic, the castle was built in 1300 as a defensive fortress. In 1459 it was transformed into a residence by Luca Fancelli, a pupil of Brunelleschi.
Get ready to be amazed and to shine your eyes, the historical and artistic testimonies are really numerous! There are many rooms that can be accessed, such as that of the Coats of Arms, of the Frescoes or the apartment of Isabella d’Este.
But the spearhead is undoubtedly the Camera degli Sposi, or Camera Picta, just the one I was talking about a few lines up. The work, known as “the most beautiful room in the world”, was created by Andrea Mantegna (1465-1474) and is a true Renaissance masterpiece.
The incredible perspective rendering gives a unique vitality to the painted subjects, you will feel like you are taking a dip in the past and getting to know the Gonzaga family in person!
If inside the room you feel observed, do not worry, it is the frescoed characters who are scrutinizing you from the perspective oculus on the ceiling. It’s a one of a kind sensation!
I recommend, in order not to damage the frescoes, it is only possible to stop for a maximum of 10 minutes and in small groups. Enjoy your time and scan all the details!
After admiring every detail of this important place to visit near Lake Garda, the tour continues. I am going to give you some additional suggestions you will certainly appreciate.
After visiting the interior, I suggest you admire the beauty of the castle also from the front garden. Continuing along the homonymous bridge, you will come to Campo Canoa, an area of the city from which you can enjoy one of the most beautiful skylines. The city that is reflected in the waters of the lake, the medieval castle, the green of the lakefront and in the background the dome of Sant’Andrea. Can you imagine anything more splendid?
At any time and in any season, this spectacle that combines history and nature enchants all visitors and leaves also the Mantuans breathless. The evening lights make the skyline even more suggestive, sometimes mysterious and other very romantic.
If you want to take home a spectacular shot, don’t forget your camera! The result will undoubtedly be a beautiful postcard.
3. THE LAKEFRONT
The third of the five things to see in Mantua is certainly the lakeshore, a cycle-pedestrian path that connects the center to the surrounding areas for 4 km. The walk along the lake begins at the Belfiore Gardens, a residential area on the outskirts of the city. Then continue along the shore of the Castle of San Giorgio and up to Porta Catena.
The lakeside of Mantua is the perfect place if you want to enjoy a moment of relaxation surrounded by nature, a stone’s throw from the city center. The feeling will be that of being transported away from the city, in an oasis of peace where everything flows slower. Admire the beauty of the lake and let yourself be lulled by the sound of the water. Treat yourself to an aperitif at sunset in one of the characteristic bars and enjoy the show of colors and the view!
If you are a sporty person you can also decide to do some jogging, a ride or to train in one of the equipped areas, the choice is yours!
Don’t miss the next few lines because I am about to tell you a singular detail about this place to visit near Lake Garda.
Along your walk, you will undoubtedly come across some of the animals that inhabit the Mincio Park: ducks, swans and … even some otters! Remember that you are in their house, so give them a smile and nothing more, better continue with the walk!
Speaking of animals, if you want to be accompanied by your four-legged friend this is the ideal place. Halfway through the route you will also find a dog area where you can let your faithful companion run freely and where he can play with his similar ones.
4. PALAZZO TE
Regenerated by the walk in the countryside, it’s time to take a dip in culture again.
Palazzo Tè is the fourth of the five things to see in Mantua and you cannot miss it for any reason if you are visiting the city.
The palace, wanted by Duke Federico II Gonzaga as a villa for pleasure and leisure, was built between 1525 and 1534 on a project by Giulio Romano. Located at the gates of the historic center, it is today one of the most impressive and important structures in the city. Since 1990 it has been home to the civic museum and the International Center for Art and Culture which organizes annual art and architecture exhibitions.
Visit the large halls, the stables, the gardens and discover the secret passages. You will feel like you are one of the guests the Gonzagas received at the palace! Admire the Hall of Cupid and Psyche and be amazed by the Great Hall of Horses. The animals are represented in such a realistic and perspective way that you will want to pet them!
Read on to find out more about this place to visit near Lake Garda!
Among the most famous rooms, there is the Sala dei Giganti, performed by Giulio Romano and other collaborators. In this room comes to life the episode in which the Giants and the Titans tried to expel the gods from Olympus. Giulio Romano was mainly inspired by Ovid’s “The Metamorphoses”. Here it is said that ‘the Giants, aspiring to the celestial kingdom, piled the mountains one upon the other to the stars’.
Entering this room, the sensation will be that of being completely absorbed by the walls, with no architectural limits. The horizontal and vertical planes come together to create a unique optical effect of its kind.
To round off this experience, during summer months don’t forget to enjoy a delicious aperitif in the Esedra Gardens, right inside the Palace. The names of many cocktails are inspired by the artistic beauties of the building, a really good choice to immerse yourself in the atmosphere even more! The one of a kind location will transport you back in time and give you a truly special experience.
5. GRAZIE: THE VILLAGE MANTOVANO AND ITS SANCTUARY
The fifth place I want to suggest is undoubtedly Grazie di Curtatone, an ancient and picturesque village a few kilometers from the city center. Inserted among ‘The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy’, the small town is rich in history and traditions, where nature and spirituality meet. It is located within the Mincio Regional Park, on the right bank of the river, right where the watercourse becomes Lake Superiore.
The small center was born around the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attributed to Bartolino da Novara and built between 1399 and 1406. As true protagonist of the village, the sanctuary was built at the behest of Francesco I Gonzaga as a vote during a period of plague. Inside there are the beauty of 53 life-size statues, dating back to the period between the 1600s and 1800s and restored in 2000.
How does it look to you so far? Here comes the best part. Here is an interesting curiosity about this place to visit near Lake Garda!
When you enter the church, you will find yourself surrounded by a multitude of popes, kings, warriors and ladies. But the peculiarity of these statues lies in the materials: wood, wax and papier-mâché! Singular right?
Hanging from the vault, a crocodile welcomes the visitors and its unknown provenance tinges this sanctuary with mystery. According to the legend, the church was built as a greeting to the Madonna for having freed the people from the ferocious crocodile. However, there are many theories in this regard, but the real origin of the animal is still a mystery.
Inside the church, you can find anatomical votive tablets and ex-votos brought by the faithful and pilgrims everywhere. For hundreds of years, the sanctuary has in fact been a place of prayer for many foreigners who ask the grace of Our Lady.
How about to discover what is the much-awaited event taking place in this place to visit near Lake Garda?
If you go to Mantua during the week of Ferragosto (15th of August), you absolutely cannot miss the Fiera delle Grazie! The ancient fair is an event that began in 1425 and combines the sacred and the profane. A tradition that tastes of summer and that lights up the small Mantuan village every year. In a dance between music, art, culture and gastronomy, the event is an unmissable destination for Mantua people and thousands of visitors. According to the tradition, people go on pilgrimage from the city center to the sanctuary to pray the Madonna. Definitely a tiring experience if you consider the summer heat, but truly rewarding on a spiritual level. Seeing is believing!
On these days, the small village is animated by lights, rides, musical performances, stalls and food stands. A party for all tastes! What you really can’t miss is the traditional sandwich with cotechino! A real must to celebrate August 15th.
In addition, the churchyard of the sanctuary hosts every year the Madonnari, painters who with chalk create incredible works on the concrete of the square. Observing the artists at work is a truly unique experience of its kind! Take a stroll among the paintings and be amazed by the beauty and delicacy of these works. They are temporary masterpieces and for this reason perhaps even more precious.
If these five things to see in Mantua have not yet convinced you to visit it, let me tell you about some wonderful events.
Every year Mantua organizes numerous exhibitions for culture lovers, so I suggest you always keep an eye on the event’s calendar. At any time of the year, you will always find some activities to participate in!
If you love theater, you will also have the opportunity to attend one of the shows staged at the Teatro Sociale or the Bibiena Theater. An opportunity to spend a different evening, immerse yourself in culture and enjoy the beauty of these structures.
During the winter period, do not miss the characteristic Christmas markets in Piazza Virgiliana. Indulge in some shopping at the stalls, go skating on the ice rink and warm up with a good mulled wine!
If you love the good food, don’t miss the Mangiari Fair in July on the lakefront. An opportunity to enjoy excellent street food in a suggestive location and participate in the many organized activities!
The highlight comes now. You are about to find out what is the main event of this place to visit near Lake Garda. Keep reading…
The main event in Mantua is undoubtedly the Literature Festival, during the second week of September. Born in 1997, it is the first cultural festival ever organized in Italy. For 5 days you will have the opportunity to participate in cultural events and listen to speeches by writers and scholars of national and international fame. If you have any doubts, you can ask information from the so-called ‘blue shirts’, the dozens of volunteers who make this event possible every year. They are the emblem of the event, as well as heart and soul of the festival.
The locations chosen for the events are always perfect! Can you imagine the feeling of meeting your favorite writer sitting in some secret garden in the city center?
Get involved by participating in a debate and quench your thirst for knowledge at some topical event! Let yourself be enveloped by this party atmosphere and enjoy the city in the height of its euphoria!
I warn you, once you participate in Festivaletteratura, you won’t be able to live without it anymore! It will be your annual fixed appointment!
At this point, I can only hope that Mantua has entered the list of destinations for your next trip! So, calendar in hand, you just have to decide when to go!
To discover the other places to visit near Lake Garda, don’t miss the related articles!