Last Updated on February 11, 2024 by Michela
Mantua, Italy. You may have heard about it in history books but you don’t always hear about it as an Italy destination worth going off-the-beaten-path for.
The truth is, Mantua is an Italy hidden gem that makes for the perfect half-day or day trip addition to your northern Italy itinerary. It’s small and sweet, and the fact that the best things to do in Mantua are all so close to each other means you can get a lot of this town in little time.
Not only will you read on to find the best things to do in Mantua, but you’ll also get all the insider practical tips you need for a stress-free visit – and to decide if Mantua is worth visiting for you.
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Mantua, Italy: A bit of history
An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mantua is of more historical and cultural significance than you might think – or at least that I thought before visiting!
Mantua dates all the way back to 2000 BC. From the 14th to the 18th century, the Gonzaga family ruled Mantua and brought it to cultural prominence for its role in art and opera.
After the Gonzaga family died out, Mantua lost some relevance until Austrian Hapsburg rule took over the territory. Mantua was somewhat of a political stronghold, which was proved by the importance of when Napoleon seized control of the city after his siege of Mantua.
Fast forward and Mantua is a small yet thriving city in Lombardy, right between Veneto and Emilia-Romagna.
One thing that surprised me about Mantua is that it is a city surrounded by lakes. As you approach crossing over the bridge, it is like you are going over a huge moat surrounding a castle. The city seems to emerge from the still and calm waters of Mincio River and the three lakes around it – Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore.
You can also see the peaks of the Italian Alps from the city’s lakeshore.
How to Reach Mantua, Italy
One of the things I loved about Mantua was how convenient it is to reach. You can find visitor-friendly paid parking right in the historic city center, which is not often the case for most Italian towns and cities.
Arriving by car
Arriving by car is the most flexible way to get to Mantua.
You can find convenient paid parking right at the edge of Piazza Sordello. See the map below for exact coordinates.
If the city is busy and you can’t get parking in the historic center, there is a large lot across the river at Parcheggio di Campo Canoa. The parking here is free and there is a free shuttle to reach the city center.
Arriving by train
Even if you aren’t driving in Italy on your itinerary, you can easily reach the city center of Mantua by train.
Get off at the Mantua central train station and you are exactly a 20-minute walk from either Palazzo Te or Piazza Sordello, the two “ends” of the city center.
Good to know: Check out my tips for traveling by train in Italy.
The Best Things to Do in Mantua, Italy
Whether self-guided or with a local guide, Mantua is the perfect town for a walking tour. The proximity of all its main attractions that are still woven so closely with local life makes it enjoyable to explore on foot.
Castello di San Giorgio
As you cross over the lake to Mantua, your first met with the incredible panorama of the old town, and then with the San Giorgio Castle.
Built in the late 14th century, the castle is part of the Ducal Palace. Its size is impressive but even more interesting is that it is surrounded by a moat and has multiple drawbridges – just how you would picture a fairytale castle!
You can visit inside with a ticket to the Ducal Palace.
Mantua’s main square holds some of the city’s best historic attractions. It also so-happened that by visiting on a Sunday, I ran into a huge vintage market, so you may also run into a local marketplace!
Palazzo Ducale & Museums
The Ducal Palace is the home of Mantua’s nobles, the ruling family Gonzaga.
The palace is comprised of a maze of rooms, including the more famous Camera degli Sposi. The room is covered in illusion paintings by Andrea Mantegna.
Included in the visit to the Ducal Palace is also the National Archeological Museum of Mantua.
Here the most famous piece is bound to amaze you. It’s called “Gli amanti di Valdaro”, the Lovers of Valdaro. They are two skeletons hugging, discovered in 2007 but estimated to have been buried more than 5000 years ago.
Right beside the Palazzo Ducale in the main square is a hidden-in-plain-sight free attraction. The archeological area shows the remains of Roman-era walls and mosaics.
St. Peter’s Cathedral
Standing in the shadow of the grand Ducal Palace is the first of Mantua’s cathedral.
The St. Peter’s Cathedral is free to enter and worth a walk around. The square-patterned ceiling is its standout characteristic.
Piazza delle Erbe
Walking further into the heart of Mantua, you’ll stumble upon the livelier Piazza delle Erbe.
Here you’ll find a number of famous buildings and the best place to try Mantua cuisine.
Scaravelli & Local Mantovan Food
When you arrive in Piazza delle Erbe, you know where to go eat. That’s because the Scaravelli bakery is bustling with people at every hour of the day.
This bread & sweets maker is the gateway to several Mantovan specialties. For a small city, Mantua has a huge food culture, with both savory and sweet dishes to dry.
- Pumpkin: Mantua is famous for its pumpkin variety. The classic way to eat it is Tortelli alla zucca, a pumpkin-filled ravioli. At Scaravelli, you can watch the chefs preparing the ravioli from the window.
- Torta delle rose: Similar to a panettone, this bread-like cake is lighter and softer. It has a characteristic rose shape and vanilla fragrance.
- Sbrisolana: The most popular Mantua dessert that you can find replicated throughout Italy. The sbrisolana is an almond crumble cake, dating back to the 1500s. .
I also tried the tortelli filled with cream and they were so, so sweet.
Rotonda di San Lorenzo
One thing stands out when you arrive in the Piazza delle Erbe: the huge round building called Saint Lawrence’s Rotunda.
It is one of Mantua’s most important buildings, built between the late 11th century and early 12th century. The rotunda is a small church free to visit and very quick to walk through.
The Mantua Clocktower
Last but not least, the square is dominated by Mantua’s astronomical clock tower, part of the Palazzo della Ragione. Built in the late 15th century, it was the second built in Italy.
Google Arts & Culture did an incredibly detailed profile on the clock’s history.
For me, the best thing to see in Mantua is the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, work of architect Leon Battisti Alberti. It is the co-cathedral to Saint’s Peter’s, unusual for Italian cities.
Not only does the facade feel like it is literally swallowing you up as you approach the church’s entrance (it is that big), but the interior blows you away with its depth and intricacy.
It is one of the most unique cathedral’s I’ve seen in Italy for its repeated painted designs. The patterns are so detailed and busy that it puts your eyes in a trance. Not to mention the epic dome and ceiling.
If you’re looking to get more of a local taste of Mantua, head over to the peschiere. These were a set of buildings designed by architect Giulio Romano dedicated to the fish trade.
Today, it is more than just a historical monument but simply a beautiful place to stroll along the stream and admire the archways.
More Mantua Museums
Mantua is small but is a hub for all things art.
The Casa Mantegna, built by Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, hosts periodic modern art exhibitions.
There is also the Palazzo San Sebastiano Museum, which is currently undergoing renovations, but is otherwise home to the civic museum. If you have a full day or more than one day in Mantua, then you will be able to work these extra museums into your itinerary.
I’ve listed most of the things to do in Mantua in a chronological order as if you were walking through the city yourself. That’s why you are finding the city’s arguably biggest attraction towards the end of the list.
About a 20-minute walk from the historic city center, Palazzo Te is Mantua’s crown jewel.
To start it is at the head of an expansive park, perfect for a relaxing city stroll.
The Te Palace is the masterpiece of Giulio Romano. It is known for the illusionist frescoes that change theme from room to room. One of the most famous is the Sala dei Giganti, a room painted with huge giants creating chaos.
You must buy tickets to visit the Palazzo Te.
If you are visiting in the warmer months, don’t miss a stroll along Mantua’s lake and the old town perimeter. Besides enjoying the large parks, there are also boat tour options if you want to catch a view of Mantua from the water.
This park is a sweet extra to throw in on your day in Mantua but not a must-visit, as it is simply a nice scenic park with a monument.
Did you know that Mantua is home to the largest expanse of lotus flowers outside of Asia? Bet you didn’t have that on your bingo card!
Floating on the surface of Lago Superiore is literally an island of lotuses (Isola dei Fiori di Loto).
The flowers are in full bloom from July to August.
Practical Travel Tips for Visiting Mantua
The Best Time to Visit Mantua
One of the great things about Mantua is that you can’t really go wrong with visiting it any time of the year. I visited in January, and even though it was quite cold, we were still able to see everything pretty comfortably (besides walking along the lake).
The best time to visit Mantua could be throughout July and August when the lotus flowers bloom and the weather is full-on summer sun.
How Long Should You Visit Mantua For
You can see Mantua in as little as a couple hours and at most a day and a half.
Mantua is a great day trip if you are in the Lake Garda/Verona/Venice area, but I wouldn’t suggest that it is worth going out of your way for. It is a beautiful city, but there just isn’t enough to do to justify creating your entire itinerary around it or spending more than one night there.
Where to Stay in Mantua
While I don’t necessarily believe it is worth staying in Mantua overnight since it can be done as a half-day or day trip on your itinerary, it may not be the same case for your itinerary.
If staying in Mantua overnight works for your travel plans, then check out these old town accommodations:
Map of Things to Do in Mantua
The SGTD Take
Mantua is a beautiful, bite-size northern Italian city that works well as a day trip or pit stop on an itinerary.
The pros are that everything there is to see is close to each other and Mantua has its own distinguished food traditions that will please any cuisine-curious.
I wouldn’t say Mantua is such a must-do that you should go out of your way to visit it but rather that it can enrich your trip to northern Italy if you are already passing by.
I hope this Mantua, Italy travel guide has answered all your questions!