Mantua, or Mantova in Italian, has a rich and fascinating history. The city makes a brief appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid: the Mantua-born poet writes that Tuscan warrior Ocnus founded the city in honour of his mother, Manto, a prophet.
In antiquity, Mantua changed hands several times, from the Etruscans to the Celts, then to the Romans, who made the city a military outpost.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city was ruled by various Germanic tribes before Charlemagne incorporated it into the Frankish Empire in 774.
During the Middle Ages, Mantua became an independent city-state ruled by the Gonzaga family for several centuries. And during the Renaissance, the city was a centre of art and culture, attracting famous artists and intellectuals.
In the 18th century, Mantua was invaded by Napoleon's armies and became part of the French Empire. After the fall of Napoleon, Mantua became part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, ruled by the Austrians. Then, in 1866, Mantua joined the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
In 2008, UNESCO made the city’s centro storico (old town) and nearby Sabbioneta a World Heritage Site. The city’s many architectural gems include:
- the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family up to 1707
- the beautifully frescoed Palazzo Te, built for Federico II Gonzaga as a summer palace
- Basilica di Sant’Andrea
- Rotonda di San Lorenzo
- Castello San Giorgio
- Cattedrale di San Pietro
You can’t visit Italy without trying the local food. Make sure you sample some of these local delights:
- salame mantovano (fresh garlic salami)
- tortelli di zucca (pumpkin-stuffed pasta served with sage and butter)
- stuffed agnolini (egg pasta made to a recipe dating back to 1662)
- riso alla pilota (pork sausage risotto)
- sbrisolona (almond crumble cake)
This compact city is virtually an island, encircled by four centuries-old lakes, one of which dried up in the 18th century. That means your best option is on foot, although there are local buses and taxis. If you’re driving, be aware that Mantua operates a limited-traffic zone. Some hotels provide guests with vehicle entry passes.
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The town of Sabbioneta, a Renaissance jewel, is just over 30 kilometres from Mantua, as is Lake Garda. Verona is a mere 45-minute train journey away.