Ask a local: what should I do, see, and eat in Mantua, Italy?

by Gigi Griffis

Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.

Today I’m happy to introduce you to Lorenzo Bonoldi, an art historian and tourism professional, writer, researcher, and licensed tour guide here to tell us all about Mantua (also known as Mantova) – with its UNESCO World Heritage city center, lakes on every side, and a major role in the history of opera.

First, tell us about you.

I was born in the hills of the Mantuan province. I still live there, but I commute to Mantua every day. I usually describe myself as an art historian on loan to the tourism profession. With my degree in History of Art, I am constantly studying, researching, and writing essays. But—at the same time—I love to share my knowledge of Mantua (Mantova) with visitors coming here from all over the world. I strongly believe that knowledge is nothing when not shared. So, being a licensed tour guide for several years, I am having a lot of fun showing tourists around Mantua.

When I manage to have a day off, I love to relax in spas. When I have more time for myself, I turn myself into a tourist, passionately traveling to art cities, museums, and galleries. My favorite destination is London. My secret dream? A tea with the queen at Buckingham Palace!

If someone is visiting Mantua for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?

Mantua was one of the capitols of the Italian Renaissance. Most of the historical monuments of the city are connected with the Gonzaga, the family who ruled the city for almost four centuries from 1328 to 1707 (much longer than the Medici in Florence or the Tudors in England).

The headquarters of the Gonzagas was the Ducal Palace, which covers an area of more than 35,000 square meters. Frescoes by Pisanello, paintings by Rubens, and tapestries by Raphael are all to be found. And, of course, the Bridal Chamber (camera degli sposi) frescoed by Andrea Mantegna.

Another stunning palace belonging to the Gonzagas is Palazzo Te, the leisure villa of the Dukes of Mantua. This sumptuous residence was designed, built, and decorated by Giulio Romano, the best pupil of Raphael.

Of course, we have also religious buildings: the Basilica of St. Andrea, by Leon Battista Alberti, is one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance architecture. Just a stone’s thrown away, you can also find the oldest church still existing in town: the Romanesque round church known as the Rotunda of St. Lorenzo.

If you are in love with theaters, you’ll love the Bibiena Theatre, also known as The Scientific Theatre—a baroque hidden gem in Mantua. Mozart performed here in 1770 when he was just 13 years old!

If you are more interested in nature, don’t miss a boat trip on the three lakes that surround the city. The best time of the year to have this experience is July to August, when the Lotus flowers bloom.

What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?

Mantua is surrounded on three sides by lakes. If you are planning to have after-dinner walks in the main piazzas or porticos, don’t trust the distances provided by your GPS system; a place that may look pretty close the city center can actually be on the other side of the lakes. If you are looking for a central accommodation, check the correct locations on maps.

Please, be aware that the most of the old town is a ZTL zone (controlled traffic zone), so, when choosing the place you want to stay in, try to find out if you can reach it using your car. Many hotels provide their clients with ZTL passes.

Public transportation is not widespread in the city, but you can call a taxi on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and anytime on weekends and bank holidays.

If you don’t mind staying in rural accommodations (or if you love it!), look for a nice agriturismo (farm holiday) or a B&B in the countryside. If you are looking for something really special, I suggest the Reading Retreats property, based in Corte Eremo. Here, a few kilometers from Mantua, you can find a paradise for bibliophiles, garden-lovers, and people interested in art and music. A very special international guesthouse!

Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?

In the province of Mantua, there are two UNESCO sites: the Old Town of Mantua itself and Sabbioneta, often described as the little Athens of northern Italy. Sabbioneta is a perfect example of a Renaissance ideal city, where, amongst many palaces and historical buildings, you can also find one of the oldest modern theaters in the world.

In the surroundings of Mantua, you’ll find some of the 100 most beautiful Italian villages, including San Benedetto Po (with its impressive Benedictine abbey and monastery), Grazie (a hamlet built around a gothic church, filled with interesting votive offerings, including a crocodile from the Nile), and Castellaro Lagusello (a walled Medieval village overlooking a heart-shaped lake).

Another great idea for a day trip would be a river cruise; you can have a boat trip on the lakes around Mantua or follow the Mincio River.

Being at the very center of the Po Valley, Mantua is a great location if you are planning to visit other art cities of northern Italy. Within a 100-kilometer radius, you can easily reach Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Ferrara, Modena, Bologna, Parma, Cremona, and Brescia. Lake Garda—the biggest lake in Italy—is only 45 kilometers away from Mantua and a cycle-path connects the city to Peschiera del Garda.

Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?

The main signature dish of Mantua is the tortelli alla Mantovana, a ravioli-style pasta filled with pumpkin, apple mustard compote, and amaretti. The local risotto is called riso alla pilota and its recipe includes pork sausage. The local fish dish is the luccio in salsa (pike with green sauce). If you are into meat, you should try our stracotto (literally “overcooked meat”) with polenta (cornmeal mush).

The Mantuan culinary art finds its divine glorification in desserts and cakes. From the very simple sbrisolona (almond crumble cake) to the more elaborate torta delle rose (a bouquet of pastry roses with buttercream) and, my favorite one, torta helvetia (a dessert cake made with layers of almond-meringue, buttercream, and sabayon).

The local Christmas dessert is the anello di Monaco (“the ring of Munich”), whose recipe was actually invented in Mantua at the end of the XVIII century by a family of pastry chefs who moved into Mantua from the central Europe. This festive deliciousness is a ring-shaped doughnut filled with cream made ​​from hazelnuts, walnuts, and candied chestnuts with an icing of sugar on the top.

What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?

My favorite bar in the old town is the Caffè Modì (at Via San Giorgio 4), where you can have a drink, a breakfast, or a light meal in a place dedicated to art. The name of this café is in homage to the painter Amedeo Modigliani and nice concerts are often performed here. If you are into art and music, this is a place not to be missed.

A great restaurant is Ristorante il Cigno (located at Piazza Carlo D’arco 1). You can taste and appreciate the typical Mantuan dishes in a refined atmosphere here.

If you don’t mind driving for about 30 minutes, I’d suggest a wonderful place in Gazzuolo (halfway between Mantua and Sabbioneta) called ArteGusto (address: Via San Pietro 20, Gazzuolo). It’s an ancient convent turned in a very modern and special restaurant.

I have an additional tip about restaurants, bars, and cafés: avoid every place with a waiter standing at the door to invite (or, in most cases, push) you in. These are tourist traps. The really good places don’t need this sort of aggressive advertising.

Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?

The Mantuan summer is really hot and damp. Everybody would love to go around the city almost completely naked. But this is not advisable. Please, don’t be half-undressed and avoid bare-chested walks.

Gentlemen are expected to remove their hats when entering churches and ladies should cover their shoulders. It’s a matter of respect and good manners. If you really can’t cope without going around the city wearing a tank-top or a sleeveless chemise, make sure you have a shirt with you to cover up when entering churches. The same would be advisable for museums.

At restaurants, you can order and eat what you want, but if you are having a pizza and drinking a cappuccino, don’t be surprised if the locals look at you in a strange way. Usually Italians don’t take cappuccino in the afternoons. (Of course, you can, but people will immediately recognize you as strangers.)

On the other hand, there are things the locals do that tourists find rude or strange. For example, we eat horse meat. Please, don’t blame us for following our traditions.

What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?

In the old town, we have two main squares really close each other: Piazza Sordello and Piazza delle Erbe. While the first one is almost completely a tourist trap, the second is more frequently visited by locals. One of the most ancient bars in town, Bar Caravatti (located at Via Broletto 16), is here under the porticos.

Two cafes that are very “in” are Bar Venezia (located at Piazza Marconi 10) and Caffè Borsa – Antoniazzi.

In the summertime, the locals meet on the lakeshores, sunbathing, running, fishing, or just walking. Two very “in vogue” spots here are Papa’s Cafè (at Lungolago Mincio) and Zanzara (at Giardini Barbato 2), which is commonly described as “the best sunset-place in Mantua.” By the way, zanzara means mosquito, so have your bug spray with you every time you are in Mantua from May to October.

Why should people make sure to visit Mantua?

The cyclists love this place because we have many paths connecting the city with natural parks and Lake Garda. Art-lovers arrive here to visit the Gonzaga family’s palaces and villas and the other historical buildings. Of course, we do have great food and wine, so gourmet travelers are more than welcome.

People in love with music often visit Mantua because the city was chosen by Giuseppe Verdi as the set of his famous opera, Rigoletto, and also because the very first opera in history, the Fabula di Orpheo by Claudio Monteverdi, was first performed in this city on the night of Carnival of 1607.

We also have tourists arriving from Verona, following the footsteps of William Shakespeare; Mantua is the city where Romeo escaped when he was banished from Verona.

What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?

Great pictures of the city skyline facing the lakes can be taken from the opposite shores. The best place to shoot panoramic photos is an area known as Campo Canoa; try to find it on your maps or your GPS (it’s near the T-junction between Via Legnago and Strada Cipata). A free car park is nearby, so you can leave your car while shooting.

Great scenic views of the historical buildings can be taken from Piazza Concordia (behind the Rotunda of San Lorenzo) and Piazza Leon Battista Alberti (behind Sant’Andrea’s Basilica). The most photographed corner of the city includes the dome of Sant’Andrea’s Basilica and the Torre della Gabbia (tower of the cage) as they are seen by the arches of the portico of the Ducal Palace in Piazza Sordello.

Anything else you want us to know?

Yes, I’d like to share three more tips:

1. On Thursdays, we have the weekly market in the old town. The city gets crowded and it’s impossible to have a peaceful walk and find a place for your car at this time. Be aware of this when planning your visit.

2. Mantua is often described as “the sleeping beauty of Italy.” As soon as the sun goes down, the old town falls asleep, most of the locals and tourists disappear, and many bars and shops close. But in the tranquility of the night, the city is even more fascinating. So, don’t miss the opportunity for a late evening walk in the city center.

3. Most of the old town still has its original cobblestones. Make sure your shoes are comfortable. Ladies: no stilettos here (unless you are an acrobat). And this is the secret trick to recognize the local ladies: the Mantuan women are able to walk on the cobblestones and pebbles in their high heels!

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