“Etruscan god: Mantus”, “Roman: Manto”, “The most important Renaissance city in Italy”
Continuing with another great day in this very busy weekend visiting so many places in such a short time, we move towards both Mantua and Sabbioneta. One complimenting the other, and near each other, both inscribed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites for being exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance, linked through the visions and actions of the ruling Gonzaga family. While Mantua is the extension and redesign of the pre-existing city, Sabbioneta highlights the creation of a new city following the most perfect lines of the Renaissance. In both, the large amount of historic churches, palaces and buildings lead to be the main artistic, cultural, and especially musical hubs of Northern Italy and the country as a whole.
Some further notes in history about famous people or facts, we can start with Mantua being the birthplace of Roman poet Virgil, where a square and statue honor his name, Piazza Virgiliana. Not only that composer Monteverdi premiered his opera L’Orfeo in mantua, it is overall, one of the most important centres in the history of opera. As last, for the Shakespeare’s lovers, Mantua is the city where Romeo banished in the play Romeo and Juliet.
Northern Italy, in the same way as is the south, offer countless cities and sights one after another, literally. Just a mere dozen of kilometres apart and you are in a different world. So as we landed in Verona as our perfect base, and enjoyed Vicenza and Padua the day before, one world famous for being pretty much the “birthplace” of neoclassical architecture, and the other containing the world’s first botanical garden dating from the 16th century; today we get to enjoy what arguably has been described as the birthplace of the Renaissance architecture and urbanism. And all of this not even an hour away from Verona’s downtown.
Visiting Mantua is simple and easy. While on one hand this is a small city, in the other, there is way too much to see, everywhere, every corner. Spending an entire day could be overestimating, but that’s where Sabbioneta comes in the story. Any organised tour, or personal tour, will include both cities in the same day and that works great giving you plenty of flexibility without any rush considering the fact you need to commute between both cities, either by public bus or your own transportation. Still, it’s only really a matter of minutes.
Now something that is great about generally any city in the north of Italy comes towards the afternoon. Dinner time. So while of course you have countless restaurants of any kind anywhere, you also have the “happy hour” places where you buy a drink, and get a food buffet included! They call it apericena. Ok, do not expect having a huge choice of food, but it is great enough. For around 8 Euros for a cocktail as an example, then you can eat until you wish, although the general will be around 10 to 12 Euros. A fantastic alternative to an otherwise expensive business that can be finding a nice restaurant, and a much better way to chill out with friends or rest after a long sightseeing day.
For more information about Mantua check this Wikipedia article, and form Sabbioneta, this one. Italy’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Mantua:
- Lakes around the city Originally there were 4 artificial lakes created in the 12th century as a measure of protection together with the system of walls and bastions, encircling the west, north, east and of the city. Now there are 3, with the 4th covered up to build part of the city on the south. Lago Superiore is at the west, Lago di Mezzo in the north and Lago Inferiore at the east.
- Citadela di Mantova Located across the lakes, right across the Ponte dei Mulini bridge that divides Lago Superiore at the west with Lago di Mezzo at the east. There are nice views over the city from this shore of the lake.
- Palazzo d’Arco Located next to the university buildings towards the northwest part of the city, few meters ahead of the Ponte dei Mulini. Neoclassical palace erected for the Arco family from Trento in 1746. Of importance is the Zodiac room, with stunning frescoes depicting the zodiac symbols. Nowadays a painting gallery.
- Piazza Virgiliana In the northern area of the city few streets east from the Ponte dei Mulini, with oval shape towards the west and the Lago di Mezzo shores to the northern end. Contains the largest urban park within the city, many busts and monuments.
- Piazza Sordello Just a street ahead east from Piazza Virgiliana, it the major landmark in Mantua, wherever you look there’s only architectural masterpieces.
-Duomo The Cathedral, located in the northern part of the square. The current building is the 3rd reincarnation where it has changed its style through the centuries. The main facade dates from the refurbishment in the 18th century, in Baroque style with Carrara marbles, however the interior retains most of the renaissance structure.
-Palazzo Vescovile The Bishops Palace, marking the northwest corner with the cathedral.
-Palazzo Ducale The main royal residence of the former ruling Gonzaga family in their capital of their Duchy, is a complex of buildings built between the 14th and 17th centuries that include landscaped courtyards, squares and gardens around the buildings. Noteworthy are:
-Palazzo del Capitano Built in the 13th century for Guido Buonacolsi, whose family ruled Mantua from 1271 to 1328. One of its highlights is the Scalone delle Duchesse (the Duchesses’ Staircase), built in the 17th century.
-Palatine Chapel Considered a masterpiece built by mantuan architect Giovan Battista Bertani on request of Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga.
-Castle of Saint George Completed in 1406, famous for the Camera degli Sposi (wedding room) in the northern tower with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna. Located at the eastern side by the lake.
- Piazza Broletto and Piazza delle Erbe The next important spaces, meters south from Sordello Square.
-Palazzo del Podestà Right in between both of the squares, was built in 1227 as the home and offices of the commune government in Mantua.
-Palazzo della Ragione On Piazza delle Erbe along the eastern side, forming the corner with the Pazzao del Podestà, with the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower).
-Rotonda di San Lorenzo The next construction after Palazzo della Ragione, built in the 11th century is one of the oldest buildings in the city, a remarkable example of Romanesque art.
-Basilica of Sant’Andrea At the opposite side of the square, was begun in 1462 after designs by Leon Battista Alberti and finished in the 18th century when the dome by Filippo Juvarra was added. At the other side of the basilica is the square named after its architect, Leon Battista Alberti Square.
- Piazza Dante Very small, south from the Palazzo Ducale in Via Accademia that runs east in between both the Piazza Broletto and Piazza Sordello.
-Bibiena Theater Also known as Teatro Scientifico, was designed by Antonio Bibiena in 1767, opening in 1769. On 16 January 1770, thirteen years old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played a concert.
- Roma, Principe Amedeo and Giovanni Acerbi streets From Piazza delle Erbe, are the main artery towards the south of the city.
-House of Mantegna On Via Giovanni Acerbi facing the church of San Sebastiano across the road. Built in 1476 on a plan with a circular internal court within an external square building.
-San Sebastiano Church Designed by Leon Battista Alberti from 1460, considered one of the earliest and most significant examples of Renaissance centrally-planned churches.
- Palazzo del Te At the end of Via Giovanni Acerbi is this beautiful palace and gardens. Designed by Giulio Romano, is a fine example of the mannerism renaissance style built between 1524 and 1534 for Federico II Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua as the family’s summer residence.
What to see and do in Sabbioneta:
- City walls and bastions Completely surrounding the small historic centre, were created at the same time as the city was planned and built from scratch. The first example of the perfect ideals of the Renaissance architecture.
-Porta Vittoria The western gate.
-Porta Imperiale The easternmost gate.
- Chiesa dell’Incoronata Upon entering through the Porta Vittoria, few meters ahead on the street to the west. 2 Euros for visiting, or if you get the combo ticket for all the sights costing 12 Euros, this is also included.
- Piazza Ducale The main square in the city with the most famous buildings around.
-Ducal Palace At the western side of the square, once the residence of the Duke of Gonzola, it is now the Town Hall. You need tickets for visiting it, like all the other sights in the city. You can only purchase them in the Tourist Office which is in Piazza d’Armi, and are either single tickets for each attraction at 5 Euros, or a combo ticket for all for 12 Euros.
-Church of Santa Maria Assunta and San Rocco Both towards the eastern side of the square, one behind the other.
-Old Synagogue Bu the southeast corner of the square, along Via Bernardino Campi. One of the oldest and unaltered in Italy. (5/12 Euros depending on which ticket you get, single of combo).
- Teatro all’antica Designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, located a street parallel to the Piazza Ducale following Via Teatro corner with Via Vespasiano Gonzaga. The first free-standing, purpose-built theater in the modern world, the second oldest surviving indoor theater in the world after the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. (5/12 Euros depending on which ticket you get, single of combo).
- Piazza d’Armi This large garden and square is along the southwest of the city.
-Galleria degli Antichi The grand corridor once linking to the extant castle (razed by Napoleon), was built in the 1580’s, entirely covered with frescoes. Like a Sixtine Chapel, once you are inside looking towards the entire corridor it is impressive. (5/12 Euros depending on which ticket you get, single of combo).
-Palazzo del Giardino Austere from the outside, has great rooms each of then decorated in a different motif.
The nearest airports to Mantua and Sabbioneta are Verona (40 or 80 kilometres to the north), Bologna 110 km southeast, Bergamo 125 km west, Milan Linate 140 km west and equidistant around 180 km both airports serving Venice to the east, Treviso and Marco Polo. Connecting from any of these airports is easy and straightforward either by buses from the airport terminal or via downtown with buses and trains linking each of them.
Coming overland will probably be the most common way any tourist reach this city, either on any of the multiple day trips from any of the nearby cities such as Verona, Milan, Bologna or even Venice, or as part of a wider tour through the northern region of Italy. The fact is that you do not really need to rent a car in order to move around the region, the railway and bus connections are fantastic, very frequent and reliable. Mantua is a stop along the major train routes towards Milan, Bergamo, Verona, Modena and Bologna, with further intermediary important cities in between.
Sabbioneta in the other hand does not have railway connection, but frequent urban buses link it to Mantua and Parma in a short time, or in a matter of few minutes to the nearest railway station, Casalmaggiore.
Once in the city, the historic centre of both are very compact and easy to navigate around. There is no need for taking any public transportation to move around, considering many of the streets are pedestrianised, especially the very small Sabbioneta.
Mantua is a strong tourist centre in the north of Italy, mostly for lying as easy reach from the key tourist destinations such as Milan, Verona, Bologna and Venice, just equidistant in between both, therefore needless to say the amount of hotels is really good through this region, of any kind, from the large chains to small family run business and a lot of B&Bs. Sabbioneta is way much more limited in this sense, because it is very small. Prices in the other hand can surprise you, and not in a good way. A nice, good standard hotel will generally be over budget, especially when considering high season months.
Our visit was at the brink of the high season, but we could still benefit of lower prices although not by staying overnight in the city, but in the outskirts of Verona where prices were way much lower. Our plan was doing a large tour through different cities counting with our own transport, therefore this worked as the best for us. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Hotel Montemezzi, in Via Verona 92, Vigasio. Only 15 kilometres south from Verona downtown, this 4* property was absolutely perfect. Furthermore even if this is along a road with not much around you, there is a great pizzeria within the building, and another one meters walk, so don’t think at all you will be stranded without food. The room was extremely comfortable and super quiet at night, we had an incredible rest especially when we needed the most after such busy days touring through the cities. The staff was very professional and friendly, and the breakfast although small in choice was well more than enough and great quality. We recommend this hotel to anyone on a tour as was our case, however if you want to be in the city, this will not make too much sense as you depend on your own transport to get here and from here to anywhere.