This Lombardy city has the art, history and food you seek – but no crowds, finds Tim Jepson
Mantua is that rarest of things – a sublime Italian city that is still untroubled by crowds. Why is hard to know, for the rule of the Gonzaga family from 1328 to 1707 and their rich court attracted painters, sculptors and architects who left treasures that are the equal, and – in the case of the Gonzagas’ palace, the 500-room Palazzo Ducale, and its Mantegna frescoes – often the superior of anything in more celebrated cities.
Perhaps it is because the city lies a little off the beaten track, away from the main road and busy rail routes that link Venice, Milan and Bologna, the triangle of key cities around it.
Whatever the reason, you can walk the city’s intimate (and car-free) medieval heart – a World Heritage Site – in peace, drop into restaurants without booking, and within a few minutes be walking around the park-lined shores of the three lakes that almost circle the city. It is the lakes that make the coming months such a great time to visit, especially if you take a boat trip, as the soft light and colours of autumn frame the city’s medieval centre and its wooded shoreline to glorious effect.
Should you wish to reach the city by rail, your best bet is to take a morning Eurostar to Paris and an afternoon TGV to Milan (7hr 9m). Spend the night in Milan and then finish the journey via Verona (around 2hrs). A sleeper service operates on the return leg. More info at www.seat61.com.
Even by Italian standards, the historic Palazzo Castiglioni (palazzocastiglionimantova.com; double room from £236) on Mantua’s main Piazza Sordello is a special place to stay. It is still owned by descendants of Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier (1527), a handbook of courtly etiquette that became influential across the courts of Europe. Of the five suites, the fresco-covered Torre is the most extraordinary.
More conventional hotels on the same and adjacent central squares include Hotel del Broletto (hotelbroletto.com; double B&B from £116) and Hotel dei Gonzaga (hoteldeigonzagamantova.it; double B&B £91).
Mantua’s lakes provide excellent itineraries for longer strolls. The best (allow 45 minutes) starts in Piazza Broletto. From here walk east along Via Roberto Ardigò, cross the lakeside road (Viale Mincio) and walk left (north) along the shore of Lago Inferiore. Follow the lakeside path anticlockwise, passing under the Ponte San Giorgio. Continue to the Giardini Fraccalini and walk up to Viale Mincio, turn left for 165yd (150m) and take the signed steps up through the walls and follow Via Alessandro Cavriani past San Leonardo for a lovely walk along cobbled Via Carlo Cocastelli.
The best way to see Mantua’s lakes is on a boat trip. Short cruises run on the two easterly lakes, but the most scenic trips (motonaviandes.it) run on the westernmost Lago Superiore to the historic church of Le Grazie. Boats depart from the Pontile C jetty by Zanzara west of the SS62 bridge.
The frescoes by Mantegna and other glories of the Palazzo Ducale (mantovaducale.beniculturali.it) are the city’s key attractions, but don’t overlook a second remarkable palace, the Palazzo Te (palazzote.it), renowned for its Giulio Romano frescoes. Sant’Andrea, one of Italy’s first great Renaissance churches, by Leon Battista Alberti, is also widely celebrated but be sure to visit the 11th-century La Rotonda di San Lorenzo, Mantua’s oldest church.
Locals make for La Zanzara (zanzaramantova.it) in the Giardini Barbato on the shores of Lago Superiore to admire the sunset across the water. It’s a beautiful spot, with plenty of outdoor seating. Note that right by the bar is one of several points in Mantua where you can rent bikes (mantovabikexperience.com).
The informal Osteria dell’ Oca (Via Trieste 10; osteriadelloca.it) on the south-east edge of the old centre serves exceptional regional food at fair prices.
More central but with equally good local food and prices are the simple Tortelli & Friends (Via Domenico Fernelli 28/A; tortelliandfriends.it) and traditional Osteria delle Quattro Tette (Vicolo Nazione 4).
Food is a good buy, especially the local speciality mostarda mantovana, candied fruits with mustard, a condiment that goes superbly with a slice of cheese. Taste and buy at Sapori in Tavola Baldi Loredana, under the arcade at Piazza Broletto 54.
Off the map
Modena (visitmodena.it), 80 minutes south of Mantua by train, is the perfect day out. It too has a fine medieval heart with one of the great Italian cathedrals, a superb market (mercatoalbinelli.it) and several standout museums (museicivici.modena.it). Modena is also known as Italy’s motor city (cittamotori.it; motorvalley.it), with museum and factory visits possible to legendary carmakers Ferrari, Maserati, Ducati and Lamborghini.