A precious legacy of the Gonzaga family, the site of "Mantua and Sabbioneta" has been protected by UNESCO since 2008, representing the practical realisation of the Renaissance urban ideals.
In 2008, Mantua and Sabbioneta were listed by UNESCO in the World Heritage List: Sabbioneta represents the concept of an ideal city built according to the Renaissance theories, while Mantua is the perfect expression of the transformation of a city according to similar canons.
This corner of Lombardy is rich in history and art, thanks to effort of the powerful Gonzaga family, who ruled these lands for five centuries, leaving a deep mark in the European cultural scene of the time.
The Gonzaga family surrounded itself with the best artists of their time (such as Mantegna, Alberti, Scamozzi), leaving us with a legacy of precious works of art, and two cities with such special urban forms that they became a model inspiring generations to come.
Visiting these places is a journey through time, exploring one of the most charming cities in Italy.
Check out what are the best things to see in Mantua and Sabbioneta!
Two UNESCO site in one
The mark impressed by the Gonzaga rulers on their domains between 1328 and 1708 still echoes strongly to this day.
In 2008, thanks to the universal value of the rich bequest of the Gonzagas, the site of "Mantua and Sabbioneta" became part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The registration took place according to criteria (ii) and (iii), as Mantua and Sabbioneta "offer an exceptional testimony of urban, architectural and artistic realization of the Renaissance, linked together through the ideas and ambitions of the ruling family, the Gonzaga. The properties represent two significant stages of territorial planning and urban interventions undertaken by the Gonzagas in their domains.”
Sabbioneta was founded by Vespasiano I Gonzaga in 1591. The city was built over the course of only 30 years, following the Renaissance urban planning precepts to create a city of harmonious proportions, protected by imposing walls.
On the other hand, Mantua was one of the main centres of the Italian Renaissance, patiently transformed by the work of artists who left a profound mark on the city architecture (such as Pisanello, Andrea Mantegna, Leon Battista Alberti and Giulio Romano).
What to see in Mantua
The ancient city of Mantua is a fascinating destination, located in the Lombardy region in northern Italy.
Mantua is regarded as one of the best Italian cities for quality of life and attention to the environment, but it's slightly off the touristic route due to the presence of many top-level destinations nearby, like Verona, Venice and Milan.
The city is surrounded by three lakes created by the Mincio river, and it's famous for being the birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil and for its incredible artistic value, recognised and protected by UNESCO in 2008.
Powerful families ruled these lands in the past, like the Canossa or Bonacolsi, but one left its indelible mark in the heritage of Mantua: the Gonzaga family.
It takes about two days to visit all the rich artistic heritage of Mantua. Before exploring the city centre, walk to the end of San Giorgio bridge and enjoy the scenic view of the city from there: you’ll see Mantua rising from the water like in a fairy tale.
Here is what to see in Mantua in two days:
- The Ducal Palace, the former residence of the Gonzaga from where they ruled the Duchy of Mantua. This majestic palace is made of nearly 600 rooms and it houses hanging gardens, a cycle of frescoes by Pisanello, a painting by Rubens depicting the Gonzagas and the Castle of San Giorgio. In the castle, visitors can appreciate the most famous work of art of Mantua, the "Camera degli Sposi" by Mantegna, a bridal room frescoed with sophisticated illusionistic paintings. Single ticket price is €13, we strongly recommend a visit!
- The many city squares, starting from Piazza delle Erbe, the beating heart of Mantua and former marketplace, today full of bars and restaurants under the arches. Honourable mention for Piazza del Broletto (with the clock tower and Palazzo Podestà) and Piazza Sordello with its Cathedral, the burial place of many Gonzagas.
- The imposing Renaissance-style Church of Sant'Andrea, housing a reliquary with the earth soaked in the blood of Christ, collected by the Roman centurion Longinus (on display during Good Friday).
- The Palazzo Te, a Renaissance-style villa commissioned by the Gonzaga to Giulio Romano, painter and architect. The villa houses a museum and is renowned for the Sala dei Giganti, a room with a ceiling frescoed in 1535 by Romano, portraying the epic battle between the Giants and Zeus.
- The lakefront, to be explored on foot. This is a relaxing walk of about 2.5 km running around the city.
- A boat trip on the Mincio river and the lakes (prices starting from €10 for a one-hour tour). A boat ride is very interesting to enjoy the tranquillity of the lakes and to see the Mincio Park, a protected natural area extending up to Lake Garda.
Eating great traditional food in Mantua is easy, thanks to the abundance of genuine products from the countryside and the legacy left by the great chefs serving the Gonzagas.
Halfway between the gastronomy of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, the local cuisine gets the best of both world, offering top-notch cured meats (especially the “salame Mantovano” and the “coppa”), great risottos and mouth-watering first courses such as agnolini and pumpkin tortelli.
The range of traditional dishes is completed by the cotechino with polenta and the bollito misto (based on boiled beef, chicken and pork accompanied by a delicious fruity mostarda).
Mantua is also very famous for its desserts. The true culinary symbol of the city is the sbrisolona, a delicious crumbly sweet made with almonds: you can find it almost everywhere in town. But the local pastry shops are also famous for other delicacies: the most popular are certainly the Margherita cake, the Elvezia cake and the "Anello di Monaco" (the “Munich Ring'', a donut-shaped dessert tasting similar to the panettone).
What to see in Sabbioneta
Once the residence of its founder, the Duke Vespasiano I Gonzaga (1531-1591), the charming village of Sabbioneta is a gem not to miss.
Halfway between Mantua and Parma, in the heart of the Po Valley, Sabbioneta is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.
The city embodies the ideal example of the application of Renaissance theories on how to plan a city from scratch, from the grid pattern of the streets to how public spaces were designed: this prompted UNESCO to include it on its list of heritages to be protected.
Surrounded by imposing perimeter walls (which can be visited thanks to a pedestrian path), the restored town centre offers wonderful glimpses of the past. For this reason, Sabbioneta has often been used by famous directors to stage their films, like Bernardo Bertolucci for "The Spider's Stratagem". A few episodes of the series “Medici” were also filmed here.
The statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and protector of the village, stands at the top of a column made of Botticino marble.
These are the best things to see in Sabbioneta.
- The sublime “Teatro all'Antica'', the first European example of free-standing, purpose-built theatre (so not obtained from pre-existing buildings). The interior of the theatre is splendid, with statues and columns in Renaissance style, with wonderfully frescoed walls. The visit is highly recommended, especially with a guide. The ticket is included in the Mantova Card.
- The buildings of the Gonzaga family, in particular the Palazzo Ducale (former residence of Vespasiano Gonzaga) and the Palazzo Giardino.
- The “Galleria degli Antichi” (or “Gallery of the Ancients”), 100 metres of columns, arches and frescoes. It was once the place where Vespasiano Gonzaga kept his archaeological collection. The gallery is second in length only to the “Gallery of Maps'' in the Vatican City and the gallery of the Uffizi in Florence.
- Several churches, especially the Church of Santa Maria Assunta and the Incoronata Church, where you can see the mausoleum of the Duke.
- The “Museum of Sacred Art ", housing several paintings, ancient coins and sacred relics, along with the Golden Fleece award of Vespasiano I Gonzaga, the highest honour of the Spanish crown. Admission costs only € 2.50.