Genoa is not on the top of most people’s list when they visit Italy, but it should be. This Italian seaport is a great way to experience la dolce vita off the beaten track.
Ah, Genoa! The minute you step into this sprawling seaport city, there is something in the air – and I’m not talking about the salt. Situated on the Ligurian coastline, Genoa once ruled the Mediterranean Sea and glimpses of this former glory can be seen in its breathtaking architecture.
It is a place where history comes alive – especially when you are in the heart of the old town centre. Walking through the maze of narrow, winding caruggi (streets), the historic centre is a bold reminder of medieval life and it’s all too easy to imagine yourself back in time.
Genoa is truly a city of contradictions – where gritty meets glamour, where old meets new. With over 42 palaces, Europe’s largest aquarium, mouthwatering cuisine, and stunning access to the classic Liguria coastline, this gateway city to the Italian Riviera is Italy’s best-kept secret.
Credit: Tarana Rana
Step inside the royal palaces
The pièce de résistance in Genoa is definitely its UNESCO-appointed Palazzi dei Rolli – 42 gorgeous palaces built in the 15th and 16th century, belonging to the city’s most eminent families. The most famous is Palazzo Reale – and if you only get a chance to see one palace, make sure it’s this one. With its terraced gardens, fine collection of Renaissance art, and gorgeous furnishings in red and gold, the sheer opulence will leave you breathless. It also has a Versailles-inspired Hall of Mirrors room that alone is worth the entrance fee.
If you have some time, also check out the museum, Musei di Strada Nuova, which is comprised of three lush mansions, Bianco, Rosso and Doria-Tursi. Art lovers will love Palazzo Bianco for its exquisite collection of Italian, Flemish and Spanish art. Palazzo Rosso is famous for its frescos, and Palazzo Doria-Tursi is home to the legendary violinist, Niccolò Paganini’s collection.
Even if you’re not a history buff, just visiting these palaces is a visual treat.
Visit the museum of the sea
Given that Genoa was a medieval maritime power, a visit to the Galata Museo del Mare is a must. High tech exhibits show the history of seafaring, the ground floor highlights Christopher Columbus, Genoa’s native son, and there is also a scale reconstruction of a 17th century galley ship. Be sure to check out the top floor for amazing views of the city.
See one of Europe’s largest aquariums
Genoa’s harbor-side aquarium is one of the largest in Europe, with over 400 species. With ceiling-high tanks galore, you truly feel like you’re underwater in this aquarium. The ship, Nave Blu, is connected to one of Aquarium’s walkways, making for an unusual floating display.
Explore the Porto Antico
Right beside the aquarium lies the old port that once controlled a small empire. Strolling along the docks is a perfect way to get a feel of this seaside city. Besides the stunning ocean views, the old port has a lot to offer. For a bird’s eye view, head to the Bigo, the panoramic lift that offers an amazing aerial view of the city. You can also visit the Biosfera, a giant glass globe housing a botanical garden, suspended over the sea. Also, keep a look out for II Galeone Neptune – kids will love going aboard a life-sized pirate ship that is permanently docked at the Porto Antico.
Walk through medieval Genoa
Walking is the best way to uncover Genoa’s gritty charm. Explore the heart of medieval Genoa by getting lost in the winding caruggi, which are sprinkled with shops, cafes and bars. Keep an eye out for the Porta dei Vacca – the city’s ancient gates. After you emerge from the narrow streets, head to Piazza de Ferrari – one of Italy’s most beautiful town squares. Featuring a gorgeous purple-water fountain, a glorious opera building, and the Palazzo Ducale, this piazza makes for a glamourous photo op!
When in Genoa, eat like the locals do. One must-try is Genovese pesto sauce – this creamy, green goodness tops everything from pasta to pizza. Head to the popular Trattoria Rosmarino on Salita del Fondaco for some local Genovese fare. For lunch, check out Trattoria da Maria on Vico Testadoro. Don’t let the shadowy alley put you off – most of the best places to eat in Genoa are located inside the narrow, winding caruggi.
Focaccia bread is another specialty and makes for a delicious snack on the go. Stock up at cafe Foccacia e Dintorni on Via di Canneto Il Curto. They also sell farinata, a delicious flatbread made from chickpea flour.
Another delightful dining custom is aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour. Generally between 7 pm and 9 pm, order a drink and you get a free plate of snacks or access to a buffet of local food. Check out Caffe degli Specchi on Salita Pollaiuoli, for a classy aperitivo spread. Plus, it’s a stone’s throw away from Piazza delle Erbe, a cobblestoned square full of bars, which is the place to enjoy a late night glass of wine or prosecco. Piazza delle Erbe is also home to La Cremeria delle Erbe, one of the best places to grab a creamy cup of gelato in Genoa.
There are a number of great places to stay in Genoa. Hotel Cairoli is a great and quirky place to stay – each of the floors and rooms are themed on various modern artists. It’s also ideally located near most of the tourist attractions.
B&B Palazzo Morali is another great option. With elegant furnishing and palatial rooms, you’ll feel like you’re staying in one of the palaces. It’s also located near the Porto Antico, perfect for exploring the heart of the city on foot.