Genoa, the capital of Liguria, is “the most winding, incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world”. So said Henry James, and the city – Italy’s sixth largest – remains marvellously eclectic, vibrant and full of rough-edged style. Indeed “La Superba”, as it was known at the height of its powers, boasts more zest and intrigue than all the surrounding coastal resorts together.
The best travel tips for visiting Genoa
Stretching behind the recently revitalized old port, the old town of Genoa is a dense and fascinating warren of medieval alleyways, increasingly brightened with new shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as a series of large palazzi. These were built in the 16th and 17th centuries by Genoa’s wealthy mercantile families and are now transformed into museums and art galleries.
The tidying-up hasn’t completely sanitized the old town, however; much of the city’s core – between the two stations and the waterfront – retains a dark and slightly menacing air, but the overriding impression is of a buzzing hive of activity.
Food shops nestle in the portals of former palaces, carpenters’ workshops are sandwiched between designer furniture outlets, and everything is surrounded by a crush of people and the squashed vowels of the impenetrable Genoese dialect that has, over the centuries, absorbed elements of Neapolitan, Calabrese and Portuguese.
Aside from the cosmopolitan street life, you should seek out the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, the Palazzo Ducale and the Renaissance palaces of Via Garibaldi, which contain the cream of Genoa’s art collections, as well as furniture and decor from the grandest days of the city’s past.
Brief History of Genoa
Genoa made its money at sea, through trade, colonial exploitation and piracy. It was one of the four major Italian maritime republics (the others being Venice, Pisa and Amalfi), and a local superpower with its own well-developed system of government that lasted several hundred years.
By the thirteenth century, after playing a major part in the Crusades, the Genoese were roaming the Mediterranean, bringing back ideas as well as goods: the city’s architects were using Arab pointed arches a century before the rest of Italy.
The San Giorgio banking syndicate effectively controlled the city for much of the fifteenth century, and cold-shouldered Columbus (who had grown up in Genoa) when he sought funding for his voyages. With Spanish backing, he opened up new Atlantic trade routes that ironically would later reduce Genoa to a backwater.
Following a foreign invasion, in 1768 the Banco di San Giorgio was forced to sell the Genoese colony of Corsica to the French, and a century later, the city became a hotbed of radicalism. Mazzini, one of the main protagonists of the Risorgimento, was born here, and in 1860 Garibaldi set sail for Sicily with his “Thousand” from the city’s harbour.
Around the same time, Italy’s industrial revolution began in Genoa, with steelworks and shipyards spreading along the coast. These suffered heavy bombing in World War II, and the subsequent economic decline hobbled Genoa for decades.
Things started to look up in the 1990s: state funding to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage paid to renovate many of the city’s late-Renaissance palaces and the old port area, with Genoa’s most famous son of modern times, Renzo Piano (co-designer of Paris’s Pompidou Centre), taking a leading role. The results of a twelve-year programme that saw Genoa become a European Capital of Culture in 2004 are evident all over the city.
Best things to do in Genoa
From Piazza de Ferrari to explore Old Genoa, here are the best things to do in Genoa.
#1 Wander around Piazza de Ferrari
If Genoa has a centre it’s probably Piazza de Ferrari, a mainly pedestrian, open space that separates the old part of Genoa from the 19th-century city.
Focused on a large fountain, it’s overlooked by a statue of Garibaldi in front of the grand facade of the Teatro Carlo Felice, a rather war-torn, messed-about-with building that doesn’t have much to recommend it architecturally, but as the city’s principal opera house hosts some fine performances.
#2 See the massive chandeliers of the Palazzo Ducale
One side of Piazza de Ferrari is taken up by a flank of the sixteenth-century Palazzo Ducale (its main facade faces nearby Piazza Matteotti, which you can reach via the palace’s main arcade). It was home to the doge of Genoa between 1384 and 1515, and its vaulted atrium makes a splendid venue for regular exhibitions.
In summer, parts of the rest of the building are also open to the public for exhibitions, and you can visit the vast hall of the Maggior Consiglio upstairs, where massive chandeliers hang above the space once occupied by the four hundred Genoese nobles who ruled the maritime republic.
You can also view the Doge’s Chapel, perhaps the most frescoed room of all time, and from there climb up to the Torre Grimaldina for the views and some of the grimmest dungeons you’ll ever see.
#3 See some fine Baroque paintings inside The Gesù
Piazza de Ferrari feeds through to the more regular open space of Piazza Matteotti. On its corner is the Gesù, designed by Pellegrino Tibaldi at the end of the sixteenth century, and which contains a mass of marble and gilt stucco and some fine Baroque paintings. These include Guido Reni’s Assumption in the right aisle and two works by Rubens: The Miracles of St Ignatius on the left and The Circumcision on the high altar.
#4 Explore The Old Town
Old Genoa’s main artery, Via San Lorenzo, leads from Piazza Matteotti down to the port, a pedestrianised stretch that makes for a busy evening passeggiata, and a handy reference point when negotiating the old town. It effectively splits in two, an atmospheric confusion of tiny alleyways (caruggi) that spreads either side and upwards from the waterfront as far as Via Garibaldi to the north.
The caruggi are lined with high buildings, usually six or seven storeys, set very close together. Grocers, textile workshops and bakeries jostle for position with boutiques, design outlets and goldsmiths amid a flurry of shouts, smells and scrawny cats.
Around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the city’s principal families – Doria, Spinola, Grimaldi and Fieschi – marked out certain streets and squares as their territory, even extending their domains to include churches. To pray in someone else’s chapel was to risk being stabbed in the back.
#5 Be wowed by Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
On the eastern side of Via San Lorenzo, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo anchors the square of the same name, its facade an elaborate confection of twisting, fluted columns and black-and-white striped stone that was added by Gothic craftsmen from France in the early thirteenth century.
The stripes here, like other examples throughout the city, were a sign of prestige: families could use them only if they had a permit, awarded for “some illustrious deed to the advantage of their native city”. While the rest of Genoa’s churches were portioned out between the ruling dynasties, the cathedral remained open to all.
The interior has some well-preserved Byzantine frescoes of the Last Judgement above the main entrance, and is home, off the left aisle, to the large Renaissance chapel of St John the Baptist, whose ashes – legend has it – once rested in the thirteenth-century sarcophagus.
#6 Look for the (possible) Holy Grail at Museo del Tesoro
Just past the chapel of St John the Baptist and housed in an atmospheric crypt, the Museo del Tesoro holds a polished quartz plate on which, legend says, Salome received John the Baptist’s severed head; a green bowl brought to Genoa in the eleventh century and believed once to have been the Holy Grail; and a reliquary believed to contain a lock of the Virgin Mary’s hair.
#7 Gawp at some paintings by Luca Cambiaso at Museo Diocesano
Behind the cathedral, the Museo Diocesano occupies a partially frescoed cloister and the medieval buildings that surround it displays religious art and sculpture, including paintings by Luca Cambiaso. Look out for the dozen or so dyed blue cloths from the early sixteenth century depicting various scenes from the Passion of Christ.
#8 Wander around Piazza Soziglia
The busiest and more obviously appealing part of old Genoa lies to the north of Via San Lorenzo. Just off the cathedral’s square, tiny Piazza Invrea gives on to the shopping square of the Campetto and adjacent Via degli Orefici, “Street of the Goldsmiths”.
Much of the jewellery here is still made by hand at upper-storey workshops around the Campetto, which links to the genteel sliver of Piazza Soziglia, crowded with stalls and café tables.
#9 See a grand family home at Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola
Tucked away off Via San Luca, the excellent Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola is Genoa’s best example of a grand family palace, with original furniture and rooms crammed with high-quality paintings.
There are Van Dyck portraits of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as men of books, a portrait of Paolo Spinola by the Rome-based German painter Angelika Kaufmann, and upstairs an intensely mournful Ecce Homo by the Sicilian master Antonello da Messina.
Rough Guides tip: Don’t miss the little terrace, way up on the spine of the roof and shaded with orange and lemon trees.
#10 Visit the Museo del Risorgimento, birthplace of Giuseppe Mazzini
A short walk from the Palazzo Spinola is the Museo del Risorgimento, the birthplace of one of the most influential activists of Italian Unification, Giuseppe Mazzini, in 1805.
As you might expect, this is quite a shrine to the great man and indeed to the Risorgimento in general, with documents and relics from Mazzini’s life, lots of paintings and other artworks relating to the Unification struggle, and personal effects from other local heroes, including Mazzini’s fellow Genoese, Goffredo Mameli and Nino Bixio.
#11 Explore the Musei di Strada Nuova
When newly made fortunes encouraged Genoa’s merchant bankers to move out of the cramped old town in the mid-sixteenth century, artisans’ houses were pulled down to make way for the Strada Nuova, later named Via Garibaldi.
To walk along the surprisingly narrow street is to stroll through a Renaissance architect’s drawing pad – sculpted facades, stuccowork and medallions decorate the exteriors of the three-storey palazzi, while some of the large courtyards are almost like private squares.
Three of the street’s finest palazzi – Bianco, Rosso and Tursi – have been re-branded the Musei di Strada Nuova and together they hold the city’s finest collection of old masters.
Best areas to stay in Genoa
Genoa is a large city with plentiful and varied accommodation options, however, it requires sifting to avoid a dud stay.
Genoa’s historic centre is the largest in Europe and best explored on foot. There’s a handful of quality hotels in the old quarter and plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from.
After a Renzo Piano makeover, the old port is now a vibrant waterfront district. Highlights include the aquarium and the Museum of the Sea, making it a good choice for families. It is within walking distance of many of Genoa’s major attractions.
West of Stazione Brignole
The area just west of Stazione Brignole (Piazza Colombo and Via XX Settembre) remains preferable to anything around Stazione Principe. It’s just moments from Via XX Settembre, Genoa’s main shopping strip, and within walking distance of the lively Piazza De Ferrari.
Leafy Carignano is a hillside, largely residential neighbourhood that offers panoramic views and calm respite after a busy day exploring Genoa’s bustling centre, along with
Browse the best hotels in Genoa.
Best restaurants and bars
Genoa is one of the best cities in Italy for dining out, with plenty of affordable trattorias and fancy restaurants.
You can readily find farinata and focaccia at street outlets in the old town, where there is also a good choice of places to enjoy pasta al pesto, pansotti alle noce and any number of classic Ligurian fish and seafood dishes.
The Old Port area is a vibrant and picturesque spot with a variety of dining options. You can find seafood restaurants, trendy cafes, and gelaterias along the waterfront.
This ritzy street is lined home to some excellent restaurants and cafes. You can indulge in both traditional Ligurian dishes and international cuisine here.
The Caruggi are the narrow medieval alleyways that crisscross the historic centre. This area is filled with local eateries, small trattorias, and street food vendors. You can find a wide range of affordable options here, from focaccia and farinata to traditional Ligurian dishes.
How to get around
Walking is the easiest way to get around central Genoa, where most cultural and historic attractions are found. But here’s the lowdown for when you need to go further afield.
By public transport
The best way to get around the city is to walk, though the metro line is handy for getting across town. The line links Stazione Principe with Stazione Brignole, with the most useful stops at San Giorgio (for the Porto Antico) and Piazza de Ferrari. Tickets are valid for 100 minutes, including use of the lifts and funiculars that scale the city’s many hills.
There are a dozen or so central car parks; the largest is beneath Piazza della Vittoria (24hr), and there are several others in and around the Porto Antico. The old quarter is barred to traffic. On the street, blue painted lines mean you’ll have to pay for parking from Mon–Sat 8am–8pm.
Prominent taxi stands are at Stazione Brignole, Stazione Principe, Piazza de Ferrari, Piazza Dante, Piazza Caricamento and Piazza Nunziata.
What is the best time to visit Genoa?
Genoa’s weather is at its best between April and September. There’s less chance of rain, and because it’s on the coast it doesn’t tend to be as hot as other parts of Italy. June is generally the ideal month to visit, weather wise, but that also makes it the most popular.
There are festivals and events throughout the year but particularly in summer, so plan ahead if you’d like to make them part of your holiday.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
How many days do you need in Genoa?
To fully explore Genoa, a minimum of two to three days is usually recommended. This timeframe allows you to visit the main highlights, experience the local cuisine, and immerse yourself in the charming atmosphere of the city.
During your stay in Genoa, you may want to visit the historic center, known as the "Centro Storico," which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This area is filled with narrow streets, beautiful architecture, and significant landmarks such as the Palazzo Ducale and the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo. Exploring the historic center alone can easily take up a day or more, especially if you take the time to visit the various museums and art galleries.
Additionally, Genoa has a bustling port, and you might want to take a stroll along the harbor or visit the Galata Maritime Museum to learn about the city's maritime history. The Aquarium of Genoa, one of the largest aquariums in Europe, is also worth a visit.
How to get here
The Aeroporto Cristoforo Colombo is 6km west of the city centre. It is connected to it by the Volabus service, which runs roughly every 40min throughout the day to Stazione Principe, Piazza de Ferrari and Stazione Brignole (30min).
Taxis pull up outside the Arrivals building and charge a fixed price of €7/person to Stazione Principe, and €8 to Brignole (minimum of three people).
The city has two main train stations: Stazione Principe, on Piazza Acquaverde, just north of the port and west of the centre, and Stazione Brignole on Piazza Verdi, east of the old town. Most trains stop at both stations, which are also well connected by a metro line and bus (#36, among others).
Buses heading to the city outskirts, the Riviera and inland arrive on Piazza della Vittoria, a few minutes walk south of Brignole, though for most places you’re better off taking the train.
Genoa is one of Italy’s biggest passenger ports, not just for cruise ships but also serving a range of ferry routes. See moby.it, gnv.it and tirrenia.it for up-to-date schedules.
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