It’s a popular transit stop when changing trains, but Genova might well be one of Italy’s most under-rated destinations. Discover her treasures.
Great things to see and do in Genova? Liguria’s fabled port city generally doesn’t feature high on traveller’s ultimate dream list of Italian destinations. I’ve been guilty in the past of merely skipping through Genova and changing trains, en-route to the Cinque Terre. But on my latest swing through Europe, I was determined to given Genova the opportunity to impress – and she most certainly did. What an under-rated destination. The local nickname for the port city is La Superba, a city that ruled over one of the finest maritime empires in medieval Europe – the Most Serene Republic of Genova.
Sandwiched between the sea and the Ligurian hills, Genoa spreads upwards from the port, becoming a very vertical city on her steeper slopes. History oozes from her solid bones; there is a deep sense of grandeur to Genova’s back-story, in addition to the peeling paint and graffiti scrawl. Strolling the streets, it’s the heady mix of high-density faded glory, sparkling Mediterranean light and deep dark lanes that all strike a strong first impression. Charles Dickens remarked in 1844, “A city of the strangest contrasts.” Renaissance palaces, grand 19th-century boulevards and gilded Baroque churches are squeezed alongside, and on top of, a tumbling tangle of steep medieval streets.
Begin your city exploratory down in Porto Antico, the time-honoured Old Port, which had become notoriously tatty until Renzo Piano gave it a makeover to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus sailing off to the Americas from this port. Redesigned to be a cultural hub for the city, it’s where many locals choose to take their passeggiata (evening stroll.). At Porto Antico’s core, there’s a variety of structures designed by Renzo Piano including the Biosphere, containing an unexpected tropical forest, and Piazza delle Feste, an unusual steel structure positioned in the water. But it’s the Bigo Panoramic Lift which is the biggest draw, a huge spider-like contraption, with a viewing cabin that shoots you up 40 metres for a fabulous view over the glinting Mediterranean.
Take a walk around the port, past all of the super yachts to La Lanterna, the 76-metre tall Lighthouse of Genoa which has served as Genova’s emblematic sentinel since 1543. It’s claimed to be the world’s third oldest lighthouse still in operation, beaming its light over 50km. Inside, a Multimedia Museum will walk you through the history of the lighthouse and Genoa’s maritime history.
For the ultimate museum experience, Galata Museo del Mare – despite its modern exterior – begins its exhibition before you even walk in, with Italy’s largest submarine, Nazario Sauro, floating right outside the front door. Galata Maritime Museum is the biggest museum of its kind in the Mediterranean and a must if you’re wanting to understand more of Genoa’s sea-faring past. With high-tech displays, replica sailing ships from the 15th century and over 6000 original artefacts, it’s a maritime head swirl. A replica of Columbus’ ship, Santa Maria, can be toured. Right next door, the famous “acquario,” the biggest in Europe with over 10,000 square metres and 5000 sea creatures – dedicated to conservation and education.
Another essential experience is to step inside the gracious Palazzo di San Giorgio. Its exterior is lustily clad in frescoes that were added about 100 years ago, but the building was actually built in 1260 by the family of the first Doge of Genova. Materials were used from the demolition of the Venetian embassy in Constantinople. Stone lions – the emblem of Venice’s patron St Mark – were displayed as trophies on the facade by her bitter rival, the Republic of Genova.
The palace’s most resident was none other than Marco Polo, who was an inmate in the building’s prison, from 1296 to 1299. He was arrested for commanding a Venetian galley in a war against Genova. While there, he told tales of his travels through Asia to his fellow prisoners and the guards alike, and his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa wrote them down. Once the two were released from prison, copies of the manuscript, titled The Travels of Marco Polo, captivated Europe. Polo told tales of fabulous Asian courts, black stones that would catch on fire (coal), and Chinese money made out of paper.
After taking my fill of the old port, I ventured into the Medieval Quarter, which is one of Europe’s largest. Get ready to get lost in this vast cobweb of caruggi (alleys) that thread their way up, down and across the centre of the city. Like little canyons, the caruggi are flanked with pastel-hued buildings as high as six storeys, while the alleys are in many places no wider than a couple of metres.
Gazing up at the washing pegged on lines everywhere, there’s no mistaking that these cavernous lanes are still like a honeycomb of unvarnished Genovese life, they’re home to a hive of tucked away restaurants, bars and shops. Getting lost is inevitable and always fascinating in this brooding labyrinth of the old city.
Culinary highlights? As Liguria’s capital and a monstrous port city, it’s only natural that Neptune’s bounty sets the table. Expect plenty of cod, mussels, even cuttlefish on the menu. The signature dish is burrida, a slow-cooked stew with monkfish, squid, king prawns, mussels, garlic, onion and tomato. If you’ve got the palate for it, you’ll find deliciously salty anchovies made every which way. Street food is also popular in Genova – with fried fish being the runaway favourite.
If you’re a fan of pesto – a sauce made with pine nuts, basil, oil, garlic and cheese – you’ll be in mecca as Genova is the birthplace of the savoury green staple. Pesto Genovese isn’t hard to find, but staking out the perfect trattoria to try it in is. Trattoria Rosmarino would be my pick. Finally, you’ll find focaccia bread all over Italy, but focaccia Genovese style is slightly different. Still doughy, but less thick than you’d expect, its flavouring is classic, with lashings of oil and salt.
Do not miss San Lorenzo Cathedral. Its black-and-white zebra- striped Gothic exterior continues to impress once you’ve passed the stone lions and headed inside. First consecrated in 1188, the cathedral’s continued existence is largely due to the dud WWII British bomb that failed to ignite in 1941. Remarkably, it still sits to the right of the nave like a vintage curio.
From the cathedral, it’s a six-minute walk to the ancient city walls, originally from the 12th century, where you’ll find the restored Port Soprana, an impressively tall, turreted gate. Nearby, I wandered inside the small stone house, identified in the nineteenth century as the home of the Columbus family, from 1455 and 1470, when the great explorer was a small boy.
It was certainly not a luxurious home: on the ground floor there are small spaces dedicated to a shop and kitchen, with a basin to collect water and a rudimentary latrine; upstairs, two small rooms, perhaps for eating and for the night. The building was damaged during the bombing to which the French “Sun King” subjected the city in 1684. It was the only one to be rebuilt, due to the importance of those who had lived there. It is a small memorial to the great navigator, with displays and objects telling his story from humble beginnings.
Fancy some prestigious palazzo perving? I’m a sucker for extravagant architecture and Genova lays it on thick. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2006, the city’s main shopping street, Via Garibaldi, which was formerly known as Strada Nuova. Along with neighbouring Via Cairoli and Via Balbi – this simple walking circuit through Strade Nuove and Genova’s Old Town unveils over 40 truly epic Renaissance and Baroque palazzi stemming from the 16th century. Owned by the Who’s Who of old-school Genovese society, many have been repurposed as galleries and museums. They are absurdly, obscenely gorgeous.
Keep your eyes peeled for Palazzo Spinola, previously home to one of the Genova’s most formidable dynasties and now magnificent a Renaissance art museum, across four floors, after being gifted to the state. For another palazzo, Doge’s Palace, the former home of the Doges of Genoa – the ruler of the Republic of Genoa, from the 1300s to the 1700s – now hosts art exhibitions and cultural events. Then there is Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), a 17th-century palace built by the Balbi family.
It was once a large aristocratic residence for the three most powerful families in town (Balbis, Durazzo and Savoy) and today it is a museum, housing historical furniture, hundreds of paintings and sculptures. And another Renaissance showpiece brimming with art is Palazzo Ducale. Nearby, another landmark stop to fill your Insta feed is the frothy Piazza de Ferrari. Genova’s fountain-embellished piazza is ringed by magnificently ornate buildings including the opera house, Teatro Carlo Felice, and the art nouveau blockbuster, Palazzo della Borsa, which was previously Italy’s stock exchange.
Where to stay? Handily located opposite Genova Principe Train Station, Hotel Continental is a restored Art Nouveau property, overlooking the old city. It offers elegant rooms with parquet floors, magnificent fish-themed wallpaper, an antique wood-panelled lift, free WiFi, and a lavish breakfast buffet.
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