Once the capital of a mighty maritime empire, it is undeniable the city of Genoa has seen better times.
Unlike Venice, Genoa has managed to preserve its role as a maritime-industrial city, yet it lacks the iconic status of its historical arch-rival. Not only that, but its many charms are often overlooked by tourists that see it just as a gateway to Portofino and the Italian Riviera or, simply, as a port of embarkation for the many cruise ships that have it as a port base.
To be fair, having passed briefly through the city once in the past, this is an opinion I shared to some degree…until I recently had the chance to spend a full day in Genoa exploring it throughout.
In this post I am going to try to illustrate why I think Genoa is quite an underrated city and why you should consider adding it to your Italian bucket list…
In fact, this chronicle is quite limited in its scope: what to do, what to see and what to eat in the historial center of Genoa in one day.
There are quite a few more things to do in Genoa, such as the whole maritime promenade (with its Aquarium and museum) as well as the modern part of the city that are not covered here, but may be worth considering if you are planning to spend a longer time in the city.
The Port and Historical Genoa
As one of Italy’s historical four “Maritime Republics”, Genoa’s life has for centuries revolved around its port and the old city occupies a hill just above the port basin. In fact, the whole territory in and around Genoa is quite hilly and flat space is at a premium!
A practical way to see the city is to take the Piazza De Ferrari as a starting point of your itinerary. This square, that serves a nexus between the old and new parts of the city, is not only is well communicated by metro (yes, there is a metro in Genoa, although it has only two rather short lines), but from its elevated position at the hilltop it is easy to reach any other point of the historical center on foot.
Leaving aside the port, I would say Genoa does not have one single major attraction that outshines all the others. What makes it quite interesting and unique is the ensemble of its historical center: a maze of narrow streets and alleys, peppered with remains of its glorious past, such as the avenue of the palaces (that we will review later in this post). So get a good pair of boots, have a nice breakfast and prepare to walk…
One possible itinerary to optimize your time while getting a good general view of the city is to go down Via San Lorenzo, from the cathedral towards the port, then, turn right towards Porta dei Vacca. You may want to go all the way to the Palazzo Reale (that hosts a museum), before turning back again towards the old town and Via Garibaldi to visit its magnificent palaces.
Although there are quite a few attractions around the port, such as the Aquarium, it is a pity that Genoa’s seafront is not (yet) very pedestrian-friendly. Unlike in other Mediterranean cities that have implemented urban reforms to modernize and open up their maritime façade, here there is still quite a lot of industrial activity going on and there are motorways between the quays and the city. Plus most of the buildings, shops and restaurants facing the port are in a rather decadent state.
Genoa played its role in the Italian Risorgimento and the unification of Italy, in mid-19th Century. Walking around the city you may stumble upon some plates that recall that era.
Mameli, the composer of Italy’s national anthem, lived in Genoa, close to the cathedral.
Another plate, near the port, remembers another key episode of the wars of Italian unification: Garibaldi’s expedition of the Mille, that assembled in Genoa before sailing to take Sicily.
Places to eat in Genoa
Antica Sa Pesta
Via dei Giustiniani, 16/R, 16123 Genoa
The place to go to taste local Genoese and Ligurian cuisine, particularly the local speciality “farinata”. Thankful to the local that suggested it to us!
“Farinata” is the perhaps the most typical dish of Genoa. It is a sort of pancake made of unleavened chickpea flour, that is baked in the oven.
The one prepared at the restaurant Antica Sa Pesta was excellent and really great value. It’s their speciality.
Classical “farinata” on the left, nothing but baked chickpea flour. On the right, “farinata” stuffed with cheese. Both tasting great.
The restaurant Sà Pesta is a rather small, modest-looking affair, but the atmosphere oozes authenticity. Would repeat without a doubt next time I am in Genoa.
As an old, rich, trading republic, Genoa has its fair number of palaces, built by the local oligarchy as a display and reflection of status and success.
Luckily for the tourist with limited time, three of the most impressive palaces are currently in public hands, and are located literally next to each other on the same street, Via Garibaldi.
In addition to their interiors, which have an historical interest in themselves, the Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco host also notable art collections.
The ensemble of these palaces is known as the palaces of the “strade nuove” (“new streets”) or “palazzi dei rolli”, most of which were built in the 16th and 17th century at a time of urban expansion in Genoa (hence the “new streets” name).
42 of 163 palaces (yes, Genoa is really a city of palaces!) have been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO, among them, the three commented here.
It is possible to buy a combined ticket for the three (recommended)
This is perhaps the most interesting of the three (IMHO)
It belonged for centuries to one of the most prominent Genoese families, the Brignole-Sale, who happened to be also avid art collectors, hence the origin of the collection currently on display at the Palazzo Rosso.
The Palazzo Rosso has several floors, where it is possible not only to admire its valuable art collection, but also to see some of the apartments where the palace owners lived at different periods in time.
Although I liked the Palazzo Rosso the most, and despite the risk of serious artistic overload, I did not want to close this section with a couple more pictures of the art that seems to be everywhere in Genoa
A visit to the market
Via XX Settembre, 75r, 16121 Genoa
If you like the exuberance of a fresh food market, don’t leave Genoa without stopping at the Mercato Orientale.
Located in what used to be the cloister of a former church, this market is a wonderful festival of colours and smells, as fresh produce from all over Italy piles up at the stalls.
Places to eat in Genoa
Da Leccarsi i Baffi
Piazza Cavour, 91r, 16128 Genova, 16123 Genoa
A place to continue with the exploration of Ligurian cuisine, particularly of seafood.
At this modern and cozy restaurant you will be able to taste, for example, sardines prepared according to the local Genoese recipe.
There is also a diversity of seafood dishes, like this pasta (below), which was truly delicious.
Service was great as well, and, with most of the people eating there being locals, it definitely does not feel like the many tourist traps that line the streets a bit further up the center.
Night walk in Genoa
And to wrap up this intense day in Genoa, a couple of pics to illustrate the night walk to the hotel.
Hotels in Genoa
Holiday Inn Genoa City
Via Milano, 47, 16126 Genova
It is business-style four star hotel. A bit impersonal, I know, but it turn out to be very modern and have huge rooms (almost like a little apartment, not sure all the rooms are the same, though).
It is not in the very center, although the distance is walkable. There is also a metro station within 5 minutes walk (convenient since it was raining!) and the trains take you to De Ferrari station in the very center in less than 10 minutes.
It is a very convenient option if your are embarking or disembarking from a cruise ship, as it is located right next to the maritime terminal (the hotel was, in fact, booked by the cruise company that arranged the rest of our trip)