Genoa is often overshadowed on travel itineraries by its more fashionable northern neighbour Milan.
However, as the sixth largest city in Italy, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and with a partially UNESCO World-Heritage-listed Old Town, a stopover in Italy’s medieval port city is well worth your time.
Genoa sits at the heart of the Italian Riviera in the region of Liguria. It is the gateway to the famous Cinque Terre and magical coves of Portovene and La Spezia. One of the greatest charms of a visit here is to absorb the faded glamour of what has historically been (even before the Roman Empire) a rich and influential trading centre.
Here are ten top things to do in Genoa.
Piazza de Ferrari has long been the city’s central gathering point. Visitors are inevitably drawn to the bronze fountain in the centre with its cascading water. It’s best seen illuminated in the evening. It’s illegal to swim in the fountain, however tempting that might be on a hot summer’s day. While exploring the piazza, take time to visit the 1827 Teatro (Duke) Cario Felice opera house.
Since the 12th century, the medieval gates of Porta Soprana have welcomed visitors to Genoa arriving from the east across the plains of Saint Andrea. Embedded in solid stone walls, the two tall towers (complete with a guardhouse) were built between 1155 and 1159 to defend the independent Republic of Genoa against Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa’s lofty ambitions for annexation. Today, the gates are a fascinating window on the past — and a wonderful photo opportunity.
San Lorenzo’s Cathedral is a striking black and white Romanesque structure standing tall in the old historic centre of the city. Enter through one of three tall Gothic doors flanked by two marble lions, and you’ll find yourself in the dimly lit nave. Admire the wide marble columns as you walk down the central aisle between wooden pews, your footsteps echoing on the stone floor. The impressive altar includes a hexagonal, green coloured cup, which is believed to be the Holy Grail — the Sacro Catino. Climb the bell tower for amazing views of the Genoa skyline.
A walk down the World Heritage-listed Via Garibaldi is a chance to immerse yourself in the Genoa of the 1600s to the 1800s. One of the most important historic streets in the city, it’s well-known for its Romanesque, renaissance and baroque architecture. Formerly known as Strada Nuova, Via Garibaldi is lined with no less than 42 noble palaces. Originally home to the most powerful Genovese families, many have been converted into museums and galleries.
Located on Via Balbi, pay a visit to Palazzo Reale — a baroque 17th century palace turned museum that details the history of Genovese royalty. The grand staircase covered in soft blue carpet leads to elegant chambers decorated in the style of each royal Italian family who lived here (Balbi, Durazzo and Savoy). In true 18th century style, the Galleria degli Specchio (hall of mirrors) is not to be missed. Nor are the 17th century Van Dyck paintings — Portrait of a Lady and Crucifix. You’ll see them before you step out onto a wide garden terrace with harbour views.
If the city’s grinding traffic is getting you down, seek some green solace at Parco Urbano delle Mura. Snuggled between Genoa’s two main valleys, Besagno and Polcevera, the park offers access to 617 hectares of protected natural beauty. Ascend slowly above the city skyline by funicular (the city’s oldest public railway) to an oasis of fresh mountain air, picnic grounds and historical monuments. They include Fort Begato — a 12th century fortification, strategically located and with the capacity to house 300 soldiers. It was both a fort and prison in its day, but is now a platform for viewing the harbour and rolling hills.
A balcony suspended high above the historic town centre, the Spianata Castelletto provides a 360 degree bird’s eye view of Genoa’s port, slate rooftops and baroque domes. Access is by the fabulous art nouveau public elevator on Piazza del Portello. The view is worth the seven euros to enter the residential quarter, where small boutiques and cafes surround a garden square. It’s the perfect spot for lunch or evening drinks as the harbour lights sparkle against the night sky.
North of the old centre, you’ll find Castellano D’Albertis. This 12th century gothic-style castle was originally the home of explorer Captain D’Albertis. It was designated a museum in 1932, and today it continues to showcase a range of artefacts collected by the Captain on his travels, including weapons from ancient civilisations such as Sudan and China. The castle also offers views of the Ligurian Sea and the Lanterna di Genova — one of the oldest lighthouses in the world, and once powered by olive oil!
The result of combining a racecourse and football oval is Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris — also known as Marassi stadium. Home to the first Italian football club (established in 1893), the 36,599 capacity stadium has undergone several renovations. It’s compact and the seating tiers are steep, but you are close to the action. Just be careful not to lean too far forward! Soccer to Italians is like AFL or Rugby League to Australians, and the locals are extremely passionate, and vocal, about their teams. Match tickets can be purchased online.
Genoa’s Porto Antico has a history as a port for trading vessels that stretches as far back as 500 BC. Today however, you are more likely to see cruise ships and luxury yachts. It’s from here that you can pick up a day trip to the Cinque Terre. A stroll along the harbour will lead you to King Neptune’s ship and La Biosfera — a huge glasshouse full of tropical plants. At the end of the day, settle in to one of the many waterfront bars and restaurants and watch the sun set, aperitif in hand.
For more information, please visit www.visitgenoa.it/en.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Genoa? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Linda Botting is a freelance writer, photographer and travel blogger based in Adelaide, South Australia. Her work has appeared in Great Walks, SA Weekend and International Traveller. She has travelled extensively through Western Europe as well as the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. Linda has lived in London, trekked Peru, practised yoga in Bali, studied Italian in Italy and played polo in Argentina. She seeks to inspire like-minded independent and solo travellers to explore new cultures and learn more about our amazing planet.