A former maritime republic and major commercial power in the Mediterranean Sea, Genova is a destination typically overlooked by tourists. But this vibrant port city is a must visit for anyone in search of history and authentic charm. Despite having so much to offer, Italy’s sixth-largest city is often reduced to being a mere gateway to Portofino and the Cinque Terre on cruise itineraries. It’s certainly a great base to visit these cities and others in Liguria, but it is also home to many of its own treasures.
Genova is a city with many faces, striking the perfect balance between glitzy and gritty. This is largely attributed to years of patina that enhances its elegant architecture. Cascading down the mountainous terrain are colorful buildings that meet with the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Genova also boasts the largest medieval historic centre in Europe, proving that the city’s lure goes beyond its pretty surface and bustling port. Here’s what to see, do and eat in Genova.
What To See In Genova
This waterfront district is a popular spot in the city. Originally Genova’s old port, numerous revitalization projects have modernized the area since it was a powerful maritime republic from the 11th century to 18th centuries. Wedged between the sea and the centro storico, visitors of all ages can enjoy ample entertainment at any hour of the day. The Porto Antico has lots of events and attractions, including outdoor concerts, fine dining and even the largest aquarium in Europe. All of this can be found in a scenic setting of palm trees and docked yachts. You’re not going to want to miss this part of the city!
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006, a stroll down Via Garibaldi offers a glimpse into Genova’s opulent past. One is sure to be awestruck by the sheer grandeur of the palazzi lining this street. Many of them have been converted into museums and galleries, including Palazzo Bianco. This 16th century palazzo is home to an extensive collection of art by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck, and Caravaggio. Each year, the city hosts 2 weekends called “Rolli Days” in which private, aristocratic palaces in the historic center of Genova are open to the public. The courtyard gardens of these palatial buildings are also a wonder to behold.
Piazza De Ferrari
Locals and tourists alike convene in Piazza De Ferrari for its architectural appeal. Surrounded by elaborate buildings and a grand bronze fountain, it’s evident why this is known as the beating heart of Genova. In the 19th century, Genova was one of Italy’s primary financial hubs (alongside Milan) and Piazza De Ferri emerged as a central location for various institutions. It was home to the Italian stock exchange until 1994 and the former Bank of Genova (now UniCredit). This large, open piazza also the perfect reprieve from the city’s narrow caruggi. During the summer months, it is a great spot to stop and enjoy a refreshing gelato, while during the Christmas season, it is beautifully decorated and illuminated at night.
Via XX Settembre
A medieval thoroughfare that runs through the center of Genova, Via XX Settembre is the main shopping street of the city. Thanks to its portico-covered sidewalks, you can get your fix of retail therapy rain or shine. Here you won’t find a laid back atmosphere, but rather a constant buzz of traffic — both pedestrian and vehicular. From clothing and jewelry to homewares, there’s something to satisfy everyone’s taste.
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
Italy is home to many cathedrals, but Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is among its most beautiful. Dating back to the eleventh century, this cathedral combines various architectural styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. This is largely reflected in its use of black and white stripes, both inside and out. Two lion statues stand guard of the cathedral, adding to its strong presence. Inside, you can find numerous holy relics housed in the Museo del Tesoro (entrance to the museum if €6).
Sampling Local Delicacies
With little land for animals to graze on and abundant sea on its doorstep, meat is scarce in the Ligurian diet, while seafood is plentiful. The rocky terrain of the region offers the perfect conditions to grow taggiasche olives and basilico genovese. Granted protected status by the EU in 2005, this variety of basil is the key ingredient in the preparation of pesto genovese. It goes without saying that the consumption of pesto while in Genova is obligatory!
And if the fragrance of basilico genovese wasn’t enough to perfume the city’s air, focaccia is everywhere. Considered a flatbread by many, focaccia has a texture similar to pizza without all the toppings. Dressed with salt, rosemary and plenty of extra virgin olive oil, the end result is irresistibly delicious.
Finally, a more recent addition to la cucina genevose are pansotti. Similar to ravioli, this triangular shaped stuffed pasta is served with a walnut sauce. The filling consists of a mixture of ricotta, several types of leafy greens, herbs, and spices. The complexity of its flavor is a reflection of the unique ingredients that grow in the region. Creamy, rich and yet slightly bitter, the combination results in a balanced flavor profile.
I Tre Merli Porto Antico
I Tre Merli Porto Antico will surely steal your heart and stomach with its fine cuisine and stunning views. Located at the Porto Antico waterfront, this elegant restaurant is styled with medieval decor: black-and-white columns, exposed brick walls and hanging flags. There’s also ample seating room outside at the port. I Tre Merli Porto Antico is an atmospheric place to try Ligurian specialties like pansoti and pesto. Don’t miss their leavened goods like farinata and focaccia, made in-house using their wood burning oven. And if you’re a fan of fried seafood, this is a must visit! Given its seafront position the restaurant is able to boast the use of zero kilometer seafood. It is the perfect place for a long lunch or dinner under the stars.
A scenic spot to enjoy a sweet treat is Caffetteria Orefici. Despite its small stature, this small café delivers incredibly large flavor. There are plenty of tantalizing foods to choose from such as custard-filled cornetti and savory focaccias stuffed with seasonal vegetables. But an absolute must try is their famous affogato. These works of art come in a dozen flavors such as pistachio and hazelnut gelato topped with coffee, whipped cream and crumbled hazelnuts, or ricotta gelato with chocolate chips, coffee and whipped cream topped with a Sicilian cannolo. You can take your caffè and pastry at the bar inside or sit at one of the tables in the quaint piazza across from the cafe.
Where To Stay in Genova
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in Genova, but the Hotel Meliá Genova is a clear frontrunner. Set in a leafy neighborhood, not far from the city’s action, it’s the perfect place to enjoy some pampering. Despite the extensive use of marble, the hotel juxtaposes the perfect blend of a modern, clean aesthetic, with a welcoming atmosphere. A wellness centre featuring a swimming pool, Turkish bath, and hot tub will help you to rejuvenate. Once you’ve recharged, be sure to enjoy local Ligurian fare or an aperitivo at the Blue Lounge & Restaurant.
Hotel Palazzo Grillo
A 16th century residence that has been turned into a boutique hotel, Palazzo Grillo is the perfect base for art lovers visiting Genova. With frescoed vaults, stucco details and marble staircases, it promises an unforgettable stay close to the Porto Antico and main sights in the city. The hotel has 25 modern rooms and numerous halls and living rooms where you can enjoy an aperitif or catch up on reading. The primo piano, the ornamental first floor that was originally used for entertaining guests, now hosts rotating exhibitions.
Day Trips from Genova
There are plenty of day trips that one can take from Genova to explore Liguria. A visit to classics like Portofino and the Cinque Terre are an absolute must, especially if you’re short on time. But if you have the chance to stay in Genova longer, then I highly recommend you explore any of this region’s small towns. They’re packed with seaside charm and an incredibly festive ambience. Regardless of which you choose, you can’t go wrong!
Colourful houses and vineyards perched on the rocky Ligurian coast make for postcard perfect views. Once five isolated villages, the Cinque Terre draws in crowds from around the world. There is something to appeal to all, ranging from hiking on scenic trails to enjoying tasty local seafood. Despite drawing in droves of tourists, it continues to retain authentic charm. Getting here is fairly easy with local train service from Genova to Levanto (1 hour). From Levanto, hop on the Cinque Terre Express train which operates every 15 minutes and stops at all 5 villages. Be sure to wear comfy shoes!
Set in the heart of the Italian Riviera, between Genova and the Cinque Terre, Portofino is one of the pearls of Italy. While its origins date back to the Roman era, this pretty seaside town gained notoriety in the 1950s as a playground for the rich and famous. Here one can walk in the shoes of the elite, dining at elegant restaurants and shopping at the finest boutiques. From Genova, the easiest way to reach Portofino is by taking a train to Santa Margherita Ligure. Otherwise you can opt for a boat-tour.
Famous in Italy for being the annual home of the Sanremo Music Festival (one of the world’s longest-running television programs), this pretty town epitomizes Ligurian charm. During the day, you can enjoy some relaxation at one of its many beaches or shop and dine at some of the finest spots. At night, one can choose from a wide selection of entertainment whether at one of its many concerts or its famed Casinò Sanremo which dates back to 1905.