Underrated Genoa is Italy’s busiest port with a proud maritime history going back centuries, one of Italy’s most atmospheric and labyrinthine old towns, and tasty cuisine based on fresh seafood and the humble but addictive focaccia (totally unlike the spongy bread you’ve tasted elsewhere). The city’s late-Renaissance palaces and churches are as grand as any in Italy, with a fraction of the tourists.
Today its seagoing traditions are maintained every June during the Regata delle Antiche Repubbliche Marinare, a rowing competition pitting crews from its ancient rivals, Amalfi, Pisa, and Venice (hosted in rotation). The Millevele, or “Thousand Sails”, takes place every September when Genoa’s bay is smothered with yachts from all over the world.
Planning Your Trip
If you have just one day in Genoa make for the Old Town. Start by admiring the palaces on Via Garibaldi – it’s worth going inside at least one of them (such as Palazzo Rosso). Be sure to spend some time wandering the alleys (caruggi) and tiny piazzas of the Old Town, grabbing a coffee and cake at Caffè degli Specchi or Fratelli Klainguti.
Visit the cathedral, then head down to the old port area where you can visit the huge aquarium, or delve into the city’s history at the Maritime Museum. Be sure to take in the views from the top of the Bigo elevator and order the local pesto for dinner.
With two more days, you can visit the palaces of Via Garibaldi in full, explore the Palazzo Ducale and make time for Castello d’Albertis and the refreshing stroll along the promenade to Boccadasse. For more tips on visiting the country, check out How Many Days Should You Spend in Italy?
When to Go
Genoa has a balmy Mediterranean climate, with hot summers, though winters can still be chilly. Rainfall tends to be heaviest in October and November. The best months to visit are May, June, and September, with the city at its busiest throughout the summer. For more, see the Best Time of Year to Visit Italy.
Getting There and Around
Flights to and from most European capitals serve Genoa Airport (Aeroporto Cristoforo Colombo), just four miles west of the city center. North American travelers have to fly through Rome, Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Trains from Rome, Turin, Bologna, Florence and the Italian Riviera arrive at Stazione Principe (Genova P.P.) near the Old Town on Piazza Acquaverde, and Stazione Brignole (Genova BR.)in the modern city on Piazza Verdi (make sure you know which station your train is scheduled to arrive at or depart from).
Driving to Genoa is relatively straightforward, with parking most easy to find around the port and the edges of the Old Town (avoid driving within the historic center, which is a “Limited Traffic Zone” or ZTL). Ferries connect Genoa to places such as Barcelona, Sardinia, and Sicily, with most departing the Stazione Marittima on Via Marina D’Italia, a 5-minute walk south of Stazione Principe.
The best way to get around Genoa is on foot, though there are buses and a small subway system. Take metered taxis at night (Radio Taxi has a monopoly; call +39 010 5966).
The Card Musei (“museum card”) allows free or discounted entry to 22 museums (including all the principal palaces) – worth it if you intend to do some serious sightseeing. The 24hr card is Euros 12, or Euros 15 with free bus travel – the best deal is the 48hr card (Euros 20 or Euros 25 with bus). Buy the pass at any museum or tourist office.
Genoa’s Top Sights
Genoa extends for 19 miles along the Ligurian coast, with neighborhoods crammed into valleys and clinging to the Apennine slopes. Most sights are in the Centro Storico (Old Town), an enchanting mélange of Renaissance palaces, aging medieval tenements, tiny piazzas, and narrow alleys (caruggi). Note that most museums are closed on Mondays, along with several attractions in the Old Port and many of the city's restaurants. Note that stores tend to close Monday mornings or Wednesday afternoons.
Centro Storico (Old Town)
Via Garibaldi (aka Gia Strada Nuova), lined with stunning mansions, forms the northern boundary of the Old Town and is the best place to begin a tour. Access to the main buildings is provided under the Musei di Strada Nuova umbrella. Included is the spectacular Palazzo Bianco (White Palace), home to a precious cache of paintings (including Portrait of a Lady by Lucas Cranach the Elder).
The Palazzo Rosso (Red Palace) features prints, drawings, and 17th-century frescoes, while the Palazzo Doria Tursi contains a shrine-like room displaying the “Guarneri del Gesù”, the violin of local prodigy Niccolò Paganini. Nearby on Piazza Pellicceria (but with separate admission), the Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola is a gorgeous example of how Genovese aristocrats lived in the 18th-century, its gilded rooms also crammed with art.
Genoa’s Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, with its black-and-white-striped 12th-century façade, lies in the center of the Old Town. Inside, the Cappella di San Giovanni contains what are claimed to be relics of John the Baptist. It’s also worth visiting the stately Palazzo Ducale in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, the former Doge’s Palace now used for special exhibitions. History buffs should check out the Museo del Risorgimento (Via Lomellini 11), which chronicles Genoa’s role in Italy's re-unification movement in the house where revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini was born in 1805.
Old Port (Porto Antico)
The old port area has been undergoing regeneration in recent decades, with favorite son Renzo Piano taking a leading role. Piano’s most visible project is the Bigo, a giant, moveable sculpture meant to resemble a shipping crane, with a panoramic lift that glides up to 130ft above the port.
Also here is the Acquario di Genova (Aquarium of Genoa), the largest in Europe, a branch of gourmet food emporium Eataly, the Vascello Neptune, a replica of a 17th-century Spanish galleon, and a slice of tropical forest in Renzo Piano’s great glass globe of the Biosphere (Biosfera). Look out also for the brightly frescoed Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was supposedly locked up (and where he narrated his Travels) during war with Venice, and the Genoa Museum, dedicated to the local soccer team.
Further along the waterfront, the innovative Galata Museo del Mare (Museum of the Seas) provides an enlightening overview of Genoa’s long and eventful maritime history (including a full-scale reproduction of a Genovese “attack ship”). On the other side of the harbor stands the towering Lanterna, the iconic lighthouse of Genoa. Built in 1543, it’s 253ft tall, though only the first terrace is open to visitors.
New Town (San Vicenzo)
The Old Town was once surrounded by walls and medieval gates, with twin-towered Porta Soprana one of the grandest remaining. The gate faces Piazza Dante and the newer part of town. Just below the gate is “Christopher Columbus' House”, where Columbus is said to have lived as a child (the current building is an 18th-century reconstruction). Next to it is the romantic ruin of St Andrew’s cloister. Just to the north lies Via XX Settembre, built between 1892 and 1924, and lined with posh shops, arcades and mosaic sidewalks. Halfway along is the sprawling Mercato Orientale, Genoa’s lively indoor food market since 1899.
High above the Old Town, with magnificent views of the city, the bizarre Castello D’Albertis was completed in 1892 as the home of sea captain Enrico Alberto d'Albertis. Built in the style of an Italian Gothic castle, it now houses the old-fashioned Museum of World Cultures, with ethnographic oddities from all over the globe.
Around 4 miles east along the coast from the Old Town (at the end of the Corso Italia promenade), the fishing village of Boccadasse is a popular half-day trip. It’s multicolored boats and houses recall the Cinque Terre villages further south. The restaurants here are known for their extra-fresh seafood, while the Corso itself is lined with local gelato vendors.
Where to Stay
Genoa’s hotels are often booked solid during the Millevele (usually Sept) – check if any other events are expected to take place before you go. If you want to feel more like a local, self-catering apartments are the way to go. Airbnb has a decent selection in Genoa, though you’ll find apartments such as swish Virginia’s Rooms (within walking distance of the Old Town at Via Nino Bixio 4b) sold on most booking websites.
Genoa has several grand old hotels if you are looking for luxury. Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of the opulent Hotel Bristol Palace (Via XX Settembre, 35) an Art Nouveau gem that opened in 1905, while Grand Hotel Savoia (Via Arsenale di Terra 5, opposite the station), dates back to 1897 and drips with Belle Epoque style. NH Collection Genova Marina is another posh hotel, right on the waterfront in the heart of town (Molo Ponte Calvi 5).
The more contemporary Best Western Hotel Portico Antico (Via Al Ponte Calvi, 5) offers good value and a central location, while minimalist Hotel Nologo (Viale Sauli 5) features budget rates and musically themed rooms. Hostel accommodation is plentiful in Genoa, with Ostellin Genova (Vico dei Parmigiani 1-3) offering friendly digs in the Old Town.
Where to Eat
You’ll find take-out shops selling focaccia, the local specialty, all over Genoa. Here, the thick, crispy-skinned flatbread (served with salt and olive oil) is often topped with cheese, onions, vegetables, or prosciutto. The other local favorite is farinata, a surprisingly delicious chickpea fritter that’s baked like a mini pizza.
Small hole-in-the-wall places in the old port fry up all sorts of fresh seafood every night, while it’s hard to beat the historic atmosphere at Caffè degli Specchi (Salita Pollaiuoli 43/R), perfect for breakfast, coffee or cake.
For a sit-down meal, I Tre Merli (Calata Cattaneo 17) in the old port is justly popular for its Ligurian seafood and sea views. Further inside the Old Town, no-frills Trattoria da Maria (Vico Testadoro 14r) is a Genovese institution. The handwritten menu changes daily, but will likely include stuffed anchovies and pesto, two major Ligurian specialties.
For something special, head to Zeffirino (Via XX Settembre 20) a lavish restaurant with superb wines and tasty dishes such as lasagna Genovese, lobster linguini and the best pesto in Italy. Frank Sinatra loved it so much he had their pesto sauce sent to him in the USA every week. Leave room for the hand-crafted chocolates at Romeo Viganotti, tucked away at Vico dei Castagna 14.
Genoa by Night
Start your evening off with an aperitif at Caffè degli Specchi or Fratelli Klainguti in Piazza di Soziglia, a lovely old pasticceria that was opened by Swiss brothers way back in 1828 (it closes at 7:30pm, though). For serious cocktails, try Les Rouges (Piazza Campetto 8a).
For local Ligurian wines (typically white Pigatos and Vermentinos, plus red Rossese), visit cozy Cantine Matteotti (Archivolto Baliano 4-6/r). Set in a medieval palazzo, La Bottega Del Conte (48 Via delle Grazie) features live jazz.
Popular clubs include Mako at Corso Italia 28r, and Estoril Beach Club further along the coast at Corso Italia 7D, where the location (and sea views) make up for the small dance floor and high prices.