Photo Courtesy of Samneang Lina Sin
Tucked into a thin slice of northern Italian coastline between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains, Genoa (or Genova, in Italian) is a historic port city of limited space. For centuries, though, the stalwart Genovese have made the most of their land, coloring the landscape with vivid homes a…nd churches to draw the merchants of the ancient world to their shores. With one of the largest intact medieval quarters in all of Europe—plus stunning art and architecture, delicious cuisine, and easy access to some of the most lovely water in the world—Genoa is a beautiful place to visit.
What to know before you go to Genoa
With museums, art galleries, gorgeous churches, and ancient palaces, the city offers sightseeing for every season, even the cold and rainy ones. While winter is great for exploring, with very few tourists, the rain can be a challenge. Genoa in the late spring (April/May) and the early fall (September/October) is warm enough for enjoying an afternoon on the beach, but not so full of summering tourists that you feel swallowed by the throngs.
No matter where you're coming from, Genoa is easy to access, with a major airport and two large train stations within five miles of the city center. Most international flights arrive in Milan or Rome, both with great connecting flights to Genoa Cristoforo Colombo Airport. Because of the peculiar mountainous topography, flights must turn out to sea and then come in along the coastline, so if you sit on the right side of the plane, your views are spectacular. Train service is excellent from all over Italy.
The Genovese are proud of their metro, which is clean and runs consistently but has only eight stations. While not convenient for extensive travel, connections to both train stations do simplify city arrival and departure. There are few cabs to hail—instead, look for cabstands at major junctions like the Aquarium and Piazza Ferrari. Primarily, Genoa is a walking city, so bring comfy shoes and enjoy exploring on foot.
In a bygone era of political intrigue and threat of assassination, the Doge of Genoa lived in a fortified palace rumored to contain enough stored food and water to keep him alive two full years with the doors sealed. Needing to travel via secret corridor to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, he would arrive in his private church quarters just as mass began. While today this part of the church is normally closed to the public, with special reservations you can tour his chambers, and from there climb to the bell tower for spectacular views of the entire ancient city.
The traditional Ligurian flatbread, focaccia, is the mainstay of Genovese cuisine, and you'll find that it's nearly impossible to miss its wafting scent. Every bakery lining the Via San Lorenzo produces its own variety, from the simple olive oil and salt, to those topped with olives, onions, and even smeared thickly with Nutella. A standard slice will cost you 1 euro, and makes for an amazing breakfast with a steaming cappuccino.
Genoa is peppered with UNESCO World Heritage experiences, most notably the Palazzi di Rolli. These 16th-century palaces once housed Genoa's nobility and were required to be listed on the "rolls" as possible lodging for visiting international dignitaries. Spend a day exploring the Musei di Strada Nuova (palaces turned art galleries) and the boutique shops between them. Save a few hours for the abundance of medieval and Renaissance churches that flank the Via Garibaldi; some of the city's most precious art lies within their walls.
Although Genoa has been hit by the economic downturn, there is still a desire to celebrate the events of the city's past. One of four major historic maritime republics (along with Venice, Amalfi, and Pisa), "La Superba" Genoa remains connected to the stories and seafaring traditions. Every four years, Genoa hosts the annual July Regatta celebrating this history. So in 2014 and 2018, expect to encounter hundreds of costumed boatmen, live music, and nighttime street parties.
Following these tips can mean the difference between a perfect trip and one marred by disapproving stares and unmet expectations: Cappuccino is solely a morning drink. If you don't want to look like a tourist, don't order one after 10 a.m. Be prepared to navigate steep inclines as you make your way around town. Because the roads are incredibly narrow and the streets often go straight uphill, many locals drive scooters. Be respectful of customs. The Genovese are quite formal in behavior and clothing. Dress is conservative—no flip-flops or shorts, with jeans rarely seen on anyone over the age of 18. The ancient city is beautiful to explore by daylight, but in the dark (and with relatively few streetlights, it is very dark!) streets can get a bit seedy. Prostitution is legal and still practiced in Genoa, so small alleys can become home to many types of evening characters. Be smart, keep your eyes open, and make sure you are aware of your surroundings at all times.
Collier Lumpkin is a chef and freelance food writer/photographer who splits her time between New York City and northern Italy. She loves focaccia with olive oil, kayaking on the Italian Riviera, and exploring unexpected tiny towns. You can find her at Collierlumpkin.com.