Once the mightiest maritime republic in the Mediterranean, Genoa is a true city of the sea. Within its vast, twisting medieval core, a remarkable history, spanning eight centuries, blurs with the everyday life of a working port town. Washing hangs high above its worn cobbled streets. Beautiful palazzo mansions hide in unassuming piazzas. Open apartment windows reveal grandiose ceiling murals; painted for nobles with more money than sense, now enjoyed by the normal folk who live there.
Like a wave, the city rolls down to the deep, dark blue of the Ligurian sea, where the historic harbor has been reimagined into a lively entertainment district, with a cutting-edge aquarium, seafront dining and some of the city’s finest museums. To the west, the monumental industrial port stretches along the coast, all cranes and cargo ships. A reminder of Genoa’s never-ending relationship with the sea. For most, Genoa marks a stop off for Cinque Terre. Those who linger find a city of undeniable beauty—Genoa’s true charms are rooted in its realness.
The Genoese gave the world pesto and focaccia, two foods that sum up the city’s outlook on cooking: keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it delicious. Eaten throughout the day, focaccia is a citywide obsession, to the point where the smell of baked bread seems ingrained into the walls of the medieval center. Panifico Claretta, tucked down a gloomy-looking alley, sells slabs of crisp, salty focaccia for a little more than a euro. For more traditional fare, book a table at Il Cadraio, an osteria just off Via Garibaldi, and try the trofie al pesto. The dish combines a super-fresh pesto sauce with the signature hand-rolled trofie pasta of the region.
Sweet fiends will want to pay Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano a visit in Piazza de Soziglia. This classic confectioner has been making sweets in Genoa since 1780, and specializes in handmade, small-batch desserts made from traditional Genoese recipes.
In the evening, as the bars and cafes take over the piazzas of the old town, Genoa’s aperitivi culture comes into full swing. Start the night at Bar Berto, a classic boite with a well-worn façade, before bar hopping around this lively square.
Given its past wealth and power, it’s no surprise that Genoa is a city of remarkable architecture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Genoa’s palazzi, the regal mansions once owned by the republic’s ruling aristocracy. More than 100 dot the old city, but on Via Garibaldi you’ll find 12 of the grandest standing side by side. Today, they’ve been repurposed as galleries, museums, shops and even hairdressers. For a taste of how these opulent homes once looked, head to Palazzo Reale, a museum and former royal residence of the House of Savoy.
Genoa also has some of the finest religious buildings in Northwest Italy, so make time for the Cathedral San Lorenzo, with its spectacular Gothic façade, and the lesser-visited church of San Matteo, a small chapel with a peaceful cloister built by the powerful Doria family.
Besides Genoa’s medieval center, some of the city’s best bits are along the seafront. The enormous aquarium—the largest in Europe—is home to a remarkable array of manatees, sharks, seals and dolphins. It is also an important center for research and conservation, particularly for whales and the “urban” dolphins who live in the city’s waters.
A short walk away, the Galata Museo del Mar tells the story of Genoa’s long relationship with the sea. From the foundations of a mighty maritime republic in the 11th century and Cristopher Columbus’ “discoveries” to the evolution of ship building and Italy’s complicated relationship with immigration.
For spectacular panoramas, head to the viewing platform at Spianata Castelletto via the Art Deco lift on Piazza Portello. From here, you get the whole story of Genoa, from the domes and spires of the Old Town, to the cranes and tankers of the new port, in glorious wide focus.
Feeling regal? Bed down in your own palace at Palazzo Grillo, a marble masterpiece of Renaissance architecture in the heart of Genoa’s medieval city. Dating back to the 16th century, the hotel perfectly encapsulates the wealth and opulence of the city’s past. The hotel’s 25 rooms are decked out in a tasteful minimalist style, a subtle modern contrast to the hotel’s rich history.
Another spectacular historical residence, Hotel Le Nuvole provides great-value accommodation in a distinctive Genoese setting. The 15 rooms are furnished with simple, modern touches, which makes the soaring ceilings, intricate friezes and ancient frescoes all the more luxuriant. The communal spaces follow a similar theme: it’s cool over classic, with contemporary photography juxtaposed with Renaissance art.