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The Italian Riviera boasts such mesmerizing places as Portofino and the Cinque Terre with its stunning cliff-side towns, beaches, and baby blue seas, but the city of Genoa has a reputation for being a rough and tumble port. It hasn’t always been this way: the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens who spent most of his life in Genoa, as well as the infamous Baroque artist, Caravaggio, were fascinated by the old town’s architecture and its streets lined with palaces. In the 12th century, the city held one of the largest navies in the Mediterranean. Today, Genoa is best known for two things: being the birthplace of both Christopher Columbus and pesto.
Genoa is located in the very middle of the Italian Riviera, a stretch of coast in the Liguria region in the north of Italy that runs from the French border almost to Tuscany. Genoa’s port and its old town are quite different and though they are equally representative of the city, the old town will appeal more to travelers. In it, you’ll find chic wine bars, restaurants, winding cobblestone streets, beautiful churches, and a spirited nightlife. In recent years, the city center has reinvented itself, cleaning up some of the rougher neighborhoods as well as the waterfront. However, the waterfront still leaves much to be desired.
With a focus on business, the port is very efficient and home to major cruise lines that can take you everywhere from nearby Sardinia to distant Palermo, Sicily. Cargo ships compose the other half of the port, and mixed in between are the fishing vessels, whose enormous catches, though excellent when turned into a lightly battered and fried fritto misto, fill the air with an overwhelming fishiness. The famous artist Renzo Piano tried to make the port more welcoming, adding a shopping mall, but, uncharacteristically, Piano’s work falls short. The best things about Genoa’s port are the MUMA Galata Museum of the Sea (the largest maritime museum in the Mediterranean) and the Aquarium.
But let’s get back to the city center, the centro, the heart of Genoa. Below is a list of some of my favorite things about Genoa. Genoa is a great city to visit during the off-months as well as the peak months because its climate is very temperate. It doesn’t get overly hot in the summer, and the winter is also mild, though strong winds can strike December-February.
Genoa’s Most Important Sights
San Lorenzo Cathedral (Genoa Cathedral)
One of the most visually unique church facades in Italy, the San Lorenzo Cathedral is striped inside and out. Great artworks abound, including works by Lazzaro Tavarone. The church contains the ashes of John the Baptist, which are kept in an ornate sarcophagus, and they are taken out once a year for an honorary procession.
Genoa’s other churches are also worth a visit. The three most impressive churches that are teeming with artwork are: Santa Maria di Castello, the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato, and the Church of San Matteo. The Church of San Donato is small, but it contains a major artwork, The Adoration of the Magi by Flemish painter Joos Van Cleeve. The Church of San Stefano is best viewed from outside and features the quintessential characteristics of Romanesque architecture.
MUMA Galata Museum of the Sea
This is the ideal place to learn about Christopher Columbus as well as the history of the Mediterranean Sea’s maritime culture. It’s a great stop for kids. Actual full-size ships, ancient and new, are inside the museum, as well as a collection of full suits of armor. You could easily spend 3 or more hours here.
The Aquarium of Genoa
The largest aquarium in Italy, The Genoa Aquarium gives visitors the rare opportunity to pet sting rays. Tropical fish and other sea life are displayed in uniquely designed tanks, such as columns that rise from floor to ceiling.
D’Alberis Castle (Castello d’Alberis)
Getting to this castle is half the fun; take an elevator from Via Balbi that goes into the hillside then straight up to the castle. The castle is immaculately restored and wonderful views of the harbor can be glimpsed from ramparts. It’s another great activity for kids.
Via Garibaldi (previously known as Strada Nuova)
This street is lined with palaces, many of which have been turned into museums. The Palazzo Rosso is regal inside and out and contains one of the most important art galleries in the city. Via Garibaldi also has some of the best gelato shops in the city as well as antique shops.
The Palazzo Reale
Located on Via Balbi, this palace is best known for the Throne Room, the Royal Apartments, and the Hallway of Mirrors; a gallery of statues and massive chandeliers multiplied again and again in ceiling-high mirrors.
The Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno (Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno)
Visiting graveyards might not be your cup of tea… or maybe it is! Italian cemeteries are more like fine art galleries; the crypts are as ornate as palaces and many feature sculptures by fine artists. For more, check out my article on Milan’s cemetery. Genoa’s Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, which is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe, is just as impressive as the one in Milan.
Villetta Di Negro Park
This small but tranquil park features a waterfall, flowers, and plenty of park benches. Located in the city center, it’s a great place to take a seat, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere.
Where To Shop in Genoa
Mercato Orientale is an outdoor street market. It is THE place to get fresh produce, meats, and other food-related items. From Liguria’s famous basil to freshly made pesto, it’s almost more than a gourmand can take.
Galleria Mazzini, a 19th-century shopping mall, is worth visiting for its architectural beauty as well as elegant shops.
Via Balbi is where you’ll find the best antique shops in Genoa.
Via XX Settembre is the modern shopping street, featuring department stores such as COIN and Zara.
Though Genoa’s bars and clubs feature world-class DJs and dancing ‘til dawn, many of the best parties are outside in the city’s piazzas. Piazza delle Erbe is always filled with people by 11 pm each night.
Where to Eat and Drink in Genoa
Pasticceria Romanengo, located on Via Soziglia, is one of the oldest pastry shops in Europe. It was opened in 1780. Try the rose oil drops (rosolio in Italian): sugar drops infused with the taste of roses.
For a bottle of wine (or two), try Enoteca Migone, which features wines from all over Liguria, Italy, and the rest of the world. This wine shop is located in Piazza San Matteo.
For a glass of wine in a chic setting, try i tre merli, a wine bar located in the former stable of Palazzo Campanella. The setting is 100% pure medieval wine cellar.
For pesto try Trattoria da Maria, an unassuming local’s spot: cheap prices and traditional flavors.
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com