For many visitors, Genoa is a portal to the Mediterranean. It’s the largest seaport in Italy and the first stop for many cruise passengers. In fact, as you step off the plane, a queue seems to form automatically, which funnels passengers from immigration straight to the cruise ships. But if you make time for a short walking tour through Genoa’s old town you’ll be rewarded with an immersive insight into this culturally rich city.
Start your journey on Via Garibaldi, one of the central streets of Genoa’s old town. Walking west to east, you’ll discover the city’s town hall and several notable palazzos.
On your left stands Palazzo Bianco, a Baroque Renaissance style architecture in peach and ivory. Facing it is the similarly styled Palazzo Rosso, contrasting in a terracotta red. Both imposing buildings were once stately homes of the Brignole-Sale family and part of the Palazzi dei Rolli system, which hosted visiting dignitaries in its golden age. Today, they are one of the most important set of museum galleries along with the adjoining Palazzo Tursi.
It costs €9 to visit all three palaces, and it’s well worth it to see the large collection of Italian and European art. But if you find yourself short on time then at least peer into Via Garibaldi 12. The similarly grand building is now a lifestyle store, showcasing many of the building’s original features, including restored frescoes, and will give you a flavour of the stunning interiors of the palazzos.
Near the east end of Via Garibaldi, turn left at Via del Portello. Along the small side alley is where, inside the inconspicuous Pasticceria Profumo , you will discover the city’s love of sweet treats. It’s the sort of place where people stop their taxis outside to pop in and pick up after-dinner delights . Try the pandolce, a stout version of the panettone, which Genoa is famous for.
On the other side of Via del Portello is Castelletto, a hill-top residential area overlooking Genoa. To get there, you have to take an elevator at Portello-Castelletto, located at the end of a long corridor. Like many of the tunnels in Genoa, this one is lined with art work from the local art school. The rest of the ride up isn’t scenic but it does save you a lot of up-hill steps. And unless you have a travel pass for the city, you’ll need to pick up a ticket at the magazine stand outside first.
At the tree-lined view point over Castelletto, take a moment to explore the rooftops of Genoa. To the left, the residential area of the city is staggered with buildings in different shades of peach sweeping to the right where the harbour, docked with enormous vessels of cruise ships, stretches out to sea. Dotted throughout are raised gardens, rooftop terraces and suggestions of classical architecture. The locals swear by the gelato booth just around the corner from the bustle, which makes the perfect interlude if you have time to watch the sunset.
Head back down to the harbour through Via Luccoli where you can surround yourself in its bijoux boutique stores which often overflow into the streets. It also happens to be the perfect route for reaching the San Lorenzo cathedral.
There are numerous churches in Genoa but San Lorenzo is the one that you cannot miss. The exterior is an austere layering of black and white marble, forming distinctive zebra stripes; it’s a fashion for religious buildings in Genoa. The zebra stripes seem far less plain in the interior as they direct your eyes to the stunning frescoes on the ceiling. San Lorenzo is not as big as the Duomo in Florence but it’s certainly comparable.
If you haven’t been to the old harbour, make it your last stop. Although the area has been completely revamped to include the biggest aquarium in Europe, you still get a flavour of the old Genovese port. But if you’ve already been past Port Antico on your way into the old town, head instead to the historic Cavo café by the cathedral for your last stop.
It is said that Cavo dates back to the 17th century and is one of the oldest cafés in Genoa. In its small and charming space, Cavo serves breakfast, pastries and aperitivo. Locals and travellers stop here for people watching but don’t leave without picking up some Amaretti di Voltaggio for the road ahead.