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What You Must Know About Genoa Before Visiting

Genoa is the capital of the Liguria region and a historic Mediterranean port city located in the center of the Italian Riviera. Nestled between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains, it is known for its breathtaking landmarks, culinary delights, and for being the birthplace of explorer Christopher Columbus, violinist Niccolò Paganini, and architect Renzo Piano.

Though it might not get the same hype and attention as its neighbors (Rome and Venice), Genoa’s historical city center is known for its narrow lanes and streets that the locals call “caruggi,” and local specialties such as Ligurian wine, pesto, and focaccia, makes it deserving of its own special recognition.

A Quick History Check

As with many ancient cities, Genoa has had its share of rising and falling fortunes — mainly due to shifting trade routes. It also experienced several shifts in government and alliances.

Genoa was inhabited as early as the 5th century AD and was a self governing medieval commune before becoming an independent city-state around 1100 AD. Eventually it turned into a republic, the Republic of Genoa, under the direction of a doge (leader).

The city dominated the maritime world during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It flourished with the Crusades thanks to increased trade and it being a passageway into the area for European crusaders during the religious wars.

Genoa had also developed a rivalry with nearby Venice when they competed for naval and trading routes. Sadly, its newfound gains collapsed with the arrival of the Black Death around 1347, a plague that caused political and economic upheaval throughout the European continent.

Genoa rebounded in power and status during the 15th century after the formation of a new constitution and oligarchy, bringing the city some much needed municipal structure; aided by noblemen and the bourgeois, native doges, and ruling families including the Grimaldi, Doria, and Spinola, the Genoese standard of living greatly improved.  By the 17th century Genoa was at the height of its financial power and saw the construction of many buildings, bridges, and churches. It was annexed by the French Empire in 1805, then brought into the unification of Italy in 1861.

Today Genoa — referred to as Genova by the locals — is a bustling financial, commercial, and shipping hub, as well as a lively university town. It charms visitors with a surprising blend of medieval, Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance architecture along with its winding cobblestone streets. Genoa is the birthplace of pesto and focaccia style bread as well as where we get the word for blue jeans, due to the sturdy blue twilled cloth that became popular over the years with the sailors.

How Genoa Became a UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO awards World Heritage Site designation to cultural and natural heritage sites that meet specific criteria for being of outstanding humanitarian value. In Genoa, this criteria was met with the Strade Nouve (Via Garibaldi) and the Palazzi dei Rolli (the Strade Nouve’s residences).

The development of the “new streets” as the city expanded in the 16th century represented the first time an urban development in Europe included a special network of private residences decreed by the senate to host state visits.

The wealthy palaces, or Palazzi dei Rolli, were designed with certain shared criteria: the buildings had to be up to 4 stories tall with entrance halls, elaborate staircases, courtyards, loggias, and gardens. Each year these palaces are open to the public for a short time during Rolli Days for guided tours; the palaces are also celebrated with exhibitions, shows, and concerts.

Best Time of the Year to Visit

Any time is a good time to see Genoa, but those cruising between May to September will find the weather generally warm and dry, with the least amount of rain and the most amount of sunshine.

Must-do Sightseeing and Other To-Do Activities When in Genoa

Genoa is a literal treasure trove of art, history, culture, and cuisine everywhere you look!  While it is a popular connecting point for Milan, Venice, and points beyond, the old port of Genoa and ancient city center offer a lot of options to stay in port and satisfy your inner history or architecture cravings.

Located in the heart of the city, the Piazza de Ferrari is the main square and a busy meeting point for tourists and for the Genovese locals who gather for the festivals and the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. Admire the 16th century architecture and take a selfie in front of the large, circular bronze water fountain in the plaza’s center.

Major landmarks surrounding the plaza include Palazzo Ducal (doge palace), Teatro Carlo Felice (1824 opera house), and the old stock exchange building. Allow some time here to walk down the caruggi bordered by tall, colorful houses.

The great little square of Piazza della Vittoria will dazzle you with its massive triumphal arch on one side to commemorate the fallen soldiers of WWI and ornate, terraced gardens on the other.

Connecting these two piazzas is Via XX Settembre, a half mile long stretch of mosaic marble pavement in front of a delightful mix of Italian designer boutiques and chain stores. Buy — or “eye” — the latest fashions, then pop into one of the elegant cafes for some coffee and Italian macaroons.

The Genova Brignole train station is the second largest one in the city with 11 platforms to whisk travelers and freight to Rome, Milan, and Turin in Italy, and to Ventimiglia in France. Built in 1868 and reopened in 1905, it boasts four floors, including a street level with ticketing offices and shops, and a mezzanine level with restaurants, a waiting room, and train platforms.

You can’t visit Genoa without heading to the Palazzo Ducal (Ducal Palace)! Built in 1298 then rebuilt many times due to fires and expansions, it was originally the residence of the city’s doge. Today this neoclassical palace-turned-cultural hub hosts a museum, onsite bistro and museum shop, and many social events.

While here be sure to visit the adjacent La Grimaldina aka People’s Tower, which was used as a jail for political prisoners, intellectuals, and anarchists from the 14th to the 18th century. On the cell walls you will find engraved writings and artwork made by some of those detained there.

Another must-see is the famous Le Strade Nuove aka Via Garibaldi, one of Genoa’s most important streets and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stroll past ornate palaces and lush atriums while you imagine what the lives of Genoa’s most wealthy merchants families were like as they made their homes there during the Renaissance.

Carve out some time to take in Genoa’s mouthwatering food scene! Genoa is known for its seafood, salami, pesto, focaccia, ravioli, and minestrone. Join up with a local culinary tour to get a real taste of Genoa as you sample traditional dishes including pasta and pesto or crunchy fried squid, then finish with a sweet treat of gelato along with your espresso.

The San Lorenzo Cathedral is a tourist favorite. Built in 1098, this massive church sports a black and white striped marble facade, the colors of ancient Genoa nobility. Inside are beautiful frescoes, sculptures, and a stunning jewelry collection including the prized Sacro Catino (Sacred Bowl) that is purported to be the chalice Christ used during the Last Supper. Also inside the cathedral is an unexploded shell that lodged into the ceiling during WWII.

The futuristic building you see in the Old Harbor (Porto Antico) area is the Aquarium of Genoa. It is the biggest one in Europe, housing more than 12,000 species including dolphins, sharks, and penguins.

The Gothic style Church of San Matteo was originally a private family chapel in 1125 that was renovated several times in the following years. The interior and the facade are fashioned in white and black stripes; inside the church are 16th century artworks as well as the crypt of former Genoa ruler Andrea Doria.

Sun worshippers will love the myriad of beaches tucked into the coastline in and around Genoa! A few minutes from the seaport is the charming little fishing village of Boccadasse with its relaxing shores and clean water. The small stone beach at Bogliasco is a quiet haven from all the noise, and contains a medieval Roman bridge over a nearby rivulet that you can explore. A little further down the coast is the beautiful rock beach of Camogli, where you can take a break from sunbathing to browse the shops or grab a bite just a few steps away from the beach. 

How to Make the Best Out of a Trip to Genoa

Follow these local tips and tricks to make the most out of your time in Genoa:

Genoa is best experienced on foot, like a local; take advantage of a walking tour and be sure to wear comfy shoes. Keep in mind that the streets around ancient Genoa can be steep, with ancient and uneven cobblestone that can be challenging for those visitors with strollers or those in a wheelchair.

The city is rather large, so a hop on/hop off bus option is a great way to see more of it without having to navigate the steep streets.

Invest in a private guide who is familiar with the area and can save you time by taking you to the places you only want to see, at the best times to see them.

Enjoy a birds-eye (and budget-friendly) view of Genoa via one of its funiculars (cable cars) that will take you from the city streets to the hilltop in mere minutes, with breathtaking sights along the way.

Other things to note:

* English is not widely spoken

* Many shops close for the afternoon (1pm – 4pm) and on Sundays (except those in the touristy areas)

* Make plans before you go, as Genoa is a rather large city (93 square miles)

*Bring along sunscreen as many of the piazzas have little shade

*The Euro is the official currency

*ATMs are becoming more available, but carry some cash to cover small expenses

* Check your restaurant bill, as many trattorias include a built-in tip for the staff

Make plans now to add the ancient Italian city of Genoa to your travel bucket list.

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