Italy’s refined taste in Liguria’s capital city. Nicknamed “La Superba” (the proud one), Genova is a delightful mix of former luxurious palaces and laid-back atmosphere on the seafront.
I took my first breath of Genovese air at 5:00 AM on a cold morning in October. The streets were still wet from the downpour that had passed just a couple of hours before. The electricity was back on and the deserted streets were well lit. I walked to my Airbnb where my parents were waiting for me and crashed on my bed. I woke up a bit before noon to the noise of busy streets and a radiant sun.
With a rented apartment well situated in a narrow street of the old town, we were able to cover a big part of what there is to see in Genova in just a couple of days. Put on good walking shoes to wander through the hilly streets and many stairs!
Wanderland in narrow streets
The city is an amazing spot for whoever likes to visit new places by getting lost in them. That’s me. The old town is full of sounds, smells and colours from the many shops and cafés scattered around. In the morning, get your macchiato at the counter of a bar. The traditional focaccia, an oven-baked bread typical of Liguria, will be the perfect snack – if you want the whole experience, dip it in your coffee cup!
Keep an eye out for tiny boutiques with beautiful windows. There are still some very old “botteghe storiche” (shops) around such as the Pietro Romanengo confectionary shop, la Drogheria Torielli, la Libreria Antiquaria Dallai… You can find the whole list of the “Albo delle botteghe storiche” here. To qualify, the shops have to have been running for more than 70 years!
Some places have opened in former palaces and it’s always worth going in and having a look around like in the antics shop Galleria Imperiale and upstairs at the fancy, yet affordable, Les Rouges. We noticed the decorated ceilings of the building just by looking up from the street. The cocktails and food there were delicious!
Palazzi dei rolli for rainy days
Genova is one of the largest city in Italy. Its position on the seafront and its port make it a very important trade centre. During the middle-age, the city was also a bank for the crowned heads of Europe. Scattered in the Strade Nuove (new streets) in the historical centre, the palazzi are the remaining markers of Genova’s prosperous past when the city was hosting its most distinguished visitors in the luxurious residences of the local noble families. Their palaces were put on five lists (rolli) and chosen randomly to provide accommodation when needed. Forty-three of the 163 palaces registered at the time are now on the Unesco list of protected heritage.
Many of them are located next to one another in Garibaldi street. Peek through open entries and check out the ceilings. Do not miss the entrance of what is now the Deutsch Bank at n°5! They all show the personality of their former owners and display the incredible art of that time. Look out for the paintings, sculptures and frescoes that look like 3D, and the use of stucco to reinforce that impression. Some of them also have terraces with a view over the city’s roofs.
Most of the buildings have been turned into public institutions and museums. For 9€ you can visit (in one day) three of them: Palazzo Rosso (red palace), Palazzo Bianco (white palace) and Palazzo Doria Tursi. We really enjoyed the National Gallery of art or Palazzo Spinola. Constructed in 1593 according to the wishes of the wealthy Francesco Grimaldi just a few streets away from Garibaldi street, it was passed on to different noble families of Genova, including the Spinolas. Its entrance hall and inner courtyard are typical of the architecture of the 16th century. The last two floors were destroyed during the Second World War. They are now hosting a gallery of paintings and exhibitions of textiles and ceramics.
I also recommend the Royal Palace, built as a patrician residence by the Balbi family between 1643 and 1650 and later sold to the Savoy family in 1824. The art inside is exceptional everything was very well preserved, including wooden floors. The beautiful University of Genova is located right next to it I wouldn’t mind going back to school if it was there…
Seafront for sunny days
Genova’s marina is a popular spot among locals to hang out by the sea and get some sun. The aquarium and the Neptune, the famous replica of the 17th-century Spanish galleon are interesting sights. Don’t miss the colourful facades of the Palazzo San Giorgio and the street art under the elevated highway. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés on the marina to enjoy a meal or a drink next to the water.
If you want to spend more time on the seafront, take your exploration to the next level with a one-day excursion to Boccadasse. The former fishermen district is beautiful and full of life. The seafront is beautiful and offers diverse architectures and activities. You can walk for many kilometres by the sea just enjoying the sun with ice cream and coffee.
Views over the city
Once you are done with wandering at sea level, go up! The roofs and domes of Genova are also beautiful and there are many viewpoints over the city. From the Piazza Portello, take the old-fashioned art nouveau lift to the Spianata Castelletto, a square on which used to stand a fortress razed by the city’s authorities in 1849 because the population deemed it a threat in case of invasion. Today it is a popular spot to meet and look at sunsets. If you are up for it, you can also walk up there through flights of stairs and narrow, steep streets. Great workout before going to explore the steep streets of the villages of the National Park of Cinque Terre!
Outside of the old town, you will find another great viewpoint by passing the Door Of The Arches and climbing the Scalinata (stairs) delle Tre Caravelle. Take the path on the right at the top of the stairs and you will find yourself on the Mura delle Cappucine, one of the remains of the medieval defence system of the city. From there you have a superb view on the Piazza della Vittoria and the museum of natural history.
Liguria’s fine cuisine
In true Italian fashion, our days ended with glasses of local sparkling wine and aperitivo: like the French apéritif but bigger. The type and amount of food depend on the bar but I have had crispy bruschetta, tasty prosciutto, salty munchies, cheese and tomatoes. The little bar just outside the church Parrocchia S. Maria delle Vigne was a great spot (can’t find the name anymore!). I also really enjoyed the bar Antica Casana, Vico della Casana.
For great homemade cocktails, head out to Les Rouges, Piazza Campetto. The place is amazing with old painted ceilings and retro/hipster decoration. Try the very local Aperol ala Genovese! You can also get dinner there.
Speaking of dinner, Cavour 21 is one of Genova’s cuisine hotspot. The sign above the tiny entrance door near the marina says it all: pesto world champion! Pesto can be found all over Italia, but pesto ala Genovese is a local speciality and D.O.P. protected. I had one the house speciality, pasta with pesto covered in parmesan. We also had some farinata, ravioli and for dessert, delicious canestrelli cookies. Cavour 21 is very popular and people line up to get a table there in the evening. So better be there at 7:00 PM if you do not have a reservation! You should also know that it is not the kind of place where you linger and talk for hours. People are waiting!