In many ways, Genoa tends to fly under the radar of most tourists. While rougher around the edges than the areas surrounding it, the city has plenty of charm to offer. Oozing with history, this once-prominent maritime republic is home to famous Italians and some epic culinary specialties. There are plenty of things to do in Genoa, and you should put this city on your list on your next trip to Italy.
While Genoa (Genova in Italian) might not be as well-known as Rome, Milan, or Florence, it has just as much to offer. In many ways, it reminds me of Naples. There is a bit of a gritty undertone to the city that adds to its charm. It’s also not as packed with tourists as Italy’s many other cities. When you do visit Genoa, you’ll have a chance to mingle with the locals and enjoy all the city has to offer.
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Explore Genoa’s past as a maritime power
Today Genoa is Italy’s sixth-largest city and the capital of Liguria. Overlooking the Gulf of Genoa, this lively harbour was filled with fishing boats long before the Roman Empire rose to power. Throughout the Middle Ages, this was a powerful city-state with a strong navy. The Genovese competed with Venice, another dominant city-state of the day and Ragusa, modern-day Dubrovnik.
With a protected harbour, Genoa rose to prominence during the 16th century. Interestingly, the Republic of Genoa fell under French rule twice in fewer than 100 years. First time in 1391 and then in 1458. Despite inner conflicts, Genoa was a wealthy place with one of the oldest banks in the world. Founded in 1407, the Bank of Saint George played an important role in making the city very prosperous.
During the 19th century, the steel industry boomed, and the city was home to massive shipyards. Today, it is still one of the busiest ports in Italy and the Mediterranean. Thanks to its glorious past and rich history, Genoa is nicknamed La Superba, meaning the proud one.
Indulge in culinary specialties
One of the best things to do in Genoa is to indulge in the food. The city is home to pesto and focaccia, two of its best-known delicacies. And let me tell you, you haven’t experienced either one properly until you visit Genoa.
As a port city backed by mountains, Genoa’s food is creative and delicious. From the abundance of olives and olive oil to fried anchovies and stuffed eggplants. Here you’ll find culinary delights that will make your taste buds dance. Make sure to try the farinata (flatbread made with chickpea flour, olive oil and salt) and the torte (savoury vegetable pies served in many local focaccerias).
If you have time, make sure you check out the Mercato Orientale. A food market filled with mouth-watering offerings that remind you why Italian food is beloved by many. The market is located in an old monastery, which adds another reason to visit.
Visit Genoa for its Medieval streets
The old centre is a labyrinth of narrow streets nestled between tall buildings. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it’s like a step back in time. As the city is on a hill, many of these streets are steep and narrow. Navigating them is part of the adventure.
Wandering these carrugi (little streets) gives you an idea of what life in Genoa was like. Filled with sailors and ladies of the night, it must have been quite the place. Today, you will still find a number of these women hanging around, although we didn’t see any sailors. We did spot several shops and bars tucked along the narrow streets. Between the historical shops, focaccerias and architectural gems, wandering the streets is like a delightful scavenger hunt.
Admire the architecture and art
Genoa has a long and rich cultural history. The city’s art, music, food and architectural heritage made it the 2004 European Capital of Culture. In 2006, part of the old town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. You can find elaborate works in different styles across the city. Art can be found in churches, squares and buildings, meaning that you can visit Genoa any time and enjoy all of it.
One of my favourites things to do in Genoa was discovering wonderful architecture. Some of the buildings in the oldest part of the city date back to the 11th and 13th centuries. You wouldn’t necessarily know that by looking at them because of the many modifications and mixing of styles over the centuries. The Genoese were apt at reusing existing structures and building materials, often expanding and transforming the city around them. Genoa boomed during its golden age and adapted to changing times with flair and creativity.
You might notice something else about the architecture in Genoa. Painted windows and decorative features on buildings are quite common here. As it turns out, while everyone wanted to have a grand house with fancy décor, not everyone wanted or could afford it. Paying painters to mimic classical statues and details was a way to cut down on cost. Painting fake windows was also a way to avoid paying higher taxes. As Genoa’s taxation was based on the number of windows, it forced homeowners to be creative. Now you can admire that creativity when you visit Genoa.
Tour the grand palazzos
To see how the ruling classes used to live, make sure to check out the many Renaissance palaces. Many of these magnificent former residences are now museums open to the public. Walk along the Strada Nuova, known today as Via Garibaldi, to check out some of Genoa’s finest buildings. Dating back to the 16th century, the street was once home to Genoa’s many wealthy families, and it’s one of the many awesome things to do in Genoa.
The Rolli, or the list of palaces on the UNESCO designated Via Garibaldi, lists 42 palazzos. Some of them are privately owned, while others have become the headquarters of banks or offices. Not to be missed are the Palazzo Rosso, the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Doria Tursi. All three have outstanding architecture, charming courtyards and works by some of Italy’s greatest masters. The collections also include works by other European greats and rotating exhibitions
There are additional palazzos scattered around the city. When you visit Genoa, adding a few of them to your itinerary will introduce you to the city’s history and culture. As there are quite a few of them, make sure you plan out your route ahead of time.
Walk in the footsteps of famous Italians
Genoa is the birthplace of the explorer Christopher Columbus. Whether he was born in the city or a nearby town is debated by some, but Genoa is generally accepted as his home. On the other hand, calling him Italian is inaccurate as Italy wasn’t a country during his time. Today you can visit the replica of the house where Christopher Columbus grew up to learn more about him.
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Genoa was also a temporary home to another famous explorer – Marco Polo. In 1298, the Venetian was imprisoned in what today is the port authority building. In the past, it’s alternated between a prison and a bank—a fitting place for pesky competition.
When you visit Genoa, you walk in the footsteps of many notable personalities who came here before. The city left a lasting impression on many writers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, among many others. This was also a special place for Sigmund Freud, Anton Chekhov and Richard Wagner.
Add waterfront to things to do in Genoa
One thing to do in Genoa that can’t be missed is a stroll along the waterfront. The Old Port (Porto Antico) is where the story of the city began. After centuries of ships coming to its shores, the port became obsolete. In 1992, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America, the waterfront got a makeover by Genoese architect Renzo Piano.
Today the waterfront is a popular place for tourists and locals alike. Here you’ll find a great assortment of bars and restaurants as well as a great spot for watching sunsets. The harbour is filled with fishing boats and yacht, but the show stopper is the Vascello Neptune, a replica of a 17th-century Spanish galleon. Built in the 1980s for a movie about pirates, it adds a certain flair to the area.
Enjoy stunning views of the city
There is no better way to see the city when you visit Genoa than by visiting the panoramic viewpoint. Spinata Castelletto is a spot above the city with views of the harbour, the city centre and the hills. This is also the perfect spot for sunset admirers.
We opted to climb here, but there is an easier way to get to the top. You take the 100-year-old lift called the Paradise Lift, from Piazza Portello. The views are amazing, and you’ll be glad you made the trip. Check out this post for more information on how to get there.
Establish your base for day trips from Genoa
While there are many things to do in Genoa, the city also makes a great base for day trips to surrounding areas. You can easily visit Genoa for a few days and take advantage of its proximity to other Liguria attractions. Here are some suggestions for places to visit.
Founded by Spanish fishermen over a thousand years ago, Boccadasse is a charming fishing village. Today it’s a district of Genoa and a nice spot for a day trip. Here you’ll find a beach, cute shops, restaurants and pretty buildings.
With charming fishing villages carved out of the mountains, Cinque Terre is a popular tourist destination. It’s also a great side trip when you visit Genoa.
Matching Cinque Terre in popularity, Portofino is a picturesque harbour with loads of charm. This small fishing village exudes luxury that matches its breathtaking views. It’s definitely a charming part of the Italian Riviera.
Santa Margherita Ligure
Santa Margherita Ligure is like Portofino without the glitz. Charming little village overlooking the Ligurian Sea. You can easily stop there on your way to or from Portofino.
Final thoughts on things to do in Genoa
I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by all things to do in Genoa. It wasn’t a city that was high on my list of places in Italy, but that has all changed now. While architecture is my number one reason to visit Genoa, there are so many others. The food, the culture and the views are amazing. I will be going back, and so should you.