Genoa: not as famous as Rome or Firenze. And that's the best part of it!
Updated: Nov 9
In Genoa you will not go home with an iconic building magnet. There is no Tower of Pisa or Colosseum here, there are no major tourist attractions. There are hundreds of other good reasons to put this destination at the top of your to-do list. The capital of Liguria offers in fact unprecedented cosiness in a maze of picturesque, narrow streets. The old historic centre around the harbour exudes an unparalleled atmosphere where impressive palaces and stylish cafés catch the attention of many curious souls.
Well-known Flemish painters such as Rubens and Van Dyck travelled to Genoa as early as the 17th century to share their knowledge with other like-minded artists but also to find inspiration for themselves and their art work. A result of the strong trade history between Antwerp and Genoa, which eventually led to a close artistic bond. My imaginative admiration for this city as an Antwerp citizen was therefore great.
In the city centre people are coming and going in the chic shopping streets and in the smaller artisan shops, in the fashionable cafés and in the easy going coffee bars. Behind every corner, there's is a sight or gem to discover. The splendour of the palaces of yesteryear can easily be combined with numerous churches and interesting museums for a day of culture.
The splendour of the palaces
The rise of this city as a worthy alternative to big sister Rome or any other metropolis in Italy, is in in fact a relatively recent development. A few decades ago the city was even labeled as unsafe, grey and dirty. Now Genoa looks much fresher but the authenticity of the city remains.
The biggest sights are within walking distance of each other. The best way to discover Genoa is on foo. There is no tram or metro system and buses do not go to the heart of the city centre. By the way, most streets are completely car-free, a relief!
A good starting point is the street network around the city's famous palaces. The palaces in the Via Garibaldi were built in the 16th century at the request of wealthy Genoese families who could not find what they were looking for in the palaces in the medieval centre, which they thought were outdated. So on the outskirts of the city, a spacious promenade was created with examples of the late Renaissance that were later complemented by a few Baroque pearls. In 2006, this succession of beautiful buildings was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The tourist information centre also happens to be located in Via Garibaldi. After a covid-19 temperature check there, they told me that I didn't need a museum card to visit the most important palaces but that I should get my tickets in the bookshop of the Palazzo Bianco. The Palazzo Bianco is a textbook example of Baroque style and houses influential works by previously mentioned Flemish painters, complemented by the works of Provost, Memling, and Ruisdael, completed by other influential painters such as Lippi and Caravaggio. From here on you also have access to the 35-metre-long Palazzo Doria-Tursi which is mainly known for its beautiful courtyards with galleries. On a Saturday morning you will also see the occasional bride walking into the wedding hall with great grandeur and elegance to say 'I do' with just as much charm. This street is also home to the Palazzo Rosso with its considerable collection of Venetian Renaissance but it is temporarily closed until further notice.
Genoa 'La Superba'
From the Via Garibaldi you are only a few streets away from the heart of the old town. Several impressive buildings await you in this maze of streets and alleys. The San Lorenzo Cathedral is the largest church in Genoa and dates back to 1100 but was only finished in the middle of the 16th century. A connoisseur immediately notices that this church was not built in a day, because of the black and white striped arches that date back to the 13th century, and a baroque ceiling gilded with gold and stained-glass windows that were not put there until the 19th century.
Just a stone's throw from the cathedral you will find Piazza San Matteo, one of the best preserved squares in Genoa. Somewhere between the cathedral and the San Matteo church lies the impressive Piazza De Ferrari, stately characterized by a graceful fountain. It is also home to the Palazzo Ducale, a building from the early 17th century that served as a residence for the Genoese nobility. Other noteworthy cultural hotspots for me were the ruins of the St Andrea Monastery and the birth house of Christopher Columbus. Right next to each other and less than two blocks away from the Palazzo Ducale.
It is not only churches and palaces that fill the streets here and satisfy our hunger for days gone by. In the old town you stumble upon many artisan shops where time sometimes seems to stand still for a moment. A shoemaker whose scent of leather meets you at the beginning of the alley, a grocery shop where spices in glass jars are waiting for both the professional and the amateur chef, a clothing shop where the promos are still mentioned in felt pen on a cardboard card, are just a few examples. You will also find some traditional coffee houses with avery attractive historical ambience here. Caffé Klainguti and Caffé degli Specchi seduce not only with their delicious sweets but also with their interior gems. Genoa is also popularly known as La Superba, which means 'the proud one', as it were, 'the great one'. After spending a day in Genoa, I soon knew that it didn't steal its name.
Focaccia and pesto
After seeing all that beauty, I felt the need to savour an equally elegant three-course lunch, but after a deliciously filled brioche in the early morning, my stomach didn't feel the need for that. I read the enthusiastic reviews on the famous focaccias of Genoa. Here in Antwerp, I had never been blown off my socks by a focaccia, so I was a bit sceptical.
The travel guide I had with me at the time described the focaccia as the Ligurian counterpart of the pizza. After one bite, I soon realised that this comparison did not apply at all and my scepticism was gone in no time. This speciality - still unknown at the beginning of the last century - is a thin yeast dough bread that tastes delicious even in its pure form with a little olive oil. Each focacceria has its own recipe. Some a little crispier or more creamy than the others, but always very tasty. There is also another version made from chickpea flour; farinata.
The Ligurian cuisine is simple but very tasteful. A simple pasta pesto is also of a completely different quality here. Genoa is the cradle of the Pasta Genovese. The quality of the widely acclaimed fresh basil has no competition. The green good usually finds its way to a plate of trenette (a kind of narrow, flat, dried pasta or trofie (short, thinn, twisted pasta).
The evenings in Genoa are equally enjoyable. For a nice aperitivo go to the Piazza delle Erbe where you will find a number of cafes and cocktail bars that appeal to a very mixed crowd. The Via San Donato and Via San Bernardo are also popular places for a drink. Be sure to leave some time between the aperitif and your dinner because, as befits a real aperitivo in Italy, you will always be served a selection of appetizers that can satisfy your 'first' hunger with ease.
By the way, you don't have to spend money like water to enjoy a delicious meal here in Genoa. There is a wide choice of restaurants, some have an interesting menu formula, others offer affordable à la carte dishes. Don't feel obligated to have an appetizer, a starter, a primi patti (usally pasta), main course and dessert. Apparently the locals don't always do that either, except perhaps on special occasions or a Sunday afternoon with la nonna.
A afternoon of shopping
If you are visiting an Italian metropolis, it would be crazy not go out for a little shopping spree. A stroll through the shopping streets of Genoa is a welcome change after a morning of palace hopping.
Most shops are located on Via XX Settembre; you will find international chains but also glitzy, Italian favorites such as a Max & Co. If you want to spot small-scaled and more authentic shops, you can do so in the historic centre, e.g. on Via Luccoli, Via di Soziglia and Via degli Orefici.
You will also find beautifully decorated bakeries in this area, including crystal chandeliers, such as
baker Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano. You can't walk by without staring at the interior, or in my case, at the delicious biscuits and sweets that are skilfully displayed in the window.
From the Via degli Orefici you walk almost automatically to Piazza Banchi, a very photogenic place that served as a grain market in the Middle Ages and was part of the commercial centre of the city in the 18th century. From there you are only a stone's throw away from the port of Genoa. Cruise ships moor here regularly, but you can get on a smaller boat and take a trip tp Portofino or sign up for an afternoon of whale watching (from May to October). And if you have some time left, this area is also home to the second largest aquarium in Europe.
Genua in a bottle
The best of what Genoa has to offer, is also captured in a bottle. The city has its own scent. Acqua di Genova was created in 1853 for The House of Savoy by the famous Genoese distiller and perfumer Stefano Frecceri. The scent soon became the 'go-to' perfume of any local with prestige. In fact, it even became a favourite among European royal families. Illustrious figures such as Count Camillo Benso di Cavour and Constantino Nigro, the former secretary of state, also were big fans. King Vittorio Emanuele || was so impressed by the Acqua di Genova that he turned the perfume and the creative mind behind it into court suppliers in 1866.
The combination of fresh and timeless ingredients still make this fragrance a sought-after unisex cologne today. The fact that Virginia Oldoini, Contessi di Castiglione - the mistress of French Emperor Napoleon - labelled one of the most beautiful women in Europe at the time - also loved Acqua di Genova, gives the fragrance an even more mythical character.
And so, on the last afternoon of my stay in Genoa, I went to the charming and especially small-scale perfume shop 'Charme' where an equally charming elderly couple ran the business. I sprayed twice and I was sold. To the smell, but actually to everything in Genoa. Or how a cloud of perfume reminded me of the beautiful memories of the past 48 hours here. I sprayed one more time so I wouldn't forget anything...
Where to stay
If you come to Genoa by car, this is the ultimate address to stay. This apartment complex offers a private car park where you can park your car safely. A large part of the city is car-free. Virginia Rooms is located in the part of Genoa that is still accessible by car, at a walking distance from the city centre. Nearby and on foot to the centre, you will find numerous coffee bars where you can have breakfast.
From 65 euro for a standard room.
If I had not travelled to Genoa by car, but by train or plane, I would probably have chosen Le Nuvole. This large medieval mansion in the heart of Genoa was transformed into a stylish boutique hotel with an excellent price/quality ratio.
Different formulas possible from 75 euros.
Where to eat
Little tucked away, cosy restaurant with different dining areas where you get top quality for a reasonable price. Very tasty foccacia to accompany the aperitif, otherwise a very tasty regional cuisine with extra attention to fish and seafood. If the risotto with beets and fresh truffle is still on the menu: highly recommended!
Tucked away in a dark alley and although a bit oddly decorated, it is still an absolute must from a culinary point of view. Ligurian cuisine with an international touch. The tone is set right from the start with various homemade types of bread.
You can find tasty focaccia all over the city. My favourites were:
For a delicious cup of specialty coffee:
The best ice-cream stalls are the ones you accidentaly walk by in Genova. No loud neon signs luring you in. U Gelato du Caruggiu literally means "an ice cream in the alley" and if you don't pay attention you will indeed walk right past this ice cream parlour. Sorbet with sage and lemon, Greek yoghurt with honey, rosemary with amaretti biscuits, Fior di Latte and violet. These are just some of the unique, delicious flavours you can get here.
Cremeria Buonafede is also one of those ice-cream parlours where you just walk by if you don't pay attention. It is one of the oldest ice cream parlours in the city with some unique ice cream recipes that you won't find anywhere else. For example, the "Buonafede" is a cream-based ice cream, flavoured with Grand Marnier and finished with almond praline and candied orange peel!
Insider's tip: Genua with a view
The Italian poet Giorgio Caproni once wrote.
"When I decide
to go to heaven
I'll go in the elevator
Ascensore Castelletto is a beautiful Art Nouveau lift that takes you to a balcony overlooking the historic centre. A 360° view over the city where the maze of alleys takes on another dimension. One minute a medieval tower screams for your attention, the other a baroque dome attracts stands out from the crowd.