Mention Genoa and most people think Columbus, Paganini and pesto. At a stretch, they might know that the capital of Liguria also boasts Italy’s oldest football club, has St George as its patron saint and was home to Europe’s – arguably the world’s – first bank. But the city that the scholar Petrarch described as ‘La Superba’ has plenty more to recommend it...
1. Step back in time
Genoa has the largest medieval centre in Europe, thanks to its success, alongside Venice, Amalfi and Pisa, as a Maritime Republic, during the Middle Ages. Unlike the others, Genoa is still a working and thriving port. For a sense of its history wander the caruggi, the atmospheric medieval alleyways that lead from the port up to Piazza de Ferrari, the city’s main square. The narrow cobblestoned passageways are quite claustrophobic but then you’ll emerge in a light-filled piazza with an ancient church, or a street lined with quirky bars, botteghe and boutiques. Piazza Banchi at the end of via San Luca, takes its name from the ‘banchi’ (singular ‘banco’ or bench) where it’s thought the first money exchanges took place. Today there’s a little flower market along with stalls selling books and music.
2. Meet the Masters
The Renaissance and Baroque palaces on the Strade Nuove (‘New Streets’), built between the 16th and 17th centuries, were listed on the ‘Palazzi dei Rolli – a register of dwellings offering hospitality to kings on state visits. Peter Paul Rubens was so impressed by them that, in 1550, he published a collection of detailed designs that would come in handy after the palaces were badly damaged during the Second World War. A staggering 46 (of 163) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and three are now galleries: Palazzo Bianco has paintings by Luca Cambiaso, Rubens and Caravaggio, while Palazzo Rosso (reopening in October following renovation) has a wonderful collection including works by Van Dyck and Veronese. Palazzo Tursi, now the City Hall, holds one of Paganini’s violins as well as, reputedly, Christopher Columbus’ bones. A museum card offering discounts and free bus travel starts from €13.50.
3. Flash the cash
Your first port of call for designer shopping should be Via Roma, where you’ll find Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and Mario Forni, while the arcaded via XX Settembre is good for mid-range shops, one-off boutiques and the fabulous Mercato Orientale for cheeses, fresh fruit and veg, pastas, olives, meats and fish. The little streets running perpendicular are home to some lovely independent shops selling gentlemen’s hats and canes, exquisite pastries and fresh pasta. Wandering the caruggi you’ll find antique shops within old palazzi, tiny art galleries, even high-end retailers such as Hermès. Those inspired by the palazzi on via Garibaldi must visit the wonderful interiors emporium at Via Garibaldi 12.
4. Join the culture club
Palazzo Ducale, once home to the Doges who ruled Genoa during the Middle Ages, is now an arts complex containing bookshops, restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries, hosting regular photography and art exhibitions. Coming up are ‘Stanley Kubrick: Photographer’ and ‘Geisha & Samurai’. It’s also the venue where, in 2014, the fifth Pesto World Championships will be held. A food market can often be found in Piazza Matteotti, which faces the palace.
5. Get high
You’ll get great views of Genoa from Renzo Piano’s Il Bigo structure, its lift resembling a ship’s crane that will whizz you 130 feet above the port. Alternatively, head up to the 6th floor of Palazzo Rosso for views over Genoa’s rooftops. Genoa also has several funiculars and the one to Belvedere Montaldo at Castelleto affords a spectacular panorama of the whole city, port and all.
6. Taste the seasons
There’s a phrase in Genoese dialect meaning ‘He who tastes minestrone will never leave Genoa’. Trattorie all too happy to oblige include L'Atelier dei Sapori (Via di Porta Soprana 55R), a stone’s throw from where Columbus was reputedly born, and Sa Pesta (Via del Giustiniani 16R in the caruggi) but there’s plenty besides soup to tickle your tastebuds. Try farinata – a delicious chickpea pancake – at Zena Zuena. In the season, ‘con bianchetti’ (with whitebait) is a speciality. Focaccia, typically eaten on the move, is delicious col formaggio (with cheese). And when artichokes are in season (October through May) try delicious pasqualina, a traditional pie of artichokes, eggs and Parmesan.
7. See the city, ports and all
The once-gritty port area was spruced up for Genoa’s City of Culture status back in 2004 and is now a destination in its own right, boasting bars, gelaterie and restaurants, as well as a world-class aquarium with shark and dolphin tanks. There’s also a maritime museum, the Galata Museo del Mare, celebrating Genoa’s prodigious seafaring history with a café and great views. Every year, one of the ancient Maritime Republics hosts a regatta with a rowing competition preceded by a spectacular parade, with each city recreating some important historical event. The next one in Genoa will be in 2014.
8. Make a splash
Strictly speaking, the only dolphins in Genoa are in the Aquarium, but if you head further out to the Cinque Terre (where there’s also a whale sanctuary) you’re bound to spot a couple. Generally speaking, swimming is a cinch: Genoa has a number of free beaches and, for the best ones, nip on the number 15 bus or take a train to nearby Quarto, Quinto or Nervi. Better still, hop on a boat to San Fruttuoso, a 15-minute boat ride away and visit the 12th-century abbey while you’re there.
9. Enjoy Sinatra’s pesto
Thirsty? Head for the Piazza delle Erbe where there are several sublime bars to choose from, or seek out a hostelry in the caruggi, such as Taggioü (Vico Superiore del Ferro 8). A leisurely walk along the Corso Italia leads to pretty Boccadasse, a little fishing village where you can watch the sun go down. There’s smart dining to be had at Muà and, of course, Zeffirino’s, where Sinatra reputedly ordered his pesto. Pesto alla Genovese should be eaten with trofie pasta – dense, carby squiggles usually mixed with slices of potato and French beans.
10. Join the jet set
Take the boat to delightful and discreetly flashy Santa Margherita – where Wayne and Colleen Rooney got married – or Portofino, one of the most picturesque fishing villages in the Med. If you’ve got deep pockets, stay the night at Hotel Splendido, where Richard Burton first proposed to Elizabeth Taylor. If you’re feeling the pinch, settle for a coffee in one of the chichi cafés along the harbourside and wander up to the Church of St Giorgio for lovely views over the harbour. Bliss.