Historic centre of Genoa, Italy
In the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, who was to go on to discover a ‘new world’, you can discover an old one.
Genoa feels as though it is still a product of its history, as though everything has stayed almost the same despite the influence of unavoidable modernisation. It is not a city where the new has simply been transposed over the foundations of the old.
At the port the merchant shops still come in – although the enormous tankers look a little different to the ships of the 16th century – but now they’re also joined by yachts and cruise liners.
The Old Harbour, which brought Genoa its wealth and international fame over the centuries, has recently been redeveloped and, perhaps ironically, is now the most modern part of the city.
With the enormous Genoa Aquarium and Museum of the Sea – along with artwork like the Bolla – the harbour area now attracts a lot of tourists.
(Oh, and if you want to skip the queue for the Genoa Aquarium, you can do that here.)
But the way I look at it, this is still consistent with the image of Genoa as a preserved piece of history. A harbour should always be changing, it should be influenced but those who pass through it, it should modernise to keep bringing in people from around the world.
It is also special that the redevelopment was done by Genoa’s own architect Renzo Piano (famous for works like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Shard in London and the Whitney Museum in New York City).
A harbour connects a city to the rest of the world it doesn’t define it. And so, from the Old Harbour of Genoa, let’s head in towards the biggest historic centre in Europe.
It’s a maze of a place, with plenty to see, and you can take this guided tour to get your bearings and see the highlights.
In the alleys near the harbour, there are restaurants selling cuisines from around the world. A nod to the international influences that come from a port and the people who arrive by boat but never leave.
But beyond the curries and tagines, Genoa is distinctly Italian. In the windows of the food stores, you can see two of the local Genovese products that the city is particularly proud of: focaccia and pesto. Luckily they go so well together.
Through the streets, some busy and some quiet, are buildings from an age that is not quite definable beyond ‘not recent’. They are from the 15th century, or the 19th century, or somewhere in between. Each could be a landmark or just a normal home.
Finding Genoa Cathedral amongst the maze of streets seems almost accidental the first time. There is no great avenue leading to it or large piazza around it. Although, when you do stop to think about where it is, you realise it is about halfway between the harbour and the central Piazza De Ferrari.
Genoa Cathedral was first built on this site in 1098, on top of the remains of an old basilica several centuries older. As is often the case, there have been changes in the millennia since it was first constructed, either because of changing tastes or for necessity because of damage.
It is probably mostly defined by its medieval characteristics, though. Go inside and the long aisle and high ceilings create a wonderful sense of space in an otherwise dark interior with only limited flashes of gold and light through stained-glass windows.
Scale is not always necessary to impress here in Genoa. Some of the smallest buildings can have a hidden treasure trove that you just need to lift the lid on.
I pop into a church that I spot as I walk past. A rather unpretentious entrance does nothing to either encourage or dissuade me from having a look. As it turns out, the Church of San Donato is a small masterpiece. Built in the 12th century in the Romanesque style, it has simple interiors but holds some wonderful pieces of art.
If there was one thing that Genoa should be proud of aside from its architecture, it’s the art. The city is not as ostentatious as somewhere like Florence in flaunting what it has. But there is actually such a deep pool of works held in public and private collections across the city.
It all comes together at the Palazzi Dei Rolli on the Strade Nuove on the northern edge of the historic centre. These grand palatial homes are where many of these artworks are now held.
You can visit some of them on Via Garibaldi and see for yourself (or have an excellent guide show you the best). The buildings are incredible – and have been included on the World Heritage List. But the galleries within them are treasures in themselves.
To get a sense of it all, I head up to the Belvedere Montaldo (Spianata Castelletto). This viewpoint on a hill above Genoa gives you a 360 degree perspective of the city.
Getting up to the Belvedere Montaldo is an experience in itself, with Art Nouveau elevators operating as part of the city’s public transport system. (I ride up and down for free before realising that I was supposed to somehow buy a ticket to use it).
But it’s the views that make this spot so special. It’s not just that the vistas are pretty (they are) but it’s the perspective that helps pull everything into place.
Just below are the palaces, then the mess of the urban layout of the historic centre, past the cathedral, and down to the harbour.
There are villas and other luxurious houses on the hillsides above the city, there are cruise liners in the port further away from the city centre, there are even beaches along the coastline if you look hard enough.
When you’re in the middle of it all, you realise how much history there is, even if it’s not all visible at once. To help, I’ve got a few suggestions here for ways to explore Genoa with a local:
History is everywhere, but so is modern life, and so is evolution. It’s an old world in a new world, ready for you to discover it.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN GENOA
While you may not be able to live in one of Genoa’s palaces, there are still great places to stay in the city.
For a great budget option, Ostellin has such beautiful rooms.
For an affordable room, B&B il Blu di Genova is clean and comfortable.
If you’re looking for something stylish Hotel Le Nuvole Residenza d’Epoca has a very cool design.
And for luxury, the Meliá Genova has five star quality.