My main reason for the trip was to attend a 3-day art history course with Hotel Alphabet, but it wasn’t my only reason. Genoa had been a destination I’d in mind for a long time – and the reasons were almost totally food-related! For Genoa is the capital of Liguria, famed gastronomically for the birth of pesto, focaccia and their delicate olive oil. But what also appealed would be a trip to the Cinque Terre. I’d heard so much about how beautiful it is and know people who’ve walked the UNESCO coastal path.
Genoa offers much more than food and pretty coastal villages though. It’s the sixth largest city in Italy and has a strong commercial and financial history. Casa di San Giorgio, established in 1407, is one of the oldest in the world; during a tour of the city with Hotel Alphabet we stood in Piazza Banchi and saw the site of the bank and the old stock exchange; there are still a number of banks in the square.
This building in Piazza Banchi looks a bit like a bank but is in fact a church!
Genoa also has a long history as one of the largest and most important ports in the Mediterranean.
Culturally, it’s the birthplace of many famous people: Cristoforo Colombo (indeed he gives his name to the airport); Niccolò Paganini of violin fame – and the prize for an annual competition for young musicians is to be allowed to play one of his violins; Guiseppe Mazzini, a 19th century politician and activist who helped bring about an independent and united Italy; and one of today’s leading architects, Renzo Piano, who designed London’s The Shard and the Georges Pompidou centre in Paris.
How to get there and where to stay
I flew with British Airways from Gatwick; Ryanair fly there from Stansted. Cristoforo Colombo Airport is only 7km from the centre of the city. You can take a Volabus into the centre for €7 or a taxi costs about €20-25.
I stayed in the 3* Best Western Hotel Metropoli, which I booked through British Airways. I was very happy with it and its location was fabulous so I’d definitely recommend staying in this area, the heart of the historic centre. It’s just 200m from Piazza de Ferrari, which is the central hub of the city.
From here it’s a short walk to the old port – Porto Antico – and major sights, with plenty of bars, cafes and hotels. There’s shopping in via XX Settembre or via Roma. It’s beautiful at night, too.
There were colourful umbrellas hanging about many roads while I was there. It had nothing to do with rain but was a celebration of a flower festival, the colours representing flowers.
Getting around the city
Genoa is quite a small city so although there are trams and a Metro, I never felt the need to use them but could easily walk to anywhere I wanted to go. It’s worth noting, however, that it’s a very steep city, and while climbing high provides wonderful views, even just walking round the centre often requires walking up very steep, narrow roads or alleyways, sometimes cobbled. So sturdy shoes and a good deal of energy are required!
A short walk round the historic centre and port
My hotel was in Piazza Fontane Marose. From here I liked to turn into via Luccoli. It was a little hard to find at first as you have to go down some steps in front of the hotel. It’s quite a narrow road – a caruggi. It can be quite confusing that roads that look fairly big on a map are narrow alleyways down which no car – other than maybe a cinquecento – could drive. Via Luccoli, leads into Piazza Soziglia, then via Orefici, which takes you into Piazza Banchi. From here you can almost see the port, coming on to it at Piazza Caricamento.
What becomes immediately obvious is that a huge, great road runs right across the front of the old port. This more than anything demonstrates the practicality of the Genovese. The road, built high on stilts, was a 1960s solution to gridlock within the old city roads. While it works in traffic terms perhaps, for me it ruined the beauty of the old buildings and port frontage.
Looking out to sea is tricky too. For you can’t actually see far due to all the buildings and structures. The area was redesigned by Renzo Piano in 1992. While I love his Shard in London, I found it hard to even like his reinvention of Genoa’s port.
Turn left and walk to Calata Mandraccio and you’ll pass an Eataly on your left (a good source of food and drink) and a couple of other restaurants. Keep going and eventually you will find a quieter area to sit. This also takes you in the direction of the oldest part of the port and where I went on my first night to eat at Osteria di Vico Palla, where I had a great Ligurian meal.
From here, go back away from the sea and into Piazza Cavour, turning left and towards where you entered the port area, but not all the way. Turn right into via San Lorenzo. Soon you will come into Piazza San Lorenzo and before you will be Genoa’s cathedral – Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.
Dating from the 12th century, it’s a mix of Romanesque and Gothic style. Its striking 13th century facade is made with bands of Carrara stone and Ligurian slate.
A little way on you’ll come into Piazza Matteotti.
This piazza became a favourite haunt because of Douce cafe, which I loved to go to for aperitivo or afternoon tea. From here you can cut up behind the cafe into Piazza de Ferrari. Passing the large fountain on your right continue into via XXV Aprile.
This will take you back into Piazza Fontane Marose, where you began.
Other sights to visit
Go to the Palazzo Rosso (photo above) for fine furnishings and artwork but also for a great view over the city from its roof terrace.
See also: Torre Piacentini, a 1940 Art Deco tower, is said to be Italy’s oldest skyscraper. Villa del Principe, home to the famous Doria Pamphili family, has beautiful frescoes and furnishings. Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) was built in the 17th century by the Balbi family and is a fine example of Baroque style. You can also visit Cristoforo Colombo’s house.
Take a walk along via Garibaldi, a mainly pedestrianised street lined with beautiful palazzi.
Food & Drink
Breakfast and morning coffee
Go to Caffe Mangini at the top of via Roma for a great breakfast. As elsewhere in Italy, orange juice – spremuta – is squeezed freshly for you. They have great pastries and coffee and you can eat like a local (and for much less money) at the bar or sit at one of the tables and enjoy the ambiance. Also recommended: Pasticceria Marescotti di Cavo and Douce (click here for more).
A favourite place was Caffe Boasi in via XX Settembre. A modern cafe, it sells gorgeous focaccia sandwiches to enjoy, perhaps, with a glass of local wine. Another good place is Douce in Piazza Ducale; French owned it’s not traditional Italian but very good.
When in Italy don’t forget to eat gelato every day! Well, I like to.
Try Profumo di Rosa in via Cairolli, Vaniglia in via XX Settembre or Gelateria Profumo in vico Superiore del Ferro (click here for more).
If you mustn’t forget to eat gelato you certainly shouldn’t forget to enjoy aperitivo either. ‘Happy hour’ in Italy is less about 2 for 1 cocktails but serving you a wonderful plate of little snacks with your food. It can vary from simple olives and nuts, for which you may not be charged, to elaborate canapés. At Douce you pay an extra €2 for ‘finger food’ with your early evening drink but it’s €2 well spent for a lovely plate of gorgeous snacks.
I found three great osterias selling local Cucina Ligure: Osteria di Vico Palla in the old port area; and in the historic centre Antica Osteria Ravecca and Osteria Il Cadraio. Douce also have an evening menu.
The Mercato Orientale, just off via XX Settembre, is a food lover’s paradise. Everything looks wonderful and of the highest quality and you’ll find things you don’t see back home (or if you live in London!): boxes full of courgette flowers, purple asparagus, little baby artichokes, enormous aubergines, large bunches of fresh herbs, plus meat, fish, cheese – great blocks of Parmesan – and local breads like focaccia Ligure. Then of course there’s pesto. Pesto in Genoa is like no other – it really is incredible. But then it was born here!
There was a great little market in Piazza de Ferrari the day I arrived and another evening I found a good food one in Piazza Ducale.
Buy pesto, olive oil and pasta and other foods in Liguria in Bottega in via Banchi.
Visit the lovely Pasticceria Profumo in via del Portello, one of Genoa’s oldest bakeries dating from 1827 to buy a Pandolce Genovese – a dense fruit cake with honey and pine nuts – to bring home.
Getting out of the city
If you’ve enough time to make an excursion, then explore the Cinque Terre. The most popular place to go is Portofino. I went by minibus with Hotel Alphabet and it took an hour but we came back by bus to Santa Marguerita and then train to Genoa – so you can clearly do it the other way round too!
Closer to the centre, take advantage of buying a €1.50 return ticket to travel on the funicular.
The funicular station is just off Largo della Zecca.
The little train runs every 15 minutes (at least during the day) and it takes about 15 minutes to get to the top at Righi.
Come out of the station and turn left. Immediately you’re in a calmer, quieter place. Though, to be honest, there’s not much there. I think you have to walk a long way to find food or drink and I didn’t make it. But I did make it to some glorious views that made the journey and steep climb up the road worthwhile.
Final thoughts on Genoa
I had a good trip and what stands out for me is the wonderful friendly welcome I found everywhere, particularly at my hotel. Then there’s the food which was not only wonderful – especially the pesto! – but reasonably priced, and much cheaper than more touristy cities in Italy.
But I don’t feel Genoa is a place to fall in love with in the instant way I fell in love with places like Venice, Turin and Bologna as soon as I arrived. Genoa is a city that grows on you. It’s more rundown that other major cities but then it doesn’t aspire to become touristy; it’s a city that’s lived in. The locals haven’t been forced out as they have in Venice. And that is, of course, one of its attractions. It also means that you frequently come across people in shops and cafes who don’t speak English and thus I found I had more opportunity to practise my (not very good) Italian than I usually do, which I enjoyed.
I find it a little hard to forgive the way they’re vandalised the harbour area – and I’m someone who likes modern architecture a lot. It’s just that sometimes preserving the old when it’s beautiful is worthwhile. Or maybe I’m just too romantic and the practical Genovese have got it right! But there are certainly places of beauty and wonderful palazzi to explore. And given enough time there the friendly Genovese will win you over.