Genoa is one the most important and historically significant cities in Italy. When referring to this beautiful city, Alexandre Dumas wrote, “Laying wrapped around its gulf, with the nonchalant majesty of a queen… Genoa, in a way, seems to embrace the traveller”.
Genoa is a city rich in history, with its hidden treasures, romantic corners, and memorable moments that will turn into unforgettable memories. The charm of this narrow and tall city, surrounded by the sea and the mountains, is certainly due to the multicultural past of its harbour, which was the crossroad of a multitude of different people and cultures. Its beauty has moved writers, poets and singers who, in their soul, found all the contradictions and wonderful testimonies of the socially and culturally different people who walked its streets. This is why Genoa is probably one of the less coveted Italian destinations for tourists but will nevertheless manage to surprise you. Among its aristocratic palaces, its churches and alleys, it is easy to lose yourself in the extraordinary and romantic Janua, “door” in Latin, as it was called in the Middle Ages.
In this guide, we will present 15 things to see and do in the heart of Genoa and its neighbouring areas, for an unforgettable visit that will definitely exceed your expectations.
- Historic Centre and Caruggi District
- Old Harbour
- Christopher Columbus’ House
- Doge’s Palace
- Saint Lawrence Cathedral and its Towers
- Doge’s Balcony and Loggia
- Rolli Palaces
- Aquarium of Genoa
- Via Garibaldi and the Museums of Strada Nuova
- Try the traditional Ligurian breakfast
- Taste traditional Ligurian dishes
- Surrounding areas: Portofino
- Surrounding areas: San Fruttuoso Abbey
- Surrounding areas: Camogli
Historic Centre and Caruggi District
The heart of the Old Town is obviously the Historic Centre, a place rich in history and ambiance which, after many years of deterioration and neglect, has been finely restored and returned to the city and its residents in all its glory. If you want to feel like a local, you should visit the Caruggi District and take a stroll in the picturesque and colourful medieval alleys and narrow ceruse, which are tiny streets carved in-between buildings. This maze of narrow streets meandering between the tall and crowded buildings offers visitors the perfect opportunity to experience a travel back in time when noblemen walked those same streets quickly and proudly, busy with everyday activities. Also take a stroll to Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza San Donato where you will find the antique churches of Saint Matthew and obviously Saint Donato.
Most of the historic centre of Genoa has been declared a World Heritage Site. Let’s take for example, the timeless beauty of Castrum, the first urban settlement of the city, whose origin might go back to Roman or Etruscan times. Let’s also not forget the architectural significance of the Spinola Palace and Doge’s Palace, two magnificent buildings that still display the ancient glory of Genoa as a maritime republic. It’s here, in the heart of the historic centre, that there are some of the most interesting and characteristic restaurants, clubs and stores in Genoa, where you can enjoy local and traditional dishes, listen to music, dance and shop until late at night, all immersed in an atmosphere suspended between the nostalgic flavour of times passed and the fast pace of today’s life.
The area of the Old Harbour is currently a residential neighbourhood and tourist centre. Its reconstruction was completed in the early ‘90s and its promenades stretch along the water housing some of the most interesting buildings in town. In between the buildings from the 1600s, there are some true gems, that will surely catch your attention. For example, the Edmondo De Amicis Library (Cotton Warehouse), the Museum of the History of Genoa, the City of Children and Young Adults, Piazza delle Feste, and finally, the Aquarium. For a spectacular view of the harbour, you can take the panoramic elevator (called Bigo), from where you can enjoy a 360° view of the entire area.
Another interesting site in the Old Harbour is definitely the Biosphere, a wonderful circular pavilion made of glass, designed by famous architect Renzo Piano. The Biosphere is the perfect destination for nature lovers who don’t want to leave the city but still want to experience the fauna and flora of tropical forests and discover ecosystems that are currently being threatened by human exploitation. Visitors can observe over 150 species and rare specimens of tropical plants, such as tree ferns (the tallest ferns grown in pots), gum trees, coffee plants, banana trees, and cinnamon plants. Some animals, like parrots, are not always visible during visiting hours. For the enjoyment of both children and adults, you can find gorgeous specimens of scarlet ibis and many other animals that wouldn’t normally be found in Italy.
Christopher Columbus’ House
Among the attractions worth visiting in Genoa, a special spot is held by the two-story Christopher Columbus’ House. The façade was restored in the 1600s and proudly stands out among the other architectural masterpieces in the city. The ground floor was used as a store by Christopher Columbus’ father, who was a well-known wool weaver and merchant. Recent excavations performed during a restoration project revealed the ancient foundations of a building dating back to the Middle Ages, probably to the VI century.
Doge’s Palace was the Doge’s residence and the cultural and administrative centre of the Republic. It was restored in 1992 to commemorate the anniversary of the discovery of America, and today hosts temporary exhibitions and museums. Although it is one of the main historic buildings in the city, it was neglected for a period and used to house judicial offices. The palace was built in the XIII century when, as result of the victories against Pisa (1284) and against Venice, Genoa’s economic and military power increased greatly.
On the outside, Doge’s Palace extends for approximately 35,000 square meters and includes a series of medieval buildings that were added through the centuries. It is not by chance that this structure has an irregular floorplan and that it was built on top of the Saint Dominique Hill, in the outskirts of the historic centre. It can be accessed from the main entrance on Piazza Matteotti.
Saint Lawrence Cathedral and its Towers
Saint Lawrence Cathedral is the most important Catholic worship site in Genoa, and it is the seat of the urban archdiocese carrying the same name. Consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II, it is the perfect destination for a visit in-between a stroll in the Caruggi district and a trip to the crypt of Saint Matthew Church. The façade presents gothic portals with black and white bands, which in the Middle Ages represented wealth and nobility. Inside, the floorplan includes a transept and triabsidated chorus. Among the works of art displayed in the cathedral, there are several murals by Luca Cambiaso, Barocci, Ansaldo and Gaetano Previati. The pipe organ dates back to 1391.
Doge’s Balcony and Loggia
The Doge’s Balcony is located in a privileged position, in the middle of the central nave of the Saint Lawrence Cathedral, offering a panoramic view of the entire space below, all the way to the high altar. From the balcony, across the roof, you can also access the towers on the façade of the cathedral and the left loggia, which was left unfinished for over two centuries and was finally completed in 1445. From here, the view over Genoa is absolutely breath-taking.
On via Garibaldi, also known as the “Golden Street”, there are some of the most interesting historic buildings in Genoa. In 2006, this street and the “Rolli Palaces” system, which together represent the trademark of Genoa’s unique urban plan, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Rolli Palaces were built in the historic centre by local noble families. Their rich style became a symbol of prestige when the number and status of this peculiar system of homes was ratified in 1576 by a Decree of the Senate, which included the list of the Residential Buildings, or Rolli, which stood out for their uniqueness. This decree obligated the owners of these lavished homes to host official visits, since Genoa lacked a royal palace. Based on the importance of the visiting guests, one of the Rolli was chosen to host them: the higher the rank of the guest, the more lavish a palace was chosen. The area included in the UNESCO site also extends to Via Lomellini, Piazza Fossatello, Via San Luca and Piazza Bianchi.
Aquarium of Genoa
Located on the Spinola Bridge, the aquarium is probably the main attraction in Genoa. Inaugurated in 1992 in the Old Harbour area, it is the largest aquarium in Italy and the second largest in Europe, after the one located in Valencia. The marine park hosts over 12,000 specimens of 600 different species not only from the sea but also from rain forests and fresh water, in an environment that perfectly reproduces their natural habitat, thus ensuring the wellbeing of the animals. Visiting the aquarium is a wonderful and moving experience, highly recommended for both children and adults. The path among these marine creatures extends through a series of pavilions that house over 70 pools where visitors can view seals, sharks, dolphins, turtles, penguins, and receive interesting information on their habits in a simple and intuitive manner. The cetaceous pavilion was recently added, completely designed by Renzo Piano to ensure that these extraordinary marine mammals could be viewed from a unique underwater prospective.
Via Garibaldi and the Museums of Strada Nuova
Via Garibaldi, known as “La Strada Nuova” (The New Street) until the mid-XVI century and later as “Via Aurea” (Golden Street), is one of the most architecturally interesting spots in Genoa. Established after 1550 to welcome the most prominent families in the city, it became known as “Golden” for the beauty of its buildings. It later also became known as “Via Nuova delli Palazzi” (New Street of the Palaces), until in 1882, the City Council decided to name it after Garibaldi. This uniquely beautiful street with such a long history is lined by 14 public and private buildings, representing the perfect starting point for a well-planned visit of the city. New Streets represent an urban concept that dates back to the revolutionary ideas of a few very old noble families, who used to build their palaces in the outskirts of the city, in search of prestige and status.
Try the Traditional Ligurian Breakfast
Lots of people in Liguria have breakfast with focaccia bread and cappuccino, a combination that is unheard of anywhere else. In Genoa, it is considered the breakfast of champions and we must admit that it is worth trying at least once in your lifetime. Focaccia bread, known as fugàssa in Genoese dialect, which means “cooked on the open fire”, is one of the most beloved local specialties and as such, it has become a Slow Food Presidium and a Protected Regional Food. Its ancient origins are lost in the complex history of Liguria, but we do know that in the Middle Ages, people would already eat focaccia, especially to celebrate weddings. Simple, tasty, and inexpensive, Ligurian breakfast is not only a culinary experience, but a true celebration of the senses. Locals who dip focaccia bread in their cappuccino are following a centuries-old tradition and consider breakfast to be almost a sacred event. What are the two golden rules of a typical Ligurian breakfast? First, it should be enjoyed sitting down at a table and never standing up. Second, when you are eating focaccia, you leave your troubles behind, because when there is focaccia, there is no room for daily hassle!
Taste Traditional Ligurian Dishes
Among the traditional dishes worth trying while in Genoa, are definitely pesto and focaccia, two local foods with worldwide renown. However, this wonderful city has a lot of more delicious specialties to offer, such as farinata, a thin focaccia made of chickpea flour mixed with water, salt, and oil and then cooked in a wood-fire oven. When you are in Genoa, you also have to try panissa, tomaxelle and stuffed vegetables.
In the seafood category, you should try seafood soup, mixed fried fish, ciuppin, buridda, and capponada. Last but not least, the Genoese-style stock fish will amaze you for its simple yet intense flavor.
Genoese pesto should be enjoyed with a plate of fresh trofie pasta. For the best experience, you should try pesto in a local trattoria or purchase a freshly made jar at a deli in the historic centre. Since there’s never enough pasta, you can also enjoy it with Tocco di carne, meaning the traditional Ligurian ragù, mainly served with ravioli. Another of the most famous fresh Ligurian pasta is pansoti, which are similar to ravioli in shape only larger and filled with a mix of fresh herbs. Pansoti are always eaten with a traditional walnut sauce.
For a tasty second course, we recommend fried salted codfish, especially if purchased freshly made at a downtown fried food shop. These shops are also famous for their stock fish. The most adventurous visitors can try “cima”, one of the most famous and iconic Genoese dishes. It consists of veal breast filled with kidneys, brain, testicles, udder, eggs, garlic, minced veal, backstrap, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, marjoram, beets, parsley, peas, carrots, ham, and mortadella, with a lot of soaked breadcrumbs and extra virgin olive oil.
The traditional Genoese drinks (and desserts) will also pleasantly surprise you. Let’s take, for example, the Asinello, a typical Genoese drink served exclusively at the Bar degli Asinelli. The waiter will bring you a glass of white wine mixed with 16 herbs, accompanied by a slice of lemon and obviously a plate of delicious focaccia. Among the desserts worth trying are Canestrelli of Torriglia or Montoggio and Sacripantina, a soft dome-shaped cake, with a sponge cake bottom layer and filled with buttercream and chocolate or hazelnut cream.
Boccadasse is known as the lover’s neighbourhood and offers a wonderful beach where you can relax and enjoy the sunshine. It is an old seaside neighbourhood in the city of Genoa, which has remained unaltered through time. According to the legend, Boccadasse was founded by Spanish sailors who took refuge there from a storm and having fallen in love with the place, decided to stay. In reality, no one knows the history of Boccasasse, but it is not a coincidence that this quaint neighbourhood, with approximately 5,000 residents, is one of the most beloved places in Liguria. The first thing to do when you arrive is climbing the staircase carved in rock, all the way up to Saint Claire Cape, where the Türcke Castle proudly stands, and from where you can enjoy a spectacular view of Portofino. When visiting Boccadasse, you should also stop by the Church of Saint Anthony from Padua, with its wonderful polychromatic marble.
Cozy squares and narrow alleys complete the picturesque portrait of Boccadasse, a neighbourhood carved in the Ligurian cliffs, like a one-of-a-kind jewel. Boccadasse has inspired poets like Edoardo Firpo, Andrea Camilleri and even singer Gino Paoli, who lived there for many years and who took inspiration for his famous song “La Gatta” (“The Cat”).
Surrounding Areas: Portofino
Portofino is a picturesque fishing village that has recently become a luxury vacation destination. Whoever is familiar with Portofino, knows that it is the perfect destination if you are looking for fun and nightlife: the town is famous for its restaurants and clubs and for being able to satisfy the needs of younger and more adventurous tourists. However, Portofino is primarily a high-class destination, rich not only with restaurants and clubs, but also with archeologically and historically significant sites, which are perfect representations of the different eras of Italian history.
Among the monuments worth visiting, you should definitely see the Saint Mary of the Assumption Oratory, Saint Martin Church, and Saint George Church – which can be reached by climbing a scenic path to a promontory overlooking the sea. From there, you can also enjoy a spectacular view of Brown Castle, which dates back to XVI century and which was used as a military fortress. Finally is the lighthouse at Punta di Capo, from where you can enjoy breath-taking views.
Those looking for beach umbrellas and sunshine should head towards Recco, in Paraggi, the only beach location in Portofino and the destination of many VIPs in search of a more tranquil place. Portofino is also the starting point for a series of very interesting trekking trails offered by the Regional Natural Park. From there you can walk through 80 kilometres of trails, one more breath-taking than the other, or you can even take a kayak from Nasca beach, on one of the many tours exploring the hidden gems along the coast. Portofino is also famous for one of its sculptures: the Christ of the Abyss, a bronze statue placed at the bottom of the San Fruttuoso bay in 1954, in a protected marine area, at a depth of 17 meters. Created by sculptor Guido Galletti, it is one of the preferred destinations for those divers who want to enjoy a rather uncomplicated dive in a spectacular and exclusive location.
Surrounding Areas: San Fruttuoso Abbey
Beach lovers can hike from Portofino, through a path overlooking the sea, to San Fruttuoso Abbey, a mystic location immersed in tranquillity, perfect for finding peace and quiet. It is a Benedictine monastery dating back to the year 1000, but through the centuries, it also became a pirate’s cove and then a fishing village. The site was then purchased by the Doria family, which modified its configuration, until 1983, when it was donated to FAI (National Treasures Foundation), which brought this beautiful historical gem back to its old glory. The renovation project was finally completed in 2017.
Surrounding Areas: Camogli
Camogli is a municipality in the province of Genoa with slightly over 5,000 residents and is nationally known as “the city of the thousand sailing ships”. Located in the Paradise Gulf, the town occupies the valley west of the mountain with the same name and enchants visitors with the colours of its buildings, which are absolutely breath-taking. Camogli represents the perfect example of Ligurian decorative art, which here reached its greatest height with an exquisite and whimsical use of “tromp l’oeil” in the form of cornices, balconies, flowers, and large buildings, and where every narrow alley gently pushes the tourist into a maze of pure beauty, where losing one’s heart is very easy. The centre of Camogli is an ancient medieval area, where there is the Saint Mary of the Assumption Basilica, which dates back to the XII century: three Baroque-style naves with decorative stucco and polychromatic marble and murals by Barabino and Semino that will capture your soul.
Once you arrive in Camogli, take a stroll to the small harbour, where you will find wooden fishing boats, recreational boats, symbols of the long maritime tradition of Camogli, and small shops full of character. You can enjoy traditional Ligurian dishes, such as anchovies and trofie pasta, and take a walk under its picturesque porticos. Among the historic buildings worth a visit, remember to stop by the Dragonara Castle, a stunning medieval structure built to protect both the sea and mountains surrounding Camogli, and now used to house the Tyrrhenian aquarium, which hosts several local marine species in their natural habitat.
Trekking enthusiasts will want to visit the various panoramic trails that depart from the centre of Camogli and lead to Ruta and Punta Chiappa, such as the path that leads to the charming Romanic Church of San Nicolò di Capodimonte, which dates back to the XII century. Another spectacular site is the Punta Chiappa Battery, a military building dating back to World War II. From Camogli, you can also reach the San Fruttuoso bay, through a steep trail or even by boat.
Take a cruise to Genoa with Costa Crociere
Picturesque, lively, and rich in history, Genoa is a city worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. Take advantage of the Costa Crociere excursions to discover some of the most beautiful sites of this stunning city, such as the Old Harbour, Boccadasse and the famous Aquarium.