The poet Petrarch dubbed Genoa ‘La Superba’ owing to its gruff majesty. For centuries the capital of a powerful maritime republic, the port is seen by many simply as a gateway to the Cinque Terre, a string of pretty villages along the Italian Riviera.
But this rough diamond of a city makes for one of Italy’s most interesting short breaks.
Those who stay are rewarded with a well-salted experience of pesto, palazzi and palm-shaded hot days on the Ligurian coast.
Grandeur: One of Genoa’s many impressive palazzi, the San Giorgio
Strong coffee kick-starts the Ligurian day – drink standing by the counter at the Tazze Pazze cafe, dunking focaccia into your cup. Bread is big in Genoa, possibly due to the energy needed to tackle its steep gradients. Churches, squares, mansions and ochre houses punctuated by palms and cypresses step up the hillsides, stitched with footpaths called creuze. Funiculars and lifts between streets help with the inclines though – and are included in the 24-hour travelcard (£4).
Travel up in the Montegalletto elevator to Castello d’Albertis to get your bearings – this merchant’s crenelated folly offers a glorious view from its terraces past the 15th Century La Lanterna, one of the world’s tallest lighthouses, and out to sea. A short stroll from the Castello, the Sant’Anna monastery apothecary sells age-old herbal recipes – the rose cough syrup has been on the shelves since 1652. Back down to Earth, take a ten-minute train from Genova Brignole station to Boccadasse for lunch at GE8317, named after the fishing boat that supplies its seafood. The menu is based on that morning’s catch.
Back in the city centre, walk off lunch through the caruggi, the old town’s shady medieval lanes. Washing hangs like bunting from balconies, under which you’ll find tiny historical shops called botteghe storiche. The streets between Via XXV Aprile, Via Roma and Galleria Mazzini make for a compact walking tour, or get lost deeper in the labyrinth – most of the old town is pedestrianised, so there are no vehicles bar the occasional scooter buzzing through like an angry hornet. Spices, coffee, paper, menswear and even tripe are sold here over wood and glass counters.
Its easy to pass by Romeo Viganotti, tucked down an alleyway, but you’d miss the city’s finest pralines, still made with 19th Century machinery. Likewise, Profumo could be easily missed but this old-fashioned gelataria was once crowned Italy’s best. Pop in for a taste of its creamy pistachio ice cream.
Keep walking downhill to end up at the waterfront – Porto Antico, which has been given a facelift by modern architect Renzo Piano. Stop on the way for aperitivo from hole-in-the-wall bars offering free nibbles of farinata, cheese and olives with crisp Ligurian Trebbiano white wine between 6 and 8pm. Then enjoy the port panorama, dominated by a space-age Biosphere, from restaurant Il Marin over a bowl of squid-ink pasta.
Vibrant: Pictured is Via Garibaldi in the heart of the city
Explore some of the imposing palazzi that crowd the city. One was once a jail where Marco Polo was imprisoned. Three of the grandest make up the Musei di Strada Nuova on Via Garibaldi. Paganini’s violin is the highlight of a rambling collection at Palazzo Doria Tursi, and there’s a glorious clutch of Old Masters from Caravaggio to Van Dyck in Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco.
The ashes of Christopher Columbus are touted as being in the Museo in some guidebooks, but if so they’re curiously difficult to track down. There is little commemorating the great explorer in his home city apart from a statue in Piazza Acquaverde – even the Christopher Columbus House in the city walls is only ‘probably similar to the one he lived in’, according to tour guides.
Genoa’s second most famous export to America, denim, or ‘de Nimes’ – a material from the French city used by 19th Century clothes-makers in Genoa to create garments for dockers – is easier to locate in fashion chains along Via XX Settembre or at Lucarda abbigliamento, under the port colonnade.
Stop for lunch at the Mercato Orientale, first wandering past piles of luscious fruit and vegetables, salamis, cheeses and fresh pasta
Stop for lunch at the Mercato Orientale, first wandering past piles of luscious fruit and vegetables, salamis, cheeses and fresh pasta. The market’s newly opened extension has cloisters filled with everything from a bakery school to a gourmet panini stand run by Ivano Ricchebono, holder of Genoa’s only Michelin star at The Cook.
The real stars of the Genovese food scene, though, are its oily sauces, variously made of walnuts, anchovies or garlic, and, on the second floor of Palazzo Imperiale, you can learn to make its most famous – pesto – with food-experience company creattivando.com. Pound delicate basil from nearby Pra with parmesan and pine nuts beneath ceilings adorned with smiling cherubs, then eat your handiwork; purists only put it on local trofie pasta.
If you want to bring some home, you can buy a pesto permit at the airport that allows you to take more than 100ml through customs. After all that pestle-wielding, head downstairs to the Palazzo’s first floor for a restorative Spritz Genovese – local vermouth, spumante, lemon and basil-infused soda water at Les Rouges cocktail bar. It’s hard to tear yourself away from its shabby baroque comfort – but an early evening passeggiata rounds the day off nicely, before dinner at contemporary restaurant Le Rune.
British Airways flies daily to Genoa from Gatwick from £56. B&B rooms at the Hotel Valery (valeryguesthouse.com) start from £67 per night. For more information, go to visitgenoa.it.