The problem with having an important past is that it can weigh heavily on your present. Genoa’s greets me as soon as my plane lands — the airport’s name, Aeroporto Cristoforo Colombo, salutes the city’s most famous son. This is a tribute, too, to that fine era between the 12th and 16th centuries when Genoa was a mercantile superpower; a rich maritime republic; a fierce rival to fellow independent city-states Venice and Ragusa (Dubrovnik).
For 500 years, Genoa made its mark on the Mediterranean, its territory ebbing south to Piedmont, Sardinia and Corsica, west to Nice, further afield to Greece. It raised the man who discovered the Americas, it rolled with the Renaissance, it created palaces that enhanced its majesty. And then it slipped into the wings, its soliloquy drowned out by a rising France, by Napoleon, by British bombs in the firestorm of the Second World War.
It’s tempting to view Genoa as diminished; now only the seventh biggest city in an Italy it helped to create (Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who assembled the country, launched his campaign of conquest from Genoa in 1860). And yet, if the capital of Liguria’s beauty is now smudged in places by jarring shards of 1950s reconstruction, its pomp is still apparent. Hemmed in by the sea and the Apennine peaks — forced by geography to grow along the coast, to the extent that it resembles a squashed urban croissant, flowing 20 miles from east to west, and only six from south to north — it readily recalls its gilded youth. Wander the Porto Antico, its original harbour — now a restored enclave of eateries and bars — and you’re in the 15th and 21st centuries at the same time. Visit the Centro storico di Genova, its core of alleys, churches and busy shops, and you could be in the 14th. Explore the palatial mansions, now resurrected as galleries, and the 17th is in full swing.
Climbing one of the staircases that try to tame the city’s steep slopes, I spot the vast shipyards that are still the city’s lifeblood. Here, the doomed Costa Concordia is being broken up for parts — a once-elegant lady on the steps of the guillotine. It could be tempting to see Genoa in the same light. Yet, with such a back-story, this Italian idol will always have a future.
What to see & do
The shipyards: Genoa’s docks are a mix of colossal freighters being readied for ocean voyages, vessels being repaired, and under-construction yachts awaiting their oligarchs. One-hour ‘cruises’ (€6/£4.20) are offered by Genova Dal Mare. liguriaviamare.it
Palazzo San Giorgio: Genoa’s most important building may be the first you see as you leave the Porto Antico. Dating to 1260, this palazzo was, variously, a bank, a jail (Venetian globetrotter Marco Polo was held here in 1298) and a palace. It’s now the port authority HQ — and is open to the public as an exhibition space. porto.genova.it
Palazzo Ducale: Thirteenth century in origin, the Palazzo Ducale is now used for temporary exhibitions; from this autumn until 10 April 2016, it hosts ‘The Impressionists to Picasso’ (€15/£10.50).
Palazzo Rosso: It’s hard to say if this architectural masterpiece was at its peak when it emerged in the 17th century as the sumptuous home of the Brignole Sale family, or in the 21st as a high-ceilinged showcase for art by the likes of Van Dyck, Veronese, Dürer and Bernardo Strozzi (€9/£6.30).
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo: Genoa can’t match its old foe Venice when it comes to the magnificence of its main church — but its cathedral is still a structure to be appreciated. Not least because it’s still here. Consecrated in 1118, it survived its trickiest hour in 1941, when a British shell pierced its roof but failed to explode. This uninvited guest never left the premises — and is on show as a reason for the faithful to be thankful. chiesadigenova.it
Museo di Sant’Agostino: Impressive Sant’Agostino is a photogenic phantom of a church, no longer active, but preserved as a museum to itself — all marble-and-granite pillars and 13th-century Gothic tranquility (€5/£3.50). santagostino.museidigenova.it
Casa Museo di Colombo: The medieval house where Christopher Columbus is said to have grown up does not distract for long with its slim cluster of exhibits. But if you’re on a pilgrimage to the navigator’s hometown, this is your ground zero (€5/£3.50). associazione-portasoprana.it
Libreria Bozzi: An 1810-founded bookstore on the Centro Storico street of Via Cairoli, fighting a battle against the digital age in shelves heavy with hardbacks and travel guides. Tomes in English as well as Italian.
Galleria Mazzini: The stern gradient of Via Roma hosts Genoa’s chicest outlets (such as Louis Vuitton). Hop over the road to this 19th-century arcade and you’ll find Rinaldo Ferrari selling suave, handmade shoes.
Viganotti: The lanes of the Centro Storico are festooned with independent producers of time-honoured stature. Viganotti has been selling chocolates since 1866, its glass cabinets stuffed with cocoa slabs in flavours as varied as basil and rum.
Like a local
Boccadasse: The Genoese love this little seafront pocket — despite its pebbles — three miles east of the Centro Storico. Punchy aperitivos are available at the cafes on the fringe – like Taverna Dindi.
Caffe Boasi: Order a macchiato among the elderly gentlemen of Genoa who pack out a coffee hotspot that’s been an institution on Via XX Settembre since 1930.
Bar Berto: The Centro Storico kicks off its shoes in Piazza dell’Erbe — a square that’s near to bursting by midnight. Bar Berto is its key night-owl, with a narrow interior, but tables on the cobbles. Piazza dell’Erbe 6. T: 00 39 010 275 8157.
Il Barbarossa: The Elvis statue that greets visitors at this Centro Storico bolthole is a bequiffed red herring. A tiny cellar bar, Il Barbarossa is more 15th-century storehouse than Tennessee truck stop. Piano di Sant’Andrea. T: 00 39 010 246 5097.
Bar La Goletta: On the edge of the Porto Antico, and you find a clutch of inviting late-night possibilities. La Goletta is the pick, thanks to its waterside terrace.
Where to eat
M Cafe: This Genoese outlet has six city sisters, including a pit-stop attached to the Palazzo Rosso that does a lunch of soup and fish for €12 (£8.50), and delicious ice cream.
I Tre Merli: Dishes at this waterfront restaurant include ciupin (a fish soup) for €20 (£14) and stocchefisciu (slow-cooked Ligurian codfish with pine nuts) for €18 (£9.80).
Le Perlage: In the easternmost part of the docks area, this chic restaurant tempts guests with an €80 (£56) tasting menu that features the likes of millefeuille of seabass with hazelnut cream, and tartare of shrimp.
Where to stay
Hotel NH Collection Genova Marina: This Renzo Piano-designed Porto Antico bolthole’s 140 rooms provide affordable slumber in a prime waterfront location.
Hotel Bristol Palace: Ghosts of the Belle Epoque glide around a landmark that’s sparkled on Via XX Settembre since 1905. An ornate staircase that sweeps to the top floor is worth the room cost by itself.
Hotel Meliá Genova: A boutique five-star with a wellness centre and plenty of 21st-century flourishes, this high-end retreat tempers its modernity by occupying a 1929-built property where the pale marble lobby and carvings over the door hint at ancient Egypt.
British Airways and Ryanair fly to Cristoforo Colombo Airport, six miles west of the city centre, from Heathrow and Stansted respectively. You can also fly to Nice (a doable 130 miles to the west) with British Airways, Easyjet or Jet2, then take the train across the French-Italian border (direct services arrive at Genoa’s Genova Piazza Principe station in three hours).
Average flight time: 2h.
Genoa’s metro system (see ‘Like a local’) doesn’t reach the airport, but the Volabus shuttle service connects to the centre in 30 minutes, stopping at Piazza Principe and Brignole railway stations (€6/£4.20). Taxis take 20-25 minutes and cost around €20 (£14). amt.genova.it
When to go
The focal point of the Italian Riviera, Genoa basks in hot summers, while it remains relatively mild with temperatures from around 10C to 18C throughout the rest of the year.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.40.
International dial code:
00 39 10.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Liguria by Rosie Whitehouse. RRP: £15.99. (Bradt Travel Guides)
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three-night stays at the five-star Grand Hotel Savoia, from £498 per person (two sharing), with flights, breakfast and transfers.
Cox & Kings offers three nights at the Hotel NH Collection Genova Marina, from £450 per person (two sharing), with flights, breakfast and transfers.
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)