We spent only a few days in the Ligurian capital and although it was enough to tick pretty much everything off our Genoa bucket list, we would still love to go back and explore more of it. Lapped by the azure waves of the Mediterranean Sea and flaunting one of Europe’s largest medieval towns, Genoa is blessed with a mild climate, a picturesque maze of historical alleys, and delicious traditional cuisine.
Genoa’s historic center has earned a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the value of its urban development and the social organization around the enlightened civic system of the Palazzi dei Rolli. Despite all the things to do in Genoa, the city is not always included in classic Italy itineraries. But if you are taking a northern Italy tour or visiting lesser-known areas and cities, you are likely to make this an enticing stop.
Walk around the old town’s Strade Nuove
Take a stroll around Strade Nuove (“new streets”) and take in the system of Palazzo dei Rolli declared a UNESCO site in 2006 to kick off your Genoa sightseeing in style. Wandering around narrow alleys and beautiful squares, admire the local architecture of aristocratic Renaissance and Baroque mansions as well as the citizens’ homes. A huge variety of roads, small and picturesque squares and noble palaces looming over modern daily life will show you the historical side of a powerful maritime republic at times narrow and claustrophobic.
This district is called Strade Nuove because it’s new compared to the previously built medieval quarter. In the 16th century, the city of Genoa knew a period of great wealth especially thanks to its large seafaring power, and this is how the local aristocrats decided to build their palaces in an upper area north of the tightly organized medieval district.
Even though each of them bears its own original characteristics, these noble residences, called Palazzi dei Rolli, share some common features such as entrances through imposing staircases, frescoed interiors, and elegant courtyards.
Duck into San Lorenzo Cathedral
Genoa’s 11th-century main cathedral dominates a rather unpretentious square if we compare it to Saint Peter’s in Rome or Piazza San Marco in Venice, but its facade and interior entirely make up for it. Arriving from one of the surrounding winding back streets, the first glance is striking. Protected by two imposing marble lions on both sides, the external facade is checkered black, white and pastel pink.
Built on the site of an earlier basilica dating roughly to the 5th or 6th centuries, the cathedral hosts the ashes of Saint John Baptist, the patron of the city, and was partially renovated in Gothic style after the fire that damaged it in 1296. Before heading to your next stop, visit also Museo del Tesoro della Cattedrale di San Lorenzo you can access from inside the cathedral.
Explore the Royal Palace
Built as a noble residence by the Balbi family in the 17th century and renovated between the 17th and the 18th centuries by the Durazzo clan, the manor became the city’s royal palace in 1824 when the former Italian royal family bought it.
One of the best things to do in Genoa is visiting this palace, now open to the public. Travelers can admire the elegant halls decorated with Baroque and Rococò frescoes and stuccos, paintings, sculptures as well as the personal belongings of the former owners. The mansion displays masterpieces of artists of the likes of Tintoretto, Guercino, and Anton Van Dyck among the others.
Get lost around its caruggi
Small and picturesque shops and workshops, local trattorias, and intimate churches are scattered around the old town that can easily look like a maze of narrow alleys the Genoese call caruggi. If you happen there around Christmas time, wandering these tiny backstreets where the shops will be all lit up and spruced up for the Yule festivities is one of the coolest and fun things to do in Genoa.
A mix of scents, flavors and colors, Genoa’s historic center is now and has always been by the very definition of the city’s past and personality, an enticing blend and meeting point of cultures, traditions and different languages. I suggest you take a stroll during the day but also carve some evening time to see under a different perspective, with different lighting and a whole different atmosphere.
Walk to Piazza de Ferrari
Piazza de Ferrari is one of the city’s most important squares. Until late 19th century, this was the venue for the daily veggie market, while now it’s a popular hangout and pulsing heart in Genoa’s old town where many local events take place.
Named in 1877 after Raffele De Ferrari, duke of Galliera and benefactor who gave a large donation for the expansion of Genoa’s port, in the middle it features the large iconic fountain architect Giuseppe Crosa built in 1936 and all around are important buildings such as Carlo Felice Theater, the Accademia Linguistica di Belle Arti as well as Palazzo Ducale, the building seat of Regione Liguria and Liberty-style Palazzo della Borsa.
When we were there, it seemed to be under renovation so it was not functioning. Such a pity because I’ve seen some pictures and it looks gorgeous when the fountain is dancing.
Explore medieval Genoa
The history of Genoa is long and rich so virtually every period is represented across the city through secular and religious buildings. One of the best things to do in Genoa is time traveling through its Middle Ages by visiting notable buildings such as the sumptuous 13th-century Palazzo San Giorgio, today seat of the Port Authority, and old churches such as 12th-century Santa Maria di Castello church and cloister, Romanic-style 13th-century church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, as well as 12th-century Embriaci Tower, one of the very few private towers that still stand in Genoa’s medieval center.
Santa Maria di Castello Complex
One of the most fascinating churches in Genoa is Santa Maria di Castello, a Romanic-style complex that includes also a cloister. It is packed with artwork from different ages and styles and it sits on the site of the first settlement from where the city started its expansion.
Visitors are mesmerized by an interplay of vaults, paintings, side chapels, and frescoes, and this is why this is one of the best places to visit in Genoa whether it’s your first time in the city or not.
Visit the ancient hospital of Commenda di Pré
One of the symbols of the old town, Commenda di San Giovanni di Pré is one of the highlights in Genoa. Of very old origins (it was built in the 12th century), it was founded in 1180 as a hostel to welcome the pilgrims, knights and traders on their way to the Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade. With time, it became also a hospital for the poor.
The complex includes two overlapping churches and three floors where the pilgrims were housed and where the friars would stay. Today Commenda di Pré is also a museum/theater with historical exhibitions shown with multimedia installations.
Tuck into traditional foods
From a refreshing meal of trofie fresh pasta seasoned with pesto sauce to the hearty chickpea farinata, Genoa won’t leave you hungry for long. Whether you are looking for a comfortable meal at a local restaurant or street food on the go, make sure you get a taste of Ligurian traditional cuisine largely based on fish and seafood. Whatever your eating style, don’t miss a bite of the local focaccia, especially the cheese focaccia, absolutely delicious!
Remember the Seafaring Power at the Ancient Port
During your Genoa sightseeing, the old port is impossible to miss. With notable palaces on one side and the Mediterranean Sea and local ships on the other, Genoa’s port reeks of history and culture.
The heart of the medieval marine republic will take you back to the city’s old splendor, in 1992 the old port was revamped by famous architect Renzo Piano. Whether you are staying one day in Genoa or three, it’s a must if you want to get to the soul of this ancient seafaring power.
Among the several Genoa attractions to visit here are the spellbinding Biosphere, the large glass sphere designed by Renzo Piano himself and containing a true tropical forest where well-known as well as rare plants grow, Bigo panoramic lift, a great view of Neptune Galleon, the National Museum of Antarctica displaying a world of geographic discoveries and La Città dei Bambini (Children’s City), a science center for children with interactive activities and workshops.
The star of the show in the old port is certainly Genoa’s Aquarium (more info below), but worth visiting are also Galata Museo del Mare and a submarine not operational anymore.
Visit Genoa’s Aquarium
The largest in Italy, the Aquarium is one of the very best things to do in Genoa for families with kids. Showing a huge variety of species of aquatic creatures from sharks to turtles to penguins, your little ones will have a great time and won’t want to leave. There are some areas only for looking and others for interactive experiences.
Rather than just a show, Genoa’s Aquarium has employed a large team of biologists and scientists to ensure species protection and also the saving of stranded animals as well as those victims of exotic animal trafficking.
Immerse yourself in an underwater journey and see wonderful creatures such as colorful tropical fish, dolphins, sharks, penguins, jellyfish, rays, seals, and more.
Sail your Ship at Galata Museo del Mare
An important marine republic couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity of offering its visitors an intriguing glimpse into its glorious seafaring past. The charming maritime museum is by far one of the best experiences you can have in Genoa, a great place to visit for both adults and children.
The history of sailing, ships, and seafaring, a detailed and fascinating visual chronicle of Italians’ migration towards promised lands such as Brazil and Argentina are what makes this an intriguing place to visit in Genoa.
Enter Legendary Nazario Sauro Submarine
After visiting the Sea Museum, enter the famous Nazario Sauro S 518 Submarine moored in front of it. This is possibly one of the coolest places to visit in Genoa, an original experience and one your kids will hardly forget and likely talk about for a long time afterward.
The opportunity to move around the narrow spaces of cabins, to understand the pilot area and work, to see the technology of a submarine, and to hear recordings from the crew, the functioning radar, the engines, even the torpedo tube, makes this definitely one of the most thrilling Genoa attractions.
Visit the Lanterna, Genoa’s lighthouse
The lighthouse from Genoa’s coastline has been warning sailors and guiding vessels since 1128 is open to visitors and one fascinating landmark to explore. Located on the Capo di Faro promontory, the Lanterna looms over Genoa’s skyline and with its 77 meters is the tallest lighthouse in the Mediterranean and the second-tallest in Europe.
Throughout the centuries, the lighthouse was also used as a prison and a stronghold was built all around. Today, you can join a tour, attend an exhibition or a concert, and your children can join a workshop. One of the unmissable historical places to see in Genoa, you can reach the lighthouse with a public bus or metro (Dinegro station) and then walk for some 15 minutes. Even if you arrive by car, there is no other way around, you can park at Terminal Traghetti and then walk following the signs.
Duck into Columbus’ House
Like this historical figure or not, Cristopher Columbus hailed from Genoa and his house is now a museum. Nestled in a suggestive medieval area extremely rich in history and evocative of a prolific artistic period between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age.
Climbing a large staircase, on the right side sits a small house where Columbus, one of history’s most famous explorers and navigators, lived as a child, a memorial that now you can visit also inside. But once there, don’t forget to walk around this charming quarter where you will also see Porta Soprana, one of the medieval gates to the city built in the 12th century.
Take a day trip
An easy day trip from Genoa is to the famed Cinque Terre, the five quaint villages perched between scenic hills and the sea. You can reach the Cinque Terre by train and then either walk from one another or also take the local train. A traditional way of living in the Liguria region, breathtaking views, and endless hikes are the draws of the Cinque Terre, one of the main highlights of the area.