Often overlooked by sun-seeking tourists in a rush to get to picturesque Portofino and pastel-painted Cinque Terre, Genoa is one of Italy’s most underrated and significant cities.
This former maritime power has much to boast about: birthplace of world navigator Christopher Columbus, home to the prison from which Marco Polo dictated accounts of his travels, Italy’s first football team, and inventors of pesto.
Genoa’s topography, nestled between mountains and sea, means that the city is blessed with temperate weather all year round and, with direct two hour flights from the UK, it’s the perfect escape for those in search, culture and hearty Italian fare, any time of the year.
This compact city is more than a gateway to the Italian Riviera, it’s a destination in its own right.
Following a large-scale regeneration project in the early, the old port or Porto Antico is now an oasis of waterfront, complete with a panoramic lift, a tropical rainforest biosphere and Europe’s largest Aquarium.
But, to experience Genoa at its most enchanting, wander around the tangle of narrow alleyways named “Carruggi” which unfurl behind the port and lead to impressive palaces like the Palazzo di San Giorgo, formerly one of Europe’s first banks and before that a prison for Venetian captives such as Marco Polo.
One of Genoa’s most splendid streets is the 250m long protected Via Garibaldi or “Street of Kings”, a completely pedestrianised street lined with magnificent Sixteenth Century palazzi.
Two of the most illustrious palaces – Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco – are now art galleries housing works of art from old masters, including Van Dyck, Caravaggio and Veronese. Take the glass lift to the panoramic roof at Palazzo Bianco for one of the finest views in the city.
Genoa’s mild climate lends itself well to a rich variety of plant life, making it a haven for horticulturists.
Noblemen of the Nineteenth Century expressed their status in the form of sprawling villas with spectacular gardens, of which Villa Durazzo Pallavicini is one of the most romantic. Designed by Michele Canzio, a set designer at the Teatro Carlo Felici, the terraced landscape features meandering footpaths winding around palm trees and exotic flowers, neoclassical architecture and a botanical garden.
Like Venice, Genoa’s distinguished trade with North Africa and the Middle East has left a legacy, notably in the city’s taste for exotic luxuries like candied fruits and spices.
Pietro Romanengo lures customers in with its windows adored with tiny colourful candied fruits and rose syrup sweets and at the Drogheria Torielli spice shop, clientele queue for jars of colourful spices, jars of amber honey and aromatic herbs labelled by hand.
The arcaded Via September is lined with small independent Italian boutiques, though for those with their sights on loftier labels, Via Roma offers the biggest Italian and international brands. Don’t miss the Via Garibaldi 12, a concept store houses everything from clothes, to soap, to stationary.