Wondering what to see in Genoa? Check out this detailed itinerary that uncovers all the beauties of the Ligurian capital in four wonderful days!
“I have never seen anything like this Genoa! It is something indescribably beautiful, grandiose, characteristic… I really would not know how to start explaining the impression that all this has had and is continuing to have on me…” – Richard Wagner in a letter to Minna Wagner, 1853.
Wagner’s words pretty much sum up my super positive impressions after a recent trip to Genoa. What an atmospheric place! This charming port town is all about intriguing dark alleys (the so-called carrugi) oozing history and traditions, and magnificent palaces that remind of Genoa’s glorious past as a Maritime Republic. What I found particularly fascinating is how modernity found its way through Genoa’s history and is now closely intertwined with it, as seen for example in the overpass rising over the ancient port:
In this article, I’m going to share a four-day itinerary covering most of the top things to do in Genoa, including tips on where to eat and sleep. Prepare your comfy shoes, it will be a packed four days!
Day 1 in Genoa: deep dive into the city’s splendid past
I started my adventure in Genova from Piazza della Vittoria, one of the city’s biggest squares, just a few steps from Brignole train station. Just behind its grandiose Victory Arch, you’ll see a grandiose staircase where Columbus’s three legendary caravels are recreated with beautiful flowers. Then head to Via XX Settembre, Genoa’s main shopping hub, lined with old porticoes that house pretty cafès and modern retail stores. What I found particularly fascinating are the architectural details, from the beautiful mosaic flooring to striped arches and surprising facades.
Via XX Settembre will take you to Piazza De Ferrari, Genoa’s main square. At its center stands a large fountain while its entire perimeter is surrounded by glorious buildings: Palazzo della Nuova Borsa (the new stock exchange), Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo della Ragione (the seat of the regional authorities) and the famous Carlo Felice Theatre. There are also several cafés where you can have a drink and indulge in some people watching.
From Piazza De Ferrari, walk along Via XXV Aprile up until Piazza delle Fontane Marose, which leads to Via Garibaldi. This gorgeous street is home to the Palazzi dei Rolli Unesco site, a series of splendid palaces dating from the 16th and 17th centuries when Genoa established a unique system of public lodging in private residences of local wealthy families. These palaces were used to host politicians and illustrious personalities on state visits and their grandeur caught the eye of many artists. The Flemish painter Rubens even published a collection of drawings so that these palaces could become “an example of beauty and magnificence for all of Europe”.
Most of these buildings now host banks and corporate offices but some can be visited. Due to the covid-19 emergency, some are still closed, but I managed to visit a couple of them. One was Palazzo Bianco with its impressive collection of paintings by the likes of Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck, and the famous Genoese artist Bernardo Strozzi. I also enjoyed an extremely interesting guided tour of Palazzo Lomellino and its beautiful gardens. This palace has a truly spectacular grey-blue façade, while the interiors boast some stunning frescoes by Bernardo Strozzi. There are also some dreamy gardens built on two levels, complete with colourful flowers and statues portraying mythological scenes.
While strolling around Via Garibaldi, look for the sign indicating the lift to Spianata Castelletto. This is a fabulous panoramic piazza offering a break from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, as well as expansive views over Genoa’s old town and its harbour. I mean, look at this:
If you’re visiting on a hot summer day like I did, grab some refreshing Sicilian granita at Don Paolo, a little café serving also excellent gelato and mouthwatering cannoli!
Back on Via Garibaldi, it’s time to explore one of my favorite parts of Genoa, the Carmine neighbourhood, a charming little hamlet right in the heart of the city. Here you’ll find picturesque squares and colorful alleys boasting curious names like Vico dello Zucchero (Sugar alley) and Vico del Cioccolatte (Milk chocolate alley) derived from the commercial activities that once took place there. The most atmospheric corners are Piazza della Giuggiola and piazza San Bartolomeo dell’Olivella, which is overlooked by an ancient church.
The next stop on the itinerary is Via Balbi, named after a family of local bankers and lined with historical monuments. The key attraction here is the Royal Palace, one of the largest architectural complexes in Genoa. Originally a patrician mansion built by the Balbi family in the 17th century, it became a royal residence when the Savoy family bought it in 1824. Inside you’ll find precious paintings, beautiful frescoes and sumptuous decorations like these:
After the visit, turn left and continue walking along Via Balbi until you see stairs on the left that lead to Piazza di Santa Brigida, a little square with pastel-coloured houses and the trugoli, old wash houses where locals used to do their laundry in the past.
From there, you can continue on Via Balbi up to the Montegalletto lift that takes visitors to the D’Albertis Castle, which was once the home of Captain D’Albertis and today houses an interesting Museum of World Cultures. Alternatively, you can head down to the seafront and visit the Galata Museo del Mare, the largest museum dedicated to the sea in the whole Mediterranea region. While exploring 600 years of life at sea, you will see ancient atlases, Christopher Columbus’ famous Book of Privileges, and even visit a submarine. Oh, and head up to the museum’s roof for some fabulous views over the city! If you still have time (and energy), you can visit also the famous Genoa Aquarium, home to over 400 different species of fish, including penguins, sharks, dolphins, and turtles!
Day 2 in Genoa: time to explore the city’s medieval heart and its carrugi
The starting point of this second day is Porta Soprana, one of the entrance gates to the city and an integral part of the defensive walls built in the 12th century. It consists of two impressive circular towers that are also called St. Andrea Towers because of an ancient convent that was located nearby. Over the weekend you can buy a combined ticket that allows you access to both the towers and the House of Columbus, located just 50m downhill (further details here).
Walk along Via di Porta Soprana until Piazza Matteotti, where the main entrance to the beautiful Palazzo Ducale stands. Not to be missed is the Church of Jesus, whose interiors boast a splendid Baroque décor, as well as works by Rubens, Vouet, and Carlone. Only a few steps away along Via Tommaso Reggio and Salita all’Arcivescovato, you’ll find Piazza San Matteo, a fascinating little square squeezed between precious historical buildings that belonged to the Doria family. Black and white marble stripes decorate most of the facades, as well as the Church of San Matteo, which you can visit for free together with the adjoined cloister.
Now walk along Vico di S. Matteo and Via di Scurreria to reach the splendid Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Genoa’s main church. It’s about one thousand years old and boasts a beautiful black and white exterior guarded by two marble lions with some of the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.
The church preserves the ashes of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Genoa, along with precious works of art. There is also a replica of the bomb that broke through the ceiling during WWII and miraculously didn’t explode (look for it on the right aisle). Underneath the church stands the Museum of the Treasury, which displays a valuable collection of sacred art and silver artifacts.
Continue along Via San Lorenzo, then turn right onto Via Canneto il Curto and you’ll see another precious square, Piazza Banchi, once the financial hub of Genoa where money changers conducted their business and merchants carried out negotiations with bankers. This is also the place that hosted Italy’s first Commodities and Stock Exchange back in 1855. The square Is guarded by the Church of San Pietro in Banchi, a rare example of a religious building erected above commercial premises.
From here, put the map back into your bag and get lost in Genoa’s carrugi, the dark and narrow alleyways that you can see in many villages of the Italian Riviera. Here are a few beautiful spots I found during my exploration:
- the Church of Santa Maria di Castello, one of the most fascinating religious buildings in Genoa, squeezed in between colourful buildings. A volunteer will take you on a fantastic tour of the church, whose highlights include the fascinating cloisters and the precious works by leading artists of the Genoese school.
- the small shops on Via San Bernardo, selling anything from fruits and vegetables to artisanal creations. One of my favorites is Drogheria Torielli (at no. 32), a heaven of herbs and spices that opened in 1930.
- the pretty Piazza San Bernardo with a lovely bookshop and the birthplace of Goffredo Mameli (at no. 30), who composed Italy’s national anthem in 1847
- take a peek through the window of the Giacalone historic barbershop on Vicolo Caprettari no.14 to admire the splendid Art Nouveau interiors.
- Vico dietro il Coro di San Salvatore and Campo Pisano, a truly fascinating corner of Genoa with a cluster of super colourful houses and white and black cobbled pavement. The name ‘Campo Pisano’ comes from the fact that after the Battle of Meloria against Pisa in 1284, thousands of Pisan sailors were imprisoned there for some time.
- The charming little square Piazza di San Cosimo
- Piazza delle Erbe, a key gathering point in Genoa, full of little bars and restaurants
Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around Genoa’s Old Port, the ancient harbour that the renowned architect Renzo Piano redesigned in 1992 for the 500-year celebrations of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America. This is a really cool area, popular with both tourists and locals and perfect for a sundowner with a view. Icons include the Bigo panoramic lift, the Bubble glass greenhouse, and the Ferris Wheel.
My favorite spot is Calata al Molo Vecchio, where you can admire the fantastic Lanterna (the city’s lighthouse) and the harbour cranes that are often nicknamed Genoa’s giraffes. I also liked Isola delle Chiatte, a floating platform with benches where you’ll feel suspended between the water and the sky.
Day 3 in Genoa: graves and gardens
Yep, you read it correctly, the third day of this Genoa itinerary will take you to a cemetery. It may sound rather bizarre, I know, but trust me, the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno is a must-see even if you are not really a cemetery person! Before explaining what makes it one of Italy’s most incredible cemeteries, let’s see how you get there. Depending on where you’re based in Genoa, you can catch bus no. 14 from Brignole train station or bus no. 34 from Piazza Principe train station. You can purchase the €1.50 ticket at any tabaccheria (tobacco shop) or newsstand. Alternatively, the taxi ride from the city center should cost roughly €10.
The Staglieno Cemetery is the final resting place of Genoese people and foreigners alike, and its vast array of incredible statues and sculptures make this place an extraordinary open-air museum. Besides the standard tombs, there are hundreds of impressive funeral monuments that portray the 19th-century bourgeoisie and its relationship with death. What I found particularly fascinating about these amazing works of art is their extreme realism and attention to details, from a tear gently rolling down a cheek to the perfectly captured creases and folds of dresses.
What’s more, there are lots of human stories and curious anecdotes to discover behind each piece. For example, when looking at the tomb of Caterina Campodonico (no. 13, Lower Arcade), you learn that this peanuts pedlar saved money all her life to get a fancy funerary monument like those of the bourgeoisie. Staglieno is also the final resting place of personalities who lived in Genoa for a while, like Oscar Wilde’s wife Mary Constance Lloyd, as well as of numerous patriots of the Risorgimento. Among them, you can see the tomb of Giuseppe Mazzini (no. 4, Boschetto Irregolare route).
You’ll probably need half a day for the visit to the Staglieno Cemetery. I know it sounds a lot, but trust me, it’s huge and the things to see are countless. I literally spent an entire morning in there and still didn’t see all of it! Also, wear comfortable shoes (there are some stairs and hills to climb) and take some mosquito repellant with you – I wish someone told me…
Something completely different awaits you in the afternoon. Go back to the train station (either Brignole or Piazza Principe) and catch a train to Genoa Pegli (€1.30), where you will visit the theatrical park of Villa Durazzo Pallavicini. Extending over eight hectares right next door to the train station, this splendid estate consists of a villa, a botanical garden, and a romantic English park (which won the title of Italy’s most beautiful park in 2017).
The villa was built in the 17th century for the marquise Clelia Durazzo Grimaldi, then her nephew Ignazio Alessandro Pallavicini inherited the property and entrusted architect Michele Canzio with major renovation works, including the creation of the park. Nowadays the villa houses the Ligurian Archaeology Museum, but it was closed when I was here, so I can’t say much about it. Mr. Canzio worked as a stage designer at the Carlo Felice Theatre in Genoa and gave the park a unique structure similar to the scheme of a theatrical play. There are a prologue, a prequel, and three acts with four scenes each. Everything you see was carefully designed, nothing was left to chance. What’s more, each structure and statue along the path was conceived with some kind of esoteric and philosophical meaning. This way, a walk in the park becomes a sort of introspective journey.
During your visit, you will pass by various types of architecture, caves, ponds, and beautiful vegetation, along with some fantastic views over Pegli and the sea. Highlights include the heavenly Big Lake with the Temple of Diana (see picture above) and the Captain’s Castle, a Neo-Gothic building with a number of symbols that refer to the rational and spiritual worlds. Gothic Avenue is another particularly interesting spot, representing Dante’s Dark Wilderness where sooner or later all of us get lost while looking for the meaning of life.
I really enjoyed the visit to the park of Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, but it was quite a walk on an uneven and partly uphill path and at the end of it I was pretty tired. Anyway, don’t leave Pegli without taking a stroll around the colourful town center, it’s so pretty. Also, consider going back to Genoa aboard a Navebus boat for a change of perspective. The ticket costs €8, but the timetable is a bit limited, take a look here.
Day 4 in Genoa: salty air and shades of blue
The final day of this Genoa itinerary is dedicated to the key element of the city, the sea! Don’t expect to idle under a parasol, though… Depending on where you are based, reach the start of Corso Italia and embark on a delightful 3km stroll to Boccadasse, your first stop for the day. Corso Italia is Genoa’s main promenade, a wide coastal street lined with cafés and beach clubs. It’s a favorite for jogging and the ritual weekend passeggiata.
Just walk always straight on until you reach the lovely fishing village of Boccadasse, one of those places straight out of a fairytale. There’s a little pebbly beach that is a great place to relax by the sea with some focaccia or ice cream in hand. All around are fishing boats and colourful buildings hiding the most charming alleys. Just follow the little stairway along Via della Scalinata and you’ll find fabulous views like this:
Fun fact: it is believed that La Boca, the colourful neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, was founded by a group of immigrants from Boccadasse who moved to the Argentinian capital in the first half of the 19th century and named the area after their hometown. The assonance is indeed quite strong!
Afterward, walk along Via Boccadasse until you reach Via Caprera, where you can catch bus no. 15 to Nervi (the ticket costs €1.5, info here), a picturesque seaside village on the outskirts of Genoa. Make sure to get off at the Oberdan 2/Ponte di Nervi bus stop, so that you can take a look at the town’s lovely Roman bridge before venturing through the town centre.
Nervi is truly charming, with elegant buildings decked out in bright colours and nice shops. The key highlight here is the Anita Garibaldi promenade, a gorgeous 2km footpath running along the sea and offering some truly enchanting views.
If time allows, rent a deckchair and parasol for a couple of hours in one of the lovely beach clubs that you’ll see from the promenade and take a dip in the crystalline waters of Nervi… it will be heavenly!
Going back to Genoa is easy, just catch a train from Nervi station and get off at either Genoa Brignole or Porta Principe after only 15 minutes. But before leaving Nervi, do take a look at the splendid park sprinkled with noble villas and lush Mediterranean vegetation.
How to get to Genoa
The easiest way to reach Genoa from abroad is to fly into Genoa Cristoforo Colombo international airport. Alternatively, Genoa is well connected by train to most major Italian cities, just check out the Trenitalia website for routes and timetables
Remember that Genoa sits right at the centre of the beautiful Italian Riviera and can be used as a base to explore the seaside towns of the Riviera di Ponente, like Varazze and Laigueglia, and those along the Riviera di Levante like Camogli and Cinque Terre.
Where to eat in Genoa
Food in Genoa is delicious and varied, with traditional dishes including fragrant focaccia, pasta with creamy pesto sauce, savoury herb pies, and farinata, the local chickpea pancake. Here are a few places to eat in Genoa that I noted down after my visit:
- Ostaia De Banchi for traditional cuisine
- Trattoria dell’Acciughetta for delicious fish dishes
- Molo Modo 21 for traditional dishes and pizza
- Friggitoria Carega for a cone of freshly fried fish
- Gran Ristoro for delicious sandwiches
- Romeo Viganotti for delicious artisanal ice-cream
- Antica Confetteria Romanengo an ancient pastry shop with delicious croissants and other sinful sugary pleasures
- Negroneria Genovese, a really cool place for a drink in an enchanting area of the historic centre
If you want a super traditional aperitivo drink, ask for a glass of Asinello, a delicious aromatised vermouth. And remember that the typical breakfast for locals consists of a cup of cappuccino and a slice of focaccia.
Here are three places to sleep in Genoa:
- B&B Al Centro di Genova, in the heart of the old town, with free onsite parking
- Le Nuvole Hotel located in the historic Palazzo Lamba Doria
- La Piazzetta Rooms, charming rooms right in the medieval heart of Genoa
Before traveling to Genoa, check the opening times of the places you are planning to visit online as there may be last-minute changes due to the covid-19 emergency
Remember that most churches in Genoa close between 12-3 pm
Another great thing to do in Genoa is the boat trip through the Gulf of Paradise. Some reach Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre villages, while others stop at Camogli, San Fruttuoso and Portofino. Further details are available on the Golfo Paradiso website.
The tourist office offers a tourist pass called Genova Museum Card, which gives you access to several attractions, including a free public transport option. The sale of such card is currently suspended due to the covid-19 emergency, but keep an eye on the Visit Genoa website as things may change before your visit
I hope you enjoy Genoa as much as I did. As usual, share your experiences in the comments below 🙂
Big hugs from Italy,