Despite being the sixth biggest city in Italy by population, Genoa is still an off-the-beaten-path destination. Many visitors fly into Genoa airport or dock here on a cruise ship only to skip it completely and hop on a train or bus down the coast to the colourful patchwork villages of the Italian Riviera. But there are plenty of things to do in Genoa that make it worth sticking around for a few nights before heading elsewhere.
Italy is famous for beautifully ornate buildings, delicious food, and a deep well of history and Genoa is no different. This guide will tell you about all the absolute best things to do in Genoa including what and where to eat in Genoa. It might surprise you just how much there is to do in Genoa, Italy that you’ll forget all about Florence, Venice, and all the other more crowded Italian cities.
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Things To Do in Genoa
Palazzi dei Rolli on the Strada Nuova
Italy currently holds the record for the most world heritage sites, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Genoa has its own UNESCO World Heritage Site too. And it’s a big one! Once upon a time, Genoa’s port was one of the busiest and most important in Europe. Its peak was around the 16th and 17th centuries and a lot of wealthy, notable people liked to visit the city at this time.
But where were the Genovese locals going to house the who’s who of European aristocracy during their trips? In purpose-built palaces, of course! On the official list, there were a whopping 162 of these palaces dotted around Genoa. And the collective name for these palaces is literally Palazzi dei Rolli which translates to Palaces of the Lists.
UNESCO recognises 42 of the surviving palaces. Most of them are situated on Via Garibaldi or, to use its more popular name, Strada Nuova which means New Street. It might not seem very new today, but it was back in the 16th century. Some of these palaces are now hotels and apartment buildings, some are museums and galleries, and others are perfectly preserved. Just a handful of the palaces worth visiting are Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Bianco, and Palazzo Doria Tursi.
Palazzo Reale Museum
While you could walk up Strada Nuova and soak in the beautiful and unique architecture of all these palaces, you should visit one or two of them. You can save money by buying combined palace tickets too. One of the best palaces to visit is the Palazzo Reale Museum. The name of this palace translates to Royal Palace and it’s dripping with golden chandeliers, marble furniture, and a hall of mirrors that could compete with Versailles in Paris.
Palazzo Spinola National Gallery
Palazzo Spinola, named after the wealthy family that built the palace, is still a stunning building in its own right but it’s also a national gallery. In keeping with the era in which it was built, the Spinola Gallery displays paintings, sculptures, and frescoes from the 16th century. Don’t forget to climb up to the rooftop of this gallery for 360-degree views of Genoa Old Town. Many visitors walk out of the exit without knowing they can access the roof so watch out for the signs.
San Lorenzo Cathedral
If you want to know what to see in Genoa that’s quintessentially Italian, visit San Lorenzo Cathedral. Situated on Piazza Matteotti, this Romanesque striped church will instantly remind you of the Duomo in Florence. While it’s not as big or famous, it’s still a beautiful building!
Parts of the church date back to the 12th century but it wasn’t completed until the 18th century. Like many churches, there’s an interesting mix of different architectural styles and holy relics.
You might get confused by all the English flags that appear in the cathedral’s stained glass windows and elsewhere in the city. The red cross on a white field is the symbol of St George, who is not only the patron saint of England but also the patron saint of Genoa. And Genoa adopted the symbol as their flag first!
Genoa is a city best appreciated from several different vantage points. And being quite a hilly place, there are a few! One of the top things to do in Genoa is to head up to Spianata Castelletto. It’s a relaxing hilltop park where you can escape the buzz of the city below while also enjoying vistas across the city and out to sea. If you don’t fancy walking up the stairs to the top, you can hop on one of the two funiculars that will make the journey far less taxing.
Genovese Food Tour
Every Italian region boasts its own utterly delicious cuisine that will continue to make you question how one country has created many phenomenal dishes. The Ligurian region is no different so one of the top things you should do in Genoa is to take a food tour.
Genovese food (Genoa in Italy is Genova) includes underrated dishes and sauces like focaccia bread, pesto sauce, pan dolce cake, trofie pasta, and linguine pasta. Liguria is mostly known for its fresh white wine, particularly the Vermentino grape variety.
Teatro Carlo Felice
Pack your best suit or glitziest dress because one of the best things to do in Genoa at night is to catch a performance at Teatro Carlo Felice. This white-washed stone building dates back to 1827 but it suffered a lot of damage during WWII. Today it looks grander than ever with Roman columns and a monument to talented Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini in the lobby. The theatre is one of the city’s best entertainment venues with a mixed programme of opera, classical music concerts, plays, ballets, and more.
Galata Maritime Museum
The shipping industry is what made Genoa into the city it is today. From the middle ages until the present, this city has relied on imports, exports, migrant workers, and cruise ship passengers. It’s not surprising that the Galata Maritime Museum in Genoa isn’t just the largest maritime museum in Italy, but the largest of its kind in the Mediterranean. Over several floors and thousands of exhibits, you can learn about the history of sailing in Genoa over the centuries. You’ll also learn about prominent figures, key events, and so much more.
Boccadasse Fishing Village
The Ligurian coast is littered with dozens of colourful postcard-perfect villages. If you’re short on time, you may not be able to venture further down the coast and visit famous ones like Portofino or Cinque Terre. Luckily, you can visit the Boccadasse suburb of Genoa to get your charming fishing town fix. You can hop on a regional train, take a taxi, take a tour, or walk along the coastal path to Boccadasse. When you’re there, you can relax on the beach, enjoy a gelato, and take highly Instagrammable selfies.
Genoa Old Port
Genoa has two sprawling harbours. One part of the harbour is for cargo and cruise ships, but the other is the Old Port. Nowadays, smaller private vessels and leisure sailors use this port. This is the one you should visit! Strolling around the harbour shouldn’t take you much longer than 45 minutes but there are lots of restaurants, bars, and shops that might lengthen your journey. There are also some interesting attractions in the harbour like the replica of Vascello Neptune, a 17th-century pirate ship. You can also explore the Submarine Nazario Sauro in the harbour too.
Aquarium of Genoa
Fishing, harbours, maritime museums… Most of the best attractions in Genoa relate to its history with the sea. Just as Genoa used to have one of the biggest ports in Europe, the Genoa Aquarium is the largest aquarium in Europe. The giant building is in the shape of a ship and houses over 600 species of marine life and freshwater fish. This is a popular attraction with a €30 ticket price which often has queues snaking along the harbour. Book your ticket online and visit early to get ahead of the crowds.
Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno
Want some more unusual things to do in Genoa? There are few tourist attractions more unusual than graveyards. The Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno is a 15-minute bus ride from Genoa’s Old Town on the outskirts of the city.
Famous European cemeteries, like Père-Lachaise in Paris or Assistens Churchyard in Copenhagen, get a lot of visitors because very famous people are buried there. But the most famous person buried in Staglieno is Fabrizio de André (singer-songwriter) and few people outside of Italy are aware of his existence. This 19th-century graveyard is a niche attraction because of its beautiful statues designed by top Italian sculptors like Rubino, Canonica and Bistolfi.
Day Trip to Cinque Terre
While there is plenty to do in Genoa, it would be a mistake not to jump on a train to Cinque Terre when they’re only a one-hour ride down the coast. Cinque Terre (translating to Five Lands in Italian) is the collective name for five drop-dead gorgeous villages on the Italian Riviera. These are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
All five are worth visiting and, at a pinch, you can visit them all on one day trip. You can buy a Cinque Terre rail pass from the train station in the first village you visit and this will allow you to hop on and off any train at your leisure. You could also walk part of the Cinque Terre coastal path.
Each village has gelaterias, beaches, restaurants, souvenir shops, and the most incredible views. Yes, some of the photos on Instagram have filters that make the colours of the patchwork houses look brighter but you won’t be disappointed by them in real life!
Christopher Columbus’ House
Many people think Christopher Columbus is Spanish because that’s where he departed in 1492 on his voyage across the Atlantic. No one is actually 100% certain where Christopher Columbus was from, but Genoa’s birthplace claims have the most merit.
If you’re a history buff, you have to check out Genoa’s reconstruction of Christopher Columbus’ home that they built in the 18th century. It’s a fairly small house so it won’t take you long to look around and take the information on the plaques around the building with a pinch of salt.
Only a minute’s walk from the Christopher Columbus House is Porta Soprana. These are Genoa’s city gates which date back to the 12th century. Back then, they would’ve sat in the middle of an imposing city wall that surrounded the old city of Genoa in the Middle Ages. The reason why Porta Soprana still looks magnificent and intact today is that they were restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. You’ll see the flag of Genoa flying proudly from the top of both towers.
Day Trip to Santa Margherita Ligure
Already visited Cinque Terre or want to avoid the crowds? Understandable! Cinque Terre is an exceptionally popular tourist destination. For a quieter and more relaxing day trip from Genoa on the Italian Riviera, opt for Santa Margherita Ligure instead. It’s a slightly bigger town so there’s still plenty to do and you can take the train straight there from Genoa.
Learn more about Santa Margherita Ligure’s past by exploring the town’s castle built by the Republic of Genoa in the 16th century. Take a stroll along the beach and stop for a bottle of Peroni or a negroni cocktail in one of the many harbourside bars. Be aware that the prices increase significantly in these towns on the Ligurian coast. Genoa is quite an affordable city so you may get a shock!
Lighthouse of Genoa
One of the most iconic buildings on Genoa’s skyline is the old Lighthouse of Genoa. Lighthouses have been on this site in one form or another since the 12 century. But the one that exists today was built in 1543 around the time the Palazzi dei Rolli buildings were also popping up around the city.
It’s a 76m tall, brick structure with the Genoa coat of arms painted on the front and it’s open to the public to climb up and witness epic views along the coastline. You might be wondering about safety if this lighthouse is hundreds of years old. Don’t worry! It was most recently restored in 1994.
Piazza De Ferrari
You will likely walk through this piazza without meaning to because it’s situated in the heart of the city. It has a stunning bronze fountain in the centre and a lot of interesting architecture surrounding it. The old Genovese Doge’s Palace sits on one side of this square and it’s also where the Teatro Carlo Felice is too.
Via XX Settembre
One of the roads shooting off Piazza De Ferrari is Via XX Settembre. This is the main shopping street in Genoa and you will find a mix of designer, high street, souvenir, and independent shops. Climb up the steps to the Ponte Monumentale bridge that crosses the street for a view of the street from above.
So many visitors skip over this Genoa attraction in favour of visiting as many palaces as possible. If you want to head off the beaten path, check out D’Albertis Castle. It’s a 19th-century Gothic mansion so it looks strikingly different to many of the other buildings in Genoa which are hundreds of years older. It has a quirky two-toned brick facade surrounded by palm trees and a fortified wall.
Inside is a museum featuring a jumble of quirky artifacts from all over the world collected by a sea captain. It displays everything from two-hundred-year-old receipts from Australia, penny farthing bicycles, and an array of mismatched sculptures.
Santissima Annunziata del Vastato Church
As you’re wandering around Genoa, you’ll no doubt pass several churches. Almost all are free to enter (though they appreciate donations) and absolutely beautiful. One you should make an effort to go inside and look around is Santissima Annunziata del Vastato. The church’s exterior looks more like an opera house with its Roman columns but the building is enormous and displays the most impressive frescoes.
Recommended tours in Genoa
- Do Eat Better Experience – Food Tours in Genoa
- Genoa Walking Tour: Discover Hidden Treasures and Street Food
- Discover the secrets of Genoa with a storyteller!
- Gulf of Portofino Private Boat Tour
- Genoa City Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
- Paddling Genoa secret coast
- Share your Pasta Love: Small group Pasta and Tiramisu class in Genoa
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