Capital of the Liguria region, Genoa (known as ‘Genova’ locally) is the sixth-largest Italian city and one of the least touristy. Some travellers will know it as a huge port city, one of the busiest and most important in the Mediterranean, and a common stop for cruise liners so passengers can catch buses to excursions elsewhere on the Italian Riviera. But Genoa has such a rich cultural history and phenomenal foodie scene that it’s puzzling why more avid travellers don’t step off the usual Milan-Florence-Rome tourist trail and check out a wonderful but lesser-known city like Genoa.
A huge part of Genoa’s Old Town has UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to the dozens of grand palaces collectively named ‘Palazzi dei Rolli’ mostly located on the Le Strada Nuova which is Genoa’s main historic street in Old Town. The palaces were built by influential families to host other wealthy and prominent visitors from the 16th-18th centuries when Genoa was an extremely powerful shipping city. Though not conclusively proven, Genoa is the most likely birthplace of Christopher Columbus, the explorer and coloniser, and his childhood home is open to visitors.
Genoa can definitively pride itself, however, on being the birthplace of pesto, focaccia bread and other Italian foodie delights as well as it’s dusty, labyrinthine side streets that you really can get lost in, many museums, galleries and beautiful churches. It’s a very worthy alternative Italian city to visit and you won’t be disappointed.
This Genoa city guide will answer what is Genoa famous for, tell you how to visit all the best places in Genoa, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Genoa and things to do in Genoa Italy.
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Table of Contents
How to get to Genoa
Genoa is very easy and convenient to travel to. Genoa Airport is a substantially large international airport with daily flights to European cities like London, Munich and Istanbul via Italy’s own Alitalia airline and budget airlines like EasyJet. The airport is only a 15-minute taxi drive away from the city centre or budget travellers can catch the N.1 bus which leaves every 10 minutes outside the airport’s train station, Genova Cornigliano.
Genoa Principe Station is the city’s main train station, though Genoa has smaller stations in several neighbourhoods. Italy’s Trenitalia train network makes it easy and affordable to travel directly and quickly between all major cities. Genoa to Rome is a direct five hours and 30-minute journey and Genoa to Pisa is a quick two-hour journey. Since Genoa is a busy port city, it’s included on many cruise itineraries and you can also easily travel to Genoa by car.
What to expect in Genoa
As Genoa is in the north of Italy, the main language of its residents is Italian. Italy is also part of the EU and the Schengen zone and their currency is the Euro. Proficiency of English is very good with most workers in the tourism and service industry speaking almost fluent English. However, learning some Italian would be appreciated here. Tipping isn’t expected but 10% or rounding up the bill would be very welcomed.
Genoa isn’t known for being a ‘cheap’ city, but food, accommodation and attractions are more affordable than other Italian cities like Venice or Rome. It’s generally a safe city but be mindful of where you are walking, particularly at night. Genoa’s Old Town is a maze of narrow, dark alleys and is lenient towards prostitution and muggings do occur in these streets. And be wary of careless motorists at pedestrian crossings, as with many Italian cities.
How to get around Genoa
Genoa can seem like a big sprawling city, especially if you’re travelling between the airport and the neighbouring village of Boccadasse, for example, so it may appear like good sense to hire a car. However, the problem isn’t driving around Genoa, it is finding a parking spot as they are extremely difficult to stumble across when you need them. Locals choose to drive scooters for this reason.
Genoa has a local train line as well as one underground station which more or less follows the coastline, so doesn’t serve Genoa’s Old Town (which is quite large – it’s regarded to be the biggest historical centre in Europe). Genoa’s bus network is the next option, though ticket kiosks are available near very few bus stops and timetables are not kept up to date. It’s much simpler to walk whenever possible, which is somewhat doable as most attractions are clustered in Old Town.
The best time to visit Genoa
Genoa, as a city on the coast, has a typical Mediterranean climate where the summers are warm but not hot (temperatures rarely exceed 30 degrees Celsius) and the winters are fairly mild. Rain is expected at any time of year and storms are especially likely in summer.
The touristy, high season is June-August but, unlike other cities, Genoa never seems too busy. And though accommodation prices might peak during this time of year, it’s not a significant rise. Spring and autumn are the shoulder seasons where the weather is still pleasant but not very hot and rain showers are more common.
There are lots of great annual events and festivals in Genoa including ‘Marathon of the Sea’ which is held in February and Focaccia festival held every May. Genoa also has its own version of a traditional Christmas market where one of the city’s piazzas becomes a ‘snowy’ winter wonderland.
Things to do in Genoa
Palazzi dei Rolli
Genoa’s main attraction has to be the Palazzi dei Rolli, the many palaces that have been preserved in the city and awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. There are around 40 palaces in Genoa that are part of the status, but there are over 150 still dotted around the city now serving as apartment and office buildings. The palaces date from the 16th-century when Genoa was an important shipping city and every wealthy and well-to-do family had their own stately home/palace in which to entertain other wealthy guests from around Europe.
There are so many palaces open to visitors that it would be impossible to see them all. The most visited palaces are on Via Garibaldi, previously known as Strada Nuova, so that’s a good place to start. Palazzo Reale is possibly the most fascinating as it’s been preserved just as you would expect it to look hundreds of years ago. And you can visit Palazzo Spinola (which is now the National Ligurian Gallery) for less if you have a ticket from Palazzo Reale, and vice versa.
Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Doria Tursi and Palazzo Bianco are next to each other and you only need one ticket to visit all three which you can purchase at Musei di Strada Nuova for less than €10. The latter two of these palaces are more like museums exhibiting art and antiquities, but they’re still fascinating to visit, nonetheless.
Genoa Old Town
Genoa’s Old Town sits right in the centre of the just north of the port and is primarily made up of winding, narrow streets with tall houses broken up by the odd piazza. Many of these little streets (known as ‘caruggi’) are purely residential but others have shops, bookstalls, kiosks and restaurants.
Make sure you check out Piazza Bianchi which has a church of the same name and Piazza de Ferrari on the very edge of Old Town.
Porto Antico (meaning the ‘old harbour’) is a huge port which, for hundreds of years, was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Today, it’s been completely renovated into a pleasant place to take a stroll with lots of palm trees and benches but there’s also lots of things to do here.
There are many restaurants and entertainment venues which line the port as well as the Galata Museo del Mare (a maritime museum with a real submarine) and the Aquarium of Genoa (one of the biggest aquariums in Europe).
San Lorenzo Cathedral
Definitely check out San Lorenzo Cathedral, Genoa’s main church. It has a similar facade to the Duomo in Florence with a black and white striped pattern and circular front window. The Cathedral dates back to the 12th-century with several additions over the next few hundred years so the architecture of the church is a beautiful blend of Romanesque and Gothic design.
The interior of the Cathedral is equally impressive with lots of 16th-century artworks and an incredibly ornate alter. The San Lorenzo Cathedral is free to visit but its treasure museum is a separate cost.
The Basilica Della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato is also an amazing church near Genoa Old Town that’s free to visit if you want to check out another church in Genoa.
You don’t need to travel down to Cinque Terre or Portofino to experience a traditional fishing village on the Italian Riviera because Genoa has its own! Boccadasse is a bus or train ride south of the main city centre but it’s worth the journey.
Multicoloured houses are stacked into the side of the cliff and there’s a small beach with a gelateria and a few restaurants right on the coast. It’s largely a residential area, but there’s definitely enough to do here to fill up one afternoon and it’s a great place to chill out.
Lighthouse of Genoa
Looking for the best views over the orange roofs of Genoa that stretch into the hills? The Lighthouse of Genoa is an icon of the city and you can probably see it standing in the distance no matter where in Genoa you are. It’s 76m high, sits on the north side of the harbour and offers the best panoramas in the area but it is only open to visitors on weekends and holidays.
And if you’re not visiting Genoa over a weekend, definitely take the funicular car up Mount Righi and in 15 minutes you can be at the top. There are lots of relaxing walks where you can take in the 360-degree views of the area.
D’Albertis Castle is also worth visiting which is an easy walk from the funicular stop at the top of the mountain. It’s a Gothic mansion dating back to the 19th-century formerly owned by a sea captain named Enrico D’Albertis who collected art and antiquities from his travels all over the world, particularly the Americas and Africa. His personal collection is now on display in the castle.
What to eat in Genoa
It’s futile to try and determine which Italian region or city has produced the most delicious food as Italian cuisine is all so good, but traditional Genovese dishes should make the top five. Genoa is the birthplace of pesto, a versatile sauce made from basil, garlic, parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil which is usually served with pasta but nowadays can be found in sandwiches and as a pizza topping.
There is some fantastic Italian bread out there but one of the best is a traditional Ligurian bread, Focaccia. It’s a flatbread served with olive oil, herbs and sometimes tomatoes though nowadays flatbreads are made with a variety of toppings. They’re an excellent choice for lunch, especially on the go as a more portable alternative to pizza.
As well as producing great wine and desserts, there are some fantastic gelaterias in Genoa. Head to Gelateria Profumo for the creamiest, homemade gelato in the city just off Via Garibaldi or Gelateria San Luca in Old Town.
Where to stay in Genoa
Budget – Accommodation in Genoa is generally cheaper than many other big Italian cities, which makes it easier for travellers on a budget to find great, affordable options. Genoa has lots of hostels to choose from but one that ticks boxes for quirky and great location is Abbey Hostel. It’s a renovated 15th-century convent right by Via Garibaldi with a cosy common area. On the other side of Via Garibaldi in Genoa Old Town is Manena Hostel, which is near lots of great restaurants, has clean, modern dorm rooms and offers free breakfast.
Mid-range – There are some amazing apartments on Airbnb available all over the city if you’d prefer your own private space during your trip to Genoa. Entire apartments for two people in the city centre are widely available for around €40 per night and many offer incredible views over the city and hills. If you’d prefer to stay in an affordable hotel, B&B I Rivi is just north of Via Garibaldi run by locals. The hotel is furnished with a traditional Italian vibe and free breakfast is provided.
Luxury – In Genoa, there are plenty of 4/5-star hotels from only €100-150 per night. Grand Hotel Savoia is situated right by the train station and is decorated in an elegant, lavish style which is in keeping with this 19th-century building. You can eat your breakfast on their terrace with epic views out to sea and book rooms with hot tubs on the balcony. Or, if you would prefer to stay in the centre, Hotel De Ville is right near the port and has a minimalist, monochrome decor with luxe touches.
Tours to do in Genoa
Hop on Hop off Tour
Genoa is quite a sizeable place so what better way to efficiently see the entire city than a hop-on, hop-off bus tour? The ticket is valid for 48 hours so you can explore all of Genoa’s top attractions at your leisure by departing the bus whenever you like. The buses run frequently so you’ll never have to wait too long to continue on your travels around the city.
All of the buses are fitted with audio commentary so you can learn more about the sites and landmarks on the way and you’ll pass places like Via San Lorenzo, the Bigo and Ducal Palace.
Or, if you want to explore an alternative side to Genoa on foot with a knowledgeable and friendly local guide, then this walking tour is ideal. This tour focuses on Genoa’s hidden gems as you’ll walk along the unique paths that connect the sea to the hills which are only found in Liguria. Learn more about the people of Genoa and witness the gorgeous vistas over the city and port by hiking through the nearby hills.
It’s not difficult to taste delicious food in Genoa because it’s literally everywhere, but if you are a real foodie and you want to guarantee that you’re tasting the best of the best dishes in Genoa then join this food tour. Spend an afternoon visiting local restaurants and cafes sampling Focaccia bread and pesto pasta as well as local meats, cheeses and wines. Learn about the Genovese’ relationship to their traditional food and how it gets made.
Day trips from Genoa
A day trip to Cinque Terre to an absolute must if you’re staying in Genoa because the popular, picturesque towns are so close to the city, less than a two-hour train journey south along the coast. Cinque Terre is a national park consisting of five beautiful cliffside villages called Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso Al Mare.
It’s very possible to see all five towns in one day but it helps to know exactly where to go and what to do to really maximise your time, which is why this day tour is perfect so you can be sure to see all the best vineyards, castles and landmarks in the area.
Portofino and Santa Margherita
There are plenty of beautiful villages on the Italian Riviera that are great to visit on a day trip. Portofino is a small town known for its popularity amongst the rich and famous around the 1940s and 1950s and the rolling hills and rainbow-coloured houses that line its port have kept visitors returning to Portofino again and again.
This tour will allow you to explore Portofino and the nearby town of Santa Margherita. Both have lots of amazing restaurants, shops and gorgeous views over the towns and sea.
Italian Riviera Villages
And if you’d love to visit some smaller beach towns on the Italian Riviera near Genoa but would prefer to get off the beaten path, there are plenty of other villages to visit on this day trip which mixes in some lesser-known towns like Camogli, San Fruttuoso and San Rocco. You will be taken kayaking and hiking by your guide as well as given the chance to partake in cultural activities like visiting the 10th-century monastery in San Fruttuoso.
Recommended tours in Genoa
- Genoa Walking Tour: Discover Hidden Treasures and Street Food
- Portofino & Santa Margherita Private Day Trip from Genoa with Local Driver
- Taste of Rapallo Foodie Tour
- Gabriella’s Pesto & Pasta Cooking Class
- Best of Portofino: Boat and Walking Tour, Pesto Cooking and Lunch
- Tour of Genoa and Day Trip to Portofino from Genoa
- Snorkeling Tour Portofino marine park and Christ of the Abyss
- Private Photo Session with a Local Photographer in Chiavari
- Skip the Line: Single ticket to visit the Open Air Museum, Museum, Lighthouse
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