Genoa: Exploring the City of Art, Culture and Great Food, part one
Everyone knows the ditty: In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1493 he sailed the deep blue sea.
Christopher Columbus may have been a native of Genoa—that’s what most historians believe. But he has never won the hearts and minds of the Genoese. Their real hero is Andrea Doria, the Renaissance-period admiral. That’s because Columbus left Genoa young and sailed for Spain, and Andrea Doria saved Genoa from being swallowed politically and militarily by the Spanish, Austrians and French.
Whether you plump for Columbus or Andrea Doria, 500 years since their heyday during the maritime Republic of Genoa, the city’s ship has finally come in. Genoa has rarely been more prosperous, cleaner, and more appealing.
Museums such as Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Spinola are stuffed with paintings by Van Dyck and Rubens. Both artists lived and worked here. Genoa’s San Lorenzo cathedral, its scores of churches and impressive public buildings are as rich in treasures and architectural interest as those of Rome. And that’s saying a lot.
After decades of decline in the 20th century this Mediterranean port so full of character has rebounded from the days when it was a rust-belt wreck full of highly polluting heavy industrial plants.
Hemmed in by steep, rough mountains and protected to the south by the Gulf of Genoa, it’s one of northern Italy’s most appealing, handsome and dynamic places to visit.
As I’ve been remarking for years, however, Genoa still isn’t for everyone: first-timers find few of the Italy-for-beginners attractions of Venice, Rome or Florence. Intrepid travelers are thrilled.
Despite its successful transition to a world where art, culture and high-tech are the new paradigm, Genoa continues to belong to the Genoese.
They and other Italians call the city Genova (somehow we lost the “v” in English). The regional capital of Liguria, this bustling medium-sized city has about 630,000 inhabitants (over 800,000 when counting the suburbs).
Beyond the prestigious trio of palazzi mentioned above—Rosso, Bianco and Spinola—there are museums and palaces galore in Genoa’s historic central city, and others strung along the coast. Much of the oldest part of Genoa is still ringed by medieval walls, with two impressive city gates (the Porta Soprana and Porta dei Vacca). In fact the center of Genoa is the largest medieval neighborhood in Europe—bigger even that that of Venice.
Though among vacationers it’s not as celebrated today as the Cinque Terre, Portofino or San Remo, visit Genoa from spring through fall and you’ll also discover it’s a seaside resort in its own right. Neighborhoods on the coast including Albaro, Boccadasse, Quarto, Quinto and Nervi – all on the east side of Genoa – offer swimming beaches or shoals and cliffs with old-fashioned “bathing establishments.” These resort suburbs are dotted with handsome villas, have big public parks, and are linked by one of Italy’s longest and most enjoyable, car-free seaside promenades.
Underrated, Genoa is authenticity incarnate, starting with the food. It’s one of my favorite eating cities in Europe, and has one of the great covered market places too. Italian food is famously regional but Genoa, like Venice and Rome, has its very own cooking. It has given the world pesto, focaccia, farinata, ravioli and the ancestor of panettone—Genoese pandolce.
You can even take a break from eating in restaurants to eat (and cook if you like!) in the kitchen of a home chef in the heart of Genoa.
For more on Genoa and its history, culture, food and wine, plus hikes, treks, restaurants, food shops, best focaccia, best Italian Riviera discoveries and more, keep reading WanderingLiguria and pick up our books, Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa and Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera.