The port city by definition, Genoa was made to be seen from the Mediterranean and entered by sea. If you arrive by plane, train, bus or car you miss the full effect. The best way to counter this is to take a ferry boat ride from the harbor, or arrive by cruise ship. The second best way is to walk from Porto Antico—the old harbor—to the end of the piers or the Lanterna, a lighthouse that’s about 800 years old.
Look back at old Genoa and be amazed
Genoa’s cityscape is an experiment in verticality. Buildings are stacked on tiers of stone between the Gulf of Genoa and an amphitheater of castle-crowned peaks reaching 2,000 feet.
Herman Melville visited the city 150 years ago and compared the setting of Genoa to “Satan’s fortified encampment.” Melville must’ve been in a bad mood. The dramatic backdrop has long seemed benign to me. Call it an operetta set with decors hung at unlikely angles – to impress those arriving by sea.
Looking up from the harbor you see the theatricality of the jumble: frescoed house-towers perch on porticoes pressed against 1,000-year-old churches. Not much is left of the pre-Roman city, founded something like 2,500 years ago. The architecture spans the last millennium, from Romanesque to post-post-modern.
Genoa is Renzo Piano’s home town. The star-architect of Paris’ Pompidou Center is responsible for the aquarium – Europe’s most popular – made to look like a freighter. He also excogitated the spiderlike Bigo, a crane with a panoramic viewing terrace. Piano is currently at work on a whole new series of “improvements,” some of which might actually improve the city.
Genoa’s Medieval Center
Leave the crowds behind at Piano’s rehabilitated Porto Antico—Genoa’s answer to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco—walk under the 1960s elevated highway and into Genoa’s carruggi. You’ve entered Europe’s largest remaining and most densely populated medieval neighborhood.
A maze of knife-slit alleyways this is the probable birthplace of Christopher Columbus, the seat of the world’s first modern bank – Banco di San Giorgio – and the home of some of Italy’s least-known but richest plutocratic clans. Old money? You bet: many of the fortunes in Genoa were made 800 years ago. One family alone owns a sizable share of Argentina, plus several dozen palaces in Italy, and just as many paintings by the likes of Velasquez, each worth many millions.
So why do they live in what from the outside can look to the untrained eye as slums?
Discretion is what Genoa is all about. While others show their wealth, the Genoese hide it.
Once you’re inside the labyrinthine carruggi you roller-coaster and wend your way in deep shadow, cast by the 8 or 9-story buildings of solid stone. The alleys sometimes feel like man-made gorges, sometimes like tunnels or secret passageways. You’re almost always out of sight of the sea, though you can feel it in your bones and scent it on the breeze.
This is the real Genoa and its secrets must be savored slowly, discovered a day at a time. Once you’re beyond Porto Antico and its canned music you won’t see many souvenir shops. Authentic Genoese restaurants do not advertise “menu turistico” in four languages (a few of them don’t even offer menus in Italian, preferring Genoese dialect instead).
The alleys are an arm-span wide, and the arm-span-wide shops along them turn worldwide trends upside down: mom and pop specialty stores still thrive here.
The trattorias of the carruggi or the arcaded Sottoripa, facing Porto Antico, have been around for centuries. A few seem frozen in a pre-industrial time warp. Some have been serving the same dishes for generations, meaning hundreds of years.
When I first explored Genoa in 1976, drawn by family history and curiosity about Columbus, most of the city’s medieval areas were wrapped scaffolding and the green netting used here to catch dangerous, falling masonry. Things were falling apart, imploding. Back then I couldn’t even find an up-to-date map of town. The tourist office’s brochures were decades old, from the 1950s.
I remember one tourism official shrugging and saying to me, “Nothing has changed why change the brochures?” I was shocked at first. Then, after a few days, it all began to make sense. I was thrilled to be alone wherever I went, welcomed by diamond-in-the-rough locals who usually turned out to be eager to share their city’s treasures.
My quest to find the city of Columbus turned to farce. The square, statue and street named for him were smog-blackened and undistinguished. The reliquary at city hall that supposedly holds his ashes was locked up (Paganini’s violin was shown instead). The “Casa di Colombo” – Columbus’ House – turned out to be a rundown pile of bricks near the 12th-century city gate, the Porta Soprana. City officials claimed that the explorer spent his childhood here, alongside his father Domenico, a wool-weaver.
The truth was comical: the house could not possibly have seen Columbus, or even his great-grandchildren. In the early 1890s with the 400th anniversary celebrations of Columbus’ voyage to America looming, some wily city fathers found this early 18th-century hovel and dubbed it Columbus’!
Nowadays Genoa has tour buses, up-to-date brochures, and facilities for visitors that are as good as those of Florence or Venice. Columbus’ house has been restored, as have the statues and plaques, streets and squares, bearing his name. The medieval city center—the carruggi alleyways—is clean, well-lit and safe. Yet the soul and spirit of Genoa haven’t changed. It’s still a wonderfully mysterious and authentic place that you must discover for yourself and uncover a day at a time.
For more on Genoa, its history, culture, food, wine, hiking trails, treks, guided tours, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia 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