By Amanda Gabriele
January 19, 2020
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When you think of the Italian Riviera, the colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre and resort towns like Portofino are likely the first locales that come to mind. But tucked into the northern corner of the Ligurian sea sits an often overlooked destination that is considered one of the cultural centers of Europe.

Genoa has historically been one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean and is home to dozens of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, centuries-old architectural wonders, and world-class visual and performing arts. Famous for its pillowy focaccia, fresh seafood, and salty, creamy pesto, it’s also one of our favorite places to eat in the country. This walkable city is the perfect place to spend a long weekend if you’re exploring Italy’s northern regions and coastlines. Here, everything you have to do and see while visiting Genoa.

Things to do in Genoa

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Mercato Orientale Genova

Whether you’re on the hunt for dried porcini mushrooms or trofie, the pasta that’s typically tossed with Genoa’s fresh pesto sauce, Mercato Orientale is a wonderland for food shopping. You’ll find butcher counters and cheese mongers, vendors selling fresh fruit and veggies, and dried and fresh pasta of all shapes and sizes. You can buy beans and grains in bulk, and many of the vendors specialize in both Italian and foreign spices. Don’t miss the freshly dried fruit stand (a true Italian art) where you can sample everything from kiwi and mango to delicate strawberries and spicy ginger.

Old City

Genoa is home to the largest medieval town in Europe, so when walking through its narrow, hilly tangle of alleyways (known as caruggi), you’re experiencing a true piece of history. You could lose yourself for hours wandering through the Old City’s streets, which unexpectedly open up to small squares that are lined with beautiful old buildings, boutiques, and charming restaurants. Back in the day, Genoa’s wealthy used to build huge houses, palazzos, and matching private churches to one-up each other, so don’t be surprised to see some of them towering over the Old City’s twisting streets.

San Lorenzo Cathedral

Genoa’s buildings are an architectural mishmash, and there is no better or beautiful example than the San Lorenzo Cathedral. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, the sides of the cathedral are Romanesque while the facade was designed in the Gothic style. But the most striking details of San Lorenzo are its striped facade and interior arches (a pattern you’ll see repeated throughout Genoa’s architecture) and intricate exterior stonework, which has only gotten more beautiful with age. San Lorenzo’s ornate interior and detailed frescos are a must-see, but an unexploded bombshell is perhaps the most interesting detail you find inside. It was launched by a British battleship during WWII but never detonated, so it’s still on display today.

Spianata di Castelletto

This scenic vista offers some of the best views in Genoa, overlooking the slate rooftops of the old town and the port in the distance. If you feel like exploring the city’s backstreets, you can reach the lookout point by climbing a winding path of cobblestone stairs. But there’s also a beautiful Art Nouveau-style lift from Piazza Portello that will zip you to the top if you’re pressed for time.

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Porto Antico

Genoa’s porto antico is a seaside promenade that’s punctuated with fishing boats, yachts, docked cruise ships, and the Galeone Neptune, a replica pirate ship. You’ll find plenty of places to eat along the old port, along with the Aquarium of Genoa. Nautical buffs should visit the Galata Museo del Mare, the most innovative maritime museum in the Mediterranean.

Palazzi dei Rolli

When Genoa was a republic, the “Rolli” were networks of regal homes owned by noble Genoese families that used to host distinguished guests who were traveling through the city. In 2006, 42 of these palazzi became UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Three of the most beautiful are the Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Bianco, and Palazzo Tursi, all of which are part of the same museum tour and house artwork that dates between the 15th and 19th centuries. Not only can you view paintings as you walk through their majestic halls, but you’ll also find ornate furniture, tapestries, pottery, fashion and coins on display.

Where to Eat and Drink in Genoa

Ristorante Creuza de Ma

Genoa is known for its seafood and pesto, and you can find excellent versions of both at Ristorante Creuza de Ma. Tucked into a corner of Boccadasse, the city’ charming fishing village, this seaside eatery boasts friendly service and a charming nautical interior. The fried sardines and baby octopus are excellent, as is the big bowl of bright green trofie al pesto. After the meal, try the flower-shaped almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar, which are best when dunked in a glass of dessert wine.

Pizzeria 23 Febbraio

While pizza, pasta, and bread are very much integrated into everyday life, even some Italians struggle with gluten allergies and intolerances. Pinsa Romana dough — which is a mix of wheat, soy, and rice flour — was created to be more digestible, and Pizzeria 23 Febbraio makes a great version. Pinsa is shaped like an oval, and the dough is fermented for 72 hours. You can get it topped with basically anything, but spring for a decadent version that includes guanciale, caramelized onions and pecorino romano cream. Pizzeria 23 Febbraio is always busy, so make a reservation if you’re going during peak hours.

Eataly Genova

After a morning of exploring the porto antico, head to Eataly for shopping and lunch. There are a variety of places to eat inside, but we suggest Pizza & Cucina. There, we sampled a pie made with pillowy focaccia that was topped with creamy ricotta, fresh tuna, spinach and bottarga. After dining, walk through the store, check out the local specialties, and take home a few cans of tinned fish and dried pasta as souvenirs.

Courtesy of Melia Genova Hotel

Blue Lounge Bar & Restaurant

Tucked inside the Meliá Genova hotel, Blue Lounge Bar & Restaurant is a cozy place to grab supper after a day of exploring the city. The cocktails here — created by Head Bartender Gabriele Fantino — are world-class and so delicious, we skipped the wine altogether. The Truffle Reviver No.16128 (a riff on a Corpse Reviver No.2) is a rich, bold libation that’s mixed with olive and truffle oil fat-washed gin, Green Chartreuse, Lillet Blanc, and lime champagne syrup. The gorgeous Buffalo Soldier is made with Appleton Estate 12-Year rum, pimento dram, lime juice, and jerk simple syrup and comes to your table under a cloud of lemon wood and tobacco smoke. The food at Blue Lounge is just as thoughtful. The crispy Ligurian octopus with olives, pine nuts, and potatoes is a must-order starter, and the perfectly cooked tuna with cantaloupe, chives and soy foam is also a winner. Finish the meal with a local amaro or grappa to help you digest.

Where to Stay in Genoa

Courtesy of Melia Genova Hotel

Meliá Genova

This beautiful boutique hotel is tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street away from the hustle and bustle of Genoa’s main areas, so it’s a perfect place to retreat after a day of sightseeing. The rooms at Meliá Genova are bright, spacious, and range from single king beds to options that can sleep families, as well as suites for those who prefer more space when they travel. If you visit during the summer, we suggest snagging a room with a wraparound terrace, which is perfect for enjoying a golden hour cocktail as you watch the sun dip below the Ligurian Sea. Spacious bathrooms, large closets and well-stocked minibars ensure a comfortable stay.

On-site eatery Blue Lounge Bar & Restaurant serves some of the best food in the city, and its cocktail program is one of the best we’ve come across in Italy. The complimentary breakfast buffet is stocked with fruit, cereal, cheese and Charcuterie, eggs and bacon, and fresh pastries to fuel you up for the day. The gym is small, but the connected wellness center is dreamy. Inside you’ll find a heated lap pool with waterfall and Jacuzzi and a Turkish bath to help cure any remaining jetl ag. Every staff member we met was knowledgeable, friendly, attentive and super willing to help plan a day of tourism or verse you on the local delicacies and cultural norms.