If we were asked to sum up Genoa in one term, it’d be “jolie laide.”
Yes, you’re correct, that’s a French term and not Italian. But, seeing as the Italian city of Genoa is close to the French border, we think it’s fair game. The term translates to “unexpected or unconventional beauty,” and it couldn’t be more accurate for what is, to us, Italy’s most misunderstood big city.
Get To Know Genoa’s Unique Identity
The first thing you’ll notice when you step foot in Italy’s largest port town is that the sea is an essential piece of Genoa’s identity. Thanks to Genoa’s topography, where the old town crashes into Liguria’s foothills, the city is at once separated from Italy but open to the rest of the Mediterranean.
That means Genoa is a place that can feel simultaneously like the most diverse and the most provincial of Italy’s bigger cities. While Genoa’s architecture can feel a bit like Venice, a touch like Florence, and a dash of Milan, it’s distinct thanks to its seafaring history that has given it a decidedly multi-cultural feel.
How To Get To Know The Historic City Center
The easiest way to get a feel for Genoa in a few days is to spend time wandering between the historic city center and the old port.
Genoa’s historic city center is made up of a nearly incomprehensible web of ancient, cobblestone-lined alleys known as caruggi. These alleyways and crammed buildings would make a modern-day city planner shake her head, but it dates back to Medieval times when citizens would escape trouble by jumping from rooftop to rooftop. To us, the caruggi are much like the city of Genoa in that they’re begging to be discovered.
Here is a 48-hour itinerary for your next trip to Genoa, which, if you ask us, should be as soon as possible!
9:00 AM: Italian Breakfast
One of our favorite parts of the Genovese culture is the slow start to their mornings where around 9 AM you’ll start to see business people stroll into cafes on their way to the office.
The Italian breakfast is much lighter than that in the States and the norm is to order at the counter. But since you are on vacation, we say sit down and enjoy it for a few. The classic breakfast combination is a cappuccino and a pastry; we full-heartedly recommend the bombolone — a must-try cream-filled Italian doughnut — at Meridiana Café.
In Genoa, the most traditional — and decidedly local — way to breakfast is to dip the famed Focaccia Genovese in a cappuccino like Italians in other parts of the country would do with a cornetto or another breakfast pastry!
10:00 AM — Ascensore With A View
Start your trip off by orienting yourself in Genoa with a bird’s eye view of the city. The Genovese have a unique if the quirky way of summiting the city thanks to the handful of acensori aka elevators that transport you from the old town up the steepest hills.
The ascensori are part of the city’s public transportation so you can use a metro card or stop in at one of the numerous tabacchi (like bodegas) to purchase a ticket. We suggest you head up the Ascensore Castelletto (which can be accessed next to Café Meridiana) where you can get a jaw-dropping view of the city and grab your best Genoa selfie!
11:30 AM — Pathways Of Palazzi
If there’s one thing Genova doesn’t have a shortage of, it’s palazzi aka palaces. The villas along Via Garibaldi — also known as strada nuova and part of the UNESCO World Heritage list — showcase what life was like in Renaissance-era Genoa.
As you make your way back to the old town from the ascensore, you can stroll Via Garibaldi and admire the many palazzi. Or, if you want to nerd out, head to the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi, which has a historic gallery and is home to Genoa’s Chamber of Commerce.
1:00 PM — Focaccia To-Go
When it comes to food, Italy knows how to do carbs right. And in the region of Ligure, the king carb is focaccia. A simple flatbread recipe using just flour, water, olive oil, yeast, and salt, there’s a lot that separates mediocre focaccia from an extraordinary one.
While you can eat your focaccia in the restaurant, it is common to take your focaccia da portare via (to-go!). Our recommendation? Head to the square of Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and enjoy your focaccia with an only-in-Genoa view of the imposing church.
2:00 PM — Gelato Break
If museums aren’t your thing, gelato most likely is. Grab a gelato at La Cremeria dell Erbe and enjoy along with a side of people watching at Piazza di Ferrari, which is the main square in Genoa.
Another great spot for gelato where you can eat in is Gelatina. There are shelves upon shelves of Italian cookbooks and the faint smell of cookies and cakes being baked. You pretty much can’t go wrong with any flavor, but for a true Genovese experience, go for the pesto gelato. Yep, you read that right — a creamy gelato with the unique flavor of basil, olive oil, and pine nuts. We say pair it with salted caramel for an unstoppable combo!
6:30PM — Pre-theater Apericena
We know a 6:30 PM dinnertime is totally out of the norm in Italy, but we promise there’s a good reason for it (see next). Fokaccia is the perfect combo of aperitivo and dinner, a concept known in Italy as “apericena,” which is literally a combination of those two words in Italian.
The dishes change daily, but you can expect something along the lines of focaccia bread, raw meatballs topped with pesto, pizzette, and fried anchovies. If your hands are in the air and you couldn’t be more excited (yep, that’s us!), make sure you call and make a reservation because this place gets busy.
8:30 PM — Italian Opera Time
Since the opera originated in Italy, what better time to go than now? There are pretty much constant shows in rotation at Genoa’s main opera house, the Teatro Carlo Felice, and tickets can typically be bought the same day.
So throw on your fanciest dress, do a quick Google search for what the play is about (as it’ll likely be in Italian), make sure to eat something beforehand, and arrive a little early to enjoy a glass of prosecco (or a shot of espresso if you’ve had a long day of exploring).
9:00 AM — Sweet Breakfast
Chances are, you stayed out a little too late last night — who knew operas were four hours long, right?! You hit snooze a few times but now you need coffee. We get it. We can’t function without our morning coffee either. Start your day at Aprile Café for a shot of espresso (or two) and a brioche di pistachio.
10:00 AM — Acquario Dii Genova
It’s only fitting that the largest aquarium in Europe is in Genoa, the largest port in Italy. Architecturally modeled after a ship, you’ll be mesmerized by all the creatures that inhabit the aquarium — from the wildlife of the Ligurian Sea to aquatic life from all over the world. Even if you aren’t enthusiastic about ocean life, we’d recommend strolling the Porto Antico where you can stroll along the coast and watch ships enter the port.
1:00 PM – Light Lunch In Old Town
You’ve had focaccia but the reality is that Genoa is filled with all sorts of must-try street food that goes beyond focaccia. Just behind focaccia and pesto, the next best-known dish in Genoa is arguably farinata. Like a chickpea crepe but more olive oily and thicker, a farinata is one of those dishes you didn’t know you needed to have until you try it.
If you want more of a sit-down meal, head to the terrace at UVA where you can sip a super interesting assortment of local wines (including biodynamic and organic wines) and have a light bite along the lines of a prosciutto and mozzarella plate.
2:00 PM — Shop Old Town From Via Luccoli to Via Roma
One of the most beautiful alleyways is Via Luccoli – a cobblestone path lined with boutique clothing stores, cozy bookstores, and cafes. Brush up on your Italian by perusing the endless collections of books at L’amico Ritrovato Genova – a homey bookstore where you can escape the crowded carruggi for a minute or two.
3:30 PM – Afternoon Coffee Stop
Yes, you could go for gelato again but another great afternoon pick-me-up is a coffee and sweet at a classic pastry shop. Our pick is the Pasticceria Mangini where you can grab a sidewalk seat and people watch while you enjoy any of their delicious sweets.
6:30 PM – Aperitivo
You’ve heard us profess our love for aperitivo because it’s like the Italian version of a happy hour if happy hour came with delicious free snacks. If you’re now wondering why aperitivo isn’t common practice in the States, we don’t understand either.
If you’re looking for a hole-in-the-wall place with possibly the best bruschetta around, then Ai Troeggi is your best bet. Or, for a charcuterie platter with flavors from around Italy, head to Il Mugugno.
8:00 PM – Classic Local Dinner
Just around the corner from one of the city’s main shopping drag is this hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Il Genovese. Its claim to fame is that the owner created the world pesto championships so it’s a no-brainer spot to get amazing pesto. But don’t stop there because they have an assortment of classic Genovese dishes (we love the panissette which is like a chickpea version of polenta fries).
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