Italian port isn’t a must-see, but it’s still fabulous



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The childhood home of Christopher Columbus in Genoa.

Genoa, if you ignore the debate amongst scholars, is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. But after visiting the famed historic port, you might wonder why the explorer ever left.

Tricked out in all the wealth of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it must have been stunning. Even a half-millennium after its heyday, the Italian port cuts an impressive figure.

It has lovely hilly terrain and a seafaring tradition. Yet, for some reason, Genoa slips under the radar of many guidebooks to Italy: some carry nary a mention of the city.

Though Genoa can’t elbow past Rome, Venice and Florence amid Italy’s must-see cities, it is a fabulous spot. The prices are reasonable, it is less crowded with tourists, museums abound and it offers fabulous cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood and the local specialty, pesto.

A stroll through the medieval centre peels away the centuries. The labyrinth of narrow streets lives in nearly perpetual shadow as 500-year-old buildings lean in until they almost meet.

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Visitors walk outside of Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, Italy.

No street follows a straight line for long and it’s a challenge to keep a sense of direction. But every twist and turn reveals a surprise, from 500-year-old palaces and glorious churches to thoroughly modern Internet cafes and trendy little restaurants or the seedy red light district. There’s the occasional surprise of a mini-traffic jam as determined Italian drivers inch past each other in the impossibly narrow streets.

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The Salone del Maggior Consiglio at Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale.

Genoa was an important trade centre by the third century BC. Its sailors have plied the world’s trade routes since the Phoenicians and Greeks.

Genoa offered a jumping off spot for the Crusaders. And it was a major player in European politics from the 13th through 16th centuries. Its merchants dumped their profits into stunning palaces lining the renamed Via Garibaldi.

Back then, it was called the Via Aurea, or golden street, an appropriate name. Many of the 16th-century palaces are now museums. And others have courtyards open to the public.

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A galleon built for the 1986 Roman Polanski movie Pirates, docked at the harbour in Genoa, Italy.

But the waterfront is what really makes Genoa work. A large portion is renovated with a boardwalk, slips for yachts, a galleon (which was actually built for Roman Polanski’s 1986 movie Pirates), restaurants, touristy shops and a fabulous aquarium and the Galata Museo del Mare (Sea Museum).

The museum’s glassed-in rooftop gives a panoramic view of the still-working port and city climbing up a mountainside. It’s also a great spot to watch the sun set over the Ligurian Sea.

The Acquario di Genova nearby bills itself as the biggest aquarium in Europe. It has the requisite sharks, penguins and dolphins, but also a really neat exhibit of skates and rays, where you can actually touch their soft bodies. Once you’ve built up an appetite looking at all the fish, hit one of the many waterfront restaurants for mussels and a traditional pasta with pesto and green beans.

As the traditional birthplace of Columbus, Genoa could be excused for overdoing the promotion of the explorer. But Columbus’ fame (and notoriety for some) doesn’t seem to have taken over here. Sure, you can squeeze into the tiny house where he allegedly lived as a child to see a disappointing display of what it might have looked like then. But Genoa isn’t overrun with businesses, streets, squares and the like named after him.


For general information, see Note that many online resources use the Italian spelling of the city, Genova.

Attractions include the waterfront, the medieval centre, the Galata Museo del Mare (Sea Museum), the aquarium, Acquario di Genova,