Those of us who remember our history books recognise Genoa as the birthplace of famous explorer Christopher Columbus. Always an important port city in Italy, for decades Genoa languished behind Rome, Venice and Milan as the tourists passed it by.
This changed dramatically after the European Union nominated Genoa as the European Capital of Culture in 2004. Cruise ships docking in the Porto Antico now bring visitors by the thousands, and travellers in Italy are making time in their itineraries to spend several days on holiday in Genoa.
This tourism renaissance is well-deserved, as there are many beautiful and fascinating tourist attractions in Genoa. The medieval district is filled with stunning marble churches and stately palaces, grouped around scenic plazas like the Piazza San Matteo and the Piazza Dante. Visitors should be sure to look for the famous frescoes of the Church of Sant'Agostino and the fanciful Gothic carvings of the Cattedrale San Lorenzo. The Via Garibaldi has a number of impressive Baroque buildings. There are many interesting museums in the city, dedicated to everything from cultural and natural history to the navy, cathedrals, and royalty of the city's past. There are no fewer than five art museums in Genoa as well.
Though it is Italy's largest medieval town, Genoa's present is just as vibrant as its past. The streets are always buzzing with life, and visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants, shops and entertainment. The Porto Antico on the harbour front has been rebuilt from a utilitarian dock to an entertainment area with museums, cinemas, restaurants, and one of the biggest aquariums in Europe along the pretty promenade.
Genoa makes a good base to explore the other towns along the Italian Riviera, including Portofino, Cinque Terre, Rapallo and La Spezia.
Genoa is home to the Acquario di Genova, which is the second-largest aquarium in Europe and the best in Italy. Built in 1992, it welcomes more than 1.2 million visitors each year. The ship-like building on the promenade houses no fewer than 50 habitats, ranging from the Amazon basin and Red Sea coral reefs to Antarctic penguin pools. Hundreds of species that call the aquarium home include seals, dolphins, caiman, piranhas, jellyfish, sea turtles, and sharks - the penguins are very entertaining and are particular favourites with visitors. The aquarium is extremely well-maintained and has good English-language facilities. It is a fantastic family attraction in Genoa, and gives kids a fun break from traditional sightseeing. Unexpectedly, the aquarium also has a hummingbird sanctuary.
Due to its popularity the aquarium can get crowded in the summer months and it is a good idea to arrive early to avoid queuing. There have been complaints about scams and petty theft outside of the aquarium - the most commonly reported scam involves salesmen tying bracelets tight onto visitors wrists and then demanding payment once they cannot be removed. These hawkers are sometimes just a distraction so watch out for pickpocketing.
Formerly Genoa's City Hall, the Palazzo Tursi is the largest and most majestic of all the magnificent buildings on the Via Garibaldi. Built in 1565, the building is now a museum and houses unique artefacts like the violin of Nicolo Paganini, and ashes that are said to be the remains of Christopher Colombus. The museum also contains numerous decorative artworks, like tapestries, furniture and Ligurian ceramics, as well as historical artefacts like ancient coins and medical devices. The collection is varied and unexpected and although some may feel it lacks cohesion, others love the unusual nature of the exhibits. On sunny days, you can break from the museum's collections and just enjoy the beauty of the building's many-columned interior courtyard.
The museums along the lovely Via Garibaldi are known collectively as the 'Musei di Strada Nuova' and the individual buildings are the Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Tursi. All the museums are worth a visit and you can buy a joint ticket valid for all three from the bookshop between Bianco and Tursi. There is a popular cafe at Palazzo Rosso if you feel the need to refuel between collections.
The 13th-century church and monastery of Sant'Agostino, once a place of retirement and seclusion, is now open for visitors to view the amazing collections within. The church itself was built by the Augustinians in 1260, and is one of the few Gothic buildings remaining in Genoa. Today, the cloisters are a museum housing more than 4,000 works, including metal and stone sculptures, frescoes, and many architectural artefacts and fragments. One of the most popular attractions in Genoa, the museum is a must-see for visitors to the region. Although not large, the museum receives rave reviews from visitors. One of the only drawbacks is that, like many museums in Genoa, Sant'Agostino has very little information in English and those who don't speak Italian should try to bring some materials with them. The museum is gradually linking its artefacts to mobile phone guides in English and Italian but this project is in its infancy. Photography is allowed in the museum but only non-flash and only in certain sections; visitors may be required to fill out a form stating that they won't use the photographs taken for commercial purposes.
Genoa is located on the Mediterranean, but is sheltered by the hills and mountains in the area, giving it a temperate climate with warm, dry summers and cool winters. The coldest months are December through February, with average temperatures dropping to 43°F (6°C). Summers in Genoa are long, lasting from May to October; in the warmest months (July and August) average highs peak around 82°F (28°C). September to January is the rainiest time of year. Genoa is rather windy, especially during winter. The best time to visit Genoa is in the spring, particularly May, when the weather is pleasant and the crowds are small.
The AMT bus network is generally considered the best way to get around in Genoa. There is also a network of trains, although this is not as comprehensive, that connects the Brignole train station to the town centre and the Stazione Principe (main train station). Tickets are available from newspaper kiosks or stations. AMT also operates a public boat service called Navebus, which connects Porto Antico to Pegli, and offers good views of the city. Driving is often said to be the fastest way to get around Genoa, but finding a parking space can be a nightmare. Visitors who opt to hire a car in Genoa will find it easiest to park outside the city centre, as most attractions within are in easy walking distance of one another.
It is perhaps odd that the largest medieval town in Italy, blessed with untold cultural riches, is best known among travellers for its aquarium. The second-largest in Europe, Genoa's Aquarium is no doubt worth a visit, particularly for those travelling with kids, but the greatest tourist attractions in Genoa are the palaces, churches and piazzas of the medieval old town. Some of the most notable landmarks are the Basilica of Santa Maria di Castello, the Palazzi dei Rolli (Genoa has something like 42 palaces), the Duomo di Genova (Genoa Cathedral), the Royal Palace Museum, the 13th-century church and monastery of Sant'Agostino, and Palazzo Tursi, formerly Genoa's City Hall. A stroll down the Via Garibaldi is a must, and a walk along Genoa's promenade, the Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi a Nervi, is a delight.
Eating is a celebrated tourist activity in Genoa, and the city's restaurant scene is one of its attractions. Among the many delights that Italian cuisine has brought to the world, Genoa can claim two as its own: the city was the birthplace of pesto sauce, traditionally made from herbs, olive oil and pine nuts; and foccaccia, a kind of flat oven-baked bread topped with olive oil and white wine (or whatever you want to pile on). The old town of the city has many good restaurants, and there's also a great selection in Porto Antico, down by the harbour.
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