“What news of Genoa?” — a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — is the most famous theatrical reference to Genoa, a large port city on Italy’s Ligurian Coast.
To my ears, the question begs the following answer:
“Pesto, gorgeous churches, narrow, cobbled streets and harbor views — a surprisingly wonderful city to explore.”
I’d visited the nearby Cinque Terre about a decade before this trip, but it had never even occurred to me to visit Genoa. Back then, it must have sounded like a big dirty city, and at that point I had romantic seaside villages on the brain. Ah, well…at least I took the opportunity to see Genoa on this second trip to Italy, and rectify my oversight.
Genoa is certainly big (it’s Italy’s sixth largest city), but the historic center is compact and walkable. An ideal place to begin is the Porto Antico, the old harbor, where in preparation for the G8 Summit in 2001, Genovese architect Renzo Piano transformed old warehouses into a palm-ringed fleet of boat-sail structures. (I’m very familiar with Piano’s soaring style, as he also re-fashioned the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of my favorite haunts back home in L.A.)
Genoa’s popular aquarium is here by the harbor, as is Piano’s biosphere-y “La Bolla,” a glass golf ball full of hothouse plants, as well as birds and insects.
This temple to Slow Food has everything from Genovese pesto to hearty breads to burrata cheese (allowing us to compose the breakfast pictured above), as well as several restaurants counters where you can either order a meal the old fashioned way or present your chosen produce/meat/fish/pasta/all of the above and have it prepared for you with a flourish.
It’s proven such a popular spot that another Eataly has opened in New York City…but then, of course, Genoa doesn’t figure into the equation.
Fanning out from the Porto Antico into the heart of the historic center, keep an eye out for trompe l’oeil, a French import that’s been emblazoned on a slew of Genovese buildings. I was struck by the colors on the Palazzo di San Giorgio, built in 1260, for its lavish depiction of St. George and the Dragon.
I was also thrilled by the juxtaposition of Medieval, Roman and Venetian architecture all across the city. Part time-travel, part Inception, it’s exciting to wander around a city with a rich history that’s simply added buildings rather than destroyed the old to make way for the new.
The sense of ananchronism persists in the details, as there are touches of Baroque, Art Nouveau and more, just about everywhere you turn.
Archways are a common sight all across Genoa, even along narrow backstreets. Be sure to look up now and again…
…and around every corner. You never know when you’ll stumble across an amazing archway in this town.
Pictured above are, clockwise from top to bottom: the ornate Parrochia della Maddalena; a lavish antique store called the Galleria Imperiale; and the dramatic entrance to the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, one of the city’s UNESCO-protected Palazzi dei Rolli. These latter palaces, built between the 16th and 18th centuries, were Genoa’s way of saying, “We have money and power –and we’re not afraid to use it.”
Arguably the most famous building in Genoa, the Catedral di San Lorenzo is a Tim Burton-esque confection that features a crazy patchwork of black-and-white twists and braids, as well as the saddest lion statue in (quite possibly) all of Europe.
On the day Alyssa and I strolled past the church, there was a crowd of locals outside, clustered around a puppet show for children about death, deception and sex…just in case we’d forgotten we were in Italy.
After sliding through 1000 years’ worth of history, it was refreshing to immerse myself in some modernity, like the streamlined Best Western City Hotel (which Alyssa and I called home). Best Westerns in North America are generally standard motel-style accommodations, but in Europe they’re often 4-star affairs with central locations, plush furnishings, sexy little toiletries you’d actually want to steal (um, not that I ever do that — we’re talking about you), and a decent spread at breakfast.
In a city like Genoa, I wouldn’t recommend choosing the breakfast buffet at any hotel over an opportunity to seek and find a more special meal, but it’s nice to know that, at the BW City Hotel, it’s both there and included in the room price. Genoa’s impassioned focus on fresh produce is no different than many other major cities in Italy, but it doesn’t mean you’ll want to skip out on weeping joyfully over any given market stall, gelato shop, or family-run eatery.
And you certainly won’t want to miss a meal at Sa Pesta, one of the most beloved restaurants in Genoa. This humble, bathroom-tiled institution of wood-fired cuisine is known for their fresh and tasty pesto, but I’d also suggest trying a glass of Ligurian red with a grape called Rossese, a golden slice of the torta de riso (sweet rice pie) and/or a bowl of curly little egg-less pasta twirls called trofie.
Alyssa and I had only a couple of nights in Genoa, but given another chance I’d allow for two or three full days to explore the city from end to end…and, um, walk off all those carbs.