Located on the coast of Liguria in northern Italy, Genoa is a picturesque city with rich history and culture, and also the boyhood home of Christopher Columbus, all prominently featured on our best things to do in Genoa, Italy. It was, and is, first and foremost a port city. It served as an important maritime center dating all the way back to the Roman Empire.
The town has long been fueled by a seafaring commerce stretching to the Middle East, making Genoa one of the largest and wealthiest cities of Renaissance Europe.
Genoa is a city of contrasts. It’s easy to capture glimpses of Genoa’s former glory days on the narrow lanes and dank alleys of the portside Old Town, where treasure-filled palaces and fine marble churches stand next to laundry-draped tenements and brothels. Though it may feel a bit unnerving, especially at night, this area is seeing a change as more fashionable bars, shops and restaurants are opening here.
The other side of Genoa is the modern city that stretches for miles along the coastline. High breezy pergolas and balconies offer stunning views of this colorful metropolis and the Ligurian Sea.
With its impressive palaces and museums, this largest medieval city center in Europe boasts an elaborate network of ancient hilltop fortresses.
To truly get the feel of this delightful city, we have recommendations to share with the best things to do in Genoa, Italy. For those wanting to visit multiple attractions, the Card Musei offers admission to Genoa’s major palaces and art galleries as well as unlimited use of the public transportation system for one set price.
Acquario di Genova
Genoa’s aquarium covers an impressive 33,000-square-feet in a remarkable structure resembling a ship built alongside a pier in the old harbor. The aquarium is Genoa’s top draw and one of the largest in Europe featuring over 70 tanks with a variety of marine life.
Aquatic displays re-create Red Sea coral reefs, pools in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon River basin, and other marine ecosystems that provide a home for sharks, seals, dolphins, penguins, piranhas, and just about every other known kind of creature that has lived in the sea, lakes, or near a major river.
A trip to Genoa is worth it for the aquarium alone!
Galata Museo del Mare (Museum of the Seas)
Genoa’s livelihood has always been linked to the sea, and it’s fun to wander the port to see boats of every size and type. To truly learn about and appreciate the maritime history of Genoa, a visit to the Galata Museo is a must.
The building itself is the oldest surviving dockyard construction from the old Republic, where Genovese galleys were built during the 17th century. A gallery dedicated to the old port contains paintings and artifacts of the period. The biggest draw, however, is the impressive full-scale reproduction of a Genovese galley (attack ship) with fun artifacts, information and displays.
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
This zebra-striped Romanesque-Gothic cathedral is one of the most important religious buildings in Genoa and features beautiful frescoes, sculptures, and stained-glass windows. The cathedral owes its continued existence to a miracle: the failure of a British WWII bomb to ignite when dropped here in 1941.
San Lorenzo, fronted by three arched portals, twisted columns and crouching lions, was first consecrated in 1118. The two bell towers and cupola were later added in the 16th century.
Above the inside central doorway, there’s a half-moon shaped painting of the Last Judgment by an unknown Byzantine painter of the early 14th century. The Museo del Tesoro preserves a variety of holy relics in the sacristy including the medieval Sacro Catino, a glass vessel once thought to be the Holy Grail.
Other artefacts include the polished quartz platter upon which Salome is said to have received John the Baptist’s head and a fragment of what’s believed to be the True Cross.
Palazzi dei Rolli
These impressive 42 palaces were once the homes of Genoa’s aristocracy and are now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They feature stunning architecture and are a must-see for anyone interested in art and history.
If you only get the chance to visit one of the Palazzi dei Rolli, make it Palazzo Spinola. A former residence of the Savoy dynasty, it has terraced gardens, exquisite furnishings, a fine collection of 17th-century art and a gilded Hall of Mirrors.
Many of Genoa’s museums and other sights are clustered on and around this street, also known as Strada Nuova, one of the most beautiful in Italy. This is the area where Genoa’s wealthiest families once built their elaborate palaces in the 16th and 17th centuries and is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aside from the art collections housed in the Galleria di Palazzo Bianco and Galleria di Palazzo Rosso, the street contains a wealth of other treasures. The Palazzo Podesta hides one of the city’s most beautiful fountains in its courtyard, and the Palazzo Tursi proudly displays artifacts of famous locals. These include letters written by Christopher Columbus and the violin of Nicolo Paganini which is still played on special occasions.
Piazza de Ferrari
The Piazza de Ferrari is the main square of Genoa and a popular meeting place for the locals who enjoy the lively and vibrant atmosphere of the square. There’s a great selection of places to eat whether you’re just looking for coffee, some tasty Italian gelato or a three-course meal.
The square is most famous for the impressive fountain that sits at its center which makes for an iconic photo shot of your vacation.
Via Balbi and Palazzo Reale
Via Balbi sits just west of the magnificent church of Santissima Annuziata, another street laid out in the early 17th century and lined with splendid palaces. Wider than Via Garibaldi, but less breathtaking in grandeur and more punctuated with shops and everyday life, it still has its share of palaces.
These include the Palazzo Balbi-Senarega and Palazzo dell’Università, with the finest courtyard and gardens in Genoa. Opposite the Palazzo dell’Università you’ll find the 17th-century Palazzo Reale, well worth seeing for its grand staircases, balconies, lavishly decorated interior. The art collection includes several paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, who lived and worked in Genoa for six years.
The garden terrace offers stunning views of the harbor and Piazza Statuto.
Christopher Columbus’ Childhood Home
The ivy-covered remains of this fabled medieval house—though just a very small portion of it—stand in the gardens of Piazza Dante below the Porta Soprana. A small collection of objects and reproductions relating to the life and travels of Columbus are on display inside.
Unfortunately, the house that stands in Genoa today is not the original. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly old structure that was reconstructed only a few decades after the original house was destroyed.
When the sun is shining, do as the Genovese do and enjoy a late afternoon stroll along the oceanside promenade, Corso Italia, which begins around 3 kilometers east of the city centre. This broad 2.5-kilometer-long pavement lined with villas leads to Boccadasse, a once separate fishing village that looks like a sawed-off piece of Cinque Terre with colorful houses, narrow streets and a small beach.
The pebble beach is the perfect place for a gelato during the day and its gaggle of small bars serve up spritzes to happy crowds on summer evenings.
Get Out on the Water
For the best sense of the enormity and character of the harbor, as well as viewing the big ships and little Porticciolo Duca degli Abruzzi, used by yachts and sailing boats, hop onto a harbor cruise boat. This is an ideal way to get the best view of the city itself that appears spread out in a giant bowl at the foot of the mountains.
Travelers will find a wide variety of boat excursions from the harbor, including whale and dolphin watching, sailing, fishing, snorkeling, and diving. Half-day and full-day cruises to Portofino provide a chance to see that incredibly fabled coast from the water.museumseaside