Genoa: the irresistible underdog | The Gap Life Diaries
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Genoa: the irresistible underdog

So, I have a bit of a thing for underrated cities.

Turin is certainly one – it’s gorgeous, fun, easy to live in, with great people, great food, great everything, but most tourists give it a miss, instead preferring to just land at the airport on their way to the fancy Alpine ski resorts, or going directly to Milan for shopping, or to Bologna for extra tasty Italian pasta, or to Florence for the “typical” Italian experience (not realising that what they’re getting is more or less the opposite of that). And I love the place.

But another city which falls neatly into the “undeserved underdog” category is Genoa (Genova to the Italians), where I lived for 6 months on my university Year Abroad, and have visited numerous times since. It’s the first place that really made me fall in love with Italy, so I feel like I owe it to La Superba to do a bit of promotion every once in a while.

And the New York Times is a fan too, it seems.

In case you don’t have a clue about the place, Genoa is the capital of the seaside region of Liguria, on the famous Italian Riviera, and is one of the largest cities in Italy, representing the third point of the Turin-Milan-Genoa economic triangle (by the way, how come only Milan came out of that one with a good reputation? That’s not fair, surely?), and has one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean.

Being a port city, it is rough around the edges, but bear with me, because it’s all part of the appeal.

The narrow streets of Genoa are all part of the charm.

When I first arrived in Genoa back in May 2011, I knew absolutely nobody. Like, not a single person that I could call if my life was in danger. And on my first day there, I got stalked. Twice. And the police station was closed. And I panicked and ran away into the backstreets to try to escape, and got lost. Not a great start, I think you’ll agree. But that one little brush with death aside, I had only positive experiences the whole time I was there.

When you first arrive in the city, you’ll undoubtedly end up getting lost in the so-called “caruggi” – the tiny, winding alleyways that make up the old city centre. If you’re not used to places like this (parts of Barcelona aren’t dissimilar, though) you might feel intimidated by the dark, narrow streets, and you will undoubtedly find some unsavoury-looking characters lurking around. But I guarantee that with the exception of just a couple of roads (via di Prè and via della Maddalena, most notably), you will be 100% safe as long as you behave in a normal, sensible way, just like you’d be expected to do in any other European city. Even if you’re totally lost, just pretend you know where you’re going, and nobody will look at you twice.

Anyway, some of the best things in Genoa can be found in the alleyways, like my favourite gelateria possibly in the whole of Italy, Profumo, or the super cute and totally tucked-away Piazza Lavagna – a little square with cute cafés and restaurants – or even my favourite vintage store in Italy, the adorable Almanacco. Last but not least, the caruggi are also home to my favourite focacceria of all time (a big claim, but I’m sticking with it), Focaccia e Dintorni, where you can get a classic Ligurian speciality (simple, soft, eye-wateringly delicious focaccia) or branch out into something more exotic like… Nutella focaccia. And yes, it’s just as great as it sounds.

Aside from the twisty, turny streets of the centre, Genoa has loads more to offer. The tourists that do visit the place usually head straight to the Porto Antico, the waterfront area which has the aquarium (worth a visit, if you have time), an Eataly restaurant with a lush sea view, a number of shops and restaurants, and a long boardwalk along the side of the aquarium, leading to a floating seating area from which you can see all the pretty pastels of the hillside houses. It may not be what immediately comes to mind when you think of Italy, but you can’t tell me that Genoa isn’t a beauty.

Like in every other Italian city, there are museums, galleries and churches galore, and if you don’t want culture, you can very easily fill your days with aimless wandering (a lot of it uphill, in this case), eating, and drinking.

Rolli Days – exploring the fancy palaces on via Garibaldi.

If regal architecture and nosing around are your thing, try to make your visit coincide with Rolli Days, when Genoa opens the doors to loads of fancy UNESCO-listed buildings (the Palazzi dei Rolli) along via Garibaldi. I went to this with my annoying old landlady back when I had no friends and still enjoyed it, so imagine the fun you could have in good company.

If you’re after some amazing views, take the lift (yes, lift) up to the lookout at Castelletto – you can also walk up if you want to, but prepare yourself for a lot of steps if you do. I used to live just down the road from this place, and I can assure you that looking out over the Genoese rooftops never got old.

As an alternative, take the funicular (yes, funicular – Genoa does love alternative transportation) up to Righi and go for a walk around the hills, or if you want to stay in the city centre, climb to the top of the Villetta di Negro park.

If all you want to do is sip a Spritz in a pretty place, nobody’s judging. Just go down to Piazza delle Erbe and order one immediately.

Genoa comes alive in the evenings. You can actually happily wander around the alleyways in the centre until you come across a bar or gathering of people sitting outside in a piazza. A safe bet is the little square by the Moretti bar – there’s a good chance it’ll be buzzing, and there’s often live music.

Something very cool about Genoa is that, because of how the city is laid out, everywhere you come across feels like a discovery, even if it’s exactly what you’d set out to find. Everywhere you go, you’ll stumble upon something interesting, whether that be a new ice cream place, a historical monument, a pretty view, or something totally unexpected.

Genoese rooftops from the Castelletto lift.

Last but not least – Genoa is on the sea. And this means that not only are tourist hotspots like the Cinque Terre, Camogli and Portofino practically on the doorstep, but sweet little chocolate box seaside villages like Boccadasse are even closer – take a long stroll down Corso Italia, and reward yourself with a big paper cone of delicious fried fish from the Osteria dei Pescatori di Boccadasse (km-0, natch) and wander down to the beach to check out the cutest place in the city.

Whatever you do, don’t write this city off.

And if you do vist, and you do love it, just promise me you’ll keep it our little secret, ok?

11 Comments
  • Kemi
    Posted at 04:26h, 10 March

    I love Genoa Cake so I’m there. Plus, there’s an Eataly?! Take my money! 🙂

  • Jenia Rand
    Posted at 07:56h, 10 March

    Haha, I remember my first visit to Genoa! Those narrow streets with underwear drying on ropes stretched across the alley 🙂 I kept expecting someone to pour dirty water on me from an open window!

  • Danik
    Posted at 12:08h, 10 March

    I am actually thinking of booking flights for this summer to Genoa and staying nearby. How strange! But Genoa, I would love to check out. Looks like a great place. Does it have a good beach…did you see any?

    • Emma
      Posted at 12:02h, 11 March

      I have to say, Italy isn’t my favourite place for beaches! There are some adorable little spots in Liguria (all easy to get to from Genoa) but in summer they’re unbearably busy – I always advise people to visit Italy outside of July-August, as the experience is so much more pleasant!

  • Danila Caputo
    Posted at 10:25h, 12 March

    Genoa is definitely a city for the well travelled who want to explore the out of the beaten paths in Italy. We also found it a bit rough around the edges, especially the port area where the big Aquarium is located!

  • R K Nair
    Posted at 05:09h, 13 March

    There’s something about a place when you stay there as a visitor. You tend to understand and value the nuances and have an emotional connect based on the experience during that particular period. Genoa seems to have all that and more.. Thanks for sharing!

  • melody pittman
    Posted at 01:48h, 15 March

    I knew nothing about Genoa prior to reading your article and I will admit that you’ve piqued my curiosity. Genoa is gorgeous and much bigger than I would have thought. It has such beautiful waterfront views, great for taking photos. Bonus, UNESCO sites, my favorite! Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Juliette S
    Posted at 05:54h, 15 March

    What a fantastic sounding place! I’ve never been to Italy but this looks like a hidden secret away from all the major tourist hubs. I like the idea of walking down all the winding alleyways and discovering things like the focaccia place! Europeans love their Nutella on things…I saw that in France all the time with their crepes! Sounds beautiful.

  • Tara
    Posted at 20:14h, 15 March

    You are right, I wouldn’t have given Genoa a thought if not for this post. I wonder, since it is so underloved, if it is cheaper to visit than other cities on the coast of Italy. I would love to wander around those narrow streets for a week or two.

  • Sandy N Vyjay
    Posted at 05:20h, 16 March

    Italy has these little surprises that turn out to be real gems. As you have mentioned, I was not aware about Genoa. Have travelled to Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa, but have to explore the interiors of the beautiful country and its smaller towns and villages which have their distinct and unique charm. Reading about the alleyways of Genoa I was reminded of Venice where we once lost our way and moved around in circles.

  • Martina
    Posted at 22:33h, 16 March

    Genoo – I didn`t know that this city is so cool! really enjoyed your blog post – your pics are awesome too!
    Thanks for sharing