Genoa Italy’s Charms Didn’t Elude Her

Genoa, Italy's magnificent harbor. Noreen Kompanik.
Genoa, Italy’s magnificent harbor. Noreen Kompanik.

Falling in Love with Genoa, Italy’s Markets and Lighthouse

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Boyhood home of Christopher Columbus in Genoa, Italy.
Boyhood home of Christopher Columbus in Genoa, Italy.

It was an Italian city on my radar. Especially since my husband and I lived in Italy in the late 1990s and Genoa was one of those places we never had the chance to visit.

Thankfully, that all changed in the summer of 2023 when I had the opportunity to explore this Italian treasure via a port visit on an MSC European Cruise.

I only had one day to see Genoa (Genova in Italian), but guaranteed, I took every advantage of that long day to capture all the magic this city has to offer. And did it deliver? Yes, and in a big way.

Once the richest city in the world famous for its seafaring prowess, Genoa’s glories remain in its medieval gates, fine palazzo, historic treasures and renowned cuisine.

Genoa: Birthplace of Christopher Columbus

Genoa, the capital of Italy’s Liguria northwest region is a captivating city nestled along the Ligurian Sea on the northwestern coast of the Italian Peninsula boasting a rich tapestry of history, culture, and maritime heritage.

As one of Italy’s major port cities, Genoa has played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s economic and maritime destiny for centuries. Its labyrinthine medieval alleyways, known as caruggi wind through the historic center, revealing a charming blend of architectural styles that span from medieval to Renaissance and Baroque.

Beyond its architectural splendors, Genoa is renowned as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and visitors can explore landmarks associated with the famed explorer. The city’s bustling harbor, filled with colorful boats and lined with waterfront cafes, further contributes to the vibrant atmosphere that defines Genoa, making it a captivating destination for those seeking a taste of Italy’s maritime past and vibrant present.

Planning a Day Visit

With only one day on my cruise itinerary to see Genoa, it was crucial to have a plan. That plan included a small walking group tour led by a local guide who was born in and lived in Genoa. The schedule was so well-executed that we even had extra time during lunch and at the end of the tour to explore other parts of this maritime city with a glorious history.

Primarily, Genoa is an easily walkable city so all you’ll need to explore its top sites and neighborhoods is a good pair of tennies or walking shoes.

Genoa Italy location
Historic Center of Genoa Sites

We met our friendly, engaging guide, Luca, in the Historic Center (Centro Storico) and began our exploratory wanderings through the narrow medieval alleys of the historic center with its charming squares, historic structures and local shops. Of no surprise, the city center itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa
Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa.

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo (Cattedrale di San Lorenzo) is a prominent religious and historical landmark located in the heart of the historic center. This magnificent church is dedicated to Saint Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of the early Christian Church and a martyr.

Cathedral construction began in the 12th century, and it underwent several renovations and additions over the centuries, resulting in a fascinating blend of architectural styles.

The exterior façade showcases a Romanesque style, characterized by a simple, sturdy design. But the interior is another story– a magnificent mix of Gothic and Baroque styles with a nave adorned with impressive frescoes and artwork by some of Genoa’s most prominent artists.

The ornate Chapel of St. John the Baptist designed by Matteo Civitali is a notable highlight.

Likewise, we loved the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace – an impressive structure that once served as the residence of the Doges of Genoa.

The palace showcases a mix of architectural styles and the façade includes intricate sculptures and a series of columns, reflecting the grandeur of its time. Quite an impressive site to say the least.

Casa di Columbo

You can’t come to Genoa and not visit the birthplace of Christopher Columbus as it’s all part of world history, and, to say you’ve done it with a photo as proof.

The house located in Piazza Dante is an 18th-century reconstruction of the home where Columbus was believed to have spent his early youth. The original house is said to have been destroyed during the French bombardment of Genoa in 1684.

Wandering through the streets of Genoa. Photo by Noreen Kompanik

Climb the Lanterna (Genoa’s Lighthouse)

If you’re into lighthouses as I am, you’ll want to visit the iconic lighthouse that’s been safely guiding ships into Genoa’s harbor for centuries. The original structure was constructed by the Romans, but over centuries, it underwent many renovations and reconstructions. Impressive however, is that the current structure dates from the 16th century, its tall octagonal tower made of black and white bands of marble standing at 273 feet on a hill overlooking the port of Genoa.

Though the interior of the lighthouse is not usually open to the public, it’s still so impressive to see from the outside and soak in the panoramic views of the city from its base.

Colorful Genoa, Italy.
Colorful Genoa, Italy.

Bask in the Warm Genoa Sun Along Corso Italia Promenade

This scenic path along the waterfront is lined with palm trees, charming cafes and gelaterias. Our small tour group enjoyed the sailboats and yachts dotting the horizon, surmising who has the money to be able to afford these massive ocean jewels. Benches along the promenade are strategically placed to allow the best views.

And those views included the world-renowned tall ship and oldest vessel of the Italian Navy, the Amerigo Vespucci on her way out of the harbor. What a perfect moment to celebrate Genoa’s seafaring history watching the 92-year-old square rigger depart the city, proudly displaying the billowing Italian flag.

But it’s the former fishermen’s quarter of Boccadasse that drew me in like a moth to a flame. One of the most distinctive features of this hidden coastal gem along the Italian Riviera is its colorful pastel buildings that line narrow streets creating a perfect picture-postcard scene.

The small harbor is the heart of Boccadasse surrounded by a crescent-shaped beach with fishing boats bobbing along with the tide. Following the path along the waterfront offers breathtaking views of the Ligurian Sea and the surrounding coastline. And of course, I couldn’t help but crack a smile when I saw a familiar Italian site of an older somewhat overweight fisherman dressed only in Speedos casting from the shoreline.

Genoese pesto.
Genoese pesto.

Exploring Genoa’s Fine Cuisine

I’m a foodie and readily admit it. And I happen to believe that Italy serves up some of the finest cuisine in the world. I knew that I’d find my favorites here, and Genoa came through with flying colors. All it took was some research on finding the right places to taste the city’s culinary treasures.

Perhaps the most iconic dish from Genoa, Pesto Genovese is a rich herby sauce made from fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, Pecorino cheese and olive oil.

It’s typically served with pasta, especially trofie, a type of short, twisted pasta traditional to Liguria. The pesto sauce was created here with the traditional method of preparing the sauce using a mortar and pestle- and it’s still made that way today. Paired with a Cinque Terre white wine combining the Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes, this was a delightful lunch in the heart of Genoa.

Focaccia in Genoa Italy.
Focaccia in Genoa Italy.

Focaccia, a fluffy, olive oil-rich bread also originated in Liguria, and Genoa’s version is particularly famous. But who knew there were so many varieties to choose from?

I’ve had the typical version topped with salt and rosemary or other herbs, but until I visited Genoa, I had no idea of focaccia’s countless variations which include ingredients like tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, mozzarella, burrata and prosciutto.

Our local guide recommended we try the focaccia from Antico Forno Della Casa, probably the most famous of Genoa’s bakeries.

You can sit inside or outside the bakery or just take this delectable slice of heaven to go. I enjoyed mine outdoors with one of my favorite Italian beverages, a cold, fruity Orangina.

Checking Out the Local Markets

Genoa is such a happy town, and nothing makes the Italians here happier than bartering for goods at their local markets. You’ll likely hear the term “troppo caro” used often, meaning “too much”, the product is overpriced. And to the delight of visitors and locals, Genoa offers a market every day of the week selling everything from fruits, vegetables, bread, perfumes, home goods and fabric.

The port in Genoa.
The port in Genoa.

Another shopping secret we learned from the Italians, is to be the first customer of the day as it’s considered good luck for the vendor to make a sale. So, they’ll be more than willing to bargain much lower than usual.

Our guide took us for a stroll through the most famous market, the Mercato Orientale which carries exotic fruit, fresh fish and a myriad of spices. If that wasn’t enough feast for the eyes, I happened upon a market just off Piazza De Ferrari, Genoa’s main square. I’m certain it had a name but one of the merchants just called it “the local market.”

What fascinated me most about this particular market was the collection of antiques, household goods (new and used), furniture, coin collections and other fascinating finds. Markets are an eye-opener to the past and present lives of the locals who live in a destination. I loved the markets when I lived in Naples, Italy years ago and truly enjoyed the two I was able to browse through in Genoa.

As I made my way back to the ship, I had only one regret- that I only had part of a day to spend exploring this incredibly picturesque old port city. But it’s all good, as I made a promise to myself and to my husband, Michael. That we would definitely be back.

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