Pesto, piazzas and palaces are among the highlights of Italy's principal port. And spring is the best time to enjoy them in splendid isolation, says Harriet O'Brien

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Why go now?

In March, you can see the city known in Italian as Genova in superb spring light, with early flowers coming into bloom beside Mediterranean palms. Petrarch nicknamed it La Superba (meaning both "The Proud" and "The Excellent"), while Rubens and Wagner extolled it as an architectural marvel. Yet despite stunning buildings, a wealth of art, and continuing significance as Italy's chief port, Genoa is a curiously unsung place. You will experience a sense of semi-secret discovery, and encounter few other tourists.

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; flies to Genoa daily from Gatwick. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; flies from Stansted on Mondays and Fridays. Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo airport is only 7km from the city centre. It has a tourist information desk open 9am-1.30pm and 3-5.30pm daily (00 39 010 60 15 247). Buses from the airport leave for Genoa's eastern railway station, Principe (1), every hour on the hour until 10pm – with return buses leaving hourly on the half-hour until 10.30pm. The journey takes about 20 minutes and costs €4. The ticket, purchased from a machine beside the bus stop, is valid for the next 24 hours on Genoa's buses, funiculars and seven-stop metro system.

Get your bearings

Squeezed between mountains and sea, Genoa developed as one of medieval Europe's paramount trading and maritime centres, with Christopher Columbus its most famous son. Today, it proudly exudes a gritty, no-nonsense air, though regeneration projects have revived formerly downtrodden areas. Most notably, the southern part of its enormous port has become something of a city playground, with a huge aquarium (2) that locals now claim is Italy's most-visited family attraction.

A raised freeway cuts off the port from Genoa's ancient core. This medieval area is made up of a network of narrow streets, known as caruggi, that contain ancient six-storey buildings. Backing on to it is Genoa's grand hub, Piazza De Ferrari (3), dominated by the 16th-century Palazzo Ducale.

North of the piazza, the medieval world gradually gives way to Renaissance and baroque grandeur. Meanwhile, hills rising sharply to the east contain the residential areas of today, with high buildings in soft shades of ochre and pink reached by steps, lifts and funiculars.

The main tourist office is at Principe station (1) and is open 9am-1.30pm and 3-6.30pm daily (00 39 010 24 62 633;

Check in

Genoa lacked five-star hotels until 2007 when the Bentley (4) opened, south of the old town at 4 Via Corsica (00 39 010 53 15 111; A modernist 1929 building constructed as the HQ of the Italian steel manufacturer Ilva, it has been magnificently revamped and now offers 99 chic rooms, spa and much-applauded gourmet restaurant. Doubles from €240, room only.

For cool looks and a great setting, head to Locanda di Palazzo Cicala (5), right opposite the cathedral at 16 Piazza San Lorenzo (00 39 010 25 18 824; Occupying the upper floors of a 17th-century palazzo, the hotel features contemporary minimalist furnishings and has 11 huge bedrooms (each with its own computer) and eight rental apartments. Doubles from €145 including breakfast.

The charming Hotel Cairoli (6) at 14 Via Cairoli is both central and well priced. Spread over the third floor of a 16th-century palazzo, it has 12 bright bedrooms (plus two apartments) decorated with modern art, as well as a small gym and a library offering free internet use (00 39 010 24 61 454;; doubles from €95 including breakfast).

Take a ride

From Piazza De Ferrari (3), catch bus 33 to Principe railway station (1) to enjoy a wonderfully roundabout journey up through the hills of the eastern part of town, from where there are great views over the old town and the harbour. As with all public transport in Genoa, single tickets cost €1.20 and last an hour on any form of transport.

Lunch on the run

The arcades of Via Sottoripa present a wonderful variety of cheap and cheerful eating options. The kitchen stall at No 21 (7), for example, offers freshly caught whitebait to take away at €3 for a generous serving – best eaten warm from the wrapper as you wander along.

Cultural afternoon

Explore a reconstructed 17th-century Genoese galley, watch a 3-D film of the building of a wooden sailing ship, learn about the life of Christopher Columbus, all at the Galata Museum of the Sea (8), the biggest maritime museum in the Med (00 39 010 246 7746; galatamuseo Set over four floors and presenting a wealth of interactive exhibits, it gives an absorbing insight into the development of Genoa's seafaring tradition. Open 10am-7.30pm daily except Monday; €10.

Take a view

Head up to Castello D'Albertis (9), a 19th-century castle on a hill above the Galata Museum (8). Aside from the view and the castle itself, getting there on the Balbi-Dogali lift is a sensation. Start at the ground station (10), just off Via Balbi near Principe station (1). This is an ingenious mode of transport: you get into something that feels like a lift, but its cabin initially moves horizontally for a while before some clunking, when it scoots you straight up to the top of the hill; fare €1.20.

The castle is across the road from the Corso Dogali exit. Entrance to the grounds is free, and from the ramparts you get a stunning panorama of the port. The building itself contains a museum of world music and culture (weekends 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm; €6).

Window shopping

The main shopping street is Via XX Settembre, where you find the likes of Benetton, Stefanel, Zara and Max Mara. At the eastern end is Genoa's colourful Covered Market (11) in the cloisters of an 18th-century church and filled with an enticing array of stalls selling pesto (the local addiction), fruit and vegetables. It opens 7.30am-1pm and 3.30-6pm daily except Sundays.

Alternatively, there's a good choice of shops stocked with pesto, focaccia and cakes along Via Sottoripa, and here you'll also find bargain outlets for leather belts, T-shirts and scarves.

An aperitif

Pretty Piazza delle Erbe (12) is lined with bars whose tables spill out on to the square. Erbe at No 28 offers a wide range of Italian beers and wines. Caffè Latino at No 20 serves exotic cocktails. And Caffè Letterario at No 25 is lined with bookshelves and exudes old-time charm.

Dinner with the locals

For trofiette (strands of Ligurian pasta) with pesto at €10, plus fritto misto (deep-fried seafood) at €14.50, head for the Trattoria della Raibetta (13) at Vico Caprettari 125 (00 39 24 68 877; trattoriadella

Down an improbably dark and tiny lane off the old port, Antico Osteria di Vico Palla (14), at Vico Palla 15 (00 39 010 24 66 575), is a small and simply decorated restaurant that serves the freshest of seafood, with a blackboard menu offering, for example, grilled plaice at €12. The only downside is that it gets very booked up.

Sunday morning: go to church

Genoa's black-and-white striped cathedral, the Duomo di San Lorenzo (15), dates from the 12th century, and features a series of ornate chapels, particularly the Renaissance Capella di San Giovanni Battista. Open daily 6am-noon and 3-7pm, admission free; Sunday Mass at 9am, 10.30am and 6.30pm.

Take a hike

Sunday is a fine time to see the city's highlights in relative solitude. Start at Piazza De Ferrari (3). Follow the main artery to the north-east, past the neoclassical opera house, the Teatro Carlo Felice (16), which is staging Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier in the forthcoming season. Proceed up Via XXV Aprile. Turn left, walking past the noble buildings of Piazza delle Fontane Marose and take the second turning left into pedestrianised Via Garibaldi. Initially, the street looks unpromisingly modest, but after a few steps you realise that you're in a haven of magnificent palazzi – a 16th-century millionaires' row.

Known then as Strada Nuova, it was renamed in 1882 in honour of Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 2006, Via Garibaldi became a World Heritage Site. Today, many of the fabulous buildings house banks; if you're here on a weekday, take a look inside some of the courtyards and frescoed lobbies.

At the end of the street is the collection of town palaces that form the outstanding Musei di Strada Nuova (17) (weekends 10am–7pm; Tuesday-Friday 9am–7pm; €8) – palazzi Rosso, Bianco and Tursi. Part of the Palazzo Tursi also serves as the town hall. Allow an hour or two to explore these buildings and the substantial collection of paintings by Dürer, Van Dyck, Caravaggio and Rubens. Continue along the cobbled Via Cairoli and turn left into busy Via Bensa.

Keep straight on to Piazza della Nunziata, presided over by the Basilica della SS Annunziata del Vastato (18). The austere façade is in complete contrast to a riotous interior of gilt, marble and wall paintings; open 7-11.30am and 3.30-6.30pm daily, free. Turn down Via della Fontane to reach the old port, redeveloped in 1992 by Renzo Piano, Genoa's gift to architecture.

Ambling south along the waterfront, you'll pass the Galeone Neptune (19), a reconstructed pirate galleon that you can board (daily 10am-7pm; €5); a small harbour area from where summer whale cruises and trips to Portofino depart; the aquarium (2) (weekends 8.45am-8.30pm; 9am-7.30pm weekdays; €17); and Piano's crane-like structure, the Bigo (20), designed as a modern landmark for the city, with the space around it a lively area of restaurants and cafés.

Out to brunch

The trendy M Restaurant on the ground floor of Palazzo Rosso (17) serves brunch from noon to 4pm over the weekend. For an all-in price of €16, tuck in to everything from cereals and yogurts to omelettes, smoked salmon, quiche and pastries.

A walk in the park

Laid out in the 19th-century and complete with grottos and twisting paths, Villetta di Negro is a green and shady park on a hill above Piazza delle Fontane Marose.

The icing on the cake

Bus 31 from Genoa's western station, Brignole (22) takes you to the fishing village of Boccadasse, 15 minutes south. With its small beach and ancient, ochre-painted houses, this is a favourite destination for local residents on a Sunday afternoon.