48 hours in: Genoa

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The birthplace of Columbus was once the centre of a medieval empire – and right now its glories are bathed in the early glow of spring

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Spring is the best time to explore Genoa. The Italian Riviera has a micro-climate thanks to the mountains that rise up along the Mediterranean and protect it from northerly winds, so you can stroll in the sun and enjoy the outdoors.

Easter is also the best time to try the signature dish torta pasqualina, a savoury pie made with 33 layers of pastry – one for each year Jesus lived. On Maundy Thursday there is an evocative procession through the streets that dates from the 15th century.

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted. Cristoforo Colombo airport is 6km west in the suburb of Sestri Ponente. The Vola shuttle bus runs every 30 minutes and costs €4 to Principe station (1) in the west of the city, Piazza de Ferrari (2) in the centre and Brignole Station (3) in the east. The journey takes 20-30 minutes depending on traffic. Buy a ticket on the bus, which includes a connecting bus or metro ticket. Validate it on boarding.

A taxi should cost €21 to most city-centre destinations. This is the best option late at night because the area around Principe station is a little unsavoury after dark.

Get your bearings Genoa is a remarkably thin city that runs for 40km along the coast. Its wonderful natural harbour is surrounded by an amphitheatre of towering hills. Piazza de Ferrari (2) is the city's heart. From here the medieval old town, a tangle of untouristy ancient alleyways, runs down to the old port (4) and is bursting with museums and restaurants.

To the east, the arcaded shopping street Via XX Settembre leads to Brignole Station (3). There is a tourist office (5) at Via Garibaldi 6 (00 39 010 5572 2903; genova-turismo.it; 9am-6pm), and an information kiosk by the aquarium in the old port (4). A Genoa Museum Card covers the main sites (€16 for 48 hours).

Check in

Melia Genova (6) at Via Corsica 4 (00 39 010 531 5111; melia-genova.com) is a smart hotel with interesting architectural features and doubles from €130, breakfast included.

In the old town, Locanda di Palazzo Cicala (7) at Piazza San Lorenzo 16 (00 39 010 251 8824; palazzocicala.it) is an atmospheric boutique hotel in an 18th-century palazzo, with apartments dotted around nearby. Doubles start at €99, excluding breakfast.

Quartopiano (8) at Piazza di Pellicceria 2-4 (00 39 010 928 9738; quarto-piano.it) is an ultra-modern old-town B&B with a roof terrace and hot tub. Doubles start at €90, with breakfast.

 

Day One

Take a hike

Start in the old port (4), renovated by local architect Renzo Piano. The Palazzo San Giorgio (9) (closed to the public) was originally home to one of Europe's first banks which financed royalty and issued the first cheque. It was also where Marco Polo recounted his traveller's tales while held prisoner. Take Via al Ponte Reale to Piazza Banchi (10), which gave its name to banking; money-changer's tables, banchi, once filled the square.

Walk up Via degli Orefici for a coffee at Klainguti (11), one of Genoa's oldest coffee houses. Take a left on Vico Dietro Il Coro Delle Vigne through the Maddalena: a network of narrow medieval alleys that lead to the city's unmissable Via Garibaldi, dubbed "the street of kings".

Two of its palaces are now art galleries: Palazzo Rosso (12) and Palazzo Bianco (13), each stuffed to the brim with old masters (€8 joint ticket; museidigenova.it; 10am-7pm weekends, 9am-7pm Tues to Fri).

Take a view

There is a wonderful panorama of the city and the port that paid for this luxurious lifestyle from the roof terrace of the Palazzo Bianco (13).

Lunch on the run

The Genoese have a reputation for working hard and eating on the hoof from hole-in-the-wall restaurants such as Antica Sciamadda (14) at Via San Giorgio 14. Sciamadda, which means "flamed" in local dialect, has ovens baking tasty farinata, a chickpea pancake, while huge cauldrons fry the catch of the day from 11.30am daily, except Sunday.

Also unmissable is the local flatbread, focaccia. The rule is: the tattier the shop, the better it is. One of the finest bakers in the old town is Antico Forno della Casana (15) at Vico delle Casana 17.

Cultural afternoon

Don't miss the glittering Hall of Mirrors in the 17th-century Palazzo Reale (16), at Via Balbi 10 (00 39 010 271 0286; www.palazzorealegenova.it; 9am-1.30pm Tues and Wed, 9am-7pm Thurs-Sun; €4). Next, visit the restored Palazzo del Principe (17) at Piazza del Principe 4 (00 39 010 255 509; www.palazzodelprincipe.it; 10am-5pm daily; €9), which was once the home of admiral Andrea Doria, one of the most powerful men in Europe, who liked to impress visitors by having his silver dinner service tossed into the harbour after meals (into craftily placed fishermen's nets).

Window shopping

Genoa's trading empire in the Near East gave locals a taste for candied fruit and flowers, as seen at the sumptuous Pietro Romanengo (18) at Via Roma 51. Past customers include Verdi and King Umberto II. It also sells specialities such as rose syrup and orange flower water, an array of Easter eggs and quaresimali biscuits (9am-1pm and 3.30-7.30pm daily except Sun and Mon mornings; 00 39 010 580 257; romanengo.it).

An aperitif

Mescite! (19) at Via di Sant'Agnese 25r, is a trendy watering hole not far from the university. "Mescite" means "hurry up and pour" in Genoese dialect. Wine is served from seven huge vats. Try the white wine from Luni, a favourite of the Romans.

Dining with the locals

For classic authentic dishes that change with the season try Antica Osteria di Vico Palla (20) at Vico Palla 15 (00 39 010 246 6575; anticaosteriavicopalla.com) in the old port, or Il Genovese (21) at Via Galata 35r (00 39 010 869 2937; ilgenovese.com). A must is traditional pesto sauce once served on thin pieces of pasta to bid farewell to departing sailors.

 

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The Cattedrale di San Lorenzo (22) reveals the power of this once great city. Typical of Liguria is its black- and white-striped façade. It was built to hold what were said to be the relics of John the Baptist which the Genoese brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades and is supposed to be haunted by the workmen who built it. Look out for the Royal Navy shell that crashed through the roof during the Second World War but luckily did not explode. Walk along Via San Lorenzo to Sant'Ambrogio (23) to see two paintings by Rubens, who spent some years working in Liguria.

Out to brunch

Stop for a coffee and a cake at Caffe degli Specchi (24) at Salita Pollaiuoli 43, one of Genoa's classic coffee houses. Then walk up to the tiny house where Christopher Columbus (25) is supposed to have been born at Via di Ravecca 47 (00 39 010 246 5346; 10am-6pm on weekends; €4).

It is next to the city gate, the Porta Soprana, with its two majestic towers. It dates from 1155 when a new ring of walls was built to protect the city from attack by Barbarossa and is a symbol of the city.

A walk in the park

Take the funicular from Largo Zecca (26) to Righi (27), near the gates of the 17th-century outer city walls for a stunning view across Genoa and along the coast. It's a 10-minute walk to the top of the hills that encircle the city and which are dotted with old military forts.

Take a ride

The aquarium (28), one Europe's largest, is in the old port (00 39 010 23451; acquariodi genova.it; 9.30am-7.30pm weekdays, weekends to 8.30pm; €19). Then take a boat tour of the port from outside (€6; liguriaviamare.it). For millions of emigrants, this was their last sight of Italy. Find out more in the interactive harbourside Galata Museum (29) (00 39 010 234 5655; galatamuseodelmare.it; 10am-6pm, 7pm Mar-Oct and weekends, closed Mon; €12) that charts the history of Genoa's port.

Icing on the cake

Spend an afternoon on the Riviera. Take a train from Principe station (1) to Camogli, a beautiful old fishing port half an hour from Genoa (€15 return). From April to October, ferries run to Portofino, the millionaires' playground. Boats leave from the old port (€20 return; liguriaviamare.it) stopping at the monastery of San Fruttuoso, that is accessible only on foot or by boat.

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