48 Hours In: Genoa, Italy

From medieval architecture to the bustling waterfront, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus makes for an elegant weekend break, says Harriet O'Brien


WHY GO NOW?

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit the city that Petrarch called La Superba, on account of its majesty. You won't find many tourists, so you'll have the museums and galleries pretty much to yourself, and, of course, you'll avoid the high temperatures of summer. What's more, right now camellias are in flower and orange trees in fruit in pots along the grand, 16th-century streets.

TOUCH DOWN

Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.co.uk) flies from Manchester via Milan. The airport is 6km west of the city centre, and has a small tourist office. The best way into town is the 100 bus, which departs every 20 minutes and makes several stops en route to the two main railway stations, Principe (1) and Brignole (2); the whole journey takes about 35 minutes. The ticket costs €3 (£2.20) and is valid for travel all day.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Squeezed between mountains and sea, Genoa is a long, tall city that from the sixth century AD developed into one of Europe's most important ports. The busy harbour is still dominated by warehouses and huge cranes, although to the south the old port has been reborn as something of a playground. Immediately behind is the warren of the medieval town (one of the largest in Europe), many of its ancient buildings six or more storeys high. Around Via San Lorenzo to the north of this area, the old town gives way to Renaissance grandeur, with buildings showing contrasting architectural styles. As the city grew ever richer from banking in the 15th and 16th centuries, families built magnificent palaces to the north-west, the streets lined with marble. Above this are the residential areas of today, tall buildings of soft ochre and pink reached by steps, lifts, funiculars and even walkways on to flat roofs from the street level above.

Most of the city is accessible on foot, but there is a metro line and an efficient bus service. The two main tourist offices are at Principe station (1) (open daily 9.30am-1pm, 2.30-6pm; 00 39 010 246 7658; www.apt.genova.it) and at Piazza de Ferrari (3) (open weekdays 9am-7pm; until 1pm Sat; 00 39 010 530 8201). They offer three-day museum cards costing €16 (£11.50).

CHECK IN

The plushest place to stay is Hotel Bristol Palace (4), Via XX Settembre 35 (00 39 010 592 541; www.hotelbristolpalace.com) B&B from €125 (£89). This former aristocrat's townhouse in the heart of the city is elegantly furnished with antiques.

The four-star Starhotel President (5) on Corte Lambruschini (00 39 010 5727; www.starhotels.com) is conveniently located close to Brignole station (2). Essentially a business hotel, it has 192 comfortable, if boxy, rooms, and offers deals over weekends when you can stay in a double from as little as €100 (£71) including breakfast.

On the other side of town, near Principe station, is the charming little Hotel Agnello D'Oro (6) at Via Monachette 6 (00 39 010 246 2084; www.hotelagnellodoro.it) Double rooms start at €65 (£46) including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Start in the heart of Genoa, at fountain-filled Piazza de Ferrari (3). Walk down pedestrian Via Cardinale and turn right into Piazza Matteotti. The Ducal palace (7) with its grand 16th-century façade is on your right - take a quick detour to the right up Via Tommaso Reggio to see the remains of its grey-and-white striped medieval façade. Then walk down Via San Lorenzo, passing the striking Duomo di San Lorenzo (8) on your right (if you have time, take another detour left into the alleyways of the medieval old town; getting temporarily lost here is inevitable and fun). At the end of Via San Lorenzo, turn left down the arcaded Via Turati. The old port is to your right, although it is obscured by a flyover and a large cinema. Cross over at the lights and all is revealed: a marina filled with yachts, dotted with ancient cranes, and offering vistas across the bay to the tall, proud buildings of Genoa and surrounding hills. The city's large Aquarium (9) (00 39 010 234 5678; www.acquario.ge.it) is to your left; it is open weekdays 9am-7.30pm, weekends 9am-8.30pm and until 11pm July and August; admission €14 (£10). Just beyond it, cross back into the old town and turn up Via al Ponte Reale into Piazza Banchi (10), where Genoa's early financial business was done. Stop to look at the green-and-pink façade of S Pietro in Banchi (currently closed for restoration). Dating from the ninth century, the church was rebuilt in the 16th century above bankers' stalls - the commercial enterprises neatly helping to fund the spiritual work above. Today, shops still do brisk business beneath it. Walk up Via Banchi past Italy's first stock exchange, Loggia dei Mercanti (11), and on up Via Soziglia. Turn right into tiny Via della Neve (12), where you can see how external lifts have been added to ancient six-storey buildings. Turn right into the lovely Piazza San Matteo (13), bounded by a grey-and-white striped medieval church and cloisters. Turn left up Salita di San Matteo and you are back in Piazza de Ferrari (3).

TAKE A VIEW

In the old port, a large contraption like a praying mantis is in fact a lift presenting glorious views from a 40m vantage point. The Bigo elevator (14) was devised in 1992 as part of the regeneration of Genoa, which marked the 500th anniversary of the city's most famous son, Christopher Columbus. It opens 10am-6pm daily (Mondays from 2pm, weekends to 5pm), admission €3 (£2.20).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Along the arcades of Via Sottoripa, follow the locals to Carega Andrea (15) at number 113. At lunchtime small crowds gather around this fish stall serving the likes of whitebait (€2.60/£1.85) and fried octopus (€3/£2.20) in generous platefuls to be eaten at the bar.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Genoa's best sight is Via Garibaldi, a street lined with 12 fabulous palazzi that were built in the mid-16th century. Three of them - palazzi Rosso (16), Bianco (17) and Tursi (18), part of which is also the town hall - are open to the public as a composite museum trail (9am-7pm daily except Mondays, and weekends from 10am, admission €7/ £5). It takes some stamina to work your way around the vast art collection here - in Palazzo Bianco alone there are 47 rooms with works ranging from Rubens to Murillo and Genoa's Strozzi. Along the way you also see magnificently frescoed interiors (especially in Palazzo Rosso) and lovely courtyards. The trail ends with an exhibition of Genoese coins. Reserve some energy to saunter along Via Garibaldi afterwards, looking into the frescoed foyer of Deutsche Bank (19) at number 5 and the magnificent courtyard grotto of the Palazzo of Nicolosio Lomellino next door at number 7.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The main shopping street (with Max Mara, Zara, Sisley and more) is Via XX Settembre. Halfway along is Genoa's covered market, the colourful Mercato Orientale (20), set in the former cloister of an 18th-century church. Everything from fish to fruit, vegetables, spices and dried porcini mushrooms is sold here. If you're after bargains, head for the arcades of Via Sottoripa, where you can pick up cut-price jeans (the latter term, after all, comes from the French "de Genes", alluding to the hard-wearing material that was imported into the city).

AN APERITIF

In the old town, Piazza delle Erbe (21) has a happy buzz as residents gather with their dogs, children, cousins and more for an evening drink. The outdoor tables in this square are served by Bar Berto or Threegaio Bar opposite.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Genoa's most celebrated restaurant is Zeffirino (22) at Via XX Settembre 20 (00 39 010 591 990), which was established in 1939 and was a favourite of Frank Sinatra. The signature dish is black ravioli with cuttlefish, squid and lobster at €25 (£18). Or head into the old town to Buca di San Matteo (23) at Via David Chiossone 5 (00 39 010 869 0648), an atmospheric restaurant serving local and Tuscan specialities as well as the freshest of fish from around €22 (£16).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Genoa's cathedral, the Duomo di San Lorenzo (8) (open 8am-noon and 3-7pm daily), has a glorious grey-and-white striped Gothic exterior. Inside, the ceiling of its choir is a Baroque riot of sculpture. gilt and painting. Sunday mass is at 10.30am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

You won't get brunch fare in Genoa; instead, take an early lunch at Lupo Antica Trattoria (24) at Vico Monachette 20 (00 39 010 267 036). This cosy old inn serves the likes of minestrone with pesto (€9/£6.50) and grilled fish (around €20/£14).

TAKE A RIDE

Above Piazza Portello, you can scoot up the hillside on the Sant'Anna funicular (25). The journey takes about three minutes and costs €0.50 (35p) each way.

A WALK IN THE PARK

To the south of the city, an early 19th-century villa in a small, peaceful park now serves as a gallery of contemporary art. Villa Croce (26) (9am-6.30pm daily except Mondays, weekends from 10am, €4/ £2.80) has a permanent collection of Genoese and Ligurian paintings and sculpture.

ICING ON THE CAKE

Above Piazza Manin lies the terminus (27) of the oldest electric locomotive line in Italy, established in 1924. A trip on the narrow-gauge Genova-Casella (00 39 010 837 321; www.ferroviagenovacasella.it) is a charming way to take in views above the city. Trains leave hourly every day and take just under an hour to reach the small town of Casella (single fare €2/£1.40) where you can stop for a bite at Ristorante Centrale (00 39 010 967 7758) in the main square before making the return trip.

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