48 hours in Genoa

Next year this fascinating Italian port city will become the European capital of culture, so why not get there before the crowds and explore its labyrinthine medieval alleys, mountainous surrounds and relaxing seafront, says Aoife O'Riordain
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The Independent Travel



Genoa, or "La Superba" as it was called by Petrarch, is a fascinating port city with grand palazzi, twisting alleyways and churches. In 2004, the city will share the title of European capital of culture - so go before everyone else. On 24 June, it marks the annual feast day of its patron saint, St John the Baptist, in grand style. This includes a historic procession of a crucifix from the Cathedral of San Lorenzo to the sea front. For further information contact the Italian Tourist Board on 020-7408 1254 or see www.apt.genova.it.


British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies from London Gatwick to Genoa, from about £120 return in June. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) offers fares from about £80 return from London Stansted. Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo airport is 6km from the city centre. The 100 bus departs from the terminal every 30 minutes and stops at the city's two main train stations, Stazione Principe and Stazione Brignole . The 15-minute journey costs €2.07 (£1.50); you can pay on board. A taxi costs €20-25 (£14-17).


Dramatically bordered by the Apennines and the Gulf of Genoa, the city clambers up the slopes and spills down to the seafront and old port. Despite this, its historic centre is compact. Henry James referred to Genoa as "the most intricate topographic entanglement in the world" - wander the narrow streets or "caruggi" of the old city and you'll see why. North of the medieval quarter is Genoa's main piazza, the fountain-strewn Piazza de Ferrari . It is dominated by the imposing Palazzo Ducale, the one-time seat of the government of the Republic of Genoa. To the east is the modern city. The once-seedy old port, or "Porto Antico", is full of restaurants, bars and museums. The main tourist office is here at the Palazzina Santa Maria (00 39 010 248 711); open Monday to Sunday, 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm. There is also an information booth on the Piazza Matteotti outside the Palazzo Ducale. A three-day Museum Card offering entry to up to 20 museums and unlimited bus transport costs €15 (£11); buy it at the tourist office or information booth.


One of Genoa's smartest hotels, housed in an elegant 19th-century palace, is the Hotel Bristol Palace (00 39 010 592 541; www.hotelbristolpalace.com) at via XX Settembre 35. Double rooms cost from €125 (£90) to €350 (£250). The six-bedroom Locanda di Palazzo Cicala (00 39 010 25 18824; www.palazzocicala.it) occupies the first floor of an 18th-century palazzo opposite the cathedral of San Lorenzo. The interior is a modish combination of original features, such as delicate stucco work, and contemporary furniture like the scarlet Ron Arad chairs in reception. Double rooms start at €130 (£90). The Hotel Colombo (00 39 010 251 3643; www.hotelcolombo.it), at via di Porta Soprana 27, has doubles from €75 (£53).


Ascend the elevator of the spider-like Il Bigo . Located in the old port,it was designed by Renzo Piano as part of the regeneration to mark the Columbus festivities in 1992. Admission is €3.30 (£2.35) per adult.


Walk through the dark narrow alleys of the old city, one of the largest medieval quarters in Europe. Start at the Porta Soprana , the imposing gateway to the old city, built in 1155. Head down via San Donato. This becomes via San Bernardo, one of the city's most atmospheric and bustling streets. Stop at the exotic-smelling Drogheria Torielli, a spice shop harking back to Genoa's history as a trading port. Turn right along via Canneto il Curto until you reach the elaborately decorated Loggia della Mercanzia , Genoa's first commodity and money exchange, dating from the 16th century. Turn right along via degli Orefici (the street of goldsmiths) and on to via Soziglia. Finish your walk at Piazza Lavagna , which is also home to a daily morning flea market.


You will find fast-food stands, or "friggiorie", all over the city. These sell delicious cheap takeaway snacks, such as slices of focaccia and farinata, a much-loved pancake made from chickpeas, extra-virgin olive oil, water and salt. One of the best stands is Sciamadda (00 39 010 251 1328), via Ravecca 19r. Or try the food shops lining via Colombo and environs, such as Da Guglie (00 39 010 565 765), on via San Vincenzo. Don't miss grazing at the lively daily food market at the Mercato Orientale , via XX Settembre, held under the arches of an Augustinian monastery. It's full of local life, with stalls selling fruit, vegetables, fish, cheese and Ligurian specialities.


The Galleria di Palazzo Reale (00 39 010 27102; www.palazzorealegenova.it) at via Balbi 10 is an opulent palace built in the early 17th century for one of Genoa's most influential families, the Balbis. One stunning feature is its gallery of mirrors. The museum is open Monday and Tuesday, 8.15am-1.45pm and Wednesday to Sunday, 8.15am-7.15pm; admission is €4 (£2.80). The Palazzo Spinola (00 39 010 270 5300) on Piazza Pellicceria, another fabulous example of a grand Genoese residence, hasworks by artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck; admission is €4 (£2.80), and the gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am-8pm and Sunday 1pm-8pm. Via Garibaldi is Genoa's grandest street, designed in the1500s as a neighbourhood for the Genoese elite. Many of its palazzos are banks and insurance companies, and can't be visited, but you can wander inside the vast courtyard of the Palazzo Doria Tursi, now the municipal offices. The nearby Galleria di Palazzo Bianco (00 39 010 557 2013), contains many important Genoese and Flemish works by the likes of Caravaggio, Rubens and Veronese; admission is €3.10 (£2.20), open Tuesday to Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-7pm.


Genoa doesn't boast quite as many upmarket shops as some other Italian cities, but you can get a respectable designer fix along via Roma and the beautiful Galleria Mazzini. The menswear shop Finollo (00 39 010 562 073), at via Roma 38R, is worth a stop for its interior alone. La Tavola del Doge (00 39 010 562 880), beside the Palazzo Ducale, is a shop selling produce from all over Liguria, including olive oil, wine, pestos and other delicious things to take home. It's open daily (except Monday), 9am-7pm.


The Piazza delle Erbe is popular spot for pre- and post-dinner drinks. Bar Berto (00 39 010 275 8157), has Liberty-style furniture and has been open since 1904. It is a favourite spot at which to sip glasses of the local wine.


The region is probably best known for giving the world pesto sauce. A good example can be found at Il Pampino Vino e Cucina , via Ruspoli (00 39 010 588 402). It also serves regional specialities such as chestnut flour pasta and ravioli with artichoke sauce. La Berlocca (00 39 010 247 4162) , via dei Macelli di Soziglia, 45R, is a small osteria, with a slightly more modern menu and some great fish costing around €20 (£14) per person. If money is tight head to Da Maria (00 39 010 581 080), vico Testadoro, where you can get a tasty three course meal with a carafe of wine for €8 (£5.30) per person.


Italians don't really do brunch, but Genoa excels at confectionery - a tradition brought from the Middle East during its trading heyday. Caffe-Pasticceria Klainguti (00 39 010 296 502), Piazza Soziglia 98R is its most famous bakery. Order a cappuccino and one of its sweet hazelnut-filled Falstaff croissants, a favourite of Verdi. There is even a note from the composer saying "your Falstaff is better than mine".


One of Genoa's most recognisable landmarks is the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo on Piazza San Lorenzo, with its striking black slate and white Carrara marble exterior. Part dates from the 12th century, but many of the exterior Gothic flourishes were added later. Its Renaissance chapel is reputed to have contained the ashes of St John the Baptist. In the 17th century, many of Genoa's Romanesque chapels were remodelled in Baroque style. One of the few surviving unchanged is the austere San Donato , on via San Donato.


Take the steep funicular railway line, departing every 20 minutes from Largo Zecca to the suburb of Righi, for a one-way fare of 50 cents (35p). You'll get spectacular views of the city and hills. If you are feeling energetic you can walk back down.


Take the train from Brignole station a 15-minute ride east to the pretty seaside suburb of Nervi for a fare of €2 (£1.25). Stroll around the rose gardens of the Villa Grimaldi Croce, one of several grand villas in the area. Admission free.


The historic Ferrovia Genova-Casella narrow-gauge railway (00 39 010 837 321; www.ferroviagenovacasella.it) starts from the station at Piazza Manin : €1.80 (£1.20) buys a one-way 25km ride to the town of Casella at the foot of Monte Maggio in the Apeninnes, past stunning sea views and glimpses of the "entroterra", or wooded hills.


Choose a card of the city's most famous son, Christopher Columbus, and sip coffee outside the historic Caffe Mangini (00 39 010 88 57 30) as you write under the watchful eye of a statue of Vittorio Emanuele II.