It rivals Florence for its Renaissance palaces, Venice for its medieval streets and Naples for its privileged position in the Mediterranean. It is a city that lives its history instead of calcifying it in museums; where take-out sells crepes farinata (the recipe of which hasn’t changed for centuries), shops are covered in frescoes, and ancient public elevators take you through the centuries, picking you up at La Belle Époque and dropping you off at the Renaissance.
So why isn’t Genoa better known? After all, 200 years ago it was an important stage of the Grand Tour. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain has been there; Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley settled nearby. But fierce post-war industrialization and urban planning upended Genoa’s status as a cultural center. Today, its port eclipses almost everything else.
But the past is still there. Cruise ships left the docks next to the Porto Antico, where a young Christopher Columbus got a taste for sailing. It is now a pedestrianized waterfront, redesigned with shops and restaurants by Renzo Piano, the architect famous for designing, among other landmarks, Paris’ Pompidou Center and London’s Shard. Beyond the flyover, which separates the sea from the city, lies what is believed to be the largest medieval city center in Europe. Here, narrow streets, called caruggi, roller coasters on the steep slopes, winding around each other like a tangled ball of string. Jewelbox churches are perched on stilt-like staircases in cramped piazzas; the palaces of the great and the good squash stand side by side on the corners of the streets.
Genoa is a city of layers. Due to its cliffside location, its historical strata are accumulated on the hillside, like a live archaeological dig. First comes the centro storico (historic center), the heart of the medieval maritime republic that earned Genoa the nickname “La Superba” (“the proud one”) and made its citizens extremely wealthy. The palaces of the inhabitants were so lavish that a list of those worthy of hosting visiting dignitaries has been compiled. In 1599, there were 150. Today, the remaining 115 “Rolli palaces” are shops, bars, hotels and museums – and some are still grand mansions.
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Level two? The Renaissance period, when these nouveau riche citizens built the Strada Nuova, or “new road,” above the city center to access their huge villas backing onto gardens. From there, an elevator takes you to the 19th century suburbs; while entering the ‘modern’ part of the city above the centro storico, you step forward 100 years, offering a captivating mix of liberty style and brutalism. At every turn, La Superba rolls out a red carpet of history and drama for its visitors.