Things to Do in Genoa
Most Italian cities have so many busy piazzas it's hard to tell which one is the main square. In Genoa, the Piazza de Ferrari is that main square – and once you're there, it's easy to understand why.
The expansive Piazza de Ferrari sits right in the city center, between the historic district and the more modern part of downtown, and many important buildings face the piazza. Around the square you'll find the Palazzo Ducale (although the main entrance is on another piazza around the corner), the gorgeous former stock exchange building, and the Teatro Carlo Felice - Genoa's opera house.
The Piazza de Ferrari is named for Raffaele de Ferrari, a 19th century Italian nobleman who once lived in a palazzo near the square. His wife was the one who bequeathed the Palazzao Rosso and Palazzo Bianco – once private homes owned by her family – to the city of Genoa upon her death to be used as public museums.
One of the most famous historic streets in the center of Genoa is the Via Garibaldi. This street has had a few names over the centuries, but it's always been a fashionable address.
What we know today as Via Garibaldi was first built in the mid-1500s, when it was called Strada Maggiore – or “Great Street.” Later, it became known as “Strada Nuova,” or “New Street.” It was renamed in 1882 for Italy's great revolutionary leader, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in 2006 the street and the historic palaces on it were added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
From the time when the Via Garibaldi was first designed and built, it was intended to be a street upon which the wealthy families of Genoa would build their homes. The street was soon lined with palaces, each occupied by a noble family, and many passed down through generations and hundreds of years.
From the 14th through the 18th centuries, the rulers of Genoa were called doges, and they ruled from the Doge's Palace – the Palazzo Ducale in Italian – in the historic city center. Today, the palace is open to the public as a museum. The Palazzo Ducale was built starting in the 1250s, although the finishing touches on the building weren't complete until the 1530s. The palace once served as both the residence for the ruling doge and the offices from which he would govern the Republic of Genoa. The palace was added to at various points over the years, and partially rebuilt twice (once after a fire in the 1770s).
There are two main entrances to the Palazzo Ducale. The main entrance is on the Piazza Matteotti, and a secondary entry is on the famous Piazza de Ferrari. Today, the palace serves various civil functions. There are regular exhibitions held in the palace, including visiting contemporary art shows, as well as a couple of large halls that are often used for events.
One of the most dominant features of Genoa's enormous port is something that looks a bit like a space probe sticking out of the water. That multi-pronged white structure that resembles a many-armed crane is called the “Bigo,” and it's Genoa's “panoramic elevator.” Bigo was designed by noted local architect Renzo Piano, the same man who designed Genoa's aquarium, in 1992 for the anniversary of Columbus' journey to the New World. From one of the arms, an elevator cabin can be raised, and then it rotates 360 degrees to give you a complete view overlooking the city. An audio-guide in the elevator cabin helps you make sense of what you're seeing. Not surprisingly, Bigo's design was influenced by the many huge cranes that seem to be always at work in Genoa's port, lifting goods on and off of the massive cargo ships in the harbor.
Genoa's cathedral is dedicated to St. Lawrence – or San Lorenzo in Italian – and there are a few names you might see that all mean this same church. The Genoa Cathedral, St. Lawrence Cathedral, the Genoa Duomo, or the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo – all of those refer to the same place.
Originally founded in the 5th or 6th century, the San Lorenzo Cathedral was built in the early 12th century. It was partly rebuilt in the early 14th century – including the completion of the facade – and there are internal features that have been added since then. Those with a keen eye for architectural styles will no doubt notice the different time periods represented both inside and out.
One of the iconic symbols of the city of Genoa is its old lighthouse, commonly called La Lanterna, which still serves as the city's primary lighthouse today.
La Lanterna stands on a hill not far from the city center of Genoa near the Sampierdarena neighborhood. The first lighthouse tower built on this site was erected in roughly 1128, far from what was then the city of Genoa and lit by burning dried wood. The tower was damaged over the years by warring families and by bombs during war, and the lighthouse we see today dates from a major reconstruction in 1543.
The light inside La Lanterna required some form of human involvement until 1913, when the first electric light was installed. The light was fully automated in 1936. The lighthouse tower is nearly 250 feet tall, making it the second tallest masonry lighthouse in the world. It's also one of the world's oldest standing structures.
Genoa is a large Italian city with several individual neighborhoods that each have their own history and identity. One of those neighborhoods is the Boccadasse, located on the waterfront to the east of the Genoa city center.
The Boccadasse neighborhood is at one end of the promenade called the Corso Italia, which makes it easy to visit from central Genoa – particularly on a nice day when you can walk all the way along the seafront. This neighborhood used to be its own small town, and was once primarily the home of working fishermen.
There are various stories regarding the origin of the name Boccadasse. In the local dialect, the word is Bocadâze. Because the neighborhood sits on a small bay, one theory is that the name means “donkey's mouth.” Another stems from the name of a river that used to run through Boccadasse, called the Asse. In any case, the Italian word “bocca” means mouth, so either of those theories could be right.
In many cases, the names of notable buildings in Italy can seem arbitrary. With the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, however, the reason for the name is quite clear as soon as you see it – it is a palace, and it's red.
The Palazzo Rosso was built as a private home in the 1670s for the Brignole-Sale family. They owned the palazzo for 200 years before the last member of the family to live there decided to give it to the city of Genoa. The palace is on Via Garibaldi in the historic city center of Genoa – part of the city that's on the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing – among several other palaces originally built for prominent local families.
More Things to Do in Genoa
Who could turn down the opportunity for a long stroll along a beautiful seafront on a gorgeous Italian day? If you're headed to Genoa, then that means you're headed for a stroll on the Corso Italia.
There are a few roads that can be called promenades in Genoa, a city very much tied to its waterfront, but the Corso Italia is the main promenade. It runs roughly 1.5 miles just to the east of the city center, from the neighborhood of Foce to the neighborhood of Boccadasse. There's a wide sidewalk along the Corso Italia with ample space for walking, cycling, and jogging, and along much of the route there are also beaches worth checking out. Even if the weather isn't conducive to long outdoor walks, there are great restaurants along the Corso Italia that boast excellent sea views all year long.
You can certainly walk the entire length of the Corso Italia without stopping, but there are some sights to see along the way if you're taking a more leisurely approach.
Genoa is associated, understandably, with the sea. It's Italy's largest port city, and it's home to the Genoa Aquarium – Italy's largest aquarium, and one of the largest in Europe.
The Aquarium of Genoa sits on the old harbor, the city's ancient port. When the area was redeveloped in the early 1990s to be less industrial and more appealing to visitors, the aquarium was part of that redevelopment project. The aquarium – along with the old port – was redesigned by famed architect Renzo Piano, himself from Genoa. It was opened in 1992, and today more than 1.2 million people visit every year.
The Genoa Aquarium has 70 different tanks for visitors to check out, holding more than 1.6 million gallons of water and 12,000 animals. This aquarium is the only one in Europe to have some species of Antarctic fish on display, and a 1998 expansion means there's now a whole wing devoted to marine mammals – there's space for up to 10 dolphins.
Among the properties managed by the company that runs the famous Genoa Aquarium is the Galata Museo del Mare, or Museum of the Sea. This maritime museum is a nice complement to an aquarium visit.
Galata was a town near the ancient city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), and was part of the Republic of Genoa from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The neighborhood where the Museo del Mare is located is known as Galata, given that name in the 19th century by the city as a nod to its former republic. The neighborhood was redeveloped in the 1990s to be less industrial, and the Galata Museo del Mare opened in 2004.
The Galata Museo del Mare covers four floors with exhibitions on different kinds of sailing ships and sea explorations. One entire floor is dedicated to trans-Atlantic migrations, including one called “La Merica! From Genoa to Ellis Island,” and of course there is a section devoted to famous Genoa native Christopher Columbus.
You might not think of seeing a great collection of Asian art when you're in Italy, but that's just what you'll get at the Chiossone Museum of Oriental Art in Genoa.
Edoardo Chiossone was a 19th century Italian painter who spent more than two decades in Japan. During that time, he amassed an incredible collection of Asian art, which he donated to the Ligurian Academy of Fine Arts in Genoa upon his death. The Academy then used that collection to start the Chiossone Museum of Oriential Art in 1905.
Because of Chiossone's long association with Japan, much of the museum's collection has to do with Japanese art – but other Asian cultures are represented, too, in the museum's more than 15,000 pieces. Many consider the Chiossone Museum of Oriental Art to be among the most important collections of Asian art in Europe.
Genoa is most famous as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, so it's appropriate to set sail from here. The second largest port in Europe (Marseille is bigger), Genoa is a mix of the old and the new, with pretty old style pink, ochre, and red buildings sitting alongside skyscrapers and church domes, all of it climbing the hills up from the sea via gritty, narrow twisting streets.
Despite the city's size, it is easy to explore the old center on foot. The Cathedral San Lorenzo is the heart of the area you'll want to explore. The cathedral itself is Romanesque dating from the 12th century and houses the ashes of John the Baptist, Genoa's patron saint. A couple of blocks away is the Piazza de Ferrari which has the 13th-century Palace of Doges and the opera house. The main shopping street, Via XX Settembre, leads off from here.
Many former private homes in Italy are now museums, bequeathed to cities when the families could no longer afford their upkeep. Genoa has several such museums, including the Palazzo Bianco in the historic center.
The Palazzo Bianco – Italian for “white house” - was a palace built in the 1530s for the Grimaldi family. In the mid-1600s, the Grimaldis sold it to the De Franchi family, who owned it until the early 1700s. The palace then became the possession of the Brignole-Sale family, who also owned the Palazzo Rosso nearby on Via Garibaldi. In the 1880s, the Palazzo Bianco was given to the city of Genoa to be used as a museum.
Today, the palace is known as the Museo di Palazzo Bianco, and the collection includes paintings from all over Europe dating from the 12th century to the 17th century. Artists represented in the galleries include Caravaggio, Veronese, Filippino Lippi, Rubens, Van Dyck, and many others.
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