Genoa: A City of Contrasts

If you have a heel, you have a knee, which is why I travelled to Genoa.

Italy is frequently likened to the human leg, Lecce its heel, Sicily its toe, while at the top, near France, lies Genoa – genu – Latin for knee. The city is Italy’s sixth largest and I had long hankered to visit. I had heard plenty about its history.

Genoa’s Old Town and World Heritage Site

Genoa is the capital of the Italian region of Liguria. Within moments of walking the alleyways of its Old Town, I realised that times past surrounded me. Part of Genoa’s centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for 700 years the city was one of the most powerful, likely wealthiest, maritime republics in the world. The modern Port of Genoa is presently the busiest in the Mediterranean and covers 700 hectares of land, 500 hectares of water, and stretches for 22 kilometres along the coast. There are even 30 kilometres of functioning quays. There is an Old Port, too, which harbours a replica Spanish galleon. Genoa is massive.

Port of Genoa and a replica Spanish galleon (courtesy f9photos)

It is also classy, and a city of contrasts. Around each corner I was assured something different. The Piazza De Ferrari, a good starting point for any city stroll, contained an impressive fountain where I managed to become soaked.

Piazza De Ferrari

The Palazzi dei Rolli, stunning palaces that once housed Genoa’s most important and aristocratic families during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Genoa was a Republic. Or the Aquarium in the city’s Old Port. It is the largest aquarium in Italy, sees 1.2 million visitors annually, and has tanks that hold 12,000 animals from 400 species, including fearsome piranhas.

The Elliptical Staircase of Genoa’s Bristol Palace Hotel

Top of my list in the city, however, was the elliptical staircase of Genoa’s Bristol Palace Hotel, constructed in 1905, and a masterpiece of Genoese art nouveau.

The elliptical staircase at the Hotel Bristol Palace, Genoa

“I’m dizzy,” said my companion after we had slowly climbed the six storeys of the spectacular marble staircase to its very top, breathing heavily as we ascended.

“Me, too,” I replied, screwing my eyes shut as I panted. I am not good with heights.

Many well-known people had climbed the stairs in earlier years – Rudolf Nureyev, Emperor Hirohito, Yitzak Rabin and that masterful film director, Alfred Hitchcock. Apparently, he drew inspiration for his 1958 film, Vertigo, from the staircase on which we stood. It was used for many films after Hitchcock and, as an architectural wonder, is hard to beat.

Christopher Columbus and Genoa

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, too, in 1451. He grew up in a family of wool weavers, in a tiny house within the Old Town, a house that still exists.

Christopher Columbus’ house

By the age of 14 years, he was working on trade ships that passed through Genoa and by 17 years had left Italy for Portugal. He was tall for his age, well over the average five feet seven inches of the time, which may explain why he left Genoa, as his house is truly minuscule. Genoa now dines out on Christopher Columbus and is proud of what their son has achieved. He may have made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean, he may never have set personal foot on North America, he may actually have thought he had discovered Asia, and he may have brought syphilis from New World to Old. However, Christopher Columbus is today remembered as one of the most important figures of exploration and discovery.

Too tall to squeeze into Christopher Columbus’ house, and now recovered from staircase vertigo, our walk continued around the city’s centre.

Flag of Genoa and its connection to England

“I thought we were in Italy,” noted my companion, pointing at a flag atop the Torre Grimaldina of Genoa’s Doge’s Palace.

“We are,” I replied. I looked up to see the fluttering flag, red cross on white background, identical for England’s Saint George. The symbol is iconic of Genoa and dates from medieval times.

Genoa’s flag on a streetlamp

It was likely inspired by Saint George, known also as George of Lydda, and a patron military saint of knights headed to the Crusades, from the 11th to 13th centuries. The similarity between the flags of Genoa and England is not a coincidence, thanks to close Genoese and English ties throughout the medieval era. It is said the flag of England was inspired by that of Genoa, which was already a well-established maritime power by the time the English adopted the flag in the late 13th century.

Street Art in Genoa

High on any list of Genoa’s attractions are its street artists, with graffiti featuring in many unexpected places.

Street art in the alleyways of Genoa

It is illegal to paint another person’s property without permission, but somehow that appears not to matter. The city has a tradition of politically motivated street art that dates to the 1970s. Its graffiti is vibrant and diverse, with both local and international artists contributing to Genoa’s landscape.

Genoa is remarkable, replete with art and history, and unquestionably a city of contrasts.


If you go…

Where it is

Genoa is the capital of Italy’s Liguria and a coastal city. It can be found at: 44°24′40″N 8°55′58″E.

Getting there


I drove in a hybrid electric car. Here are some mileages – Madrid (900 miles); London (845 miles); Berlin (740 miles); Paris (574 miles); Rome (315 miles); Zurich (271 miles).


It takes roughly 17 hours to travel from London to Genoa by train. Why not think about sustainability?


Ryanair, EasyJet, Vueling and British Airways fly to Genoa from London. April is the cheapest month to fly. Roundtrip emissions per passenger are 0.4 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent. This is the same as being vegetarian for 0.7 years, travelling 1.6 times round the world in an electric train and can melt 1.1 square metres of Arctic Sea ice.


Flixbus travels from London to Genoa over slightly more than one day. See


Rarely easy in Genoa. I had to park three floors underground and five minutes’ rapid walk from my hotel. See


Much of central Genoa is wheelchair accessible, but not all. I travelled with a wheelchair user and there was a fair amount of chair manhandling needed while surfaces were not always flat.

Places to eat

1. Giotto Restaurant at Bristol Palace

Via XX Settembre 35, 16121 Genova GE

Tel: +39010592541



2. Trattoria da Maria

Vico Testadoro, 14r, 16123 Genova GE

Tel: +39 010 581080


3. Ristorante Il Marin

Calata Cattaneo, 15, 16128 Genova GE

Tel: +39 010 869 8722



Places to stay

1. Hotel Bristol Palace

Via XX Settembre 35, 16121 Genova, Italia

Tel: +39010592541



2. Grand Hotel Savoia

Via Arsenale di Terra, 5, 16126 Genova GE, Italy

Tel: +39 010 27721



3. Hotel Astoria Genova

Piazza Brignole, 4, 16122 Genova GE, Italy

Tel: +39 010 455 6125



Things to see

You are spoilt for choice in Genoa. A list of attractions might include:

More information

Visit Genoa:

Office de Tourisme

Via Garibaldi, 12r, 16124 Genova GE, Italy

Tel: +39 010 557 2903

Liguria region website

Our Silver Travel Advisors, on 0800 412 5678, can arrange travel and accommodation in Genoa and throughout Italy.

12 people found this helpful

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

2 Responses

  1. Cheers Gillian – good to hear from you. When you do make it to Genoa, it is important not to forget the elliptical staircase, although one has to dream up a suitable reason for visiting the Hotel Bristol Palace. The place does have restaurant(s) that are not on the ground floor, so one can always use the stairs to reach them. Just a thought! Best wishes. Richard V

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