Sometimes, cities are lucky enough to reinvent themselves. Genoa, given short shrift in travel guides 20 years ago, has undergone a striking renaissance since 1992, when it hosted an international expo to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the discovery of the New World.
Nowhere is that benefit more evident than at Porto Antico, the old port close to the marine terminal, where many of today's cruise ships now dock. What once was a seedy waterfront on Northern Italy's Mediterranean is now a charming blend of old and new structures, featuring cafes, shops, a movie complex, a maritime museum, a spectacular play and cultural center for kids and, most importantly, the largest aquarium in Europe.
From a distance, the Genoa cityscape -- climbing up a steep, green hillside from the Ligurian sea -- is awash in Mediterranean color: ochre, pink and red. It's a big town with more than 600,000 people, but it has a small-town feel and layout that make it imminently walkable. In fact, Genoa's foremost calling cards -- its historic center; the Piazza de Ferrari, where the Opera and Palace of the Doges are located; the chic shopping avenue, Via XX Settembre; and the largely pedestrian-only streets that hug the Cathedral of San Lorenzo -- are all within a 10- to 20-minute walk of Porto Antico.
Genoa, or Genova in Italian, has a rich history dating back to ancient times, but it's probably best known for Christopher Columbus, its most famous native celebrity. It has long been associated with the arts, and in 2004 the European Union designated Genoa as a European Capital of Culture. In 2006, a mid-16th century district on Via Garibaldi that houses an architecturally important ensemble of Renaissance and Baroque palaces was included on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Genoa typically serves as a port of embarkation or disembarkation, so it isn't often given high priority as a shore excursion. Our best advice? Enjoy a day here before or after your cruise. It's worth it.
The Old Port is as much a tourist destination as a place that locals like to call "the market square on the Mediterranean." It's where residents come to jog, walk their dogs and listen to music. The highlight is the stylish Acquario Di Genova, opened in 1993 with 10,000 specimens belonging to 800 animal species and 200 vegetal species. With 71 exhibition tanks and a focus on conservation and sensible management of aquatic environments, it's a standout. Since 1998, the experience has been made even richer by the arrival of the Great Blue Ship, a sailing vessel that houses exhibition space, along with reconstructed Mediterranean and tropical environments. Labels are in English and Italian. March through October, the aquarium is open 9 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays; and 9 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. on weekends. November through February, it's open weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Prices: 14 euros, adults; 12 euros, seniors 65 and older; 8.5 euros, children 4 to 12; free, children 3 years and younger.
The Bigo, whose shape recalls the cranes of old cargo ships, is a rotating lift that sends passengers skyward, past the rooftops, for a panoramic view of the city. Located at the Old Port, it offers a unique peek at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, the port complex and hills, once ensconced with 16 forts to defend the city. Price: three euros, adults; two euros, kids 12 and younger.
Other "don't miss" attractions include an ice rink (in winter), games arcades and an outdoor theater, which, during warmer weather months, hosts theatrical performances. Galata Museo del Mare is the Mediterranean's largest sea and navigation museum.
Just one block above the port, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, with its medieval, Ligurian, black-and-white, marble facade, is the centerpiece of a thriving neighborhood of shops, restaurants and apartments. The church was reconstructed in Romanesque style in the 12th century. Since the Crusades, the church has protected the ashes of St. John the Baptist, Genoa's patron saint. Two blocks from here is Piazza de Ferrari, the commercial heart of Genoa. Notable occupants of the piazza are the opera house and the Palace of the Doges, which dates back to the 13th century. The shopping avenue, Via XX Settembre, spins off from the piazza, as well. The avenue just hums with activity. For a nice stroll, follow it east -- past the town's impressive medieval gates -- about 10 blocks to Vittoria Park.
An open-air flea market, a favorite locals' haunt, dominates park space between Brignole train station and Vittoria Park. Open on weekends, it offers a crazy mix of wares: vacuum cleaners, pacifiers, fabrics, jeans and makeup. Gorgeous food displays -- selling artichokes, sausages, sun-dried tomatoes, truffles, olives, hazelnut cake and local breads -- look like they were prepared by a food stylist for a gourmet magazine.
Via Garibaldi and Via Balbi -- streets, known as the Strade Nuove -- are home to elegant art museums, housed in palaces and mansions.
If you're in town for a few days, take a day trip to Portofino, a charming and cosmopolitan village by the sea.
The town's historic center is dotted with tiny pizza places and restaurants. One that consistently gets good reviews is Trattoria Al Rustichella, a quaint spot with huge curb appeal. Located at 59 Via San Vincenzo, it's open noon to 2:30 p.m. and reopens at 7:30 p.m. It's closed Fridays.
Our meal at Zeffirino, 20 Via XX Settembre -- Genoa's most famous restaurant -- was a highlight of our visit. The historic, family-operated eatery (which also has an outpost in Las Vegas at the Venetian and, for a time, operated an alternative restaurant on Costa Atlantica) revolutionized the use of basil. Its most famous dish -- ravioli with a pesto sauce -- is like summer on a plate. The restaurant specializes in Ligurian-influenced dishes, including seafood and pasta; what you'll remember, however, is Zefferino's intimate ambience and warm hospitality. While you sip on the complimentary, meal-ending grappa, ask to see chef scrapbooks of meals with the Pope. It's open noon to midnight, except Wednesdays.
On the Web: genoait.ags.myareaguide.com
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--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief.
Image of Port of Genoa and Palazzo Ducale are courtesy of Gil Watson.