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 marine passenger facility is quite close to the Old Port -- within viewing distance. But, it's located in an industrial area, off a highway. So, for safety's sake, it's best to take a taxi to get there or to any other destination.
Except for your ship, there's nothing of compelling interest in the port itself.
A taxi ride to the port from just about anywhere downtown will cost 5 to 10 euros, depending on traffic.
The local currency is the euro. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. The cheapest and easiest way to get cash is to use your debit card at ATM's, which are plentiful. Just ask for the closest "bancomat."
Italian, of course. Surprisingly little English is spoken.
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.
Souvenir shops around the port feature Italian olive oil, spices, sweets and wines. For more serious shopping, visit Via XX Settembre, home to all manner of high-end boutiques and mid-market Italian chain stores. A system of alleyways, beginning just above the Old Port at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, hosts shops that sell everything from fried fish and fruit to shoes, crystal and clothing. Two such pedestrian walkways to aim for: Via San Vincenzo and Via Galata. (It's best to get a free map from the information kiosk at the Old Port first. The streets do twist and turn.)