View over Genoa's skyline

Known primarily as a bustling port and believed to be the birthplace of explorer Christopher Columbus, Genoa is overlooked by many visitors to Italy. Discover a captivating city boasting a plethora of historic palaces. Words and pictures by William David Wilson.

The smell of the freshly baked focaccia emerging from the hearth oven instantly arouses my appetite. I am inside the Focacceria Buon Appetito, about to indulge in a slice or two of this beloved local speciality.

I have just taken the train to Nervi, the most easterly quartiere (district) of Genoa and am about to embark on a brisk walk around Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi; a scenic, 2km-long (1 mile) promenade carved around the rocky shoreline that bravely faces the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The esplanade boasts stunning views of the town and turquoise blue waters below it; I spot daring kayakers ride the breaking swells in the distance below me.

My visit to Genoa coincides with the “Rolli Days”, an annual event in which some of the city’s unique Renaissance and baroque palaces that line its historic centre throw their doors open to the public. Built when Genoa was a powerful and wealthy maritime republic and financial centre, these elegant residences have been part of the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2006, and I would soon appreciate why.

GenoapalacesGenoa's gorgeous palaces open to the public on Rolli Days

First I explore Nervi, and after a stroll in the warm spring sunshine - stopping briefly for some luscious gelato stracciatella (a rich and creamy ice cream embedded with chocolate shavings) - it was on to the Parchi Di Nervi. A stunning, 10 hectares (25 acres) green belt sandwiched between the tree-laden mountains and the Mediterranean, these immaculately maintained parks immediately grab me as something special. The perfumes emanating from the rose gardens of Villa Grimaldi Fassio coalesce with the cool, sea air as I wander northwards towards the attractive 16th century Villa Saluzzo Serra; a once private residence which now houses Genoa’s Gallery of Modern Art.

I'm told by the curator Maria Flora Giubilel that the close relationship between art and nature inspired the foundation of the Musei di Nervi park complex, which also hosts the Raccolte Frugone, Luxoro and Wolfsonian Collections in its grounds. I marvel at paintings by Nicolò Barabino and van Elven (the latter’s ‘Imaginary view of the main monuments of Italy’ is fêted as an important pre-Italian reunification piece) and the modern decorative arts and fascist propaganda pieces central to the Wolfson Collection. After canapés at the neighbouring Hotel Astor, it’s time to leave enchanting Nervi and journey into the heart of the old town for a taste of authentic Genoese cuisine.

Ambling down to Via Ponte Calvi, I enter Al Veliero, part of the “Genova Gourmet” project celebrating traditional Ligurian cooking. I adore the trennette al pesto and succulent king prawns, and even find room for some scrumptious amaretto pudding for desert. A few glasses of Laura Aschero’s Vermentino later and it was finally time for some rest. I wander back to the luxury confines of Grand Hotel Savoia, whose striking galleon themed rooms are appropriately inspired by the city’s nautical heritage.

InsidepalacesExplore elaborate palace interiors

The rest is much needed as the following day, I head to Palazzo Tursi and am pounding the streets exploring some of the 42 Palazzi Dei Rolli palaces, a roster of aristocratic homes built along the Strade Nuove (“New Streets”) - now known as Via Garibaldi - from the mid 16th century that were used primarily to entertain dignitaries and illustrious guests visiting the then Republic of Genoa. The palaces were owned by the wealthy and powerful elite, such as the Grimaldi, Spinola, Pallavicino and Lomellini families.

Remarkably there are many other residences - at least another 40 - that have not received UNESCO status.
With their breathtaking courtyards and gardens, stunning open staircases and glorious frescoes, the magnificent Palazzi Dei Rolli have to be experienced firsthand for a true appreciation of their allure and magnitude.

In one palace, a butler waltzes around an enormous chandeliered dining room serving Genoese delicacies and fine Ligurian wine. A framed picture of Prince Albert II of Monaco is perched on a table nearby (the principality’s monarch is also head of the house of Grimaldi), illustrating how these palaces still fulfil their centuries-old traditions of royal succession and welcoming esteemed visitors to Genoa. Others house museums, public offices, banks and even luxury antique shops.

The Palazzo della Meridiana, with its distinctive sun dial on the façade, is one of the palaces that really catches my imagination. Its dramatic Luca Cambiasso and Lazzaro Calvi decorated frescoes imprint themselves on my memory.

The tour ends and I finally have a chance to rest tired feet. And where better than in the spectacular Lorenzo Di Ferrari designed Golden Gallery in Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino. I gaze down into the elegant, mirrored table, my reflection overwhelmed by the commanding fresco way above me. I’m exhausted but feel immensely rewarded.

oldtowngenoaExplore the old town and the imposing Porta Soprana gate

The next day, I spend my final hours in Genoa ambling around the ancient centre of the city, and I discover there is more to “the Superb One” than just aristocratic residences. Colourful, winding caruggi (alleyways) lead me to magnificent churches like the Church of St. Luke and San Lorenzo Cathedral, and I marvel at the remains of the city’s Barborossa Walls guarded by the imposing Porta Soprana gate. Columbus’ former home rests nearby, and I take a moment to ponder why one of the world’s greatest explorers ever felt the need to leave his magical home.

William’s trip to Genoa was organised by Liguria Tourism Promotion Agency

Need to know
Fly: Return British Airways flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £79pp.

Stay: Prices at the Grand Hotel Savoia in central Genoa start from £115 for a double or twin room (based on two sharing), with breakfast.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.