My kind of place: Caroline Hendrie reports on a lesser-known northern Italian city offering an impressive array of history, architecture, culture and food.
Genoa is an Italian port city with palaces
If Rome is the heart of Italy, Genoa is its head, and one that is firmly screwed on. There is a pragmatism and commercial sense that goes back long before the city's most famous son, Christopher Columbus, set forth on his mission in 1492 to find a new trade route to the Indies, and stumbled upon America.
Genoa's position, in the north-west of Italy, has made it a crossroads of culture and traffic between Europe and the Mediterranean for more than 2,000 years.
By the 12th century, the Republic of Genoa was already a seafaring force to be reckoned with and its intense rivalry with Venice can still be felt today. Then, its empire spread to Greece, Syria and Crimea, making Genoa a melting pot.
Framed by the Apennine Mountains, the city tumbles down hillsides and, over centuries, has expanded east and west along the coast, resulting in roads on stilts across the city over Porto Antico, the old port - a hideous solution to 1960s traffic problems.
Genoa is not an obvious beauty like Venice or Florence. You have to look a little harder to find exquisite pockets and hidden marvels, which only adds to her allure.
A comfortable bed
The Spanish hotel chain Melia (www.melia-genova.com; 00 39 010 531 5111) has created a stylish hotel with 90 sleek rooms in an art-deco building, 10 minutes' walk from the centre. Double rooms cost from €120 (Dh574) with breakfast.
A few steps from the station, the 19th-century Grand Hotel Savoia (www.grandhotelsavoiagenova.it; 00 39 010 27 721) has kept its period charm, with a grand piano and potted palms in the marble pillared lounge. Prices are from €149 (Dh713) for a double room with breakfast.
It is worth the walk up to the fourth floor to B&B Quartopiano (www.quarto-piano.it; 00 39 010 928 9738) where you'll find just three luxury en-suite rooms with shared roof terrace, tucked away in the Centro Storico (historic centre). Doubles cost from €99 (Dh474).
Find your feet
A good place to start is Porto Antico, the revitalised old port. The native Genoan architect Renzo Piano's weird white, crane-like Il Bigo panoramic lift and vast aquarium looks like a container ship about to set sail. Step under the flyover and take Via Lorenzo - the only straight street into the Centro Storico - leading to the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic, black and white striped cathedral. From here, get lost in a maze of medieval alleyways and discover small Baroque churches squeezed between dilapidated apartments blocks, shops and restaurants. Here, you are never more than a few steps from a cafe, such as the old wood-panelled Klainguiti in Piazza Soziglia.
Genoa has more than 40 palazzos from the city's 16th and 17th- century heyday. Via Garibaldi has the highest concentration, and is now a pedestrianised Unesco site. To avoid fresco fatigue, be selective, and start with Palazzo Bianco, which has a gallery of works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck and Murillo. Opposite, there is Palazzo Rosso; you mustn't miss the 360° view of the city from its rooftop, which is reached by a new glass lift. Walk on to Via Balbi to find Palazzo Reale and its dazzling, golden hall of mirrors, like a mini-Versailles.
Meet the locals
Panera, a coffee-flavoured semifreddo dessert, was invented in Genoa in the mid-19th century. Try some, and enjoy a great view,in Castellato. Take the Liberty lift from Piazza del Portello, and in two minutes it will transport you up to the esplanade and the pink-fronted Antica Gelateria Guarino, which sells ice cream made by hand.
Feast your eyes on fresh fruit and vegetables, gleaming fish and every shape of pasta in the covered market on Via XX Settembre. Sit down at one of its cafe kiosks alongside gossiping shoppers who dip salty focaccia into their cappuccinos.
Book a table
Genoa's most famous food is pesto, the glorious green sauce made by pounding fragrant Ligurian basil, pine nuts, olive oil, sea salt and cheese with a pestle and mortar. Eat it with squares of pasta, in a dish of "mandilli de saea" (silk handkerchiefs) at Zeffirino (00 39 010 570 5939; Via XX Settembre, 20). For about €50 (Dh240) a head you can enjoy three courses in a family-run eatery founded in 1939 that once served Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti. As for lunch on the run, buy a slice of farinata (chickpea pancake) for about €3 (Dh14) straight out of a wood-fired oven from a traditional takeaway such as Antica Sciamadda in Via San Giorgio in Porto Antico.
Labels and chain store fashions can be found in Via Roma and Via XX Settembre, but far more fun can be had seeking out independent outlets. The Life Style Store (viagaribaldi12.com) is on the first floor of the palazzo at 12 Via Garibaldi, once the lavish home of an 18th-century Genoan ambassador to Paris. You can find homewares and stylish accessories displayed in grand rooms with high, frescoed ceilings and marble floors. Go upstairs for elegant men's and women's outfitter Pescetto (Via di Scurreria, 8) and findcoats, suits, shirts and skirts from the 70s with their original swing tags.
The Villa del Principe (www.dopart.it, €9 [Dh43]). The 16th-century palace has frescoed cloisters and formal gardens that offer a haven from the city buzz.
What to avoid
The tiny "birthplace" of Christopher Columbus, next to Porto Soprana city gates. It was rebuilt in the late 17th century, is not in its original position and has no authentic exhibits so is not worth the time, or the €4 (Dh19) entrance fee.
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