Travel is a group decision in my family so when I mentioned Genoa I was disappointed when no one got excited. The problem was image. We had passed the city a half dozen times on road trips to France but the views from the highway were always uninviting. I persisted though and rested my case on the city’s aquarium, which is the largest in Italy and houses over 500 species. My son Sacha (10) and Emma (6) liked the idea and after several weeks of persistence my wife relented and gave me the go ahead to organize a 3-day get away to Genoa.
We could have reached the city in 5 hours by car but the memory of speeding tickets and traffic made rail appealing. It would force us to pack light, read and gaze at Italian countryside. A train journey costs less, in the same amount of time, at a fraction of the CO2. It was also fun and Italian trains are comfortable and convenient except for occasionally bathroom surprises but my wife packs wet wipes and antiseptic gel that comes in handy when traveling with kids.
After purchasing our tickets I began researching accommodation and started studying maps. Genoa is an incredibly long and narrow city that stretches 32 kilometers (22 miles) along the Ligurian coast. It’s a dramatic location wedged between sea and mountains. The aquarium is located in the port near the city center but we choose to stay in Genoa Quinto, a quiet residential neighborhood where we could walk to a small fishing port and the Anita Garibaldi Promenade.
We rent apartments when exploring new cities and I pitched several to my wife before narrowing it down to one. Our host met us at the train station and gave us the lowdown on the area. We followed her restaurant advice that evening and after mastering the TV remote and unpacking headed to Piero 21 (Via Murcarolo 67, Tues.-Sun. lunch and dinner). This no fuss trattoria became our favorite. We ate here the following two evenings and became friendly with the owner. My children were hooked on the seafood menu and paper tablemats where they could draw. I was won over by the prices and great food. Genoa is famous for pesto and unlike the rest of the world here it’s served with potatoes, green beans and locally grown basil. I could have ordered it every night had my wife not insisted I try something new and everything we tried was delicious.
We got up early the next day in eager anticipation. The number 15 bus runs near the apartment along a scenic route and after buying tickets (€1.50) from the newsstand on the corner we rode to the center. Train is a faster option without a view. The 45-minute bus ride was a chance to discover there was more to the city than the eyesores we had seen from the highway. There was also a stunning coast, inviting seaside villages and an elegant historic center at the end of the line.
As usual we got lucky and stumbled upon a monthly antique market. Being a port city means a lot of objects from around the world end up in Genoa. Old fashion toys fascinated the children while my wife examined everything else. Patience is important when traveling and I suppressed the urge to move on by browsing WW2 uniforms and coffee grinders, which I regret not purchasing. We walked up Via XX Settembre to Piazza de Ferrari and entered the narrow, mazelike streets known as the caruggi.
The kids choose the directions until our stomachs reminded us it was time for lunch. Genoa is famous for focaccia and finding a focacceria near the port was easy. I checked my phone once or twice but ultimately made a gut decision and chose an eatery with empty stools facing a pedestrian street where the kids could rest. We ordered several different types of the thick pizza-like bread, swapping and sharing until we were sure of our favorites and eagerly went back for seconds.
Afterwards we headed to the aquarium. The line was short and before we knew it we were surrounded by sea life. Rooms in the beginning were crowded but gradually thinned as we progressed along the fascinating series of tanks. We recognized sharks, piranhas, sea turtles, penguins, clown fish and dolphins but there were hundreds of other species that were new to Emma and Sacha who were attracted from one tank to the next. The aquarium is well organized and has a clear trajectory over two floors that make getting around easy. The stingray petting pool was a highlight but nothing matched the dolphins. We watched them from different angles and sat on the floor mesmerized by their antics.
No one wanted to leave but after 3 hours we were ready to explore the world outside. Genoa’s port was transformed into a cultural hub two decades ago and besides the aquarium there’s a replica 16th century galleon, children’s museum, submarine, biosphere, and Galata Maritime Museum. Since it was late and the kids were tiring we opted to ride the trenino tourist train (on wheels). Many Italian cities operate these and my kids were happy to sit down and see the town. The ride lasted an hour and afterwards we caught the 15 bus back to our apartment, changed and had our second meal at Piero 21.
The following day we retraced our steps to Piazza Ferrara and headed to Via Garibaldi. This is the most elegant street in Genoa where wealthy and powerful locals once lived. Today most of the impressive palazzi, known as rolli, are museums and galleries. We popped into the courtyards of these palatial estates but weren’t tempted to enter. Instead we kept walking and browsing the antique stalls (more luck) until we reached Funiculare Zecca-Righi.
Genoa has two cable railways and in a city with so many hills it’s a convenient way of getting around. They’re also a lot of fun and provide great views. The ride (€1.50 adults/children free) to the top lasts 10 minutes and the view from the station was partially blocked by trees. Undaunted we walked up a steep hill until we found a great lookout spot and a family photo opportunity. There were signs nearby pointing to trattorie and a local lady indicated the panorama got even better further up but my wife gave me the look and the kids were happy to head downhill and back to the port.
The Galata Maritime Museum was an unexpected delight filled with full scale replica ships the kids excitedly boarded and an immigration experience with passports they stamped from departure lounge, to ocean liner and finally Ellis Island where automated customs officers greeted them (in Italian). There’s plenty of hands on learning inside about Columbus, navigation and a virtual reality theater. The roof terrace provides a view of the port and before we knew it several hours had passed and it was time for dinner at Piero 21 again.
We spent our last day outside the historic center and rode the number 15 in the opposite direction towards Nervi. The neighborhood holds an annual flower show but we missed it and most of the gardens were closed. We came to walk the Anita Garibaldi Promenade and eventually found the entrance near a small public beach. The seaside walkway is a wonderful adventure that gets better around every bend. The red brick paving is flat, the light blue railing secure and neither Emma nor Sacha found a reason to beg for a piggy back ride. Near the middle of the 2-kilometer (1.2 mile) promenade we stopped for gelato and iced-coffee. Unfortunately, we hadn’t packed bathing suits but they would have come in handy.
Further down we couldn’t resist the ideal position of Bagni Medusa (daily 9am-12am) and had a pizza lunch on a shaded terrace overlooking the sea. It was the ideal setting to reflect on our getaway and realize you can’t judge a city from a highway. You need to get closer and now that we had we loved Genoa and would certainly return for more.
Alexei Cohen lives with his family in Rome, Italy and writes travel guides about his adopted land. His latest book Moon: Rome, Florence & Venice is available now.