Genoa is quite well organised for tourists, with helpful tourist information kiosks by the waterfront and the Ducal Palace and a useful desk at the airport where you can pick up free maps, leaflets, English-language itineraries and advice on how to reach your hotel.
When planning your visit, be aware that Genoa is not a cheap place to 'do' museums. There are a number of different combined tickets available which could save money if you're visiting several Genoa sights, but they offer overlapping benefits so you may need to do a bit of research to work out what will save you the most money. At the time of writing, the bus ticket from the airport includes 24 hours travel on the public transport system. Public transport is also included in the Card Musei + bus, a combined ticket for the majority of the town's museums, which is available for 24 or 48 hours (and also comes in a cheaper version without included transport).
The good modern museums by the old harbour, including the aquarium, are very commercial enterprises and have their own combined tickets. Prices can be eye-watering if you want to take a family to several of these attractions, while no chance is lost to direct you through a souvenir shop, cafe, or shopping mall. Look up the prices and decide your priorities in advance so you don't end up with disappointed or resentful family members at the museum entrance.
As is typical in Italy, most museums are closed on Mondays. Unluckily for weekenders, Sunday, too, is a 'dead' day in central Genoa, with many shops, restaurants and cafes closed. On Sundays some museums have slightly shorter opening hours, and it's worth noting that you may find the Strada Nuova museums busy with local residents, who have free admission on this day. To make the most of a weekend break, I'd recommend visiting Thursday - Sunday; either departing on Sunday or taking a trip out of town.
Genoa's Tourist Sights
Genoa's striking cityscape, with pastel buildings piled up steep hillsides above the long curving waterfront, is a sight in itself, and can be admired from a variety of viewpoints, including the roof of Palazzo Rosso and a popular terrace at Castelletto, high above the city centre and reached by a lift dating from 1909 which ascends from Piazza Portello. Taking a boat tour of the harbour will also give you a good idea of the town's geography and history.
The Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is Genoa's cathedral, set in a surprisingly small, sloping square. It's a building in a patchwork of styles from Gothic to Renaissance, reflecting renovations over the centuries. The exterior is striped and decorated with coloured marbles, and inside the main portal is a fourteenth-century Byzantine-style fresco. The ashes of St. John were worshipped in a lovely Renaissance side-chapel attended by statues (take coins for illumination). Visit the church's underground treasury to see a bowl claimed to be the Holy Grail and a platter said to have been the one used to present John the Baptist's head. Just up the street from the cathedral is Genoa's former Ducal Palace, the huge Palazzo Ducale, which now hosts a range of changing exhibitions and events.
Genoa boasts one of Italy's UNESCO World Heritage sites. This status was awarded for the early town-planning of the Strade Nuove 'new streets' district, where grand palaces were erected in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as part of a scheme where noble families, resident in the new palaces, would pay host to visiting dignitaries. Via Garibaldi, an elegant narrow street lined with grandeur, is the cultural centre of tourist Genoa. The town's best art collections can be visited here, in three palaces grouped together as the Musei di Strada Nuova: Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Tursi, Garibaldi, where highlights include works by Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Rubens as well as many local artists.
Down by the rejuvenated Porto Antico (Old Port) are a number of attractions for all the family, including the Acquario, an aquarium which, along with the UNESCO listing, is Genoa's proudest attraction, and where visitors can admire sharks and dolphins up close. This is a great destination for children, but fascinating for adult visitors too. Nearby is the Bigo, a panoramic lift inspired by shipyard cranes, designed by local star architect Renzo Piano. As the lift revolves you can enjoy the views over Genoa's port and hillsides.
Genoa's old town was partly rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War, but it was reconstructed as it had been: a medieval maze of narrow lanes and tall buildings. The principal lanes are lively in the daytime with cafes and busy small shops selling everything from antiques to cheap DVDs. The alleys are intriguing to explore, past shrines on the corners of buildings, tucked-away churches, palaces reaching up to the sky, take-aways selling local snacks like farinata and focaccia, and great shopping opportunities. But gritty authenticity is not far away, and some of the old town's alleys are rather seedy, particularly at night, when I'd suggest you ask advice from your hotel receptionist on the red-light areas to avoid.
Eating, Drinking and Nightlife in Genoa
Genoa is the home of pesto and in every local restaurant you'll find this characteristic pasta sauce, usually served with trofie pasta. Farinata is the local snack of choice: this is a delicious hot dish made with chickpeas, which makes a good filling meal-on-the-go. Focaccia is also a speciality, and it comes in many varieties, from nutella-coated to the version filled with cheese from Recco.
For a good, cheap lunch, there are convenient cafes close to the principal museums where you can rest from sightseeing in stylish modern surroundings. Branches of the museum cafeteria m.café in the Ducal Palace, in Via Garibaldi and in Via Balbi offer a good range of filled rolls and a special brunch deal at the weekend. Also on Via Garibaldi is the Caffe dei Musei, where you can order a hot pasta dish for under 5 euros.
A nice glass of wine, or aperitivo, in Genoa can be surprisingly expensive. This is partly because of the modern tradition of enjoying generous free snacks or a buffet with your pre-dinner drink. Sometimes these are so generous that you could almost skip dinner. In the summer, a very stylish place to enjoy a drink is at the outside tables at Oltremodo, on the deck of the ship 'Italia', just past the Aquarium. Several of the hip museum cafes, including a panoramic cafe at Galata Museo del Mare, also offer aperitivi.
For something a bit less glamorous, and more late-night, Piazza delle Erbe is a popular little square whose small bars and outside tables are crowded with Genoa's young and no-so-young. You can sit with glasses of wine and chat with friends, or hover in a bar doorway watching the world squeeze by.