Edgy and elegant, Genoa is for travellers who like their Italian destinations less than perfect
The attributes that endear Genoa to me, the characteristics I feel moved to praise and preach about, are exactly those that most tourist offices and guidebooks try hard not to mention.
From its international squadron of squatters to prostitutes who ply their trade in the midday sun, from its sizeable drugs culture to industrial docks, Genoa is unashamedly an I-am-what-I-am city. It's not that I take perverse pleasure in spotlighting life's seedier side - at least not that often - but as the gentrification juggernaut ploughs its way across the continent's big cities, turning their centres into a homogenous Euro-ville, Genoa's brazen individuality comes as a welcome relief.
Of course, the city that gave birth to Columbus also has plenty of picture-perfect sights too and herein lies the beauty of the place: it's elegant and edgy in equal measure, which is surely the right recipe for a port town? Just as it was in the middle ages, Genoa is a city defined by its port: a huge hub for the Mediterranean's cruise boats and towering cargo containers. The old town climbs directly out of this industrial heart, a heaped mess of medieval buildings piled up against the base of the Apennine mountains: a dramatic amphitheatre-like backdrop that gave Genoa the title of "most winding, incoherent of cities" according to Henry James.
Most visitors take flight at this confusion and head for the rugged Ligurian coast, home to some of Italy's most well-heeled resorts (Portofino, for example) and the beautiful hikers' hub of Cinque Terre. But an increasing number are lingering where their cruise ship (or Ryanair flight) drops them off.
The spirit of the "winding, incoherent" city remains but of course things have changed since James's time. Genoa is still, proudly, one of Italy's least polished historical cities but there has been some recent sprucing up. City of Culture year in 2004 and the 1992 celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage of American discovery meant that Genoa's briny, industrial dockside and some of its main arteries got a big makeover, with several regenerative building programmes involving the likes of internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano (a native Genovese).
A stroll along the waterfront today is a completely different experience to my first trip to Genoa over 10 years ago. In some respects it's all the better for it. For a start, you can now "see" the harbour, which had been largely hidden; and Renzo Piano's additions, like the clear glass bolla (biosphere) complete with ship-like sails inside, and the now iconic Il Bigo, an architecturally innovative viewing platform designed to emulate a ship's crane, compliment their nautical surroundings. A wide-open pedestrian area links the port's major tourist sights, with pit stops created by way of gelato stands and pavement cafes.
Kids will love Genoa's aquarium, although the state of the toilets and the ticket price might leave parents asking. All round thumbs up goes to the Sea and Navigation Museum, the Med's largest maritime museum, housed in an elegant glass structure that captures the fabulous Ligurian light and contains, among other high tech nautical exhibits, a superb reconstruction of a 17th century Genoese galley. Genoa's stellar sights are not all maritime, however. The city's other claim to fame is its banking prowess. Along the strade nuove, otherwise known as Via Garibaldi and Via Balbi you'll find museums housed in grand palaces and bankers' mansions, home to the city's substantial fine arts collections.
These streets got a makeover during City of Culture year and their facades, some formerly black as soot, now gleam as bright as the treasures once housed in their old bank safes. Just off these well-kept cobbled streets, along Via della Maddelena, life goes on with or without a tourist's attention. We walk past ramshackle hardwear stores and shops offering cut-rate calls to Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, our feet falling into pace with a couple of white-clad nuns who don't seem to bat an eyelid at the huddle of Dominican ladies dressed like gaudy butterflies, plying a trade usually not seen until after dark.
Genoa's confusing maze of carugi (narrow alleys) is the best way to explore its sprawling and characterfully under-restored medieval quarter. Numerous baroque bas-reliefs jut out from the corners of side streets, designed to resemble the prows of old ships, and just as you think you'll never see direct sunlight again, an alley spits you out into a piazza crowned with a magnificent church. Don't miss the treasures of the San Lorenzo cathedral, Italy's 12th century duomo, painted in the city's iconic black and white stripes, once symbol of Genoa's prestigious patron families.
There's not much to see at the house where Columbus was said to have been born but the bars behind Porta Soprana (the old city gate nearby) are a great place for lively aperitivi (Italian happy hour, complete with tapas-like snacks), as are the cafes around Piazza del Erbe. Good wine and rustic eats (plenty of dishes containing the delicious native pesto) characterise these places but a newer generation of rather more self-consciously hip venues has lately sprung up.
The best of these, for the upmarket traveller, has to be the Bentley Hotel. Genoa has always had plenty of good places to eat (if you know where to find them) but what it was lacking, until last year, was good hotels. Located in the former headquarters of Ilva, Italy's biggest iron and steel manufacturer, Genoa's only five-star is set in an imposing 1920s building with 99 slick, modern rooms, plus a restaurant serving regional Ligurian dishes. The original Art Deco features of the building have been largely retained, with decorative touches from contemporary Italian artists. It's the poshest thing in this port town and, gorgeous as the hotel is, long may it stay that way.
Where to eat
One of Genoa's new breed restaurants is Soho (Via Al Ponte Calvi 20r). For something more traditional try Pintori at Via San Bernardo 68
British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Genoa. Ryanair flies from London Stansted.