What to do and see in Genoa

Brief history of Genoa

The earliest settlements in the Genoa area are pre-Roman, dating to around the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Publius Cornelius Scipio made use of this landing place to gain a foothold from which fight off the invasion by Hannibal in 218 BC. The city was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 205.

The local liguri genuates had contact with the Greek, Etruscan and Punic peoples. The Archaeological Museum of Genoa houses some exceptionally well-preserved artefacts of great value as testimony to the period.

After being conquered by Flavius Belisarius, who made it a Byzantine city, it became capital of the Duchy of Liguria during the Lombard period. It also came under the influence of the Carolingian Empire, the break-up of which, however, was followed by the emergence of some of the most important Genoese families, who shared power between them, the Spinola and Embriaci families.

From the middle of the eleventh century onwards, Genoa gained independence; the trading companies took on administrative roles, and the city asserted itself as a mercantile power. The Golden Age of the communes had arrived.

Genoa exerted its unrivalled power over the Ligurian coasts and a large part of the Mediterranean Sea, together with Pisa, and conquered colonies in the Middle East during the years of the Crusades.

In 1162, the disputes with Frederick Barbarossa intensified: in that same year, the city walls were extended to meet the threat. He bears the name of sovereign enemy still today. The implacable force with which Genoa defended its independence and resisted Barbarossa’s pressures earned her the nickname “La Superba”.

It was also in period that the figure of the podestà emerged: his was an impartial role, extremely modern in conception. He was elected by “foreign” territories, and it was his task to oversee the correct actions of government.

The period from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century was that of the Doges. Among them, special mention should be made of the first Doge of the Republic of Genoa, Simone Boccanegra, who was elected in 1339. It was his father, Guglielmo Boccanegra, who commissioned the building of what is known today as Palazzo San Giorgio between 1257 and 1260; in 1407 it was converted into the Bank of Saint George (Casa delle Compere e dei Banchi di San Giorgio).

Genoa boasts a centuries-old tradition as a city of merchants and bankers from its great families who contributed to the artistic and architectural flowering of its streets. From the palaces in Via Balbi, named after the prestigious family whose origins date back to the fifteenth century, to Strada Nuova, whose historic residences formed part of the “Rolli degli alloggiamenti pubblici di Genova” and today are a UNESCO World Heritage site: they were the excellent buildings included in the lists (“rolli”) of noble families who had the honour of welcoming and accommodating high-ranking European politicians, an honour assigned by the drawing of lots. The same dwellings would later be used by travellers on the Grand Tour.

The Balbi, Lomellini, Durazzo, Spinola, Di Negro and Doria families, along with a great many others, vied for civic prestige through the magnificence of their buildings, many of them with adjoining piazzette that were once private, in a competition that has endowed modern-day Genoa with marvels visited by tourists from all over the world.

One of the leading political figures of the period and the entire history of Genoa was the admiral Andrea Doria, who was granted the title of Prince of Melfi by Charles V in 1531. Although he never officially held political office in the Republic, his excellent military skills and the prestige that he brought to Genoa earned him the respect and acclaim of his fellow citizens and many of the powerful men of his day.

One of the most precious monuments which Andrea Doria bequeathed to the city and which can still be visited today is Villa del Principe, a stately home with a beautiful garden which, although the property is still owned by the Doria family, is open to the public.

In the seventeenth century, the city had to face the expansionist ambitions of the Savoys, and, starting from the end of the century, it initiated a long period of close political and commercial ties with France, which it finally forced to cede Corsica.

Genoa did not escape Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule. However, with the birth of the Italian State in 1861, it regained its supremacy as a trade and economic force, soon becoming part of Italy’s famed “industrial triangle” together with Milan and Turin.

In 1926, the so-called “Grande Genova” project brought municipalities that until then had been autonomous, such as Nervi, Voltri, Pontedecimo and others, under the city’s jurisdiction.

Given its central role in the nation’s economic effort, Genoa was one of the most heavily targeted cities in Italy during the Second World War. It is estimated that over 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged by the bombings. However, the city was also one of the centres of the Italian resistance movement that played a part in driving the German troops out of the country.

Nor was the capital of Liguria a bystander during the economic boom of the nineteen-sixties, the period of the turbulent workers’ struggles or the process of deindustrialisation, with the service sector gradually coming to replace manufacturing.

Since the beginning of the 2000s the city’s port has been revitalised, while in 2004 Genoa was designated European Capital of Culture.

Top 10 things to do in Genoa (and surroundings)





Last update 27 July 2022