With Sicily's greatest concentration of sights, and the biggest historic centre in Italy bar Rome, Palermo is a complex, multilayered city that can easily feel overwhelming if you try to do or see too much. If you only have a day, select an area (La Kalsa, with its two museums, for example, of the sprawling markets of Ballaro or Capo), and explore. If, on the other hand, you want to see all the major sights and leave time to explore the labyrinthine historical centre at random, allow at least four days in cool weather. In summer, Palermo is far too hot to be comfortable between noon and around 5pm, so schedule in a leisurely lunch and siesta.
The essential sights are pretty central and easy to cover on foot. Paramount are the hybrid Cattedrale and nearby Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace); the glorious Norman churches of La Martorana and San Giovanni degli Eremiti; the Baroque San Giuseppe dei Teatini and Santa Caterina; and first-class museums of art and archeology. If the urban grit and grime become overwhelming, head to the fine beach at Mondello, to the famous medieval cathedral of Monreale, or take a ferry or hydrofoil to the tiny volcanic island of Ústica, 60km northwest.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily in the province of the same name, and is located on the north-western coast of the island in a marvellous inlet by Monte Pellegrino, described by Goethe as “The most beautiful promontory in the world”, which dominates the western border of the Conca d'Oro laden with oranges and lemons. The city extends along the slope of the fertile agricultural zone famous for its citrus fruits, between Monte Pellegrino and Capo Mongerbino, the city turns inwards, and climbs up to Monreale, with its beautiful view, the glorious Conca d'Oro also makes up part of Palermo. The mountains crown the city, the gardens dress the city in green, the sea caresses it and the sky covers the city with a blue veil, this beauty conjures up the words of the Arabian poet Jahr Zaffir Place one's side on the water as if upon a silk divan. The sun shines upon the head, a halo of gold, beautiful, flavoursome fruit. In winter the trees have fire in their leaves and water in their roots. Palermo, God's favoutite! It was here that God rested during “the creation”! Oh merciful God, in days of scorn and justice, have pity on Palermo which raised up five hundred mosques to praise your magnificence!”
Wandering through the streets of Palermo is taking part in a giant parade of witnesses to several different civilizations intimately fused together. Individual centuries and periods in history can be seen in the existing buildings and areas; admiring these masterpieces is similar to losing yourself in something timeless and unchanging, the current inhabitants disappear, and are replaced by perpetual memories, traditions and legends.
The original center of the Sicilian capital was founded over the course of 2 centuries (from VIII-VI BC) the Phoenicians gave the city the name of Ziz (flower) and it was surrounded by a city wall. The subsequent Greek settlement allowed the city to develop towards the sea, defined by the Papireto and Kemonia rivers and included the port. It was in this period that the city was given its name: Panorma, (“Port of excellence” or “all port”). The built up area spread gradually (mostly due to the work of the Arabs and Normans), through an irregular series of streets and alleys. Later, the Aragonese opened two long, straight main roads, created by demolishing many of the old buildings: the first road developed perpendicular to the coast and included Corso Vittorio Emanuele (the old Cassaro from the Arabic Qasr, the royal palace) and Corso Caltafimi: the other road ran perpencicular to the former Corso Vittorio Emanuele and stretches through existing Via Oreto, Via Maqueda, Via Ruggero Settimo and Via Libertà. The two main roads cut the city into four parts: Tribunali (north-west), Palazzo Reale (south-west), Monte di Pieta (south-east), and Castellamare (north-east) and they intersect one another in Piazza Vigliena, the well known Quattro Canti di Città (four poems of the city), an octagonal complex decorated by statues and fountains, known as the “teatro del sole” (theatre of sun), because from here you can make out the sun as it sets. In the Bourbon period the wall was extended in a southwesterly direction, up to Monreale. This zone is known as the historical center of the city –there are many buildings from various eras are situated here. They are proofs of the artistic history of Palermo, which stretches back thousands of years. The monuments left by the Normans are of particular interest, as they made use of the traditional Arabic shapes, such as in the Cuba, the piccola Cuba and the Zisa (from the Arabic al-Aziza, the glorious one) but above all in the splendid Palatine Chapel of King Ruggero II Royal Palace, famous for its incomparable mosaics. Amongst the religious buildings, some of the most notable include the churches S. Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (founded by King Ruggero I in 1072), S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its beautiful second century cloister, Martorana, S. Cataldo, S. Francesco d'Assisi and Vespro, while amongst the civil buildings, the Palazzo dei Normanni, once the seat of the Emiri, the Norman kings and the Spanish viceroys and from 1947 headquarters of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, the Palazzo Chiaramonte (or “Steri”), the Palazzo Sclafani and the Palazzo Abatellis. The majestic Cathedral stands upon the ancient Cassaro. It started as an Arab mosque on the ruins of an early Christian basilica; at the end of the 1700s it underwent a wave of late Baroque changes, which irreparably altered several of the winter and summer views of the city. At the sides of the piazza are various palazzi that stand together harmoniously; one of the most well-known buildings is the Archbishop's palace.
During the Spanish domination, suburbs flourished outside the city walls both to the north, towards the sea (Mondello, Partanna, Sferracavallo, Barcarello) and towards the south, on the road leading to Bagheria and Termini Imerese (Oreto, Romagnolo, Settecannoli). After Sicily was annexed to Italy and up until the beginning of the First World War, Palermo had a notable increase in building work; this work adhered to precise directives for new quarters with a regular 'chessboard' layout to the south-east extremity of Via Maqueda and the city's main station is located on the parallel Via Roma. Major urban development has taken place towards the north-west as well as the lengthening of Via Maqueda, which took the name of Via Ruggero Settimo, the present day city center, on the outskirts of which, two major theatres were built at the end of the 19th century: il Massimo – temple of lyric theatre and ballet and which has the largest stage in the world (as regards back drop and depth) and il Politeama. Along Via Libertà several quarters have risen, swallowing the old suburbs, up to the edges of Monte Pellegrino, there are new quarters at the foot of the eastern slope of the mountain such as San Lorenzo where the magnificent Parco della Favorita is found and the splendid Palazzina Cinese the Arenella and Vergine Maria, but also along the western slope until Mondello, a stupendous gulf that today represents the true summer tourist center and Partanna.
In the last century new quarters have been developed, the majority are on the west side of Viale della Regione Siciliana (the real ringroad of the city, a link between the motorways for Trapani and Messina), which make up the newer, but still highly populated areas of the city eg. Uditore, Altarello and Cruillas. The Z.E.N. (which stands for expanded northern area), is a largely residential area, it is home to several important sports centers such as the Velodromo Borsellino and the new baseball stadium, but also commercial centers and palazzi of notable economic interests, such as Palazzo Gamma.
A gastronomic overview of Palermo
The Sicilian culinary tradition is saturated with fragrant products, flavours that are the right mix between the sea and the land, just like the geographic make up of the island. Sicily was conquered and influenced by many different races and this can be seen in the large number of dishes (full of spices, various aromas and produce) that are found here. All the many conquering people have left their indelible artistic signs on the city, and have deeply influenced the countryside with their cultivation, leaving traces of themselves in the customs and ways of life that can be seen in our cuisine, especially in the sweets and desserts, known throughout the world eg cannoli and cassata. The importance of such “humble” ingredients above all greens and vegetables, but also fish, are seen in the famous dishes based on sardines, grain, aubergines (eggplant), potatoes and swordfish.
There are many restaurants and inns situated close to the sea and their main dishes are ones that are based on seafood such as the extraordinary spaghetti alle vongole (clams) or with mussels, ricci, grilled fish and seafood. Places such as Al Gabbiano, La Barcaccia, Da Totuccio in Mondello and Il Delfino, L'Ancora and Le Tre Lampare in Sferracavallo will offer you the delights of the sea. In traditional restaurants in the city, you can definitely try typical recipes at the following places: Ai Vecchietti di Minchiapititto close to Teatro Politeama, Al Pagliaio, Casa del Brodo, Cotto a Legna, Macco, Villa Giuditta and Villa Virginia, and “locali” of a certain standard class, such as Il Crudo e il Cotto and La Fenice in the splendid Piazza Marina.
A particular mention should be made of the eateries where it is possible to choose an exclusively vegetarian menu, such as Il Giardino dei Melograni, Il Mirto e la Rosa and Tulìp.
Those who would like to try a little haute cuisine, (paying prices that are “haute” too!) should opt for one of the elegant restaurants such as the Charleston in Mondello, Lo Scalino del Cardinale and Gourmands in Via Libertà. There are also restaurants in several of the city's refined hotels, such as Villa Igiea and the Astoria Palace Hotel.
There are now several restaurants in the city where diners can try a little ethnic cuisine: Tunisian food at Mensa del Popolo and Al Duar; Chinese food at Shangai and Hong Fu; Indian at Indian House; Brazilian at Birimbao; Greek and Spanish at Medit and French food at La Brasserie.
If you want to eat well, without spending lots, there are many pizzerias, all with wood fuelled ovens, both in the city and in the province. You can also try a wide variety of antipasti made from traditional ingredients, our national dish in all flavours and shapes available. Value for money, speed, as well the courtesy of the staff mean that the pizzerias are very popular with people at the weekend, so that large groups should book in advance. The most famous pizzerias, (famous for its ingredients as well as the skill of its pizza makers) are: Pizzeria Bellini close to the theatre of the same name, the New Express Garden adjacent to the Crazy Bull pub, the Pizzeria Italia close to Teatro Massimo, La Bracieria, U' Strascinu, La Carbonella, La Staffa, Naif and La Cascina, on Viale Regina Margherita, which links Palermo and Mondello, Villa Pensabene, situated in a rustic farmhouse near to the Velodromo Borsellino and the Baia dei Fenici in Santa Flavia.
There are some specialities which deserve a mention: these delights are simple but tasty, good value for money and wonderfully satisfying, just right for a snack or for a meal with a difference: focacce, or rolls flavoured with spleen and bulls lungs fried in pig's lard, which you can try at Antica Focacceria di San Francesco .Panelle, fried rectangles of chickpea flour of Arabic origin and arancini with meat or with butter, can be tried at Bar Alba, or at Bar Touring, situated in front of Villa Giulia.
Along the streets of Panormus
Dotted with beautiful monuments, churches, palaces, villas, gardens, sculptures and archaeological remains, the city of Palermo boasts of an extraordinary historical and artistic heritage. Many of the monuments of the city have been rediscovered, thanks to a dedicated restoration project undertaken by the students and teachers of the city. Around 60 percent of the restored monuments have been reopened to the public and another 20 percent are currently undergoing restoration.
The restoration project consists of routes divided into areas. Each area includes churches and monuments, which have been adopted by schools and are displayed to both visitors and locals alike by the enthusiastic members of the project. The initiative has achieved tremendous success, and today the city has become an important tourist destination and is popular as a beautiful city with an ancient history.
It's possible to divide Palermo into 10 main areas or routes which consists of:
Mandamento Palazzo Reale—The street Vicerè Maqueda–Mandamento Castellammare–Kalsa and surroundings–Stradone di Mezzomonreale–A'Ziz – Palermo and the oriental coast–Real Favorita–The reservation Monte Gallo – the towers and the villas.
The Palazzo Reale district–Cassaro and the Cathedral Cassaro and Corso V. Emanuele stretch between Porta Nuova and Porta Felice. The first runs between Palazzo Reale and the army district of S. Giacomo.
The Piano del Palazzo Reale was built in the second half of the 16th century. After the successful riot against the Bourbons in 1820, this square was renamed “Piazza Vittoria” – Victory Square. In 1905, the mayor Bonanno planted palm trees all over and transformed it into a villa named after him. In baroque times, the Senate in Palermo raised a huge monument to honor Filippo IV. The statue was destroyed during the rebellion in 1848 and was replaced with another one picturing Filippo V.
The Palazzo dei Normanni (or Palazzo Reale) built in the centre of the old city, between the rivers of Kemonia and Papireto, marks the end of the most ancient part of the Palermo. Earlier, it was the place of residence of the Emirs, then the Normans and Spaniards until the regional parliament was housed here in 1947. Due to this, the building's current characteristics consist of a mixture of older and newer features.
The main entrance covers the splendid Capella Palatina surrounded by towers. The Pisana tower is the Astronomic Observatory. The Capella Palatina, built in 1130, the year Ruggero II was crowned, is richly decorated with wonderful mosaics.
Next to the square there are a number of monuments each representing different eras and periods: Palazzo Sclafani (16th century), the Capella della Soledad (17th century), Convento della Trinità, the monastery of San Elisabetta, the church of the saints Elena and Constantino (16th century), the Palazzo Arcivescovile, the military area of San Giacomo (12th century). Crossing the Vittoria Square, you'll come to the majestic and grand cathedral, which in many ways has become a symbol of the city. Both the splendid architecture and the beautiful artworks of the interior continue to thrill visitors. First raised as an early basilica, it became a mosque until it changed to being the main church of the Norman Roberto il Guiscardo. The chapels and the altar piece tell a unique story about different cultures and religions that have become integrated parts of Sicilian history and culture. You can also find the celebrated tombs of Ruggero II, Enrico VI and Federico II here.
After a stroll along Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via del Protonotaro, you'll find the Church of San Salvatore. Right before the junction of Via Maqueda, you can see the church of San Guiseppe dei Teatini. To the right, before entering Via Roma, you'll see the 17th century church of San Matteo. At Cassaro Nuovo, you will come across different castles, such as Palazzo Vannucci, Palazzo Ventimiglia, Palazzo Roccell and Palazzo Amari, which belong to different eras. Villa Garibaldi, a public garden is centrally located and it covers more than 10,328 square meters of area. Here, you can see unique palm trees, a Dracaena Draco (Dragon Tree) and three enormous Ficus Magnolioides, one of which is claimed to be the biggest tree in Italy.
On Piazza Marina, just before Palazzo delle Finanze and Zecca, you will come across the Garraffo fountain. It was heavily damaged by the WWII bombing attacks, but has now been restored to its original splendor. In Piazza Marina, you can admire Palazzo Steri, constructed in the 14th century as a fortified residence for the prestigious Chiaramonte family.
You can visit the church of Santa Maria della Catena (1330), located near the Foro Italico. It was constructed near la Cala, where the chains of the ancient city gate of Palermo were preserved. At Porta Felice, you can see the Passeggiata delle Cattive and admire the most beautiful palazzo, which used to belong to Sicilian noble families Benso, Butera and Lampedusa. It remained closed for many years, and was reopened in 1996.
At the end of this route, you can see the Porta Felice. It was named after Vicere Marcantonio's wife and constructed by Colonna. The final parade of the annual Festino of Santa Rosalia is conducted here every year.
Route 2: The street of Vicerè Maqueda and the Castellammare district The route from Via Ruggero Settimo to Viale della Libertà was constructed in the second half of the 20th century and joins Via Maqueda, a street constructed in the 17th century. These streets have given a contemporary look to the city.
The new city centre starts from Piazza Castelnuovo, where you can admire the Teatro Politeama, constructed in 1874 in neoclassic Pompeian style based on plans by Guiseppe Damiani Almeyda. Here stands the Gallery of Modern Art, which has many works by important Italian artists from the 19th and 20th century. You will also spot the statue of Ruggero Settimo, the leader of the revolutionary government, sculptured in 1865 by Benedetto Delisi.
Make sure you visit the elegant Via Ruggero Settimo Street. It has the best stores in town. You can also visit the impressive and fascinating Teatro Massimo here.
A sprawling 25,000 square meters of area is dedicated to the Porta Maqueda. The construction was started in 1874, based on the plans of G.B. Basile and his son Ernesto. The opera theatre was inaugurated in 1897 and today, it is popular in the whole of Europe.
The Museo Teatro Cuticchio is a traditional Sicilian marionette theatre and it is also called “Theatre of the Pupi”. The shows conducted here include Charlemagne—the king of France, the Paladini and the Crusades.
Along the Via Maqueda, you will spot the beautiful fountain in Piazza Pretoria. The piazza has two beautiful churches, the S. Caterina (1566) and S.Guiseppe dei Teatini (1612).