Located in the northwest of the island of Sicily, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Palermo is a buzzing Mediterranean centre, whose 1 million inhabitants are a fascinating cocktail of apparently conflicting characteristics. With its 2,700-years of history, Palermo has seen many different dominations, including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons just to name the most influential. These dominations created an intriguing fusion of people, architectural styles, languages and even ingredients used in the local dishes. The city is full of contradictions: elegant liberty villas and essential Arabic fortress, wonderful palaces and damaged buildings in the old center, baroque churches full of decorations and Norman churches with red domes, modern shopping areas and local markets (whose Arabic origins are still evident today thanks to their noise, smells, colors, narrow labyrinthine streets and the general ‘souk’ atmosphere).
Visiting Palermo is a continuous trip among centuries and cultures that will make your experience memorable!
A shortcut for your visit
There are many different things that can be experienced in Palermo, including historical, natural and gastronomical itineraries. As a quick reference, we here provide a short summary of all the key places of the city not to miss:
- The Royal Palace (called the Palazzo dei Normanni) with the extraordinary Cappella Palatina. It was the seat of the Kings in Sicily during the Norman domination and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily;
Figure 1 – Royal Chapel with byzantine gold mosaics and muqarnas wooden ceiling.
Figure 2 – The Royal Palace
- the Zisa castle, a summer residence of the Norman Kings inspired by Moorish architecture. The name Zisa itself derives from the Arab term al-Azîz, meaning “noble”, “glorious”, “magnificent”;
Figure 3 – The Zisa Castle and garden
- the Duomo di Monreale, with its gold byzantine mosaics, and the Cathedral, which summarizing the history of the city from the byzantine times to the neo-classical ones. Emperor Frederick II, “Stupor Mundi” is buried here;
Figure 4 – Cathedral of Palermo
- The Baroque Churches of San Domenico, a burial-place for illustrious politicians and artists, and Casa Professa, with its unique decoration features of intricate intarsia (stone inlay);
Figure 5 – An example of Baroque Church in Palermo: San Giuseppe dei Teatini
- The Arabic-Norman Churches of San Cataldo, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, and San Giovanni degli Eremiti with the red domes and the Chiesa dello Spasimo (in the Kalsa district);
Figure 6 – Church of San Cataldo with the typical Red Domes
Figure 7 – Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in the Kalsa district
- the Capuchin Monastery with its impressive catacombs and mummy collection, where the relatives were used to visit the deceased people whose embalmed bodies were exposed. This somehow macabre attraction is an interesting representation of the deep relationship between life and death for Sicilians;
- the Gardens: the English Garden, villa Malfitano, the Botanical Garden, villa Garibaldi and the Favorita’s Park, where it’s possible to admire many exotic plants, secular trees, as well as statues and fountain;
Figure 8 – Botanic Gardens
- the Opera Houses: Teatro Massimo, the biggest lyric theater in Italy designed by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile renowned for its perfect acoustics, and the neoclassic Politeama;
Figure 9 – Teatro Massimo Opera House
Figure 10 – Teatro Politeama Opera House
- the Markets of Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo. These are the perfect place to discover the ingredients of Sicilian cooking and the local market atmospheres;
Figure 11 – An example of typical market
- the Beach: Modello, the sandy beach lying between Monte Pellegrino and Monte Gallo. Born as a small fishing village close to Palermo, it is now a center of tourism and the home of the World Windsurfing Festival.
Figure 12 – Mondello Beach
Figure 13- Mondello Beach as it appears from Monte Pellegrino
Figure 14 – Church of Santa Maria della Catena, Piazza Marina
Figure 15 – Utveggio Castle on the top of Monte Pellegrino
Three walking itineraries
Itinerary 1: From the Quattro Canti to the Norman Palace
The “Quattro Canti”
The “Quattro Canti” is the junction in Palermo. Effectively, it is the centre point of the four areas of the old town centre. You will almost inevitably pass through it and it is worth stopping for five minutes to have a look at its sculptures which were commissioned by the Spanish Viceroy in 1611. The sculptures on each of the four corners depict a variety of themes, including the four seasons, four Spanish kings and the four patron saints of the old town areas.
Going south-east down Via Maqueda you will come across Piazza Pretoria which is home not only to a splendid fountain but several other impressive buildings including, on the right, the City Hall. The fountain, known for generations as the “Fountain of Shame”, has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1555 by the Florentine sculpture Francesco Camiliani for a Tuscan villa owned by the Viceroy Pedro de Toledo. His son, on inheriting the villa in 1574, thought it a little too risqué for his tastes and sold it to the City of Palermo who erected it where it now stands. The large central fountain is the focal point for sixteen nude statues of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs. If you imagine this being erected during the Inquisition, it is quite easy to imagine why it received its epithet, the “Fountain of Shame”.
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana)
Behind the City Hall, there is another square, Piazza Bellini where you can see two of Palermo’s most interesting churches: the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (more commonly known as La Martorana) and the Church of San Cataldo, instantly recognizeable thanks to its trio of red domes. La Martorana was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch, a famous Admiral (a word of Arabic origin) of the fleet of King Roger II. Initially the church was dedicated to the celebration of Greek Orthodox rites but this changed in the 13th century when it became part of the Catholic Church. Several parts of the structure were unfortunately changed during the 17th century and many of the original mosaics were discarded to make way for Baroque frescoes. However, the surviving mosaics are amongst the most impressive ever to have been created in Sicily. Indeed, the craftsmen who were brought from Byzantium by King Roger II to work on the Normal Palace and the Duomo at Cefalu’, also contributed their art to this church. The wonderful bell tower outside is the apogee of Norman-Arab architecture.
The Church of San Cataldo
Standing next to La Martorana is the miniscule Church of San Cataldo, characterised by its three red domes. It was built in 1154 and has retained its original ascetic atmosphere perfectly. The only decoration to speak of is the original mosaic floor. It is presently the religious seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Palermo.
The Casa Professa
The Casa Professa or Chiesa del Gesù is a Baroque masterpiece built by the Jesuits over 12 years between 1564 and 1578. Additions were made until 1634 when the church was considered complete. Much of the artwork inside was carried out by the Jesuit priests themselves and its florid decorations were, and still are, amongst the most splendid in Palermo.
The Ballarò is probably the oldest of Palermo’s Arabic markets. The derivation of its name is unsure but may come from the name of the North African village where most of the Arabic traders working in the market originated: Balhara. Nowadays, the market’s Arabic roots are still evident and it is well worth a detour if not a specific visit.
The Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini
This church, built in 1612, is a must-see for anyone who loves Baroque architecture. If you do not, it might be a good idea to stay away, though it is still quite impressive. Amongst the great many works of art inside is a painting entitled “The Triumph of Sant’Andrea Avellino” by the Dutch artist Borremans dating back to 1724. There is also a great deal of skilled marble-work to be seen.
Around the Norman Palace
The area around the Norman Palace has long been the seat of Kings and rulers and today it plays host to the Sicilian Regional Parliament. Piazza Indipendenza and Porta Nuova used to mark Palermo’s southern boundary though nowadays the city spreads right up to the Conca d’Oro valley under Monreale. The Norman Palace is flanked on either side by large shady piazzas, Piazza Indipendenza to the south and Piazza della Vittoria to the north.
La Capella Palatina (The Palatine Chapel)
Probably the most visited monument in Palermo and should not be missed. Built in 1130, the same year in which King Roger II acceded to the throne of the Norman kingdom, the Cappella Palatina is a small, compact masterpiece hidden away inside the Royal Palace. Once again it is characterised by a fusion of different architectural styles, most evidently the Byzantine mosaics and the wooden Arabic honeycombed ceiling. Other parts of the Norman Palace are also open to the public.
Built towards the end of the 12-th century over pre-existing structures, has been much altered, especially in the 18-th century, the period from which the majestic dome and the interior date. The original style is visible in the apses, which have preserved their geometric decoration, while the porch on the south side, in Catalan Gothic style, is 15-th century. The façade giving onto Via Matteo Bonello, which has kept its 14-th/15-th century appearance, is linked by two arches to the campanile on the other side of the street. To the north of the cathedral is the Loggia dell’ Incoronazione, where traditionally the kings appeared before the people after being crowned
Itinerary 2: The Piazza Marina Area
Piazza Marina and its surrounding area is one of the most interesting parts of Palermo. It is to be found at the bottom (the sea end) of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and is delimited by the seafront to the east, Via Lincoln and the Botanical Garden to the south-east and Via Roma to the south-west. The area in general is known as La Kalsa and was originally an Arabic quarter. It is home to numerous aristocratic palaces, churches, restaurants, mazy streets and fascinating piazzas.
You can quite easily spend a whole morning wandering around this area. Here follows a list of places well worth a visit:
Palazzo Steri (also known as Palazzo Chiaramonte)
Looking over Piazza Marina on the north side, Palazzo Steri is a typical example of the kind of fortressed palaces that were fairly common amongst powerful mediaeval noble families. It was built in 1307 and has had a fascinating history. Apart from being the scene of many power struggles between local noble families and sovereign rulers (in particular the Spanish), Palazzo Steri became the official residence of the Spanish Viceroy and then, in 1601, the Sicilian branch of the “Spanish” Inquisition took it over as their base. Indeed, Piazza Marina witnessed many an execution as the Inquisition took root in Palermo.
Today it is home to the offices of the Rector of Palermo University and, of equal importance, to Renato Guttuso’s world-famous painting of the Vucciria market.
Palazzo Abbatellis (the Regional Art Gallery)
Completed in 1488, Palazzo Abbatellis was built in a Catalan Gothic style that is quite evident to the visitor thanks to its castle-like battlements. Inside, it is now home to the Regional Art Gallery, whose collection includes several masterpieces including a sculpture by Francesco Laurana, the “Bust of Eleanor of Aragon”, Antonello da Messina’s “Our Lady of the Annunciation” and the famous fresco by an unknown artist entitled “The Triumph of Death”.
The vast expanse of Piazza Magione is a simply fascinating story of urban planning, or non-planning. The area was heavily bombed during the 2nd World War and despite funding from both America and the Italian central government in Rome, nothing was done to restore the area. For many years, in fact, the bombed out shells of buildings remained until, in the 1960s, the whole area was razed to the ground to be become an unofficial car park. Finally, in the 1990s, the local government bought the land and turned it into a large grassy quad, planted trees (only a few) and now it is a play area for the quarter’s children and a venue for occasional concerts during the summer.
La Basilica della Magione
It has an equally interesting, though more conventional history. Originally built in 1191, it was initially entrusted to the Cistercian order that lived in the adjoining cloisters. Only six years later, however, King Henry VI von Hohenstaufen handed it over to the Teutonic Knights who retained control over it until the 15th Century. Many Baroque additions were subsequently made to the church but, fortunately, these were removed during its restoration after the 2nd World War bombings and the church you see today is virtually the same as the original one, a delightful, simple example of very late Arab-Norman architecture.
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi
If you compare this wonderful mediaeval church to La Magione, it becomes clear how quickly architectural styles developed and evolved in Palermo. Indeed, while La Magione incorporated and drew on Arab-Norman architectonic philosophy, the Basilica of San Francesco, started in 1255, is built in a typically Italian Romanesque Gothic Style. The façade, completed in the early 1300s, has a classic rose window and false arches but inside the mood is much more ascetic, as maybe befits a church dedicated to San Francesco. Indeed, today there is still an order of Franciscan monks that live in the adjoining monastery. The church also plays host to frequent concerts.
Itinerary 3: From Teatro Massimo to Piazza Politeama
Teatro Massimo, in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, is right on the border between the old Palermo town centre and the more modern, more commercial part of Palermo. Directly opposite the theatre is a series of mazy streets full of bars, restaurants and craft shops, while to the north-west lies the wealthiest shopping and residential areas of down-town Palermo.
Teatro Massimo has anything but a simple history and for this is typical of Palermo. Originally commissioned in 1868 (after several years of deliberation), it was not until 1875 when the Palermitan architect, Giovan Battista Basile was finally allowed to begin transforming his plans into reality. Progress was slow, however, and work was suspended from 1882 to 1890. The following year, in 1891, Basile died without ever seeing his great masterpiece completed and his son, Ernesto, was called upon to finish the works. Finally, in 1897, Teatro Massimo, then the second largest opera house in Europe after L’Opera in Paris, opened its doors to the public with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. The same year, a very young Caruso, in only his second professional role, sang in a production of La Gioconda.
For 77 years things ran relatively smoothly and many of the opera world’s most famous stars sang there, including, Gigli, Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Pavarotti. However, in 1974 the theatre was “temporarily” closed so that it could be brought into line with modern safety regulations. Unfortunately, in the Palermo of those years, “temporary” was devoid of its usual meaning and not until 1997, some 25 years later, did Teatro Massimo finally reopen.
Piazza Olivella and the Regional Archeaological Museum
Directly opposite Teatro Massimo is Via Bara dell’Olivella, a narrow street famous for its craft shops and its puppet theatre (well worth a visit on Sunday afternoon for both adults and children). At the end is Piazza Olivella, one of Palermo’s nightlife centres with lots of bars and restaurants, and home to the imposing Baroque Church of Sant’Ignazio and the Regional Archaeological Museum. The Museum, which houses, amongst other things, two large statues of Zeus dating back to the 2nd century BC and, in the lovely cloisters, several Greek and Roman statues taken from Solunto and Tindari. The other streets of the area are also fun to wander around.
Il Capo Market
Il Capo is one of Palermo’s four main street markets and possibly the busiest. Its Arabic origins are evident and it is well worth a visit in the morning when the level of hustle and bustle is at its highest. It concentrates mainly on the sale of food and the fish stalls are of particular renown. It is strange to think that this market borders on the enormous Fascist era law courts, two aspects of Palermo that could hardly be more different. Wending your way through the streets you will catch glimpses of the Cathedral. The secret in these labyrinthine alleys is to follow your nose.
Via Ruggero Settimo- Piazza Politeama -Via della Liberta’
Palermo’s main shopping streets are between Teatro Massimo and Piazza Politeama and along Via delle Libertá. From outside Teatro Massimo, go west along Via Ruggero Settimo where you will find some of the most exclusive shops in Palermo. Halfway down this road is a pedestrian area street called Via Principe Belmonte, where there are some nice bars and cafés where you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
Ruggero Settimo leads directly to Piazza Politeama with its impressive theatre (the second in terms of size after Teatro Massimo). On the opposite side of the square, continuing in the same direction, is Via della Libertá one of the most desirable residential areas in Palermo as well as being home to more upmarket shops, restaurants and bars.
If you continue walking down Via della Libertá for about 1km you will come to a large junction, on the other side of which, on your right, are the Giardino Inglese, which may be worth a visit if you have young children with you. There are some small fairground rides, dodgem cars, etc. but also plenty of space to run and play.
> Palermo tourist office
> Tourism department of Sicily
> Teatro Massimo
> Teatro Libero
> Teatro Biondo
> Teatro Nuovo Montevergini
> Teatro del Canto Popolare Ditirammu
Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea,Via Garraffello 25
Zelle Arte Contemporanea Via Matteo Bonello, 19
Nuvole incontri d’arte, Via Matteo Bonello 21
Spazio Cannatella Via Papireto 10
Monuments, Churchs and Museums
> La Cattedrale di Palermo
> Il Museo delle Marionette
> Palazzo Abatellis
> Arsenale di Palermo
> Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Palermo
> Riso Museo di Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia
> Casina alla Cinese
> Centro d’Arte Piana dei Colli – Villa Alliata Cardillo
> Società siciliana per la storia patria
> Casa Museo Stanze al Genio
> Museo del giocattolo
> Museo Gemmellaro
> Palazzo Asmundo
> Orto botanico