The capital of Sicily is the grand old dowager of the island, an ancient beguiling and decadent aristocratic dame who is absolutely enthralling. She has many stories to tell and experiences to offer in an understated layering of history which is intoxicating.
A walk through the crowded streets of the city will result in the discoveries of everything from elegant Georgian apartments, to Norman castles, old domes of Arab mosques, little pockets of Art Nouveau, major Neoclassical theatres and endless other curiosities in a city which has been a multiethnic melting pot for centuries.
As the current reigning European cultural capital of 2018, the local government at Palermo has been opening up many historic buildings to the public and has been offering many cultural events and exhibitions which highlight the ongoing massive city restoration project which will continue for many generations.
The appeal of Palermo apart from its distinct colours, flavours, energy and style has to be its amazingly rich history. As a vital part of the largest island in the Mediterranean, Palermo’s port has been a desired prize by all significant conquerors throughout European history. It’s strategic location, and agricultural wealth has made it a sought-after prize for everyone from colonising Arab Emirates to crusading French Norman knights. It was a valuable acquisition for the Angevin French kingdom, easily engulfed into the territory of Castilian Spain, then passed like a pawn onto the Neopolitan Bourbons and finally uncomfortably jammed into the jigsaw puzzle of a united Italy in the Garibaldian Risorgimento.
There are so many ways of getting to know Palermo, perhaps the best way to approach the cities endless barrage of intimidating historical monuments is to divide the city into different zones since the buildings from each specific epoch and conqueror of Sicily are close to one another.
1) Monte Pellegrino
Perhaps the most iconic element of Palermo is the landscape of the city itself, whether you approach from the port, by air or on the autostrada, the shadow of Monte Pellegrino and the other mountains is always the most significant feature of the city.
Together with the surrounding mountains which seem to embrace the city giving Palermo its great semi-circle or Conca d'Oro shell shape, the landscape of the town is almost as surprising as its monuments.
Historical travellers to the city from Goethe to D H Lawrence and every generation since have marvelled about the majestic Pellegrino mountain which hangs over the historical centre of Palermo.
On Sundays the most health conscience Palermitani tracks up it together with religious pilgrims who visit the church of Santa Rosalia. The road up is closed to general trafficapart from local buses and tour groups, and the separate walking track zigzags up offering walkers some of the best views of the metropolis ever.
It is also home to the city’s hermetic Patron Saint Rosalia, whose body and relics were discovered in the seventeenth century in a cave on the mountain. Today her church is housed nearby to her grave. Built into the peak of Mount Pellegrino the Chiesa di Santa Rosalia is a focus of religious pilgrimage and tourism throughout the year.
2) The Palermo Cathedral is an iconic symbol of the city, its facade has been changed and shaped by the renovations of each of the cities foreign governers which makes it a unique blend of architectural styles. A wonderful mixture of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical characteristics the church is set in the heart of the centre of the city, and its artwork and decor inside are one of a kind. It’s unique outdoor rooftop terraces offer a great perspective of the historic centre of the Palermo, and recently the Cathedral has also been opening up for night time viewings, an experience which sounds absolutely beautiful.
5) Palazzo dei Normanni is close to the Duomo and today is the seat of the Sicilian regional parliament, but it was once at the centre of the Arab stronghold and is a noble part of Palermo’s city landscape.
The more significant part of the palace was rebuilt and added onto in Aragonese times, but there are many parts of the original structure which have been preserved including the room called the Sala Normanna.
The gigantic palace contains the Cappella Palatina, which is by far the best example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that dominated 12th-century Sicily. In the 1130’s Roger II commissioned mosaics to decorate his private apartments and his personal chapel which can be visited periodically by the public. The spectacular mosaics crafted by north African artisans are laden with gold and precious stones and depict episodes from the Bible and Norman Kings with Greek and Arabic inscriptions.
6) Monreale is a medieval neighbourhood about twenty-minutes drive from the city centre where there is the Norman cathedral in which the Norman Kings William I and II are buried.
The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the wonderfully preserved architecture of the church and surrounding cloisters.
The magnificent golden mosaics which dominate the Monreale church depict a giant Christ the Pantocrator who looks over a succession of Saints, scenes from the old and new testament, royal thrones and King William himself being crowned by Christ.
The cloisters alongside the cathedral are made up of more than two hundred carved, decorated twin columns surrounding the square.
The neighbourhood of Monreale has been built around the church, and its side streets and piazza are filled with many cute little stores to explore, each showcase the art of ceramics and the ancient history of the mosaic technique.
7) One of the most famous landmarks of Palermo is the Quattro Canti built in the1600’s during the city’s Spanish period. The decorative corners mark the meeting point of the two ancient main streets of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Be careful not to get run down by the traffic as you admire the ornamental curved structures at the base of a once running fountain, with statues of the four seasons at the top, in the middle a succession of Spanish Kings and at the apex Saints Cristina, Ninfia, Olivia and Agata, protectors of the four neighbourhoods of the city.
8) Another fascinating remnant from the Spanish dominion of Palermo is the Porta Nuova built in 1583.
The elaborate gate in a succession of triumphal archways was built to celebrate the Spanish conquest of Tunis in 1535 and the visit of Charles V the only Spanish king to set foot in the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Located beside Palazzo dei Normanni, it indicates the entrance of via Cassaro, the central and most ancient street of the city from, Corso Calatafimi on the way to Monreale.
9) Art nouveau in Palermo
The Florio family were one of the most wealthy families of 19th century Italy. Originally from the southern Italian region of Calabria, the family moved to Sicily after the earthquake of 1783 to take advantage of the stability under the reign of the Borbon king Ferdinand in the kingdom of the two Sicilies.
The Florio dynasty was a symbol of the ‘bel Epoque’ of Sicilian history when the island first enjoyed the benefits of entrepreneurial wealth, refined taste and lifestyle.
It is mostly thanks to the Florio’s that Palermo has some beautiful buildings in the liberty or art nouveau style.
Villa Igica was the home of Ignazio Florio and is now a luxurious historical five-star hotel, wedged between the sea and the mountains.
The nearby Tonnara Florio was originally a tuna cannery which was bought by the family who commissioned architect Carlo Giachery to transform it into a home. The result of the project is a small rectangular shaped palace in the neogothic style which regularly hosted the Bourbon royal family on their visits to the city. Today it is a stylish venue and restaurant right on the Palermo waterfront.
While the Villa Florio all’ Olivizzo on Viale Regina Margherita in the centre of Palermo
is a masterpiece of Italian architect Ernesto Basile. Basile was an exponent of modernism and Art Nouveau and was famous for the blending of ancient, medieval and modern elements.
The Villino Florio was built for the Florio family between 1899 and 1902 and is one of the first examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Palermo.
10) Palermo’s magnificent churches
Palermo is literally filled with many examples of Churches with endless precious artworks and styles. You can spend days exploring each and every one and be amazed by the immense artistic heritage of the city.
San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (St John of the Lepers) on via San Cappello: While built by the Norman rulers, the architecture of San Giovanni has strong Arabic influences. The builders of the church were said to have been Fatimid architects. In 1119 the church was attached to a leper colony, hence the name. The church was dedicated to St John the Baptist together with the adjacent hospital which no longer exists. It is believed to be the most ancient Latin church in Palermo.
Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (Our Lady of the Admiral) known as La Martorana by locals it is the main church of the Greek Orthodox parish of San Nicolò dei Greci. The church was founded in the late 15th century by Albanian refugees who fled from the Balkans during the conquest of the Ottoman Empire.
The domed Norman-era church with ornate baroque remodelling is known for its pristine Byzantine mosaics. It is characterised by a multiplicity of combined styles as during the centuries, it has been added to and embellished.
Santa Caterina (St Catherine) is an exquisite example of Palermitan Baroque: drenched in ornamentation. Located in the heart of the historic centre, between Piazza Bellini and Piazza Pretoria, in the same area as other well-known architectural landmarks like the churches of Martorana and San Cataldo (both World Heritage Sites). The church is a synthesis of Sicilian Baroque, Rococo and Renaissance styles.
Chiesa di Gesu’ (Church of Jesus) also known as Casa Professa is filled with fantastic marble work details and works of art. It is one of the most elaborate Baroque churches in Italy.
San Domenico is the grandest church in Palermo filled with stucco sculptures made by Italian artist Giacomo Serpotta. The detailed work of Serpotta is a symbolic representation of Justice, Wisdom, Purity and Fortitude. His work can also be seen at San Lorenzo and Santa Zita attached to San Mamiliano with his illustrations of the mysteries of the rosary and Santa Caterina.
San Domenico is also the final resting place of many famous figures from Sicilian history and culture. For this reason, it is known as the ‘Pantheon of illustrious Sicilians’ which includes anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, legendary academics like Giuseppe Pitrè, Michele Amari and Sicilian artist Vincenzo Riolo. After the cathedral, this is the most important church in Palermo.
San Giuseppe dei Teatini located near the Quattro Canti is considered to be one of the most outstanding examples of the Sicilian Baroque in Palermo.
The church was built at the beginning of the 17th century by Giacomo Besio, a Genoese member of the Theatines order. Its striking featured large dome is covered with blue and yellow majolica ceramic tiles and is a unique part of Palermo’s cityscape.
The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Catena was built in the 1500’s by architect Matteo Carnelivari and is considered an excellent example of the Gothic Catalan style. It gets its name from the long chain that is fixed onto an exterior wall which once closed the entrance to the ancient port of Palermo.
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11) Palaces of Palermo’s aristocracy
Eighteenth-century Sicily was home to many Sicilian aristocrats, including one hundred and forty-two Princes, seven hundred and eighty-eight Marquises and around fifteen hundred Dukes and Barons. These numbers suggest a high demand for sumptuous palazzi and aristocratic homes. Palermo was usually where the primary residences of Sicilian aristocracy were located, but today many of these have been abandoned.
A walk around the city will provide glimpses of grand aristocratic facades decorated with family crests, which are sadly empty, dirty and decaying.
Other places are in better shape and are open to the public despite being in need of restoration. These include the Palazzo Gangi which was the backdrop to the Visconti adaptation of the Leopard. Originally the town house of the Valguarnera Princes and then of the Gangi family it is a grand old Baroque palazzo right in the centre of the city.
Palazzo Ajutamicristo takes its name after Guglielmo Ajutamicristo, baron of Misilmeri and Calatafimi, who had it built for his family between 1495 to1501.
A banker of Pisan origin, he had grown wealthy over a few decades trading in Sicilian cheese and cereals. Tired of his castle in Misilmeri, he had long wanted to build a "Domus Magna", which would reflect his wealth and which would serve as an ornament for the city of Palermo, on via Garibaldi.
Palazzo Chiaramonte, known as the Steri is one of the most iconic palaces of Palermo and represents seven centuries of Sicilian art and history. The palace was built in 1320 by Manfredi I Chiaramonte, a nobleman from Modica. From1468 to 1517 it was the office of the Spanish Viceroys who ruled Sicily and between 1601 and 1782 was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition. In this same period, the palace became a prison and torture chamber for the Inquisition.
Since then it has been used as both a Courthouse, Customs office and today it is a part of the University of Palermo which has opened it up to the public as a museum housing everything from a weapons collection, unique graffiti from victims of the Inquisition and a celebrated painting of the historical Vuccuria markets by Renato Guttuso.
12) The Palazzo Abatell is dates back to the fifteenth century and houses many critical Sicilian works of art as part of the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia. Including the dark gothic allegorical work titled the Triumph of Death from the 1500’s and Antonella da Messina’s most well-known work from the Renaissance, the Annunciation an oil painting which inspired the Flemish school who took this painting method to new levels.
13) Palazzo Sant’Elia
The construction work of Palazzo del Marchese di Santa Croce di Trigona di Sant’Elia was begun in the 1600’s, and with the project to widen the main street of Via Maqueda during the Spanish period, the Palazzo was modified to fit the new layout of the city. The result is one of the most gorgeous palaces of the town in an elegant neoclassical style complete with a classical loggia.
Today the building has become the home of Palermo’s contemporary art scene. The Foundation of the Palazzo Sant’Elia houses regular exhibitions of Sicilian artists and is a wonderful channel for artists around the island.
14) Palazzo Mirto located nearby Palazzo Abatellis on Via Merlo in the historic centre was home to the old, aristocratic Filangeri family for four centuries. They were given the title of Princes of Mirto, from the name of their feud in the region of Messina, in the mid-17th century. The palace has recently been opened as a ‘house museum’ which has maintained its original style to reflect the daily life of a Sicilian aristocratic family.
Today the Palazzo is a series of richly decorated rooms with walls adorned with silk panels, tapestries, curtains and works of art. There is also a Chinese living room which was very fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. The palaces walls and ceiling are decorated with scenes of everyday life set in an imaginary Oriental-style.
15) The Palazzo Alliata di Villafranca stands on the spectacular Bologna Square, in one of the four historic districts. A royal palace, it was constructed in the sixteenth century, by the powerful Beccadelli family of Bologna. They arrived in Sicily during the Renaissance, and they became one of the most important noble families of Palermo.
The Palace hosts the work of some of the most important masters of eighteenth century Sicily including the architect G.B. Vaccarini, the plasterers from the school of Serpotta and the painter G. Serenario.
The Palaces art collection includes works of great historical and artistic value such as the famous Crucifixion by Antoon Van Dyck, two large paintings by Matthias Stom, The Stoning of St. Stephen and The tribute of the currency (the latter represented Sicily at thr Expo 2015 in Milan) and two other works by Pietro d’Asaro.
16) Museo d'Arte Moderna
The Gallery of Modern Art of Palermo is located in Via Sant’Anna, which continues along from Via Alloro to Via Roma. It is in the heart of the old city centre and a few hundred meters away from Piazza Pretoria and Palazzo delle Aquile, the City Hall. From here, you can walk down to the Discesa dei Giudici, cross via Roma and come to Piazza Sant’Anna, where you find the church of Sant’Anna and the annexed convent where the Museum is located.
The Modern Art Museum is divided into fourteen different sections that allow visitors to comprehend the distinctive features and history of the collections. The two hundred and fourteen works on display reflect significant trends in fashion that represent modern art in Italy. Including at the most famous national and international events (such as the Venice Biennale) of the early 20th century. Including Neoclassicism, Romanticism, realism and naturalism.
17) Pupi Siciliane
The Opera dei Pupi is an old Sicilian tradition, and the Fratelli Cuticchio at Palermo are responsible for keeping this art form alive.
The Marionette puppets act out epic Frankish romantic poems such as the Song of Roland or Orlando Furioso which have its origins in the 1700’s.
The plays are performed in Sicilian dialect and can be hard to follow. That being said, it’s a spectacular performance that engages the audience on many different levels. There is no script, as the action is mostly improvised and the twenty plus characters are played by only two puppeteers against beautiful hand-painted scenographies.
The medieval tales of battles, kings, historical figures, knights and dames are intricate and violent yet are a beautiful expression of this ancient art.
The Festival di Morgana is an event hosted by the International Museum of Puppets Antonio Pasqualino at Palermo. Usually held in November the festival brings together puppeteers from all over the world to celebrate the ancient art of puppetry through performances, talks and workshops.
18) Historical markets: Ballarò, Il Capo, Borgo Vecchio and Vucciria
Arriving in Sicily, you will thank the god’s and the Palermitani’s passion for excellent food which has kept the market neighbourhoods of Palermo alive. You can still have an authentic Sicilian market experience at the Capo, Ballero' and Borgo Vecchio markets who follow the traditions as vibrant as ever with many family run restaurants and street food vendors.
Sicilian markets are filled with an exotic old-world atmosphere in a mixture of fishmongers, butchers, grocers and many stores who fry and barbecue foods out in the street. The oldest markets in Palermo are the Vucceria and still survive today from the 1200’s, but in a much-reduced manner compared to its past.
It is around these markets that you can find the perfect place to taste some delicious Sicilian food. Apart from the usual Sicilian delicacies such as the cannolo and casatta which is made up of ricotta, marzipan and candied fruit sweetness, Palermo is the home to some of the most unique and exotic cuisines on the island.
The street food culture in the city is particularly rich, and a visit to any of the open air markets will be accompanied by the mouthwatering smells and tastes of the beautiful foods roasting at the stalls and baking in the ovens.
Beginning with the Arancina rice ball is a deeply fried beauty introduced to Sicily during Arab colonisation in the early middle ages she has been a staple of Sicilian street food ever since.
The great arancina is part of a more significant street-food category called ‘pezzi di rosticceria’ (literally, ‘deli pieces’). The list of pezzi is endless and include calzoni, pizzette, spitini, ravazzate, rollo. All variations of fried or baked bread or closed pizza filled with unlimited pizza toppings.
Then comes the Sfincione, a thick, soft dough Focaccia pizza, topped with tomatoes, onions, anchovies and caciocavallo cheese, seasoned with a dash of oregano.
Another deep fried piece of heaven is the Pane panelle e crocchè. Panelle are little square pancakes made with chickpea flour; crocchè (or cazzilli) are potato croquettes. You can eat them on their own or stuff them into a bread roll.
For the more adventurous, there is the Sicilian version of escargot. The Babbaluci are small snails cooked with oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, or with a special tomato sauce called ‘picchi pacchi’.
The king of street food at Palermo has to be the Pani ca’ meusa or spleen burger. You can only find this in Palermo, so make sure you try it if you want to have an authentic Palermitan experience. You can have it served with salt and lemon or with cheese (caciocavallo or ricotta). That is unless you are a vegetarian for apparent reasons.
Then there is the Frittol which is a bit more challenging to find it and a bit on the ‘extreme’ side of the spectrum. Frittola is everything left from the slaughter of calves, including bones that are ground for industrial use and pieces of meat boiled at high temperature in large silos.
If you ever wander the streets of Palermo at night, the smell of the stigghiola will drive you straight to the Vucciria market, where you’ll find big greasy men barbequing in the dark like there is no tomorrow. What are they, you ask? Roasted intestines of sheep or goat, sometimes wrapped around a spring onion.
For pasta lovers you cannot go past Pasta con le sarde, this typical dish from Palermo is a beautiful plate of spaghetti flavoured with olive oil, wild fennel and sardines. Sublime!
19) Palermo’s ornamental Theatres
Palermo’s Teatro Massimo and Teatro Poloteama theatres are amazing feats of architectural design both are in the neoclassical style and are immensely sublime constructions on epic proportions.
The Teatro Massimo is known as the la Scala of the south and hosts a rich opera and ballet program. While the Poloteama on Piazza Castelnuovo along the same road at the Massimo is in the same style and topped by a chariot pulled by horses is the home of local symphonic music.
The area near Teatro Massimo is filled with many cafes and outdoor restaurants and has been called Palermo’s salon. It is most definitely the focus of the city’s vibrant social life and aperativo time.
20) Public Gardens
For those who love a little bit of nature, there are a couple of beautiful green spaces in the city where you can sit, relax, read a book and just enjoy the moment. The Giardini Inglese (English Gardens) on the via Liberta’ is at the beginning of the most elegant and affluent part of the city. Beginning with the gardens this street is filled with sleek Georgian palazzo after palazzo, high-end brands and trendy restaurants and cafes.
While the Villa Malfitano Whitaker on via Dante Alighieri is an elegant retreat in the middle of the city. Joseph Whitaker junior inherited vast agricultural holding from his uncle who had made his wealth in the wine industry of Marsala in western Sicily. His classic neo-Renaissance styled home at Palermo and surrounding gardens are open to the public and offer an intimate glimpse into the wealth and elegance of this affluent anglo-Italian family from the early 20th century.
With over two thousand seven hundred years of history, Palermo has gathered an immense heritage of history, art and culture which has made it one of the most fascinating European cities to visit. You would need many lifetimes to explore it all, so there is always an excuse to come back.