Ancient and multi-ethnic, capital of one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, the city of Palermo has always been linked to the sea. Conquered and inhabited for centuries by different peoples, Palermo has been able to enrich its culture in particular with Arab and Norman influences that are still reflected today on its traditions and also on its art and architecture.
Palermo, due to its size, is a city that can be explored well on foot, especially if you limit yourself to the historic center and the sea area. You can also easily move by bicycle, passing through the streets, alleys and small squares of the city, animated by day and night.
Best things to do in Palermo
Via Vittorio Emanuele
Along the main street, Via Vittorio Emanuele, you immerse yourself in the Palermo atmosphere. The street is lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. Along this way, the Pretoria Fountain appears on the left, which the Sicilians call it Fontana della Vergogna because of the nakedness of the statues that make it up: 48 statues representing mythological figures and cherubs. It is one of the most representative symbols of the city and is located in the square of the same name. For many, it is considered one of the most beautiful fountains in Italy: built-in 1554 by Francesco Camillani in Florence, it was then transferred in 1581 to Pretoria square in Palermo.
A few steps ahead you are in the suggestive intersection of the Quattro Canti. It is the intersection of the 2 main streets of Palermo: Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda which leads to the Teatro Massimo. The 4 facades are perfectly symmetrical because they are built following the same model: at the base, there is a fountain that represents the seasons; at the first level there are the statues of the kings of Palermo, while at the last level there are the representations of the 4 patron saints of Palermo.
Continuing along Via Vittorio Emanuele you then reach the Cathedral of Palermo, dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary Assumed into Heaven: a monument absolutely worth visiting as it embodies Arab and Norman influences. The original construction has undergone numerous modifications, extensions, and restorations over the centuries. In the Cathedral you can visit the crypt and see the tombs of kings and queens, including the tomb of King Roger II. Here is also the cathedral treasure, a collection of royal jewels from the 12th century. You can also climb the roofs of the cathedral to admire a beautiful panorama that extends over the whole city.
Palazzo dei Normanni
Continuing along Via Vittorio Emanuele, you finally arrive at Porta Nuova, the monumental city gate that depicts the Moors, that is the Arabs driven out and defeated by the Normans after their arrival. Nearby, in Piazza Indipendenza, stands the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace), the ancient and majestic royal palace, built to house the Arab emirs, was later occupied by the Normans who expanded it, and later by the Spanish. Nowadays it is the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The Palazzo dei Normanni is the oldest royal seat in Europe. It was built during the Arab domination and modified over the centuries. Its architectural style, therefore, retains the traces of the different cultures that inhabited it.
Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel)
The real pearl of this palace is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), a place with decorations of rare beauty, whose vault is covered with mosaics in which the predominant color is gold, and where you can appreciate Norman-inspired artistic works (such as the religious iconography) and elements of decidedly Arab inspiration (such as geometric decorations along the walls of the church). The Palatine Chapel, finished around 1100 and commissioned by King Roger II to host the masses of the royal family, is one of the most beautiful examples of Islamic art. The Arabic inlaid ceiling and Byzantine golden mosaics will leave you breathless. It is certainly the most beautiful Byzantine chapel in Palermo and is considered by many to be the most beautiful church in Sicily.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
After the Palazzo dei Normanni, it is possible to visit San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a medieval Norman church. Famous and easily recognizable from the outside thanks to its deep red domes, its interior is also worth a visit. The cloister and its gardens are splendid. The Church is one of the symbols of Palermo and one of the most fascinating religious buildings in Italy, a magnificent example of Sicilian-Norman art. It is part of the Arab-Norman route of Palermo, a Unesco world heritage site.
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
If you are looking for a somewhat unusual visit during your trip to Palermo, you should definitely visit the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. In the basement of the church of Santa Maria della Pace, in via dei Cappuccini, there is in fact a hidden cemetery where the bodies of the inhabitants of the city are embalmed and hung from the niches carved into the walls. Here there is in fact the entrance to the Capuchin Catacombs. In reality, these are not catacombs, but a real cemetery where the Palermitans from the 16th to the early 20th century were buried: bodies and skeletons fully dressed, with their best clothes, and exposed – lying or hanging – on the walls.
Originally, only the monks could be buried inside the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monastery. But over time, many Sicilians, mostly from noble families, asked to be buried there. Thanks to a dehydration and embalming process, the bodies remained very well preserved. In their will, the deceased also chose the clothes with which they wished to be embalmed. Families could visit them and make donations to the monastery, allowing monks to maintain bodies. Thanks to these donations, the catacombs have survived to the present day. Today the catacombs have almost 8,000 mummies divided into different sections: monks, women, men, children, etc … The visit is particularly suggestive because most of them are exposed on the walls and are still extremely well preserved.
In addition to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the city of Palermo is full of palaces to visit or simply admire. Among these there is certainly Palazzo Gangi: this sumptuous palace is well known for having been the place where the film “The Leopard” by Luchino Visconti was shot. The Gangi family still lives here, so the palace has preserved all its ancient splendor. You will not be able to visit it alone, as you will have to make a group booking of at least 20 people.
Another cultural stop I want to recommend is the Massimo Theater, the largest opera house in Italy, inaugurated in 1897. It is also one of the largest in Europe and ranks third after the Paris Opera and the Vienna State Opera. From the Quattro Canti, take Via Maqueda, this street will take you directly to the Massimo Theater.
The heart of the theater is surrounded by monumental halls and steps, galleries and representative rooms that make this building a grandiose architectural complex. It is one of the most famous theaters in Italy, thanks to the quality of the theatrical performances and the works that take place here. Today, the theater continues to host world-class operas. Tickets are quite expensive, but the theater also organizes guided tours every day.
Regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo
The Regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo is located in the surroundings of the Massimo Theater, inside an ancient building. Divided into 3 floors, it houses an impressive collection of Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, and Greek works of art, some of which come from the famous temple of Selinunte.
The works are well presented and the surrounding environment is particularly pleasant: beautiful courtyards with exotic trees and fountains. The perfect place for a peaceful cultural visit. The entrance to the museum is free.
Foro Italico Palermo
The Foro Italico is a large public garden which is located almost by the sea. It is a perfect place to take a short break during your visits to the historical monuments of Palermo. There is also a promenade where you can take a walk and some trees under which you can enjoy a little shade. If you are traveling with children in Sicily, you can relax here a little: there is a playground and a huge lawn to play on.
Historic Palermo Street Open Markets
However, you cannot say that you have visited Palermo if you have not seen at least a little its open markets, or at least the most important ones.
The most characteristic food market is “U Capu”, in Via Porta Carini. The ideal place to find typical products, quality fruits and the typical Palermo street food. Outdoor stalls and restaurants serve “sfincione” (a sort of typical bread/pizza), “arancine” and various other Sicilian specialties, including “pani ca ‘meusa”, a sandwich stuffed with offal cooked according to tradition. Because Palermo cuisine is a mix of history and contaminations, of simple ingredients and more complex preparations.
The other market not to be missed is that of “Vucciria”, which is also a lively area to spend the evening. In the square, there are many street vendors who prepare dinner outdoors and some places serve excellent drinks at very low prices, which is why the streets are often very crowded. Vucciria is one of the most beautiful markets in Palermo. It already exists since the 12th century and has changed its appearance many times, leaving its fervent characteristics. Here you can taste the octopus boiled on the spot and seasoned only with a splash of lemon.
I also recommend you to visit “Ballarò”, one of the largest and most typical markets in the city. In this colorful market, you will find the best products from all over Sicily, including fruit, vegetables, cheese, and of course fish. And all this is offered at unbeatable prices. In addition to food stalls, you can also find dishes, electronic products, and many other cheap items.
A short distance from Palermo there is another unmissable pearl: it is the town of Monreale. This location is also linked to the Arab-Norman itinerary since this place has a history closely linked to the evolution of the domains that have followed one another in this area. The arrival of the Arabs had in fact led to a change in culture and religion: hundreds of mosques sprang up in the city at that time and the cathedral itself was converted into a mosque. The diocese of Palermo, expelled from its headquarters, moved to Monreale where the construction of a new cathedral was started.
The Cathedral of Monreale is certainly one of the most spectacular buildings in Sicily. Its architecture is imposing and very reminiscent of that of the cathedral of Palermo, but what leaves you completely amazed are the mosaics that completely cover the interior. Also here the color that predominates is gold, but apart from the beauty of the apse, what leaves you speechless is the symbolic iconography depicted on the arches, aisles, and columns.
The best way to fully appreciate its meaning is to look for a tourist guide who can explain the characters and the correlations of the different representations.
Also admired is the large cloister adjacent to the cathedral, surrounded by long arcades characterized by double columns embellished with carvings and decorations. In the center, there is a beautiful garden, and in a corner, there is a fountain that spurts fresh water.
Another strong point of Monreale is the suggestive panorama. You can enjoy a vast view of Palermo and the surrounding coast from the top of the village.
Traditional Sicilian Sweets
Don’t leave Palermo and Sicily without trying its fabulous sweets first! One of the most famous desserts is cannolo. It is a dessert with ancient origins, easily found in the normal or mini version: a waffle of fried dough made up of flour, sugar, wine, and lard, stuffed with a cream of sheep’s ricotta and sugar, sometimes decorated with candied fruit, orange or other fruit, chopped pistachio or chocolate chips, and finally sprinkled with icing sugar.
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