The Essential Guide to Palermo

Palermo, Sicily’s capital, is a marvelously jumbled, crumbling blend of old and new—a canvas upon which the region’s complex and ever-shifting history has been painted. Over the centuries, the port of Palermo was controlled by forces from the far corners—from Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, to Arabs from North Africa, and then Normans from France, who oversaw a renaissance during which many of Palermo’s iconic landmarks and modern tourist attractions were built.

To see some of the vestiges of ancient empires, take a day trip from Palermo to the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its Greek and Roman ruins, including the Temple of Concordia, remain wonderfully intact. Within the city itself, explore the attractions in historic neighborhoods such as the Arab district of La Kalsa, home to the finery-filled Palazzo Mirto. The Quattro Canti (Four Corners) lies in the heart of the old city, with Piazza Pretoria on the corner. From there it’s only a short distance to Palermo’s Norman Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Palermo’s star attractions, which houses the Palatine Chapel, famous for its intricate mosaics.

Palermo is also a perfect jumping-off point for sightseeing excursions to the idyllic beaches of Mondello, the medieval coastal town of Cefalù and the mountain village of Monreale, which is known for its exceptional Norman cathedral.

Piazza Cappuccini, 1, 90129 Palermo PA, Italy
At street level, the Capuchin monastery might seem like many other historic churches in Palermo. But once you go below ground, you’ll encounter the most unusual and macabre display in the city. More than 8,000 mummified bodies are interred in its catacombs, some stacked on wooden shelves, others standing or hanging upright along the walls. The oldest resident is a friar named Silvestro da Gubbio, who dates from 1599; among the more recent arrivals is two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 and is so eerily well preserved that she’s been nicknamed Sleeping Beauty.
1 Piazza Guglielmo II
A short trip to the hilltop town of Monreale, just outside Palermo, offers the chance to explore some exceptional Norman-era buildings, most notably the Monreale Cathedral. The church’s interior has an extravagant mosaic that covers more than 6,000 square meters (66,000 square feet), much of it glittering with gold. Afterward, stroll through town to window-shop along the narrow lanes and enjoy the view of Palermo in the valley below.
Piazza Indipendenza, 1, 90129 Palermo PA, Italy
Palermo’s Norman Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been a seat of power in Sicily for centuries. Its apartments (open to the public Friday through Monday) provided quarters to King Roger II during his reign in the 12th century, and the palace is still in use today: It now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Visit the basement to see the stone walls of the original Phoenician structures upon which the palace was built. The opulent Palatine Chapel, added by Roger II in 1132, is an attraction in its own right.
Piazza del Parlamento, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
by Fabrizia Lanza Within the Palace of the Normans, there’s a chapel of the kings. “It’s sumptuous,” Fabrizia says, “all covered with mosaics. It’s like getting inside a golden box of jewelry.” Piazza del Parlamento 1 This story appeared in the January/February 2011 issue.
2 Via Lincoln
Take a break from the city’s frenetic energy with a visit to the Palermo Botanical Garden, just south of the port next to Villa Giulia Park. Established in 1786, the 10-hectare (25-acre) gardens contain plants from around the world: Southeast Asian palms, coffee and papaya trees, even cotton plants and sugarcane. A terraced pond blooms with lotus and water lilies, while the ruins of the 14th-century Church of Saint Dennis can be found amid the greenery.
90133 Palermo, Province of Palermo, Italy
The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, also called Steri Castle, was built in 1307 by Sicily’s powerful Chiaramonte family. Manfredi Chiaramonte later added the elaborate Hall of the Barons, whose wooden ceiling is blanketed with murals. Starting in 1601, the castle was a base for the Spanish Inquisition for 180 years. A tour of the prison cells offers a look at haunting graffiti carved into the walls by those wrongly imprisoned and tortured here.
Mondello, Palermo, Province of Palermo, Italy
The resort town of Mondello, just a short drive from Palermo, is a popular escape for visitors and Sicilians alike. Cerulean waters lap a beach of soft white sand. Visitors staying in nearby villas spend much of their time relaxing on the beach, with occasional breaks for arancini and panelle bought from street vendors. For a serious meal, stroll down the pier to the Charleston, a landmark restaurant and bar in an Art Nouveau building over the water.
Strada Provinciale 50bis
Spend a day strolling the medieval streets of Cefalù, an idyllic coastal resort town about an hour’s drive east of Palermo. The Norman-era Cefalù Cathedral towers above honey-colored stone houses; a rocky promontory known as La Rocca forms a dramatic backdrop to it all. Step inside the cathedral to see its beautiful mosaics, then get in some souvenir shopping or relax at a café and just people-watch.
Piazza Verdi, 90138 Palermo PA, Italy
You might recognize Palermo’s opera house, the Massimo Theater, from its role in The Godfather: Part III—the movie’s final scenes were filmed here. Though it echoes classical style, the building is young compared to Palermo’s other architectural attractions, built just over a century ago, in the late 1800s. It’s the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in all of Europe. During the day, visitors can take guided tours (which are offered in English).
Piazza Antonio Pasqualino, 5, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
Sicily has a long tradition of puppet shows, and they’re not intended merely to amuse the kids. These are elaborate theatrical works that tell complex stories through beautifully crafted marionettes. Palermo’s International Museum of Marionettes Antonio Pasqualino (its full name) honors the art as it’s performed in Sicily and in other cultures around the world. The 3,500 puppets on display come from Sicily, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia and parts of Africa. You can even watch marionettes in action in a theater on the top floor; check the schedule to see what’s playing during your visit.
Via Pietro Bonanno
Mount Pellegrino, which towers over the coast between Palermo and the beach of Mondello, is a popular day excursion from Palermo. The panoramic view from the top is breathtaking. And while you’re up there you can visit the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, who is believed to have saved Palermo from a plague in the 1600s. She lived in a cave on the mountain until her death around 1160, and more than four centuries later hunters found remains that were thought to be hers. The plague in Palermo ended, it was believed, because her bones were finally given a proper Christian burial. This shrine was built around her cave to protect the site, and Santa Rosalia was named the patron saint of Palermo.
92100 Agrigento, AG, Italy
It’s a full-day excursion from Palermo to visit the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, but the trip is well worth it. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has no fewer than eight Doric-style Greek temples that date back to the 5th century B.C.E. The Temple of Concordia is the most spectacularly intact, while the huge Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest Greek temples in antiquity. Aqueducts, mosaics and Christian necropolises can also be seen at the archaeological site.
Via Alloro, 4, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
See some of Sicily’s most prized artworks at the Regional Gallery of Sicily, housed in the Palazzo Abatellis, in Palermo’s Kalsa neighborhood. The palace’s Catalonian Gothic–style architecture, which dates from the 1490s, is worth a visit in its own right. Among the prominent works in the collection are the Virgin Annunciate by Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina and a sculpture of the head of Eleonora of Aragon by Francesco Laurana.
Piazza Zisa
On Palermo’s western side, the Zisa Castle was built in the 12th century by Arab craftsmen as a summer retreat for King William I of Sicily. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with handsome windows overlooking the gardens. The main hall, called the Fountain Room, has a distinctive Arabic-style vaulted ceiling with muqarnas—adornments that resemble honeycombs. The upstairs rooms hold a range of artifacts, including Anna’s Tombstone, a grave marker whose inscription is repeated in four languages: Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic.
Via Merlo, 2, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
A visit to the Palazzo Mirto offers the rare opportunity to see the interior of a classic Palermo palace as it was during its extravagant heyday. Located in the historic Kalsa district, Palazzo Mirto was home to the prominent Filangeri family for 400 years; the last remaining member donated the palace to the city in 1982. The vast library, the Chinese smoking room and the cavernous ballroom still have their frescoes, chandeliers, tapestries and opulent furnishings intact.
Piazza Bellini, 1, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
The church of San Cataldo and its neighbor, La Martorana, both overlook the Piazza Bellini but offer contrasting experiences. San Cataldo is modest on the outside, and its interior remains unfinished more than 850 years after its construction—but it is no less beautiful for that. La Martorana (also known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio), on the other hand, is one of Palermo’s greatest remaining churches from the Middle Ages. The elaborate mosaics that decorate its interior are thought to have been created by the same artisans who created the Palatine Chapel.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 102, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
For a satisfying mid-afternoon snack, seek out one of the city’s ubiquitous walk-up counters. Nni Franco U’ Vastiddaru is typical, serving classic street food like arancini (stuffed rice balls) and panelle. The latter is a Palermo specialty: These chunky, chiplike fritters made of chickpea flour are simple yet addictively delicious, with a spritz of Sicilian lemon.
62 Via Cala
Some of Palermo’s most beloved snacks are hearty street foods, and none is more iconic than pani cà meusa, a sandwich layered with thin slices of fried cow spleen and topped with lemon and grated Caciocavallo cheese. The hole-in-the-wall Pani Cà Meusa Porta Carbone, overlooking the port on Via Cala, specializes in this Sicilian comfort food.
Via dei Biscottari, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
In the area of the Norman palace, near the market, there are still some little medieval botteghe (shops) below the level of the palace. Via dei Biscottari is where they used to make the pastries and cookies for the king. There is one shop I love to visit where they still make the shells for cannoli by hand. Sicilians love cannoli, of course, filled with fresh ricotta. We have an intense sweet tooth. Via dei Biscottari near Via Saladino
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