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The Essential Guide to Palermo

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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.

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90134 Palermo, Province of Palermo, Italy
The architecture of San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits) reflects the story of Palermo over the centuries—a monastery built in the 6th century, replaced by a mosque under the Arab occupation, replaced by a monastery for Benedictine...
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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...
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Piazza Guglielmo II, 1, 90046 Monreale PA, Italy
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...
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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...
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90134 Palermo, Province of Palermo, 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...
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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...
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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,...
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Via Vittorio Emanuele, 90040 Palermo PA, Italy
One of Italy's most architecturally diverse buildings, the Palermo Cathedral has an imposing exterior that combines Arab, Norman, Gothic, neoclassical and Baroque styles. Inside, look for the heliometer—a bronze line embedded in the floor that...
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Via Valverde, 3, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
The interior walls of the Oratory of Santa Cita display the masterpiece of Palermo sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, who spent much of his life on this elaborate collection of three-dimensional stuccowork. The chapel was built as thanks to the Virgin...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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At the heart of Palermo's port, the Bourbon Arsenal bears the coat of arms of Spain's King Philip IV, who commissioned it as a shipbuilding factory in 1630. Naval ships were made here for centuries; Horatio Nelson even lived in the arsenal for a...
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Via Bonanno Pietro, 90142 Palermo PA, Italy
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...
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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...
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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...
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Piazza Zisa, 90135 Palermo PA, Italy
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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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Via Cala, 62, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
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...
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Via dei Biscottari, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
by Fabrizia Lanza In the area of the Norman palace, near the market, there are still some little medievalbotteghe(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...
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Palermo, Province of Palermo, Italy
In mid-July, the streets around Palermo's Quattro Canti (Four Corners) fill with vendors preparing babbaluci for the feast of Saint Rosalia, the city's patron saint. Truckloads of these tiny snails are sautéed in massive pans with oil, parsley and...
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Via Principe di Villafranca, 42, 90141 Palermo PA, Italy
Palermo has its own take on pizza, that beloved Italian dish. Sfincione is a deep-dish pie with a thick base of soft dough that resembles focaccia. The olive oil–infused bottom is dark brown and crisp; the topping is tomato sauce, sautéed onions,...