WHAT TO DO
Palermo is the largest city and capital of the Italian island of Sicily. It is located on the northwest coast by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians. It then became a possession of Carthage in 264 BC. Two Greek colonies were established, known collectively as Panormos; the Carthaginians used this name on their coins after the 5th century BC. As Panormus, the town became part of the Roman Republic and Empire for over a thousand years. From 831 to 1072 the city was under Arab rule in the Emirate of Sicily when the city became the capital of Sicily for the first time. During this time the city was known as Balarm. Following the Norman conquest, Palermo became the capital of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Sicily, that lasted from 1130 to 1816. During the Second World War, the city was heavily bombed by the Allied air forces in 1942 and 1943 until its capture during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July of 1943. Today, Palermo is renowned for its history, culture, architecture and gastronomy. Visitors are also attracted to the city for its appealing Mediterranean climate. Roman Catholicism is highly important in Palermitan culture - the patron saint of Palermo is Saint Rosalia, who is widely revered. Every July, people in Palermo celebrate the annual Festino, the most important religious event of the year. The Festino is a procession that goes through the main street of Palermo to commemorate the miracle attributed to Saint Rosalia who, it is believed, freed the city from the Plague in 1624. With wonderful weather, amazing architecture, fantastic cuisine and gorgeous churches - Palermo is sure to please.
Start your journey at Palermo's neoclassical opera house. Overlooking the wide Piazza Verdi, Teatro Massimo is Italy's largest opera house and the third largest in Europe. The grandeur of its facade gives only a hint to the magnificence inside. Giovanni Battista Basile and his son Ernesto built this 1400 seat theater between 1875 and 1897. It was officially opened with a performance of Verdi's opera Falstaff and quickly became one of Sicily's - and Italy's - major opera houses. Along with a full season of opera performances, Teatro Massimo hosts recitals, ballet and concerts. Note: guided tours in English will take you into the lavish auditorium with tiers of boxes and a frescoed dome. From Teatro Massimo, stroll along the pedestrian friendly Via Maqueda until you reach the Quattro Canti (four corners). Officially titled Piazza Vigliena, this elegant baroque intersection marks the epicenter of the Old Town. The junction is framed by a perfect circle of curvilinear facades that disappear up to the blue vault of the sky in a clever display of perspective. Each facade lights up in turn throughout the course of the day, landing it the nickname Il Teatro del Sole (Theater of the Sun). Imitating the style of late Renaissance Rome and constructed in the early 17th century, the Quattro Canti's four symmetrical facades are the work of royal architect Giulio Lasso. Each corner is divided in three classical orders: Doric at the bottom, Ionic in the middle and Corinthian at the top. Statues adorn each of the three tiers - representing the seasons at the bottom, Spanish kings in the middle and female patron saints at the top.
Fringed by imposing churches and buildings, nearby Piazza Pretoria is dominated by the over the top Fontana Pretoria, one of Palermo's major landmarks. The fountain's tiered basins ripple out in concentric circles, crowded with nude nymphs, tritons and leaping river gods. Such flagrant nudity proved a bit much for Sicilian churchgoers, who prudishly dubbed it the Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame). Designed by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani between 1554 and 1555 for the Tuscan villa of Don Pedro di Toledo, the fountain was bought by Palermo in 1573 and proudly positioned in front of the Palazzo Pretorio (Municipal Hall) in a bid to outshine the newly crafted Fontana di Orione installed in Messina on Sicily's northeast coast. On the southern side of Piazza Bellini is the church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, more commonly known as La Martorana. This luminously beautiful 12th century church was endowed by King Roger's Syrian emir, George of Antioch, and was originally planned as a mosque. Delicate Fatimid pillars support a domed cupola depicting Christ enthroned amid his archangels. Note: the interior is best appreciated in the morning, when sunlight illuminates the magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Adjacent to La Martorana is the church of San Cataldo. This 12th century church in Arab Norman style is one of Palermo's most striking buildings. With its dusky pink bijou domes, solid square shape and delicate tracery, it illustrates perfectly the synthesis of Arab and Norman architectural styles. The interior, while more austere, is still beautiful, with its inlaid floor and lovely stone and brick work in the arches and domes.
From there, walk south along Palermo's most famous boulevard, Via Vittorio Emanuele, until you arrive at the massive Palermo Cattedrale (Cathedral). A feast of geometric patterns, ziggurat crenellations, maiolica cupolas and blind arches, Palermo's cathedral has suffered aesthetically from multiple reworkings over the centuries but remains a prime example of Sicily's unique Arab Norman architectural style. The interior, while impressive in scale, is essentially a marble shell whose most interesting features are the royal Norman tombs (to the left as you enter), the treasury (home to Constance of Aragon's gem encrusted 13th century crown) and the panoramic views of the city from the roof. Construction began in 1184 at the behest of Palermo's archbishop, Walter of the Mill (Gualtiero Offamiglio), an Englishman who was tutor to William II. The southwestern facade was laid in the 13th and 14th centuries, and is a beautiful example of local craftsmanship in the Gothic style. The cathedral's entrance, through three magnificent arches, is fronted by gardens and a statue of Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo. A beautiful painted intarsia decoration above the arches depicts the tree of life in a complex Islamic style geometric composition of twelve roundels that show fruit, humans and all kinds of animals. To the left as you enter the cathedral, the Monumental Area holds several royal Norman tombs, which contain the remains of two of Sicily's greatest rulers: Roger II (rear left) and Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (front left), as well as Henry VI and William II. The cathedral's treasury houses a small collection of Norman era jewels and religious relics. Most extraordinary is the fabulous 13th century crown of Constance of Aragon (wife of Frederick II), made by local craftsmen in fine gold filigree and encrusted with gems.
Continue south until you come to the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace). Home to Sicily's regional parliament, this venerable palace dates back to the 9th century. However, it owes its current look (and name) to a major Norman makeover, during which spectacular mosaics were added to its royal apartments and magnificent chapel, the Cappella Palatina. You enter into the Cortile Maqueda, a square courtyard that was constructed in 1600 surrounded by three stories of arcades with rounded arches. Steps lead to the core of the palace, the Cappella Palatina on the second floor and the Appartamenti Reali (Royal Apartments) on the third. Designed by Roger II in 1130, the extraordinary Cappella Palatina is one of Palermo's top tourist attractions. Its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling - the latter a masterpiece of Arabic style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. The chapel's well lit interior is simply breathtaking. Every inch is inlaid with precious stones, giving the space a lustrous quality. These exquisite mosaics were mainly the work of Byzantine Greek artisans brought to Palermo by Roger II in 1140 especially for this project. The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, though other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades. The walls are decorated with handsome marble inlay that display a clear Islamic aesthetic, and the carved marble in the floor is stunning. Note: marble was as precious as any gemstone in the 12th century, so the floor's value at the time of its construction is almost immeasurable by today's standards.
Next, walk through Piazza Indipendenza and continue west on Via Cappuccini until you find the Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Catacombs). By far Palermo's most bizarre attraction, but one of its most popular, is the Capuchin Abbey, known for its Catacombs. These underground passages were carved in the volcanic rock after 1599 and used as burial places right up to 1881. Inside, you'll be greeted by the macabre scene of some 8000 mummified corpses, arranged by gender, religion and status, lying in the passageways or hanging from the walls. Note: photography is strictly prohibited inside the catacombs. Back in the city center on Via del Ponticello is the gorgeous Chiesa del Gesu. Also known as Casa Professa, this is one of Palermo's most breathtaking churches. The Jesuits first built a church on this site between 1564 and 1578. Incorporated into a larger church in 1633, the building was significantly restored after suffering major bomb damage during the Second World War. While the church's facade displays relative restraint typical of the late 16th century, its transept, apses and dome burst with 17th century baroque extravagance. The dome's vault is decorated with a fresco attributed to Pietro Novelli. More of Novelli's brilliance awaits in the second chapel on the right, home to his psychologically intense St Philip of Argiro and equally arresting St Paul the Hermit, both works completed in around 1635.
Not far away in Piazza Bellini is Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. Built as a hospice in the early 14th century and transformed into a Dominican convent the following century, this monastic complex wows with its magnificent maiolica cloister, surrounded by unique balconied cells and punctuated by an 18th century fountain by Sicilian sculptor Ignazio Marabitti. The convent's rooftop terraces offer spectacular views of the surrounding piazzas and city, while the church's baroque interior houses works by prolific artists, among them Filippo Randazzo, Vito D'Anna and Antonello Gagini. Randazzo executed the vault fresco depicting the Triumph of Saint Catherine, while D'Anna created both the Triumph of the Holy Dominicans fresco in the dome and the Allegories of the Four Continents in the dome's pendentives. In the transept, Andrea Palma's 18th century altar to St Catherine frames Antonello Gagini's 16th century sculpture of the saint. Beside the church, in the ticket office, note the ruota (wheel) below the counter, used by the cloistered nuns to pass their baked sweet treats to customers, as well as to receive abandoned infants. While the last nuns moved out in 2014, their tradition of baking lives on at the convent's onsite bakery I Segreti del Chiostro, which specializes in the traditional sweets made for centuries in Sicilian convents. Located on Via Valverde is the Oratorio di Santa Cita. This 17th century chapel showcases the breathtaking stuccowork of Giacomo Serpotta, who famously introduced rococo to Sicilian churches. Note the elaborate Battle of Lepanto on the entrance wall. Depicting the Christian victory over the Turks, it's framed by stucco drapes held by a cast of cheeky cherubs modeled on Palermo's street urchins. Serpotta's virtuosity also dominates the side walls, where sculpted white stucco figures hold gilded swords, shields and a lute, and a golden snake (Serpotta's symbol) curls around a picture frame.
Found on Via Bambinai is the Oratorio di San Domenico. Dominating this small chapel is Anthony Van Dyck's fantastic blue and red altarpiece, The Virgin of the Rosary with St Dominic and the Patronesses of Palermo. Note: Van Dyck completed the work in Genoa in 1628, after leaving Palermo in fear of the Plague. The Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti is on Via Benedettini. One of Palermo's finest examples of Arab Norman architecture, this five domed, 12th century church is named for Sicilian hermit monk and miraculous wolf tamer St William of Montervergine. Surrounded by a garden of citrus trees, palms, cacti and rosemary bushes, the church is built atop a mosque that itself was superimposed on a 6th century Benedictine chapel. The tranquil grounds also house the ruins of the monastery's Norman era cloister. One last magnificent church that is not to be missed can be found a short drive (depends on traffic) from Palermo. Set on a hillside overlooking the valley, the Monreale Cathedral is one of Sicily's top tourist attractions. The entire concept of the Norman kingdom as the highest secular and religious authority is represented here in incomparable fashion. With its cycle of mosaics on a gold ground and its extraordinary cloister, the cathedral can rightly claim a place in the highest ranks of Europe's art history.
Conclude your tour of Palermo by visiting a few of its fine museums. Located in Piazza Olivella is the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas (Archeological Museum). Situated in a Renaissance monastery, this splendid museum houses some of Sicily's most valuable Greek and Roman artifacts, including the museum's crown jewel - a series of original decorative friezes from the temples at Selinunte. Other important finds in the museum's collection include Phoenician sarcophagi from the 5th century BC, Greek carvings from Himera, the Hellenistic Ariete di bronzo di Siracusa (Bronze Ram of Syracuse), Etruscan mirrors and the largest collection of ancient anchors in the world. The Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Art Gallery of Sicily) can be found on Via Alloro. Housed in the stately 15th century Palazzo Abatellis, this art museum - widely regarded as Palermo's best - showcases works by Sicilian artists dating from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. One of its greatest treasures is Trionfo della morte (Triumph of Death), a magnificent fresco (artist unknown) in which Death is represented as a demonic skeleton mounted on a wasted horse, brandishing a wicked looking scythe while leaping over his doomed victims. The gallery is full of countless other treasures, which collectively offer great insight into the evolution of Sicilian art. Among these is Antonello da Messina's enigmatic 15th century masterpiece L'Annunciata (Virgin Annunciate), with its refined balance of Italian and Flemish influences.
WHERE TO EAT
Palermo has a number of great places to eat and have a drink or two. One of the most memorable things to do in Sicily is sampling the island's outstanding regional foods. Based on local products - a bounty of fresh seafood, lemons, oranges, year round farm vegetables, pistachio nuts, almonds, olives and locally made cheeses - the traditional dishes of Sicily are simple in their ingredients, but complex in their flavors. Whether you choose fine dining restaurants or humble little neighborhood trattorias, you'll be well fed. Palermo is famous for its street food culture and markets. There are various markets throughout the city, be sure to visit the big 3: Ballaro, Capo and Vucciria. Snaking for several city blocks near Chiesa del Gesu is the Mercato di Ballaro. Palermo's busiest street market, it is a fascinating mix of noises, smells and street life. Ballaro has it all - fresh produce, fish, meat, olives and cheese - smile nicely for un assaggio (a taste). Running the length of Via Sant'Agostino (not far from Teatro Massimo), Mercato del Capo is a seething mass of colorful activity with vendors peddling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and household goods of every description. Found close to Piazza San Domenico is the Mercato della Vucciria. The underwhelming market here was once a notorious den of Mafia activity. It's a much more muted affair these days with some tasty street snacks. Do try a pane e panelle (chickpea fritter sandwich with lemon juice) and arancina (fried rice ball). If you're feeling adventurous, go for a pane con le milza (cow spleen sandwich with cheese) or polpo bolito (boiled octopus).
Take your coffee break on the cusp of the scenic Piazza Bellini at Casa Stagnitta, located at Discesa dei Giudici 46. This family owned coffee roaster has been toasting up beans in Palermo since 1922, so the owners know a thing or two about great coffee. Stand at the small bar or sit down for outside table service. When it comes to sweet shops, Pasticceria Cappello is a true Palermitan institution and is famous for its setteveli cake with seven layers of chocolate and hazelnut cream. The counter tempts with other splendid pastries and desserts, including the delizia di pistacchio (a pistachio cake topped with creamy icing and a chocolate medallion). There are two locations in the city center: the original pastry shop and its behind the scenes laboratory, both of which are located near the Norman Palace. For dynamite gelato, head to Gelateria Ciccio Adelfio at Corso dei Mille 73. A quick walk from Stazione Centrale, this veteran gelateria is one of Palermo's best. Forget the cup and cone: go local and have your pistachio ice cream sandwiched in a brioche bun. Another solid spot is Cappadonia Gelati, found at Via Vittorio Emanuele 401. They serve up artisan gelato in cups, cones or the classic Sicilian style brioche, plus seasonal sorbets like kiwi, pomegranate, artichoke and melon. Now let's talk about Sicily's most celebrated sweet, the cannoli - pastries consisting of tube shaped shells of fried dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling containing ricotta. There are two places in town that do a top notch cannoli. The first is Cannolissimo, located at Via Maqueda 397. I recommend the classic with pistachio and chocolate chips. The second is Cannoli & Co, located just down the road at Via Maqueda 266.
For lunch, make your way to Osteria Ballaro at Via Calascibetta 25. Bare stone columns, exposed brick walls and vaulted ceilings set an atmospheric scene at this buzzing restaurant and wine bar. Approved by the Slow Food movement, its graze friendly menu celebrates island produce and cooking, such as artisan cheeses, salumi (charcuterie), crudite di pesce (local sashimi), seafood primi and memorable Sicilian dolci (sweets). Quality local wines top it off. A historic trattoria in the Vucciria district, Il Maestro del Brodo revels in Italian soul food classics, whether it be tortellini in broth, zucchini and prawn risotto or grilled fresh fish. Top billing goes to the sensational antipasto buffet, a sweep of homemade delicacies such as sarde a beccafico (stuffed sardines), eggplant involtini (roulades), fried zucchini and artichokes with parsley. Corona Trattoria can be found at Via Guglielmo Marconi 9. This spot is run by a local Sicilian couple and has the feel of a high end trattoria with the charm of a small family run business. They only use seafood that comes fresh off the boat in Terrasini near the Gulf of Castellammare and the wine list includes a solid selection of natural Sicilian bottles. I enjoyed the squid ink pasta with cuttlefish along with a nice bottle of red. Another excellent choice is Osteria Mercede, located a few blocks behind Teatro Massimo at Via Sammartino 1. Here, the owner's previous life as a mariner comes through in the nautical decor and Mediterranean color scheme. They offer shellfish pastas, pesto alla trapanese with prawns and mussels with tenerumi squash. In addition to traditional Italian plates like pasta with clams or mussels, you’ll find daily specials such as swordfish alla palermitana written on hanging chalkboards.
For dinner, head to Ristorante Ferro at Piazza Sant'Onofrio 42. All clean lines, timber panels, bare lightbulbs and tinted mirrors, intimate Ferro is modern Sicilian food at its best. Whether you're savoring a soup of squid and mussels, earthy ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms or a flawless steak, the food here is superb in its simplicity. Be sure to save room for the delectable desserts. Trattoria Piccolo Napoli is at Piazzetta Mulino a Vento 4. This family owned trattoria has been open since 1951 and serves fresh seafood and traditional Sicilian cuisine. The founder handed it down to his two sons: Pippo, the current owner who continues the tradition today, and Gianni, who took off to open Corona Trattoria on his own. Menu highlights include sweet and sour eggplant caponata, fried sardines and tiny calamaretti, panelle chickpea fritters and the daily catch which might include shrimp, squid, sea bream or swordfish. Osteria dei Vespri can be found at Piazza Croce dei Vespri 6. This popular eatery occupies a cozy but elegant space on an unheralded piazza in the Kalsa district. Local seafood is a big draw here and the homemade pastas will not disappoint, especially when paired with a selection from the extensive wine list. Note: reservations are recommended.
For a truly unique dining experience, there is MEC Restaurant at Via Vittorio Emanuele 452. It is a novelty for Palermo in the form of a superb modern restaurant located within a 16th century palazzo that houses a museum dedicated to Steve Jobs and vintage Apple products. A successful combination - you not only have the ability to revisit ancient IT devices (Apple I computer from 1976) and learn about the history of the tech company, but the food is pretty sensational. Tasting menus feature seasonal creations like the pumpkin with fermented black garlic and miso paste or a sweet rhubarb dessert with raspberry mousse and star anise meringue. Note: reservations are essential. Located at Via Cassari 39, Aja Mola is among Palermo's top seafood eateries. The interior's smart, subtle take on a nautical theme is reflected in the open kitchen, which eschews standard cliches for modern, creative dishes. The result - appetite arousing options like teriyaki style tartare with caperberries or surf and turf tagliolini pasta with succulent shrimps and pork cheeks. The local natural wines pair perfectly with the courses. Be sure to book ahead. My most memorable dining experience was at Gagini, located next door at Via Cassari 35. Expect sharp professionals and serious gastronomes at Gagini's rustic, candlelit tables. There is an a la carte menu plus tasting menus with the option to add wine pairings from their exceptionally curated list. Expect less familiar flavors than you’ll usually find in Palermo from Gagini’s Brazilian born chef Mauricio Zillo, like lemon verbena, smoked herring, finger limes and puntarelle. Note: Gagini was awarded its first Michelin star in 2021. Reserve well in advance through their website.
End your evening in Palermo with a drink or two. Botanico Bar is tucked away in an alley behind Piazza Sant’Anna at Vicolo dei Corrieri 38. It’s run by two friends and, even with very little, they’ve turned it into one of the hottest spots in town. Most of the action happens outdoors where they offer table service, though you can also order from the bar counter and take your drink standing out front. Mak Mixology is located at Via Bari 50. This cocktail bar was built inside the Galleria delle Vittorie atrium, an abandoned Fascist era building from 1935 that’s been closed since the 1970s. The owners have transformed the forgotten palazzo into a cozy, clandestine spot that’s perfect for flying solo. They often host jazz performers and live music. If you fancy wine, make your way to Enoteca Picone at Via Guglielmo Marconi 36. This historic wine bar has been open since 1946 and is full of hard to find spirits and exceptional wines. Their bottles come from all over Sicily and beyond. For a taste of natural wine, head to Dal Barone at Via Alessandro Paternostro 87. Just off Via Vittorio Emanuele, this tiny wine bar has a wide selection of Sicilian whites, rosati, orange wines and a few options for cocktails and beers. Finish up at Hic! La Folie du Vin, located at Via Giuseppe Mazzini 46. Extremely popular with locals, this place is never short of a fun crowd, spilling out onto the street in a sea of banter. The excellent wines are mostly Italian and edibles include quality cheeses and cured meats. Note: the bar is closed on Sunday.
WHERE TO STAY
Palermo offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes, located at Via Roma 398. This palatial 1874 hotel featuring grand Art Nouveau decor is a short walk from the Museo Archeologico and not far from the Quattro Canti. Sophisticated rooms featuring classic wood furnishings offer free WiFi, flat screen TVs and minibars. Upgraded quarters add sitting areas and living rooms, as well as balconies or terraces. There are three elegant restaurants with bars, including one with luxe Belle Epoque decor.
A second option is the Grand Hotel Wagner, located just around the corner at Via Riccardo Wagner 2. This genteel hotel in a neoclassical building is close to the Teatro Massimo and a short walk from the Palermo Cattedrale. Refined rooms with antique furnishings include flat screen TVs, complimentary WiFi and minibars. Upgrades add separate living rooms and whirlpool tubs. Other perks include ornate lounges, including one with a piano, plus a lounge bar and a rooftop terrace. There is also a spa with a sauna.
Palermo is full of fascinating history, unique culture, spectacular churches, delicious cuisine and amazing architecture. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.