Sicily's largest city and a cultural rival to Rome or Florence, Palermo offers several different types of holiday in one.
An important city for centuries, Palermo caught the attention of the Arabs, Normans and others who invaded and left their mark. The city’s architecture reflects its jumbled history – there are skylines that push together Arab domes with Norman spires, with baroque cathedrals and 19th-century theatres at the other end of the next side street.
It may appear that the city hasn’t been preserved very well – the worn or bordering-on-decrepit-looking buildings that you’ll inevitably come across will put some visitors off. See behind this and witness the gradual renovations and refurbishments, and you’re left with a historically important, actually rather elegant city.
Divided up into quarters, Palermo’s attractions can be separated into four districts – El Capo, La Kalsa, La Vucciria and Albergheria.
In El Capo, the highlight is undoubtedly the cathedral. A seemingly ongoing structure that represents several different eras and styles at once, it is difficult to see what the Arabs left and what the Normans finished. Nothing reflects the city’s diversity better than the cathedral, a building that could actually be three.
La Città del Ottocento (city of the 1800s) isn’t far – don’t miss the Teatro Massimo (website: www.teatromassimo.it), Teatro Politeama Garibaldi and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (website: www.galleriadartemodernapalermo.it).
Once notorious for shady characters, La Kalsa has now opened up to visitors, and though many of the sights are crumbling, they are still worth casting a glance at for the sake of visible former glory. The Galleria Regionale is here, a Gothic building home to a collection of medieval art. Anyone interested in Sicilian puppetry should not miss the Museo delle Marionette (website: www.museomarionettepalermo.it). Tucked away close to the marina, Giardino Garibaldi offers a little shade from the city sun – and there’s also an interesting fig tree with exposed roots to see.
Fighting the Mafia
One of Palermo’s biggest initiatives is to rid the city of its Mafia association, a problem that costs the businesses around £130 million a year in extorted local protection money or pizzo. Housed in an art nouveau building and serving local specialities such as pane con la milza (veal spleen sandwiches), Antica Focacceria San Francesco (website: www.afsf.it) is one of La Kalsa’s best attractions. A city institution, it’s also pizzo-free, making it the most popular bakery in town. The Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, a 13th-century church and former Franciscan monastery, shares the same piazza.
Shopping and more sights
The best thing in La Vucciria is its famed street market, a tangled network of narrow side streets crowded with densely stocked stalls selling everything from freshly dried tomatoes to mobile phone covers. The nearby Basilica di San Domenico, a white and gold baroque church, is imposingly grand thanks to its structure and the towering palm trees outside. This is where many famous citizens are buried, including former prime minister Francesco Crispi. An important collection can be seen in the Museo Archeologico Regionale, in an equally important building – a 17th-century monastery with a courtyard.
Albergheria sprawls out to the east from Quattro Canti (a decorated intersection in the middle of the historic centre), containing a wide selection of chiesas (churches) in different styles. First up is San Cataldo Church, unfinished due to the murder of its creator in 1160 but impressive all the same – the bright red domes form an unusual rooftop. San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a church with a matching rounded rooftop and peaceful garden, is currently undergoing restoration and hard hats are required for a visit – the building is 800 years old.
If you’ve had your fill of Arab-Norman churches, some baroque excess awaits at Chiesa del Gesù and San Giuseppe dei Teatini. Or, if you want a building that combines all three, see La Martorana Church off Piazza Pretoria – a medieval church with bell tower and some slightly out-of-place ornate amendments from a few centuries later. The Palazzo dei Normanni, for many the city’s highlight, is the seat of the Sicilian regional government and once the seat of Roger II. A castle that began as a Roman fort, it was developed by the Arabs in the ninth century and the Normans in the 12th. Its majestic Palatine chapel is covered in Byzantine mosaics.
Escaping the city
The city can be hot and hectic so visitors should not forget the beautiful island countryside that surrounds Palermo. Mondello‘s turquoise waters are just a short bus ride away. This is where Palermitans head for a beach fix and an art nouveau pier sits on the shore. An hour away by train, Cefalù (website: www.cefalu.it) is a rival to the east coast’s Taormina. A huge cathedral and rock face sit above the town, with a popular beach below.
Closer to the city is the cathedral in Monreale, at the top of a steep hill. More Byzantine mosaics await as do extensive views over the city, hills and sea.
If you prefer slightly darker, indoor-based attractions, and don’t mind encountering mummies, head out to the Capuchin Catatombs, a collection of 8,000 bodies embalmed by Capuchin friars between the 17th and 19th centuries. Perhaps too sinister and frightening for some, it attracts many visitors all the same.