Palermo enjoys a splendid position overlooking the wide bay at the foot of the limestone massif of Monte Pellegrino and facing the large and fertile valley of the Conca d'Oro , enclosed by a crown of mountains.
Originally a Phoenician colony , it was conquered by the Carthaginians in the 5th century BC and became an important Punic bulwark against the Greek influence that spread to other parts of the island.
Originally called Panormus (all port) for its attractions as a stopover on sea routes, the city, which had long been the object of conquest, remained in the hands of the Carthaginians until 254 BC, when it was taken by the Romans, despite the desperate counterattack of Hamilcar. Barca, started from the slopes of Monte Pellegrino.
But the days of splendor were yet to come. The Arabs conquered it in 831 AD, and under them and the Normans Palermo became the most flourishing metropolis in Europe , famous for the richness of its court and unparalleled center of culture.
The twentieth century was essentially a century of social and economic decline. During the Second World War the Allied bombs destroyed a large part of the port area and transformed some areas of the medieval city into a devastated area, which has only begun to be remedied in the last twenty years. The rebirth is due to the efforts of former mayor Leoluca Orlando , with the help of European Union funds. Palermo is animated by a positive spirit and in its streets, unlike what happens in other European cities, it is rare to see beggars or homeless people.
Everywhere you can see the monumental remains of the period from the ninth to the twelfth century, the period of greatest development in Palermo, but it is the urban rearrangements of the sixteenth century that give the city its current appearance: essentially a network of straight streets the whose geometry is interrupted by concrete memories of an oriental past and where traces of the bombs of the Second World War can still be seen.
Palermo has always been a city full of sumptuous churches built thanks to the ruling noble families of the island and the wealthy monastic orders, moreover its three important museums host valuable artistic, archaeological and ethnographic collections, picturesque markets, hidden puppet theaters in the alleys and a cornucopia of excellent restaurants.
Palermo is a large city but easy to get around on foot, the intersection of Vai Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, known as the crossroads of the Quattro Canti , divides the historic center of Palermo into four traditional districts : La Kalsa , La Vucciria , Il Capo and ' Hotel . It is in these districts that most of the places of interest of the Sicilian capital are concentrated. Parallel to Via Maqueda is Via Roma, a busy shopping street.
Quattro Canti area
The busy intersection between Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda is the center of the Sicilian capital. It is surrounded by a frame of curvilinear facades that dissolve in a perfect perspective scheme towards the blue vault of the sky and in Palermo it is also called the Theater of the Sun , due to the unusual effect produced by the light that illuminates the facades of the various buildings in the course. of the day.
Area of the Quattro Canti, the Kalsa
Torn by misery and decay, Kalsa is one of the most sadly known neighborhoods of the Sicilian capital, Mother Teresa even opened a mission there, considering the living conditions of this neighborhood similar to a Third World country. Today the main beneficiary of the urban redevelopment program of the city, thanks to the numerous measures taken in this regard.
Regional Gallery of Sicily
In via Allora there is the most beautiful museum in Palermo, the magnificent Regional Gallery of Sicily, rich in treasures and paintings from the period between the Middle Ages and the 18th century. The building is a testimony of the Gothic-Catalan style which in 1957 was transformed into an exhibition space by Carlo Scarpa.
You can admire a collection of Sicilian paintings with many important works such as "The triumph of death" (death on a skeletal horse throws its darts at its helpless victims).
Other works of great value are the frame of an Arab door of the twelfth century and the famous panel of the Annunziata by Antonello da Messina.
Modern art gallery
It is now housed in an ancient complex that has been beautifully restored. The interior is an extremely studied space in a modern style but unfortunately the works on display are not as magnificent. Divided into three floors, the gallery is mainly dedicated to Sicily and Palermo.
International Puppet Museum
With over 3000 puppets, marionettes, puppets and shapes for shadow theater, the International Marionette Museum is one of the very few institutions to preserve the traditional popular puppet theater which for a long time represented one of the most significant cultural realities of the cities. Sicilian. The museum collects pieces from Palermo, Catania and Naples, but also from distant countries such as China, India, South Asia and Turkey and Africa. There is also a room where children can play with puppets and try their hand at building one by themselves. In the autumn and winter months the museum offers the opportunity to attend a show, every year puppeteers from all over the world meet here on the occasion of the Morgana festival, sponsored by the museum itself.
Square of San Francesco d'Assisi
the most typical postcard view of the Sicilian capital is dominated by the Church of San Francesco d'Assisi, interesting to visit especially for the arch of the Chapel of the Mastrantonio family sculpted in 1468 by Francesco Laurana and Pietro da Bonitate.
Framed on each side by elegant buildings, the elegant Piazza Marina is the quietest square in Palermo. Within its perimeter is the small Garibaldi Garden, noteworthy because it houses a 150-year-old specimen of Ficus benjamin 25 meters high and is the oldest tree in the city. In the past the scene of executions taking into account that its most impressive building is the Palazzo Chiaromonte, once the seat of the Inquisition.
Complex of Santa Maria dello Spasimo
The only late Gothic structure in Sicily, the church was built by a wealthy local jurist on his return from a trip to the Holy Land. Some time later Basilicò commissioned Raphael to make an altarpiece for the church altar "Lo Spasimo di Sicilia" (the work was brought to Madrid). The complex is one of the most interesting areas for the recovery and restoration program of the artistic-architectural heritage of Palermo and offers numerous concerts, shows and cultural initiatives.
Quattro Canti area, the Vucciria
The run-down Vucciria neighborhood is famous throughout Sicily for its chaotic market full of street vendors screeching, fresh fruit and vegetables roasting meats and fresh peaches on the stalls. The glimpses of this market have inspired the most famous work of Renato Guttuso La Vucciria defined by Leonardo Sciascia "the dream of a hungry":
Once a symbol of the miserable of Palermo and a den of city crime, the Vucciria witnessed for a long time the gap between rich and poor until the 1950s.
Regional Archaeological Museum
The wonderful museum houses a rich collection of archaeological finds that makes it one of the most important museums in the sector in Europe. Among the treasures on display include Phoenician sarcophagi from the 5th century BC 10,000 Etruscan artifacts, the metopes of the Greek temples of Selinunte, the bronze Ram of Syracuse from the Hellenistic period, the largest collection in the world of ancient anchors and finds unearthed in the sites archaeological sites and of the whole island.
The most interesting rooms are undoubtedly those at the back of the cloister, inside them are preserved a massive head of Gorgon from the Temple of Selinunte and 14 large lion heads from a monumental fountain found in the Temple of Victory in Himera, the first colony founded by the Greeks in northern Sicily. Continuing further, you enter the Sala di Selinunte, which collects the metopes of the seven Greek temples of Selinunte, all made of limestone.
Church of San Domenico
About 200 m south-east of the museum stands the church of San Domenico which serves as a pantheon and houses the tombs of all the illustrious Sicilians. Of particular interest is the Oratory of the Rosary of San Domenico inside which stands a splendid red-blue altarpiece by Antoon Van Dyck entitled "The Virgin of the Rosary with San Domenico and the patrons of Palermo"
Church of Santa Zita
The church of Santa Zita is a 14th century structure that owes its name to the patron saint of maids. Its peculiarity is the presence of a series of sumptuous funerary chapels, thanks to the Dominican friars who bought the church in the 16th century to give rich families a place to bury their loved ones.
Area of the Quattro Canti, the Capo
It is the neighborhood bordering the Albergheria, is characterized by a dense network of narrow streets and dead ends, Equally poor also has a local market, the Mercato del Capo which extends along the entire Via Sant'Agostino. The central core of the district is the imposing monastery of the Church of Sant'Agostino which ruled the region in medieval times.
Skilled and ambitious builders, the Normans adapted mosques and palaces, giving life to that Arab-Norman style that makes the Sicilian architectural heritage unique. The most significant expression is the imposing cathedral, a triumph of battlements, domes covered with majolica, decorations with geometric motifs and blind arches.
Aesthetically, the structure has suffered a little from the numerous alterations it has undergone over the centuries but the Arab imprint is still predominant. The construction work began in 1184 on commission of Archbishop Gualtiero Offamilio, an English tutor of William II who had not only infinite financial resources but also an equally infinite power in the Kingdom of Sicily.
It was precisely to reaffirm his supreme in the region that he ordered the construction of the cathedral of Palermo, whose purpose was to overshadow the recently built cathedral in Monreale in magnificence. The structure was erected on the site of a 9th century mosque of which there remains a column inscribed with a passage from the Koran in the south portico. Due to the size and grandeur of the exterior, the cathedral soon became a symbol of the power struggle between church and crown that was going on at that time. Since then the building has undergone extensive modifications and additions with happy and less successful results. Despite its solemn dimensions, the interior of the cathedral is a sober space; in the chapels of the southern nave there are the tombs of the Norman kings, containing the remains of two great kings that Sicily has ever had: Roger II and Frederick II of Swabia. In the middle of the right aisle there is a very rich treasure where the crown of Constance of Aragon and a tooth of Santa Rosalia stand out and her ashes are kept in the same place in a silver reliquary.
Diocesan Museum : A Diocesan Museum has been set up next to the cathedral, home to an important and rich collection of works from the cathedral and from various churches destroyed during the Second World War.
Quattro Canti area, Albergheria
Once inhabited by Norman court officials, it is a poor and run-down neighborhood since the end of the Second World War, where there are buildings that still bear evident signs of the bombs dropped during the conflict. The area today is inhabited by an increasingly large community of immigrants who have revitalized the streets, in these streets there is the busiest market in Palermo, Ballarò.
Palaces of the Normans
Proceeding west along Corso Vittorio Emanuele you reach the massive complex of the Norman Palace, formerly the center of a magnificent medieval court and today the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The hall of the regional council, present here, is the sumptuous Sala Ruggiero II, the bedroom of the Norman king, with walls covered with some of the few mosaics of the time with a non-religious theme, depicting Persian peacocks and exotic leopards.
On the lower floor you reach what is the most precious artistic treasure of Palermo, the Palatine Chapel designed by Ruggero II himself in 1130. The Palatine chapel is one of the most visited sites in Palermo, its mosaics are considered the greatest masterpieces of art world and together with the precious marbles that cover the internal walls make this place of meditation a true artistic jewel, the main theme is the stories of the Old Testament but other scenes recall the fundamental role that Palermo played during the Crusades. Not only the mosaics of the chapel are to be admired: the wooden ceiling with muqarnas decorations typical of Muslim architecture. Equally extraordinary is the marble floor considering that in the 12th century marble was as precious as gems, the value of this floor at the time it was made was truly inestimable.
Next to the Norman Palace is the Porta Nuova built in 1583 at the behest of the Viceroy Colonna to celebrate the arrival of Charles V who returned victorious to Palermo after the defeat inflicted on the Muslims in Tunis. For centuries it was the most important land access to the city. More than 400 years after its construction, it still represents the dividing line between the historic center and the new city.
Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
A little further south of the Norman Palace stands the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the most famous architectural testimony in Palermo of the fusion between the Arab and Norman styles. It is topped by five red domes and framed by a grand, tree-lined garden with kiosks that offer a peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle.
Immediately south of the intersection between Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emauele opens Piazza Pretoria, a concentration of imposing churches and buildings that surround the imposing Fontana Pretoria. The fountain, arranged on several levels, dominates the square with its pools and concentric circles on which unveiled nymphs, tritons and river gods flock to jump out of the water. Designed by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camillari between 1554 and 1555 for the Tuscan villa of Don Pedro di Toledo, it was purchased by the city of Palermo in 1573 with the specific intent of surpassing the Fountain of Orion which had recently been built in beauty and grandeur. in Messina. Located in front of the Palazzo Pretorio, the fountain aroused the scandalized reaction of the faithful who frequented the austere Church of San Giuseppe de Teatini, who renamed it "The Fountain of Shame"
The eastern side of the square is bordered by the Church of Santa Caterina, the most beautiful Baroque church in Palermo. Belonging to the Dominican order, the church was entrusted to the custody of the nuns of the convent, who kept it closed for 14 years; it was reopened to the public in 2006. The Dominican monastery adjacent to the church was founded around 1310. It is said that initially it gave refuge mainly to prostitutes, but the Palermo aristocrats did not take long to realize its privileged position and soon began to finance it. In the 16th century the monastery expanded to the point of incorporating a nearby church, when even this structure was insufficient it was necessary to build a new one. Thus it was that between 1566 and 1596 the Church of Santa Caterina was built, the work of an unknown architect, once you have seen the church you will understand why the nuns have wanted to jealously guard this explosion of Baroque for so many years.
La Martorana and the church of San Cataldo
The most famous and most beautiful medieval church in Palermo is La Martorana, a very popular setting for wedding rites. It was built in the 12th century by order of Giorgio di Antiochia, admiral of the fleet of Roger II, and like many structures of the time it was conceived to be a mosque. Delicate Fatimid columns support an internally decorated dome with a Christ enthroned surrounded by archangels, while Arabic inscriptions incessantly repeat the name of Allah. In 1433 La Martorana was sold to an order of Benedictine nuns and from there the modifications to the original structure of the building began. In 1935 Mussolini returned the church to the Greek Orthodox community, which still celebrates the rite of Mass according to its own tradition.
Between neoclassical and liberty ...
North of Piazza Giuseppe Verdi the streets of Palermo become wider, the buildings lengthen and shops, cafes and restaurants take on a more elegant aspect.
Built between 1875 and 1897 by Giovan Battista Basile and then by his son Ernesto to celebrate the unification of Italy, the Teatro Massimo has become the symbol of the triumphs and tragedies that have always characterized the events in Palermo. Third theater of the nineteenth century in size, it has had an emblematic history, symptomatic of the conflicts of power that have often torn apart the Palermo society, not surprisingly, at the Teatro Massimo the final scene of "The Godfather" was shot in which the culture is opposed to crime in a whirlwind of drama and death of extraordinary emotional impact.
Out of the center
One of the few monuments left in Palermo to testify to the period of Arab domination: muqarnas vaults, half-timbered windows, fountains and even a room specially designed to protect the emir and his family from the sirocco. Inside today a museum of Arab craftsmanship has been set up.
Catacombs of the Capuchins
It is known for the macabre spectacle offered by its catacombs, which contain the mummified bodies of about 8000 Palermitans who died between the 17th and 19th centuries. Originally intended only for monks, later they were also made available to Sicilians of high social spiders who guaranteed rich donations to the monastery. The dead were placed according to a rigid procedure that distinguished between social status, it. Religion and profession.
On the road that leads from the center of Palermo to Monreale stands the Cuba one of the most representative buildings of Arab-Norman architecture in Palermo.
Palermo has several green areas:
In the Kalsa district, Villa Giulia ;
Botanical Garden , a tropical paradise with imposing fig trees, tall palms and hibiscus in dazzling colors. There is also an avenue of unique plank-looking trees, where bottle trees, soap bars and cinnamon trees stand out, as well as coffee trees, papaya trees and sycamores.
Parco della Favorita purchased in 1799 by King Ferdinand of Bourbon who commissioned the original layout of the park and during his exile in Naples lived here with his wife in an extraordinary building known as the Chinese Palace.
Parties and events in Palermo
Palermo hosts numerous religious processions throughout the year.
Holy Week : the rites that accompany Holy Week are celebrated practically all over the island. The celebrations of the Greek Orthodox tradition take place at the Martorana.
Palermo on stage : Music, theater, cinema and ballet are part of a program of shows held throughout the summer.
Feast of Santa Rosalia : Celebrated between 10 and 15 July, the most important festival in Palermo pays homage to Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of the city. The relics of the saint are carried in procession through the city streets, accompanied by four days of fireworks and celebrations of various kinds.
Eating in Palermo
In Palermo it is possible to eat well and at a good price, whether it is snacks in bars or on market stalls, or if you sit in one of the numerous pizzerias and restaurants scattered throughout the historic center; snacks (arancini, etc.), desserts and ice creams, but also pizzas, are among the best in Sicily, and perhaps also in Italy. Fish is on the menus of the most expensive trattorias and restaurants that serve home cooking or Sicilian cuisine: the local specialty is pasta with sardines: macaroni with fresh sardines, wild fennel, raisins and pine nuts. Small clubs tend to close early, especially in the historic center, where waiters start clearing the tables around 10pm. In the busiest restaurants it is best to show up before 8pm, otherwise be prepared to wait your turn.
Breakfast and snacks
Almost all bars and patisseries give their best in the morning, when you can have breakfast with hot baked pastries, but if you want to taste something more substantial or have a quick meal or an afternoon snack there are excellent places that offer sandwiches stuffed, toast and pizzas by the slice and many other delights.
One of the greatest pride of the city are the ice cream parlors where in the morning you could do as the people of Palermo do and taste a brioche with ice cream. Most of the pastry shops are very good but there are some famous classic places all over Italy that are worth a visit, several of which are in the northern and modern part of the city.
Restaurants and pizzerias
Around the Central Station there are several cheap restaurants, other restaurants are scattered throughout the city, and in the dark streets of the historic center there are many excellent trattorias serving home cooking. Palermo also offers several high quality restaurants serving excellent Italian cuisine at prices that are always lower than in the rest of Italy.
Bars, nightlife and entertainment.
As evening falls, the frenzy of activity stops in much of the city, pedestrians quickly retreat into the shadows, and main roads are left for speeding cars. The few bars in the historic center tend to close around 9pm, but the breweries stay open late and in the summer the nightlife continues undaunted until the wee hours in Mondello .
The more modern area of Palermo, developed around Viale della Libertà, is more animated with the Palermitans engaged in invigorating walks and the cars that turn into itinerant discos.