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Palermo has been one of the most important cities on the Mediterranean Sea for at least 8,000 years. It has been ruled by the Greeks, North African Arabian sultans, the Normans, the Spanish, and it was finally unified with the rest of Italy in 1860. The Bay of Palermo contains the Mondello beach, which is one of the in-vogue beaches in Europe; and Sicilian food is some of the best in the world: Why oh why, did I skip Palermo?
Palermo is the only major city in Italy that I have not visited. In 2006, I visited the eastern coast of Sicily, staying in Taormina and Catania, but I decided against the 3-hour train ride to Palermo. Last year, when I spent time working on a farm in the Lazio region, the owner, Giuseppe Siragusa, told me stories of growing up in Sicily. “Sicilian people are the friendliest, most hospitable people in the world,” he said. And, that was my experience.
Historically, Palermo is one of the most luxurious cities in the world. It is known, for example, for lavish pleasure gardens teeming with orange trees and lemon trees that were cultivated by Arabian sultans. These gardens were attached to magnificent estates, and the estates exhibit a unique mix of architectural styles, thanks to the many cultures that have occupied Sicily. Arabesque decorative art, Byzantine mosaics, and grand Romanesque architecture have been combined to create truly stunning mansions, cathedrals, and palaces. The architectural detail found in the domes, Doric columns, and ceilings covered with glittering, gold leaf mosaics is truly impressive.
Then, in the late 19th century, a new governing class took hold: Cosa Nostra, aka the Mafia. Due to increased corruption and a booming concrete industry, some of Palermo’s best historical buildings were literally bull-dozed over, leaving travelers like you and me to wonder: Is a visit to Palermo worth it?
Fortunately for us, the most important examples of Palermo’s unique architecture still remain (just check the list below), and the Mafia poses no real threat to travelers. But what most makes me want to visit Palermo is the vibrant spirit of a city that takes great pride in being itself. Sicily’s cultural icons include a smattering of colossal Greek amphitheaters, and ancient temples (usually positioned on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean), all against a backdrop of the volcano, Mt. Etna. In addition, you’ll find perfect beaches, and I’ve heard that you can’t find better cannoli anywhere else on earth. Palermo exhibits Sicilian culture in all its hectic glory — think Naples or Athens, Greece — and if authentic Italian experiences are your idea of a perfect journey, Palermo, it appears, is the place to be.
I’ve done the research; so here’s a guide to Palermo’s neighborhoods, its most important sights, its museums, and its most fun markets. Since Palermo is located in the western half of Sicily (about as far from the Italian mainland as possible), why not consider making Palermo your first stop. Its airport is world class and ferries leave for virtually every nearby destination — from Rome to Sardinia to Barcelona.
The city center of Palermo is shaped like a square and is based around the famous cross-roads of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. This area is known as Quarto Canti, and its ancient streets and piazzas are filled with statues, museums, palaces. The four quarters of the square are made up of the following neighborhoods: Albergheria, the Capo quarter, Vucciria, and La Kalsa. All four quarters are worth visiting. The Vucciria is where you’ll find the harbor, while the Capo quarter contains the modern city. La Kalsa is a vibrant neighborhood with excellent, authentic food, however, it’s better to visit La Kalsa for lunch because it can become dangerous at night.
Palermo’s Most Important Sights
The Churches of Palermo
Palermo’s churches are numerous, and each is astonishing in its own right. Filled with glittering mosaics on the inside, they are truly one of Palermo’s most impressive sights. The most important is the Palermo Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo), which contains all of the architectural styles found in Palermo. It also contains the sarcophagus of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily during the Middle Ages. He built many of southern Italy’s impressive castles, including the octagonal Castel del Monte in Puglia.
Other important churches in Palermo’s center are the Church of Sant’Augustino, the church of San Francesco d’Assisi, the church of Santa Zita, and the Baroque Church of Il Gesú.
If you still haven’t had enough, the Duomo of Monreale, located in the nearby town of Monreale, is home to some of the most striking Greek and Byzantine décor on earth.
The Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni)
Home to the Palantine Chapel (Cappelle Palantine), this palace is as important a landmark as the Palermo Cathedral. Visit the royal apartments and make sure to see the humungous golden throne.
The Capuchin Catacombs (Convento dei Cappuccini)
One of the creepiest sights on earth, the catacomb features over 8,000, mummified corpses, many of which are still dressed in their best suits and gowns. This sight is just outside the city, but it’s clearly worth the short bus ride.
The Gardens of Villa Giulia
Located in the La Kalsa neighborhood along with several other beautiful palaces, Villa Giulia retains an immaculate botanical garden. When I visit, I’ll pretend I’m an Arabian emir without a care in the world.
The largest opera house in Italy, Teatro Massimo features performances and tours. The tours are offered year-round, but the performances are only from October to May. Purchase tickets on the theater’s official online web site or at the theater’s box office.
The Museums of Palermo
Museo Archeologico Regionale
Ancient artifacts abound, including a massive statue of Zeus sitting on his throne. Greek, Egyptian, Punic, and Roman artifacts are well represented here, and most were found in Sicily.
Galleria Regionale in the Abatellis Palace (Palazzo Abatellis)
This sprawling art museum is located in a 15th– century palace to boot. The artworks are mostly medieval, and feature artists such as Antonello da Messina and Francesco Laurana.
The Modern Art Museum (Galleria d’Arte Moderna)
This is where you’ll find the works of Sicily’s modern artists.
Palermo’s Street Markets
The Vucciria street market, located in Piazza Caracciolo, is the most important in Palermo. It features the freshest of fresh produce and seafood.
The Capo market, located in the Capo quarter behind Teatro Massimo, is a huge market that features food, clothing, and everything else under the sun.
The Ballaró street market is in the center of Palermo, in the Albergheria neighborhood, and begins in Piazza Ballaró.
Upscale Shopping and People Watching – Via della Libertà is the street where it’s all going down.
Now that I have completed my research for the alluring city of Palermo, I want to travel there all the more. Have you been to Palermo? Do you have any recommendations for me?
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com