Palermo is fast, brash, filthy and – at times – insane. Exotic Arabic cupolas float above exuberant Baroque facades, high-fashion shops compete with raffish street-markets, and walls of graffitied municipal cement abut the crumbling shells of collapsing palazzi sprouting clusters of prickly pear. Add to this a constant soundtrack of sputtering, swirling traffic, and some of the most anarchic driving in Europe, and you’ll quickly see that this is not a city for the faint-hearted. With Sicily’s greatest concentration of sights, and the biggest historic centre in Italy bar Rome, Palermo is a complex, multilayered city that can easily feel overwhelming if you try to do or see too much. The best thing to do here is just to wander as the fancy takes you, sifting through the city’s jumbled layers of crumbling architecture, along deserted back-alleys, then suddenly emerging in the midst of an ebullient street-market. If you only have a day, select an area (La Kalsa, with its two museums, for example, or the sprawling markets of Ballarò or Capo), and explore: have a couple of target sights in mind by all means, but don’t neglect to wander up any particular alley or street that takes your interest. If, on the other hand, you want to see all the major sights and leave time to explore the labyrinthine historical centre at random, allow at least four days in cool weather. In summer, Palermo is far too hot to be comfortable between noon and around 5pm, so avoid it or schedule in a leisurely lunch and siesta.
The essential sights are pretty central and easy to cover on foot. Paramount are the hybrid Cattedrale and nearby Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace); the glorious Norman churches of La Martorana and San Giovanni degli Eremiti; the Baroque San Giuseppe dei Teatini and Santa Caterina; and first-class museums of art and archeology.
If the urban grit and grime become overwhelming, head to the famous medieval cathedral of Monreale, or take a ferry or hydrofoil to the tiny volcanic island of Ustica, 60km northwest.
Occupying a superb position in a wide bay beneath the limestone bulk of Monte Pellegrino, Palermo was originally a Phoenician, then a Carthaginian colony. Its mercantile and strategic attractions were obvious, and under Saracen and Norman rule in the ninth to twelfth centuries it became the greatest city in Europe, famed both for the wealth of its court, and as an intellectual and cultural melting-pot that brought together the best of Western and Arabic thought. There are plenty of relics from this era, but it’s the rebuilding of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that really shaped the city centre. In the nineteenth century, wealthy Palermitani began to shun the centre for the elegant suburbs of new “European” boulevards and avenues to the north of Piazza Politeama, which still retain some fine Art Nouveau buildings.
During World War II Allied bombs destroyed much of the port area and the medieval centre (including seventy churches), and for decades much of central Palermo remained a ramshackle bombsite. It is only recently that funds from Rome and the EU have united with political willpower to kickstart the regeneration of the historic centre, though as hundreds of abandoned buildings still testify, there is still a way to go.