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.
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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.
Brief history of Palermo
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.
Accommodation in Palermo
If you arrive late and need a place on spec, most of Palermo’s budget hotels lie on and around the southern ends of Via Maqueda and Via Roma, close to Stazione Centrale. However, you will get far more for your money staying in one of the new wave of B&Bs. Orizzonte Rosso is a well-organized outfit with a range of centrally located apartments, which also organizes upmarket boat trips and tailor made excursions all over Sicily.
Eating and drinking in Palermo
Vendors in the markets and on numerous street corners sell classic Palermitani street food such as pane e panelli (chickpea-flour fritters served in bread), crocchè (potato croquettes with anchovy and caciocavallo cheese), and pane con la milza (bread with spleen). The most appealing area for nightlife is La Kalsa, in particular the streets between Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Magione, which are packed with bars and pubs.
The Norman cathedral at Monreale (Royal Mountain) holds the most impressive and extensive area of Christian medieval mosaic-work in the world, the undisputed apex of Sicilian-Norman art. This small hill-town, 8km southwest of Palermo, commands unsurpassed views down the Conca d’Oro valley, to the capital in the distant bay.
The severe, square-towered exterior of the Duomo is no preparation for what’s inside. The mosaics were almost certainly executed by Greek and Byzantine craftsmen, and they reveal a unitary plan and inspiration. What immediately draws your attention is the all-embracing half-figure of Christ in the central apse, the head and shoulders alone almost twenty metres high. Beneath sit an enthroned Madonna and Child, attendant angels and, below, ranks of saints, each individually and subtly coloured and identified by name. Worth singling out here is the figure of Thomas à Becket (marked SCS Thomas Cantb), canonized in 1173, just before the mosaics were begun. The nave mosaics are no less remarkable, an animated series that starts with the Creation (to the right of the altar) and runs around the whole church. Most scenes are instantly recognizable: Adam and Eve, Abraham on the point of sacrificing his son, a jaunty Noah’s Ark; even the Creation, shown in a set of glorious, simplistic panels portraying God filling his world with animals, water, light … and people. Ask at the desk by the entrance to climb the terraces in the southwest corner of the cathedral. The steps give access to the roof and leave you standing right above the central apse – an unusual and precarious vantage-point.
It’s also worth visiting the cloisters, part of the original Benedictine monastery established here in 1174. The formal garden is surrounded by an elegant arcaded quadrangle, 216 twin columns supporting slightly pointed arches – a legacy of the Arab influence. No two capitals are the same, each a riot of detail and imagination: armed hunters doing battle with winged beasts, flowers, birds, snakes and foliage. Entrance to the cloisters is from Piazza Guglielmo, in the corner by the right-hand tower of the cathedral.
Diving on Ustica
The island is well set up for divers, and facilities include a decompression chamber, though medical facilities are limited to the pharmacy and the guardia medica. The waters are protected by a natural marine reserve, divided into several zones with restrictions on where you can swim, dive and fish. The excellent Profondo Blu, run by an Italo-Belgian couple, is the island’s most organized and experienced dive operator, arranging guided dives and packages. It also offers accommodation in a resort of self-catering apartments ouside town.
Top image: View at the church of San Ignazio all'olivella located in heart of Palermo, Italy © Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock