Palermo is one of those cities with its own very determinate atmosphere, a place of mystery and curiosities, that sometimes may go beyond traveller's imagination and preconceived stereotypes. It is a prominent Mediterranean center whose 1 million inhabitants are a fascinating cocktail of apparently conflicting characteristics.
Palermo's history has a very specific mark, since the town passed from one dominating power to another with remarkable frequency; because of its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean, Palermo was dominated by wave upon wave of invaders including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons just to name the most influential. The result of this tormented history is evident today in the vast range of architectural styles, the intriguing fusion of ingredients used in many local dishes and in many place names which are obviously not of Italian origin.
Visiting Palermo is still somewhat of an adventure in a world where so many places have become tourist-friendly to a fault. You won't find many restaurants with menus translated into five different languages, you may have trouble communicating in English in many places, and some parts of the old town center have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war.
Moreover, the often faded grandeur of many of Palermo's wonderful palaces and churches in the center are in very popular areas, sometimes in place that you can not imagine, like in many big Italian cities.
A typical touch of the city can be observed around the markets, whose Arabic origins are still evident today thanks to their noise, smells, colors, narrow labyrinthine streets, the splendid array of food and other goods on display and the general chaotic atmosphere.
Nevertheless, artistic delights abound at every corner in Palermo: notable are the spectacular mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo of Monreale.
The Sicilian capital offers amazing mix of architecture with buildings such as the Palermo Cathedral and exquisite churches like San Giuseppe dei Teatini, a must-see for anyone who loves Baroque architecture; curiosities like the bizarre Catacombe dei Cappuccini; galleries including Palazzo Abatellis; and museums such as the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas.
If you go to Palermo do try to squeeze in a visit to Monreale
Cathedral, which is only a short bus ride outside of the city and,
someone says, is like a Sistine Chapel of mosaics.
As in most cities, the best way to see Palermo is on foot. This
allows you to wander round the web of back streets and discover
hidden palaces and churches that you may otherwise miss. The old
town center of Palermo, where most sites of interest are situated,
is extensive but quite easily walkable.
If you are just coming to Palermo on a day trip, obviously there will be a limit as to what you will be able to see and do. If shopping is not your priority, probably the best day to discover Palermo is Sunday when, at least in the summer, most people are at the beach, traffic is virtually non-existent and parking is free.
SUGGESTED ONE DAY ITINERARY
Your full day in Palermo, could begin by visiting a local outdoor market called Mercato Ballarò. It is so incredibly Sicilian: vendors shout across to one another, locals swarm in front of the fish stands, vibrant colors are everywhere, and gorgeous looking fruit stack in interesting displays. The Ballarò is probably the oldest of Palermo's Arabic markets. The derivation of its name is unsure but may come from the name of the North African village where most of the Arabic traders working in the market originated: Balhara. Nowadays, the market's Arabic roots are still evident.
After the market, you may walk down to the Quattro Canti, or four corners, and then visit two of Palermo's biggest and most well-known theaters: Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama. Both theaters are painted in bright, sunny colors and perfectly showcase why art and opera are so important here. It's easy to see the influences from around the world here in Sicily. There appears to be an eclectic mix of people creating a more diverse population and culture. Going south-east down Via Maqueda you will come across Piazza Pretoria which is home not only to a splendid fountain but several other impressive buildings including, on the right, the City Hall. The large central fountain is the focal point for sixteen nude statues of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs. If you imagine this being erected during the Inquisition, it is quite easy to imagine why it received its epithet, the "Fountain of Shame''.
Behind the City Hall, there is another square, Piazza Bellini where you can see two of Palermo's most interesting churches: the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (more commonly known as La Martorana) and the Church of San Cataldo, instantly recognizable thanks to its trio of red domes. We suggest to visti the Santa Caterina church too.
On the south-east corner of ``Quattro Canti'', opposite Piazza Pretoria, you can find the church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini. This church, built in 1612, is a must-see for anyone who loves Baroque architecture. If you do not, it might be a good idea to stay away, though it is still quite impressive.
Walking up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, you can find the Cathedral on your right: the remarkable exterior is impressive, while the interior is rather plain in comparison; Emperor Frederick II, ``Stupor Mundi'' is buried here. Going under Porta Nuova and at Piazza Indipendenza you will find the entrance to the Royal Palace and the Palatine Chapel.
The area around the Norman Palace
has long been the seat of Kings and rulers and today it plays host
to the Sicilian Regional Parliament. Piazza Indipendenza and Porta Nuova used to mark Palermo's southern boundary, as a transit to the Conca d'Oro valley leading under Monreale. La Capella Palatina
(The Palatine Chapel)is probably the most visited monument in Palermo and should not be missed. Once again it is characterized by a fusion of different architectural styles, most evidently the Byzantine mosaics and the wooden Arabic honeycombed ceiling.
ENJOY RELAX IN PALERMO
Palermitani spend balmy summer nights cooling off down by Mondello Lido: Mondello seems to be a world of its own - apart from the stress and fast pace of Palermo. European aristocrats flocked to, and the still-standing Art Nouveau villas are a testament of the carefree era. A good sandy beach stretches for about 2km.
However, in the center of Palermo, locals converge in the city's two liveliest bar-lined squares, Piazza Verdi and Piazza Castelnuovo. Meanwhile, the large indoor stage of the neoclassical Teatro Massimo puts on first-class opera and ballet performances, as does the grandiose Politeama Garibaldi.
Palermo shows off its multicultural past best through its gastronomy. Arab-influenced dishes from the city's long-departed conquerors include the zesty lemon granita drink, crumbly almond pastries and spicy fish couscous. For authentic cheap eats you can try the sicilian fast-food, like "panini con panelle'' (fritters made from chickpea flour) or "rosticceria'' (deep-fried and baked dough pockets with savory fillings), widely distributed all over the city. An interesting mix of food and emotions can be experienced during the celebration of Saint Rosalia, also called La Santuzza that is the patron saint of Palermo: this celebration called the "festino'', is held each year on July 15 all around the medieval La Kalsa district. It is still a major social and religious event in Palermo, where people love to try local delicacy, like "simenza'' (pumpkin seeds) and ``babalucci'' (baby snails marinated in parsley, olive oil and garlic).