Welcome to Palermo, this city is cosmopolitan, a shining jewel among the precious treasures of Sicily, an essential destination for those who love art, history, culture and traditions.
Palermo: where and what
This splendid island, Sicily, is almost a continent rich in peoples, tastes, nature, sensibilities where everything looks at infinity. A sweet and harsh land, soft and rough, sunny and cloudy: a world full of art and history. And today I’m taking you with me to one of the truly unique places on the island. I’m talking about Palermo and its 10 wonders to see: let’s discover them!
First of all, let’s describe where we are: we are on the North-eastern coast kissed by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Palermo appears right inside the plain called Conca d’Oro, hugged between the gulf and the limestone mountains. All around, you can see a unique and gorgeous landscape that seems to summarize the essence of Sicily: the Mediterranean scrub, mountains, stones, beaches…
And now a little bit of curiosities! Did you know that around 900 the city had more than two hundred thousand inhabitants, so it was one of the most populous cities in the world? And which city owns the largest historic center in Europe? What was the Italian Capital of Culture in 2018? Which city is in the Top 5 ranking of the best 10 cities in the world for Street Food? Palermo, the capital of kingdoms and melting pot of peoples, proudly shows off its artistic and architectural heritage. You will be amazed to see how Arab domes, Baroque churches, Art Nouveau buildings, neoclassical theaters, eighteenth-century parks and markets that looks like Arab souks coexist together!
Palermo: the life of a capital city
Today the city is undoubtedly one of the most famous and touristic places in Sicily. But how and when did Palermo become so famous? Historians claim that the city was called Zyz – that means ‘flower’ – by the Phoenicians who founded the first nucleus in the 6th century BC. and Panormos that means ‘all port’ by the Greeks who colonized the Eastern part of the island. The Romans called it Panormus and it was a period of stability and wealth. Then, after the devastation by the Vandals, the city flourished again during the next three centuries under the Byzantines. The Arabs, on the other hand, in the 9th century gave it the name of Balarm and choose it as the capital of Sicily, moreover they converted churches into about 300 mosques and also introduced the first citrus groves.
Then it began the (not always) bright period of the so-called Kingdom of Sicily under the royal houses of the Normans, Swabians and Angevins. Then, after the revolt of the Vespers, Palermo became the capital of the kingdom of the cadet branch of the Aragonese. But in the 15th century the Spaniards chose Palermo as the seat of the Viceroy for over two centuries until 1734 when the city became the domain of the Bourbons who kept the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples separate. The vicissitudes of this ‘intermittent’ capital continued: in 1816 both kingdoms were reunited in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Naples became the capital.
In 1860 Palermo rose up like the rest of the island even before Garibaldi landed in Marsala to push the unification of Italy. It was a truly sparkling era for Palermo, we are talking about the first twenty years of the 20th century, the age of Art Nouveau. Just a curiosity: get ready for a surprise … but it’s all true! Palermo played a leading role in the international arena in the so-called Belle Époque thanks to the Florio family, a very wealthy industrial family who loved art and innovation.
We have to remember the dark side of Palermo: the 20th century represented the peak of the fight against mafia, a social cancer that affected even politics. Among the victims who have become symbols of the anti-mafia change, I want to mention Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, the president of the Region Piersanti Mattarella, the judges Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino, Gaetano Costa and Rocco Chinnici. Nowadays, we all wish to shake off centuries of apathetic acceptance: we feel it in the squares, in the streets, in the alleys of Palermo. Many associations have been founded as well as studies and activities that aim on one hand to make people aware and on the other one to identify the way of a social and cultural renaissance, the end of Cosa Nostra. And I’m not joking about this: let’s be all united against this barbarism!
10 wonders to see in Palermo: let’s find out the top three!
Well now you know enough to go further and as I promised, let’s list one by one 10 wonders to see in Palermo: let’s discover them!
1 – Cathedral
At first glance you will understand that this spectacular architecture is unique, a mix of styles and cultures. The main façade, in fact, is surrounded by two turrets, has a 15th-century Catalan Gothic portico and the dome, on the other hand, is Baroque while the oldest part – the apse – has some wonderful Arab and Norman decorations!
It was built as a Christian church in 600 and then turned into a mosque in 800 by the Arabs. It became Christian again in 1100 under the Normans. Visit the tombs of Frederick II and Roger II, and the one of Saint Rosalia – of course – the patron saint of the city. Moreover, don’t forget to visit the Treasure Rooms where among sacred and precious objects you will find the gold tiara of Queen Constance of Aragon.
2 – Royal Palace (Norman Palace) and the Palatine Chapel
The Norman Palace is also known as the Royal Palace because it was built by the Arabs in the 9th century as a fortress and was later turned into a palace by the Norman kings. Under Roger II it became a sumptuous palace with magnificent halls and mosaics depicting hunting scenes, even the Spanish Viceroys chose it as their residence in the 16th century. Among the main rooms, the Hall of Hercules stands out, it contains some frescoes representing the 12 Herculean efforts by Velasquez. Since 1947, the majestic palace has hosted the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
Be careful: don’t miss first floor where the splendid Palatine Chapel dedicated to St. Peter is located. It is a true jewel that express the Arab Norman Byzantine art with some incredible gold mosaics that decorate the walls and partly the wooden ceiling. The most impactful image is the blessing Pantocrator in the dome!
3 – Fontana Pretoria, Quattro Canti, and Martorana and Church of Saint Cataldo
And here we are in Piazza Pretoria where in front of the City Hall we find one of the most beautiful fountains in Italy. It’s a gem: this magnificent artwork was built in Florence by Francesco Camillani to furnish the palace of the Spanish nobleman Don Luigi Toledo. But his son was in misery and sold it to the Senate of Palermo! It was disassembled into 644 pieces and transported by ship. To reassemble it, several adjacent buildings had to be demolished.
Since that moment, people started calling it ‘Piazza della Vergogna’ because the naked statues of the fountain were displayed in front of the monastery of the nuns of Santa Caterina! However, since 1581 the monumental fountain has shown in the center a mythological creature known as the Genius of Palermo who pours water surrounded by the naked statues representing Venus, Adonis, Hercules, Bacchus, Apollo, Diana, Pomona and of the 4 rivers of Palermo.
Nearby, enjoy the splendor of Quattro Canti. We are at the intersection of the two main streets of the city, Via Vittorio Emanuele where we had started our tour from the Cathedral and Via Maqueda, that will lead us to Teatro Massimo. In this crossroads, the four facades are built following the same model: at the bottom there’s a fountain with a statue representing the four seasons, then at the first level there are the statues of the kings of Palermo and at the top there are the four patron saints of Palermo before Santa Rosalia.
A few meters away there are two very peculiar churches. La Martorana got this name from the famous marzipan fruit invented by the nuns of the convent founded by the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana. In the walls, in the arches and in the dome, you can see some astonishing Byzantine mosaics, maybe the oldest in Sicily. Don’t miss a visit to the church of San Cataldo (that is next to La Martorana) to discover the arabesque little red domes.
10 wonders to see in Palermo: let’s find out four more!
4 – Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama
Walking down from Quattro Canti, we now proceed along Via Maqueda that takes us directly to Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele. It was inaugurated in 1897 and is the largest theater in Italy and the third in Europe after the Opéra in Paris and the Staatsoper in Vienna! It took 23 years to bring it back to its original splendor, since the reopening happened in 1997 this theater continuously hosts very famous opera productions. Inside it you can see precious gold decorations and sumptuous mirrors, while outside any visitor will be astonished by the architecture that is inspired by a Greek temple where on top you can read: “Art renews peoples and reveals their life”.
Just another curiosity: to build it, 2 churches and a convent were demolished and they say that the ghost of a nun haunts the theater and makes visitors stumble on a very specific step known as “the nun’s step”. So just avoid it and you’ll be safe!
Now it is time to know another monumental theater of Palermo: Politeama. It is known as the ‘People’s Theater’, it was inaugurated in 1874 even if the stall that nowadays hosts 5,000 spectators was not totally ready. It is true you are not wrong: from the outside its circular shape recalls the Roman Pantheon! Let’s look up right above the entrance, we’ll see a grandiose bronze statue, a quadriga with Apollo.
5 – Regional Archaeological Museum ‘Antonio Salinas’
Now we will visit one of the most important museums in Palermo and on the island. It is located near Teatro Massimo in the historic College of the Congregation of San Filippo Neri. Let’s visit three floors with a huge collection of artworks from the Phoenician, Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian and Greek eras that also perfectly describe the history of Sicily from prehistory to the Middle Ages. Everything is well displayed and thanks to the large courtyards with trees and fountains we can enjoy our visit in peace! Moreover, the admission is free… so, come on!
6 – Catacombs of the Capuchins
Are you ready for an unforgettable experience? Maybe it isn’t suggested to the most sensitive people or children but for all the others, do it! Let’s visit the underground cemetery of the Convent of the Capuchins that many people wrongly call ‘catacombs’. Get ready to see eight thousand mummified bodies from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These particular climatic conditions combined with the embalming methods have allowed the bodies to be preserved almost perfectly.
The relatives of dead people used to choose the clothes of their beloved ones and visit them offering periodic donations to the monastery that gave the catacombs the opportunity to survive until today. The most famous, creepiest and best-preserved mummy is Rosalia, a child who died when she was only 2 years old really looks like she was asleep. Impressive!
7 – The markets: Ballarò and Vucciria
After so much history and art, it is the moment to plunge into the folklore of this city. So, follow me to explore the local markets of Palermo: they look like a sort of Arab souk with a bunch of colors, flavors, smells, sounds. Ballarò is pretty close to the central station, there you can see some stands of fruit and vegetables, meat and fresh fish. Vucciria is near the Martorana Church and because of its slightly decadent charm deserves to be visited.
Even if there are some other markets, these are the ones where the sellers still ‘abbanniano’, in other words they advertise their products…shouting loud! Do you want to take a break? Right in these alleys, you can find some restaurants, pubs and cafes where you can taste the original Sicilian street food! Try panelle, sfinciuni, cicireddu, octopus, prickly pears and the famous arancina … by the way, here’s the recipe for arancino or arancina, whatever you want!
10 wonders to see in Palermo: let’s find out more and more!
We visited 7 out of 10 wonders to see in Palermo! Now it’s time to know the area’s surroundings, let’s go!
8 – The Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia
Do you want to feel the religious and popular spirit of Palermo? Let’s start the so-called ‘acchianata’ that it means “climbing on foot” to reach the top of Monte Pellegrino following the old road that leads to the Sanctuary of the patron saint of the city. I really recommend it not only to the devotees but also to all sport and nature lovers! Once you get on top of the promontory, in addition to an extraordinary view over the city and the sea, you can go into the suggestive cave.
According to legend, the saint’s bones were found here in 1624 and in that moment the plague epidemic in the city ceased. This is the reason why many devotees from Palermo visit and pray in this mystical place. Curiously, inside there is a lot of water that is canalized using an elaborate system. If you are in Palermo on July 15th, do not miss the famous festival in honor of the Saint known as ‘il Festino’.
9 – Cathedral of Monreale
Now let’s jump in the car and drive about 40 minutes away from the center of Palermo: welcome to Monreale. The Cathedral, together with the Arab Norman monuments of Palermo is part of UNESCO World Heritage. It is a masterpiece of architecture! Millions of tourists and pilgrims choose this destination that is one of the finest examples of Italian Byzantine art. The Norman king William II of Altavilla made it built at the end of 1100 to dedicate it to the Virgin Mary. They say that the Virgin had revealed to the king in a dream the place where to find a huge hidden treasure and to thank the Virgin Mary, he built the temple!
The walls and vault are covered with over 6,500 square meters of gold mosaics depicting scenes from the New and Old Testament. In the apse there’s the image of Christ Pantocrator. So, let’s go to the adjacent cloister of the Benedictine convent to admire the rich decorations on the capitals and the columns!
10 – Mondello beach
Finally, we got to the last of the 10 wonders to see in Palermo. Don’t forget that Palermo is a city by the sea and it means…beaches! So, let’s go to the most beautiful beach: the coast of Mondello is only 30 minutes away by car. Would you believe it? Crystal clear water and fine white sand… yes, it looks like a Caribbean beach. It is very popular, especially in summer. It is surrounded by many Art Nouveau buildings, elegant restaurants and cheerful bars that create the unique atmosphere of this place. In addition to the seaside establishments, there is even a free area where you can relax and sunbath. But Mondello is certainly one of the most beautiful places to visit even in winter to enjoy wonderful walks along the seafront and why not, to taste a delicious ice cream and discover incredible flavors.
Did I surprise you with these 10 wonders to see in Palermo? Don’t think that’s all! Sicily is much more than this: come and discover it thanks to the itineraries organized by Dimensione Sicilia. One of the best ideas? Eco-tours by electric cars! These itineraries are customizable itineraries according to your time and budget to enjoy 8 days in Western and Eastern Sicily or 14 days, if you prefer. You will visit the most beautiful places on the island such as 10 UNESCO sites of Sicily including Taormina and its surroundings. Or if you want to enjoy the beauties of the island in a different way, pick one of the tours suggested by Sicilian Secrets. In safety we trust, let’s go!
See you soon!
Translated by Gaia Guarino