Palermo is about 30 centuries old now. It began as a Phoenician small group stores surrounded by good land, the Conca d’Oro. It became an important land to conquer for the Greeks and Carthaginians. In the Greeks times it was Panormus, which means port in their language.
At the end of the 9th century in Arabs hands it became a prosperous port and city and at the end of the 12th century when the Normans took it, the city became the capital of their kingdom and flourished wonderfully. Then one after the other the Hohenstaufens, the Angevians, the Aragonese and the English tried but failed to emulate the heydays of the Normans. The Spanish only gave Palermo a different organization by adding baroque domes among the maze of Moorish style narrow streets.
In the pre-war the town regained a bit of splendour with its belle époque style. But the two wars, immigration and mafia activity turned it into a decadent centre. Last century in the 80s murders were terrifying and Palermo seemed to be in a no-win situation. After the Mafia trials Palermo began a period of recovery thanks in part to its mayors. At present there is refurbishing and restoration of stately buildings throughout Palermo. Much of it is carried out in the most dangerous places of town such as la Kalsa and Mercato della Vucciria.
What to See and Do
The Quattro Canti (meaning the four corners) is the heart of Palermo. This is the junction of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Marqueda. The four corners are lined by lofty façades and it is known as the “Theatre of the Sun” for it lights them in different moments of a day. Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini occupies one of its corners. Its lofty imposing cupola and its restored baroque interiors are worth noticing.
Home to Norman court officials, badly struck by poverty and bombardment in the 20th century, Albergheria is where the Mercato di Ballarò is.
Head along Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Palazzo dei Normanni which houses today the Sicilian parliament. If you understand Italian you can enjoy a guide visit to the parliamentary assembly and Sala di Ruggero II still keeping some mosaics on walls. Here was Roger II’s chamber.
Cappella Palatina, which has undergone recent restoration, draws and stuns visitors as its mosaics are as shimmering as in its heyday. As it is one of the most peopled attractions queuing is unavoidable and not so well organized. The mosaics created by Muslim artisans are of great expression and perfectly represent movement and minute details.
They depict stories of the Old Testament and Palermo’s active role in the Crusades. Original and one-of-a-kind features in a church are the stalactite-like decorative elements made of wood and hanging from the ceiling. The carved marble was an extraordinary feat at the time it was made for marble was so dear then.
The mannerist Porta Nuova lying by the palace shows the border between the old and new part of town and dates back to the 16th century. A lightning destructed it in part in the 17th century after which its restoration added a conical top.
The Norman-Arab Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti on Via dei Benedettini dates back to the period of Roger II. Magnificent features of the church are its imposing red domes, its treed garden, restored cloisters and quite faded frescoes. The tower by the church offers adorable views of domes and the cathedral.
The neighbourhood Il Capo borders Albergheria and is as poor as it is. It also features its street market. On Via Sant’Agostino the main thoroughfare in the Middle Ages is the magnificent Chiesa di Sant’Agostino and the monastery.
Vucciria is in bad conditions yet its market has been characterized as a hungry man’s dream for its colourful offer of great food. It was poor dirty, shelter of criminals and a mirror of the division between high an low class that persisted from the Middle Ages up to the last century. However, it has become a picturesque and exciting place to stroll around.
Off the museum on Piazza San Domenico is the 17th century church of the same name. It has been the burial site for many Italian notables since the medieval times. Its oratory houses the ravishing “The Virgin of the Rosary with Saint Dominic and the Patronesses of Palermo” by Van Dyck, paintings by Novelli and rococo stuccowork with signature figures of snakes by Giacomo Serpotta.
On Via Valverde is the Chiesa di Santa Zita dating back to the 14th century. Gagini’s sculptures, the funerary chapels and its Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Zita. Serpotta’s stuccowork and the Battle of Lepanto are among its best sights.
La Kalsa reached such a level of poverty that Mother Teresa created one of her missions here. This fact made the authorities set to and restored la Kalsa. Today it is a very delightful sight to do in Palermo.
The 16th century Complessa di Santa Maria dello Spasimo is behind it. This northern Gothic style church has a stunning apse and a roofless nave and used to sport Sanzio’s Spasimo di Sicilia which is now in the Museo del Prado. The Complesso underwent thorough restoration and so hosts concerts and exhibitions in the summertime. On the opposite side of the square is the simple Romanesque Chiesa della Magione dating back to the Normans’ times.
Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi which is watched over by the Church of Saint Francis is a picture postcard square. The church is famed among those organizing their weddings. Its precious rose window, gothic portal and the Renaissance arch of Chapel of Mastrantonio by Francesco Laurana and Pietro da Bonitate are two of its great beauties. Also check out Gagini, Giambattista Ragusa and Giacomo Serpotta’s sculptures.
The Oratorio di San Lorenzo dates back to the 16th centuries. It features Serpotta’s stuccoworks depicting moments of San Francesco and San Lorenzo ‘s lives. Piazza Marina is lorded over by palaces, one of them the Palazzo Chiaramonte dating back to the 14th century was where the Inquisition had its seat. The Giardino Garibaldi is in the square together with a 150 years old tree, the oldest in town. Palazzo Miirto is one of the palaces available for visitors to enjoy its walls covered with silk and velvet wallpaper, hanging embroidery, picturesque marble and mosaic flooring and its Chinese salon overflowing with black lacquer and decorated ceilings.
A more modern version of Palermo is set to the north of Piazza Giuseppe Verdi. Its shops, bars and restaurants are dearer and more splendid. The style that predominates is Art Nouveau and neoclassical.
Leaving the city centre is Castello della Zisa on Piazza Zisa, an example of Moorish art in Palermo turned into a museum housing Arabic handicrafts. This beautiful monument to the Moorish period features stalactite-like (muqarnas) ’s vaults, latticework windows, fountains. The bus leaving from Piazza Ruggero Settimo heads there.
The Convento dei Cappuccini receives many visitors eager to have a fright in the catacombs of mummified Palermitan wealthy few dating back to the 17 to 19th century besides the tomb of celebrated Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and a manuscript collection. The way bodies were prepared for their niche is revolting and they are divided according to sex, occupation, religion and chastity¡¡ A chill yet a draw.
A horse drawn carriage is a great way to enjoy the many treasures of this wonderful now-in-process-of-restoration town. They leave from Teatro Massimo and Piazza Pretoria carrying two or four people.
Palermo’s main tourist information office is on Piazza Castelnuovo. It supplies resourceful brochures such as the Agenda Turismo and Lapis Palermo. You can also link its website www.palermotourism.com
Other tourist information offices or booths are at the Falcone–Borsellino airport at the railway station, Piazza Bellini, Piazza della Vittoria and Piazza Marina.
Where to Eat and Drink
Palermo inhabitants tend to go to restaurants late, therefore it is a must to make reservations.
How to Get to/around/away
Agenda Turismo available at the main tourist office offers information about car hires and bus company telephone numbers and addresses.
BY PLANE: the Falcone-Borsellino airport is 31 km away from Palermo servicing domestic and international flights.
BY BOAT: to Cagliari (length: 13 hours, services: 1 a week), to Naples (length: 9 hours, services: 1 a day), to Ustica in the summer by ferry (length: 2 ½ hours, services: 2 a day), by hydrofoil (length: 1 ½ hours services: 4 a day), to the Aeolian Islands (length: 4 hours, services: 1 a day), to Cefalù (length: 1 hour, services: 1 a day), to Genoa in the summer (length: 20 hours, services: 1 a day), to Livorno (19 hours, services: 3 a week). Most companies offices are at the port near Via Francesco Crispi.
BY BUS: to Cefalù (length: 1 hour, services: 2 a day), to Catania (length: 2 ½ hours, services: 17 a day), to Enna (length: 1 ¾ hours, services: 6 a day), to Piazza Armerina (length: 1 ½ hours, services: 8 a day), to Messina (length: 3 ¼ hours, services: every hour) by SAIS Autolinee. To Trapani ( length: 2 hours, services: 8 a day) by Segesta. To Agrigento (length: 2 hours, services: 7 a day Mon-Sat, only 2 on Sun). To Ragusa and Syracuse (length: 4 hours, services: 6 a day from Mon-Sat, only 3 on Sun) by Azienda Siciliana Trasporti.
Most offices of companies are at the terminal bus on or off Via Balsamo.
Local buses connect the airport, the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi and the railway station. The tickets for the local orange buses have to be bought at the tobacconists or terminal booths and then made valid in the orange machines on the buses. Linea Gialla and Linea Rosa service the historic centre.
BY CAR AND MOTORCYCLE: drive to Palermo along the A20-E90 from Messina and the A19-E932 from Catania going past Enna. From Trapani and Marsala drive along the A29, and along the SS121 from Agrigento. Hiring a car is quite expensive on the island in general. BY TRAIN: to Messina (length: 3 ½ hours, services: every half an hour), to Catania (length: 3 ½ hours, services: 6 a day), to Agrigento (length: 2 ½ hours, services: 11 a day), to Cefalù (length: 30 minutes, services: 5 a day), to Syracuse (length: 6 to 10 hours, services: 5 a day). The information about arrivals and departures is also in English.