Palermo has long had a bad reputation. Ground zero for the mafia, they say. Dirty. A port city only good to take you elsewhere.
Gone are those days.
Now Palermo is a favorite for hipsters throughout Italy. Curious Italians are giving it a second chance and international travelers choose it as an introduction to Southern Italy – the “off the beaten path” Italy that so many are searching for and in 2018 it was named the Italian Capital of Culture.
And we went right along with the trend. With just one long weekend to spare, we turned all our attention to Sicily’s ancient capital city.
After Phoenicians founded a colony there in the 8th century, Palermo has since been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Holy Roman emperors, Aragonese, Bourbons and Austrians…. among others.
A port city, it’s long been a mish-mash of cultures and styles. One stop at the local park shows that the city’s multicultural heritage is still going strong.
No longer just a fly-in city, try to give at least three full days to Palermo to see it well.
The main sights of the city mostly fall along one of two streets: Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. The two are perpendicular to each other. Up and down Maqueda you’ll find street food stands, cannoli joints and cafés, as well as Teatro Massimo at one end and Piazza Pretoria at the other. Vittorio Emanuele has always been the living room of Palermo’s citizens and well-off families and religious orders have always raced to be located along the royal street. And so today a walk up and down Vittorio Emanuele is a parade of sumptuous buildings and churches, and most of the city’s main sights.
So if you’re following (more or less) from north to south along Vittorio Emanuele,
Here’s What to See in Palermo:
Palazzo dei Normanni
The Palazzo dei Normanni is worth a visit almost exclusively to see the Palatine chapel on the second floor. Built in 1130 as the royal chapel of the Norman kings, it’s dripping with gold Sicilian mosaics, marble floors and a contrasting wooden muqarnas ceiling, an Arabic honeycomb wood carving. The rest of the Palazzo is just as most royal palaces are – big and mostly empty – but if I ever go back I’d pay to visit the gardens as well, which are a separate ticket.
The Palermo Cathedral seemingly defies time and space, sitting there seeming like an intricate masterpiece carved from desert mountains in a land far from any such thing. Built on the site of a Byzantine Basilica, the current cathedral is a mix of styles after centuries of additions, restorations and alterations. Entrance into the Cathedral is free, but you can access the tombs, treasury, crypts and roof by paying individually or getting an all-inclusive ticket for €8.
The Teatro Massimo is Italy’s largest and Europe’s third-largest opera house and a beautiful sight to see. If you don’t have time to go to see a show, consider taking the tour inside to see the stage, boxes and king’s room, among other opulent hallways and waiting rooms.
Officially titled Piazza Vigliena, Quattro Canti is an octagonal piazza. Four sides are streets (the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda) and the other four sides baroque buildings, each with a curved facade with fountains with statues of the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and of the patronesses of Palermo. This is where Palermo’s four historic quartieri meet and though historical, today it’s covered in black soot and notable mostly as a landmark of where you are, rather than a beautiful sight to see.
Originally created to embellish the garden of a Spanish noble in Florence, the Pretoria Fountain was sold to the Palermo government in 1574 and shipped, piece by piece, to the faraway island. When the fountain arrived, citizens were outraged, nuns peering from the windows of the two churches that surrounded it murmured “how shameful.” The fountain features numerous statues of both men and women, gasp, naked! Given the nickname the fountain of shame ever since, the fountain is multi-tiered, layered and intricate. It’s a masterpiece in a piazza and a talking point even today.
San Cataldo, Santa Caterina and Santa Maria Ammiraglia (la Martorana)
All three churches are located in Piazza Bellini, just behind Piazza Pretoria, and are a trifecta of gorgeous churches. All in the same piazza, it’s so easy to see all three and discounts are given to those who have tickets to one of the other churches (or the cathedral). Santa Maria, called La Martorana by everybody, is filled with gilded mosaics and the adjacent San Cataldo is a simple stone chapel in a former mosque. Deconsecrated, today it’s used only by the knights from the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Both the Martorana and San Cataldo are absolutely worth a visit, but the cherry on top is Santa Caterina. The exterior is remarkably simple, but the interior is an explosion of Baroque decoration. Pictures look blurry simply because there’s too much decoration to take it all in. Be sure to pay to go to the top. Volunteers will help you find the way along the balconies and rafters of the old Baroque church until you get to the top. From there you’ll have views of all the other churches of the ancient city.
The Port and Playground
If you follow Vittorio Emanuele to it’s furthest point south you’ll run into the sea. Turn to walk along the boardwalk. Boats fill every square inch of the port and make for the prettiest of views around sunset. Curve along the port until you get to a local playground. Obviously this isn’t for everyone but for those with kids I highly recommend it! I heard Hindi, Arabic, Sicilian dialect and English in one one-hour visit and talked with many of those parents in a second language as well. People were pleasant, the view was spectacular and Adeline absolutely loved it! Park closes at 6:30 in wintertime.
Without a doubt the biggest surprise of my trip to Palermo was the Capuchin catacombs. Marco insisted we go and I shrugged and went along with it. The entrance is a small door next to the local Palermitan cemetery, nothing special. Four euro later we descended the steps with Adeline in our hands only to immediately enter a labyrinth of embalmed skeletons. Hanging from the walls with wires the torsos stuck out as if leaning forward to scream at you and the hallways only lead to more and more exemplars. Moms hung from the wall with wisps of hair still attached to the skull and tiny babies clinging to her legs. Friars, monks, merchants and noblemen, in the 17th and 18th century a spot in these catacombs was a high honor. Today, it is a strong sight to witness. The oldest skeleton is from the 1500s, and still in remarkably good shape.
The Zisa Palace
An itinerary of Palermo’s Arab-Norman past is incomplete without a visit to the Zisa Palace. Named from the Arab azyz, meaning splendid, it once served as a castle for the norman king Ruggero II (the same of Palazzo dei Normanni fame…the first was his permanent seat, the Zisa was his pleasure palace). Inside you’ll find Sicilian and Mediterranean works from the 9th – 11th centuries that represent the foreign influence, particularly Arab, on Sicily. I suggest springing for an audioguide here to actually understand what you’re looking at, or the Zisa won’t seem like much.
Also, though some maps and guides suggest they are “out of the city”, we walked to both the catacombs and the Zisa Palace. It’s roughly two miles away from the intersection of Maqueda and Vittorio Emanuele – not bad at all.
The Duomo of Monreale
The massive Monreale Cathedral is a monument of all of Sicily, a testament to Palermo’s Norman background and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1171 by King William II of Sicily, it was later promoted to the rank of a cathedral even though it’s not located in a city but only a municipality. A unique mix of Eastern and Roman Catholic styles, for the lay person the wow-factor is in the size and mosaics of the church.
The Duomo of Monreale is actually not located in Palermo but 20 minutes away by bus atop a hill in a town called Monreale. This time you definitely don’t want to try this on foot, but never fear. The bus stop is just beyond the Palazzo dei Normanni in Piazza Independenza. Get a ticket at a local tabaccaio for something like €1.30 and take the 389 up to Monreale. Buses run every 30 minutes.
What Else to See:
We had two and a half days to see the city, but a toddler as well. With mid-day nap breaks and different time frames, we didn’t see everything there is to see in the city – but we did pretty damn good. Other things to see include the Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Modern Art, San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the Santissimo Salvatore Church, a 12th-century church and monastery along Vittorio Emanuele with a panorama of the city for just €2.50. Or, you can stroll through the Vuccirìa Market or Ballarò to get an idea of daily life in Palermo.
Not only that, but you can go beyond Palermo to see the beaches of Mondello, climb up Monte Pellegrino to see Santa Rosalia or go even further afield to visit Cefalù … but I think I’ll save those for another post!
What are your tips about traveling in Palermo?