20 GREAT REASONS TO VISIT PALERMO
Palermo, the largest city on the island of Sicily, really won me over. A great place for some Winter sunshine and with a very interesting history too. Ruled by Arabs, Normans and Romans, the diverse cultures still leave a legacy.
Nowadays, Palermo is a wonderful location to get a feel for Sicily. The history and the food naturally stand out. On a personal level I have developed a bit of a personal soft spot for Palermo as the three days I spent there were the last three days before all of Italy was placed under COVID lockdown. The very last days of life as we knew it.
With all this in mind, I would like to list at least twenty great reasons to visit Palermo and the surrounding areas too.
NORMAN PALACE AND PALATINE CHAPEL
The residence of Sicily’s Norman rulers in the 12th Century is an unmissable palatial manor. A real symbol of the island inhabited by various dynasties from the 5th Century BC right up until unification of the Italian Republic in the 19th Century. The building in its position that you see today dates back to the 9th Century and the period of Arab rule. It was the Normans, two centuries later, who enlarged the palace. Influential they were in molding into the style of building we see today and the same with the cathedral nearby.
The Arab and Byzantine ceiling is notable. Although it is the Palatine Chapel that is undoubtedly the most spectacular. Also on a clear day it is worth a chill out in the palace’s botanical gardens.
Incidentally today part of the palace serves as the meeting point for Sicily’s regional government.
Only a few yards from the palace is Palermo’s equally spectacular cathedral. Palm trees around the entrance complement a building of different architectural styles reflecting the different centuries of rulers in Sicily. The Baroque domes being the most recent addition in the 18th Century juxtaposing the Moorish and Gothic influences.
For an extra fee, it is worth the climb to the top to admire views of Palermo. Also included in the price is the opportunity to explore the crypt. For here are the cathedral’s treasures as well as the burial tombs of former Sicilian emperors.
What was also very moving was the memorial in the main cathedral to Giuseppe Puglise, the blessed priest of Palermo who was widely respected for his philanthropic work and speaking out against the Mafia until he was tragically assassinated in 1993.
CATACOMBS OF CAPPUCCINI
A sight that is as fascinating as it is macabre. Located beyond the Porta Nuova connected to the palace, the former Capuchin monastery was originally a resting place for the deceased friars of Palermo in the 16th Century. Soon after it expanded into a proper graveyard for the city.
One of the last people to be buried, and most notable, was 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. A victim of the post-WW1 Flu pandemic, she passed away in 1920 and her body has been kept almost realistically intact thanks to a very delicate embalming and preservation procedure.
The catacombs are open to the public but photography is strictly prohibited. This like other famous catacombs in Paris and Rome is certainly not for the faint hearted and probably not a recommended family trip.
NO MAFIA MEMORIAL AND WALKING TOURS
For almost the entirety of the 20th Century the crime and corruption of the Mafia cast a very dark shadow on Sicily and the South of Italy. Palermo in particular perhaps suffered possibly worst of all.
Located centrally in the city, this museum exhibition serves as a memorial to all those from this island that have been senselessly murdered by the Mafia. In addition, a lesson in reconciliation and moving on into the 21st Century. Part funded by Palermo city council this tells the stories of the Mafia’s victims as the regular everyday people that they were. People with regular lives and families like all of us and how they sadly fell into the crossfire.
It is most sobering to look at this and compare what often affected Palermo on a regular basis in stark contrast to the generally peaceful and laid-back city of today. Especially as recently as the dark and turbulent Summer of 1992 when car bombs killed two separate magistrates who had been investigating the Mafia.
Also, highly informative No Mafia walking tours from here are another brilliantly informative experience.
PRETORIA SQUARE AND FOUNTAIN
There is nothing I love more when exploring cities than discovering attractive squares and hang-out spots hidden behind thoroughfares. In Palermo, the Piazza Pretoria dominated by its giant fountain is one such example. Originally constructed and erected in Renaissance era Florence it was soon transferred to Palermo.
Colloquially nicknamed the Fountain of Sin because of the nudes depicted, although to be honest it seems rather tame compared to genuinely hideous statues such as that monstrosity that exists outside the BBC Broadcasting House. Here at least you can overlook the controversy and instead admire the fountain for the impressive sculpture that it is representative of a period as creative as the 15th and 16th Century Renaissance. A rare exhibition indeed of Renaissance art in contrast to the more Norman and Moorish influence that dominate in Palermo.
Around the piazza there are various small churches and a few admittedly empty looking buildings. Generally not a place of major significance but a favourite location to chill to the gentle sound of water flowing.
Whenever you visit Palermo one thing is always certain. All roads will lead you to the Quattro Canti. This four-way intersection of the main city is defined by its heavily Baroque style. On each of the four corners are statues of one of the Spanish kings that ruled Sicily in the 15th Century. I am informed that each corner is supposed to represent the four seasons. Although I cannot quite work out the connection.
Expect to see a street musician or two performing here especially on the weekend. Moreover in November and December this is undoubtedly the most sparklingly decorated and beautifully lit up corner of Palermo as the festive themed decorations glitter.
Italians and Sicilians in particular love their food and take it very seriously alright. And Sicily itself is one of the most fertile places for home grown fruit and vegetables. On Sundays in particular you will find a number of bustling markets selling locally grown produce.
Of the main markets in Palermo it is the Ballaro that is the most famous. The largest and most varied as well and after you lose yourself into the scent of fish and meats as well it also has a flea market side to it. Clothes, books, records too.
The Mercado di Capo is another popular one too.
Another interesting square to find yourself in is the Piazza Bellini. On one side you see the churches of Mantorana and San Cataldo. The latter with its three round red domes being the most attention grabbing. On another side is the Baroque Cathedral of Sant’Ana with its symmetrical steps.
The largest opera house and theatre in all of Italy and third largest in Europe after the Garnier in Paris and the Staatsoper in Vienna, the Teatro Massimo is an essential part of a Palermo experience.
Its neoclassical columns at the entrance surrounded by palm trees are instantly going to capture your attention, certainly for photos. Yes, take note obsessive Instagrammers! A tour is highly recommended to really see and learn more about the theatre and admire its delightful Art Nouveau interiors. Even if you are not actually watching an opera, this is a great way to at least vicariously feel like you are doing so.
Inaugurated in 1897 with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff its opening symbolised a prosperous and optimistic Belle Epoque period of the arts towards the end of the 19th Century.
Teatro Massimo also most memorably featured in a scene from The Godfather Part III in 1990.
TEATRO POLITEANA GARIBALDI
Palermo’s other great theatre but by no means a lesser one. Also characterised by neoclassical design, its round shape recalls Rome’s Coliseum and adorned by the depiction of Apollo and his four horse on a chariot.
Conceived as more of a people’s theatre for the common man and woman as opposed to Teatro Massimo’s somewhat more elite origins, this is the principal location for the Sicily Symphonic Orchestra and is just as much a popular location for plays and concerts.
Pre-booked tours are also available for this.
A great oasis of calm is the Garibaldi Garden near Kalsa and the Marina. As someone who loves to find nice parks and green spaces in any city I visit, this was a fascinating place to stare up at the giant fig trees and banyan trees. Some of the largest and oldest of their kind it almost felt like the California Redwoods. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration but it is pretty impressive to see trees of this size and age in a slightly more metropolitan setting rather than forests and woodland.
This is another one of my favourite chill-out spots in Palermo of which I have highlighted many and great to sit and read a book. All whilst gazing up feeling dwarfed by the impressive banyan trees above.
Installed in the late 16th Century by King Marco Antonio Colonna as a grand promenade to provide the best views of the Mediterranean Sea, the Foro Italico is possibly my favourite location in Palermo to sit and “watch the world go by” to use a rather hackneyed expression. Great to watch the ferries arriving and departing and the sound of seagulls calling and waves crashing against the rocks.
A very ideal place for families with a little playground and long grass space for ball games. Also a cycling path taking you around the marina.
Connecting to the East Wing of the Norman Palace is one of Palermo’s historic city gates and one of the best photo spots. This was constructed in 1535 to commemorate the conquest of Tunis by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V as part of the triumphal parade accompanying his return to Sicily.
Taking influence from many Roman triumphal arches, this has two separate facades. One that faces the old town and the other facing away towards the Monreale district.
PORT OF PALERMO AND BORGO VECCHIO
Strolling further along the Foro Italico takes you closer to a marina and the boats moored here. My strange mind was instantly reminded of to the Solent and a setting from Howard’s Way when walking past. If you don’t know what I’m talking about don’t worry I won’t bore you!
Keep walking and you get to the “Borgo Vecchio” district. The old village, as this translates to, may seem a little rough around the edges but it looks and feels authentic and is a great spot for places to eat.
A few kilometres westwards takes you to Arenella where you find a pleasant little beach overlooking Monte Pellegrino.
PALAZZO DELLE POSTE
Located in the Borgo Vecchio district is one of Palermo’s most attention grabbing buildings, the Palazzo delle Poste. A very imposing example of so-called Stripped Classicism or Modern Greek style of the early 20th Century. A giant building that would seem bland and nondescript if it wasn’t for the presence of such giant columns.
As you can tell by the name it is the city’s main post office. But a source of fascination for architecture buffs and interesting to go inside and have a look at some examples of futurism.
One of the giant mountains towering over Palermo is Monte Pellegrino. And also on a clear day it is perfectly possible to hike the mountain and reward yourself with such spellbinding views.
Go beyond the Borgo Vecchio and along the Via Monte Pellegrino to get to the start point. By the Scala Vecchia and surrounding roundabaout near Via Pietro Bonano the start of the trail is clearly marked for you. Absolutely perfect in the Spring and Summer months and not to steep an incline either.
Part of the path leads to the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia which itself is subject of an annual pilgrimage on the 4th September every year.
The legend of this is homage to a terrible plague in 15th Century Palermo that supposedly ended when the rediscovered bones of a long since buried Saint Rosalia were paraded round the city.
There are indeed plenty of wonderful locations to visit that are a very short journey from Palermo. Quite possibly the best and most popular beach in all of Sicily is only a mere half-hour drive or bus journey from the city centre. Mondello, on the northern outskirts of Palermo, is a very pleasant town in its own right. One of the stand-out buildings that grace this beach town is the cream yellow Art Nouveau structure by the pier known as the Charleston.
Of course do bear in mind that such is Mondello’s popularity that it is certain to get crowded during the peak months between May and September. But looking at those crystal clear blue waters especially as you do from atop Monte Pellegrino, who can blame them?
In fact if Mondello is high up your priority list it may be just as worthwhile you book a hotel here in Mondello as opposed to Palermo itself.
Another very popular day trip option from Palermo is Cefalu. Another seaside resort due east of Palermo, Cefalu does feel like a mini-Palermo. Also like its larger neighbour dominated by an imposing Norman cathedral and quaint port. And also best viewed from above, in this instance trekking to the top of La Rocca is the best vantage point.
The timeless 1988 film Cinema Paradiso was indeed filmed here and captured the charm of Cefalu and its back streets perfectly.
SEGESTA AND AGRIGENTO
An absolutely imperative location for any devout classicist is the remains of the Ancient Greek city of Segesta. Its isolated looking Doric temple is of Sicily’s most enduring images. The columns of this Parthenon-like structure in an almost empty field make you try to imagine how thriving this place would have been around 2,000 years ago. Also the remains of an ancient theatre are here as well add to the fascination.
The contemporary Segesta does very much feel like a large archaeological site in its own right. Same goes for the other ancient city of Agrigento much further south.
Trapani is another pleasant port city with a very relaxed pace of life less than an hour away from Palermo. The city is situated at the confluence of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas is another fascinatingly time warped gem of historical Baroque buildings and narrow streets to explore.
Trapani is also the home to a number of Sicily’s largest and most important nature reserves such as the Salt Pans Reserve. If you are lucky you will honoured to see a number of wild flamingos aplenty in their habitat.