Palermo in your Palm: What to do in Sicily’s Grand City

Lina Branter | 05/12/2018
Palermo, Sicily. Things to do in Palermo
Palermo, Sicily

There is a reason why Palermo, Sicily is Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018. Since the city was founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th Century BC, it has been conquered and inhabited by almost every historical player in the region: the Romans, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, then back to the Romans of the Byzantine empire, then the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish until finally, it became part of Italy during its unification in the 19th Century.

As a result, visiting Palermo is like walking into a life-sized mashup of European history. All these groups stamped the city with their own cultural footprint, leaving an amazing, intricate mosaic of architectural wonders, urban landscaping, art, food and cultural traditions lovingly kept alive by the passionate Palermitani themselves.

Here is an introductory list of several points of interest in Palermo, Sicily. Please note the word introductory — the city is so full of wonders, if we named all of its attractions this article would be as long as a book!

Palermo’s Riveting History

1.    The Cassaro and Kalsa districts

From 831 to 1091 AD, the city was conquered by the Arabs and became the capital of the Emirate of Sicily. If you begin your visit to the city with a stroll through the Cassaro and Kalsa districts, the oldest parts of the city located near the port, you’ll get a taste of the architecture and urban planning the city inherited from its time as Emirate.

2.     Museo dell’Inquisizione

The 14th Century Palazzo Chiaramonte, otherwise known as the Steri, had the dubious distinction of being the seat of the Spanish inquisition between 1601 and 1782. The beautiful palace became a prison and torture chamber for all the so-called “heretics.” The museum is located on the lower floors of the Palazzo, where the honeycomb cells have been restored along with graffiti from prisoners. The museum also features a weapons collection and a renowned painting of the historical Vucciria market by Renato Guttuso. The Palazzo is now part of the University of Palermo, which feels like a fitting use for a building that was used to wage war on art, intellectuals and difference of any kind.

3.    The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

If you enjoy the historically macabre, then don’t miss Palermo’s famous Capuchin Catacombs. In the 16th Century, when the monks ran out of room in their cemetery, they excavated below their monastery. Then they thought it would be a good idea to mummify their dead friars. The catacombs were originally intended for their own brethren, but it quickly became a status symbol to be buried there. The monks were preserved wearing their everyday clothing while the wealthy could ask to have their clothes changed on their mummified corpses at regular intervals. There are about 8,000 corpses and 1,252 mummies down in those crypts.

4.    Galleria regionale della Sicilia

Housed in the Palazzo Abatellis located in the Kalsa quarter, Sicily’s regional art museum is worth a visit — not only for the amazing works it shelters but for the building itself, which is an excellent example of Gothic-Catalan architecture. A large part of the museum’s collection was acquired from several religious orders when they were suppressed in 1866. Some of the museum’s gems include Bust of a Gentlewoman by Francesco Lauran and Saint Augustine and the Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina from the 15th Century.

5.    Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas

As mentioned above, Palermo has been around for more than 2,700 years. This means its history goes all the way back to the Phoenicians and Greeks. Check out the wonderfully preserved remnants of those great civilizations at the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, located in the Olivella monumental complex along with the Church of St. Ignatius and its oratory. Some of the highlights of the museum include two large fifth Century sarcophagi from the necropolis of Pizzo Cannita and several metopes with mythological reliefs from the archeological site of Selinunte.

Palermo’s Diverse Architecture

The architecture of Palermo reflects the many different peoples who made the city their home over the centuries. Here are just a few of the city’s must-see architectural wonders.

6.    Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cappella Palatina

Though it gets its name from its Norman residents, the Palazzo dei Normanni dates back to the 9th Century and Arab rule. Though the original Arabian vaults can be glimpsed in the foundations and basements of the building, it was the Normans who transformed the Arabian palace into a sweeping palatial complex that served both an administrative and residential function. The Cappella Palatina or Palatine Chapel, was built between 1132-1143. The chapel is renowned for its unparalleled mosaics and its harmonious blending of Norman, Arabic and Byzantine architecture. The building has housed Sicily’s Regional Assembly since 1946.

7.    Cattedrale di Palermo

The Palermo Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Palermo and is the epitome of Palermitani diversity. Since it was erected in 1185 by the Normans, the Cathedral has gone through more phases than Madonna: it is a miraculous mash-up of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles. View the city center from one of its rooftop terraces. Don’t miss the side chapel near the portico entrance. This chapel is famous for its royal tombs and cathedral treasury, where you can view beautiful, illuminated manuscripts and bejewelled chalices and crucifixes.

8.    Fontana Pretoria

Originally intended for a private garden in Florence and not a public square, the Pretoria Fountain was a major scandal when it was first erected in the Piazza Pretoria in 1574. The fountain is like an encyclopedia of mythology: it includes carvings of all sorts of allegories, myths, animal heads, nymphs and, of course, all the gods and goddesses of Olympus depicted in the nude. For 16th Century Palermitana this was enough for them to rename the fountain the Fontana della Vergogna, or “Fountain of Shame.”

9.    Quattro Canti

The Quattro Canti, or four corners, is a Baroque square officially known as Piazza Vigliena. Located in the centre of the old town at the intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, it is a masterpiece of design. The square is octagonal, with the four flat sides of the square as the streets and four buildings provided the beautiful, symmetrical curves to the octagon. The Façades of the building are almost identical and all have statues and fountains depicting the four Spanish kings of Sicily as well as the four patronesses of Palermo.

10.  Monreale

Just a short bus ride from Palermo proper lies Monreale. Here you’ll find yourself in a quaint medieval neighborhood whose crowning glory is the Norman Cathedral where the Norman Kings William I and II are interred. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site because of its amazingly preserved architecture, its surrounding cloisters and the breathtaking golden mosaics throughout the interior of the cathedral. Once you’ve finished visiting this awe-inspiring church, be sure to meander through Monreale’s medieval streets where there are many artisanal ceramic shops.

Palermo’s Rich Culture

11.  Manifesta 12

As the Italian Culture Capital of 2018, Palermo had the honour to host the European Nomadic Biennale, a major international event. The selection committee stated that they picked Palermo because “the multi-layered and deeply condensed history of Palermo – being occupied by almost every European civilization and having long-term connections with Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean over the last 2000 years – has left its traces throughout this multi-cultural society at the heart of the Mediterranean area.”

12.  Teatro Massimo

Are you an opera lover? Either way, the Teatro Massimo is worth a visit. It is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe. Built in the latter half of the 19th Century in the neoclassical style to promote the city after unification, it is dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel II. Sometimes called the Scala of the South, the Teatro Massimo hosts wonderful opera and ballet programs.

13.  Opera dei Pupi

If you want to see a truly Sicilian tradition, then you must take in one of the Opera dei Pupi, a marionnette  performance of Frankish romantic poets such as the Song of Roland. The Opera dei Pupi is rooted in the Provençal troubadour tradition and has been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. In November you can catch the Festival di Morgana, which attracts puppeteers from all over the world. To get a glimpse of the different types of puppets used, and to better understand social life through the ages in Sicily, visit the Museo Etnografico Siciliano Giuseppe Pitrè.

14.  Art Nouveau

Never one to be left behind when it comes to new architectural trends, Palermo embraced the Art Nouveau style thanks to the influence of the wealthy Florio family. Some of the best examples of the Art Nouveau style in Palermo include: the Villa Igica, now a five-star hotel; the Tonnaria Florio, once a tuna canning factory, then a grand palace and now a fancy restaurant; and the masterpiece Villa Florio all’Olivizzo, built by Ernesto Basile and one of the city’s first examples of Art Nouveau.

15.  Gallery of Modern Art

Palermo continues to keep up with the centuries through its support for the arts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the GAM, or the Gallery of Modern Art, located in the historic Kalsa district. The museum’s permanent collection is comprised of more than two hundred paintings that illustrate the figurative arts in Italy between the 19th and 20th Centuries. The paintings are housed in two buildings that make up the monumental complex of Sant’Anna della Misericordia: the Palazzo Bonet and the former Franciscan convent and its cloisters that link the museum to the baroque Church of Saint Anna.

Palermo’s Decadent Food Scene 

Part of the fun of visiting Sicily is to indulge in its storied and delicious food culture. Palermo is home to markets that have been around since Medieval times. While roaming the historic streets, don’t forget to stop at a street vendor and refuel with some of the local delicacies.

16.  The Vucciria Market

The largest and most famous of Palermo’s open air markets is the Vucciria market. Its name means “voices” or “hubbub” which is an apt description of the hustle and bustle that takes place here. Here you’ll find the best seafood, herbs and local produce.

17.  Ballarò

Head to the Ballarò market if you want an afternoon of vintage clothes shopping interspersed with delicious street food (see below).

18.  Mercato di  Capo

Palermo has an amazing street food culture and the mercato di Capo is one of its major venues. Munch on local delicacies while perusing the other local goods the market has on offer.

19.  Borgo Vecchio

The Borgo Vecchio is the only market open at night. Take in a shopping trip before heading out for drinks, or go after dinner to browse the stalls for special bargains.

20.  Sicilian Street food

The largest category of street food you’ll find in Palermo and in Sicily is the pezzi di rosticceria, or “deli pieces”. Head to one of the markets above and order yourself an arancini rice ball, or calzoni, pizzette, spiedini, ravazzate or rollo — all variations on the theme of fried or baked bread or closed pizza filled with a variety of toppings. If you really want to eat like a local, then you have to try the pani ca’ meusa, or spleen burger, a delicacy only found in Palermo.

Palermo’s Magnificent Natural Beauty

One of the main reasons people visit Sicily is its stunning natural beauty. Once you’ve had your fill of the centuries of history and the urban hustle, why not check out some of the parks and beaches in and around Palermo, Sicily?

21.  Monte Pellegrino

Pack a picnic and hike up Mount Pellegrino, the mountain that hovers over the city. Enjoy the walk up through the parks then be prepared to agree with Goethe himself, who called the mountain “the most beautiful promontory of the world”. Take in the spectacular views of the city, the surrounding mountains and the sea.

22.  Giardini Inglese (English Gardens)

Getting a little tired of all the marvelous museums and urban meanderings Palermo has to offer? Need a break to recharge? Head to the Giardini Inglese where you will enjoy a quiet, beautiful green space on a street lined with gorgeous Georgian palazzos, brand-name stores and trendy restaurants and cafes.

23.  Villa Malfitano Whitaker

Also in the heart of the city, the Villa Malfitano Whitaker is a green oasis in the middle of the wonderful chaos of the Palermo streets. Take a stroll through the elegant gardens and enjoy the classic design of the Neo-Renaissance home of this wealthy Anglo-Italian family from the early 20th Century.

24.  Mondello Beach

There are several beaches near Palermo. If a stroll through a garden is not enough of a rest, grab your bathing suit, towel and a picnic and head out of the city proper to Mondello beach, a small seaside resort a short bus ride away from Palermo. Although crowded during the high season, it is one of the most beautiful beaches in Sicily. Enjoy the white sand, peaceful turquoise of the sea and the mountains in the distance.

25.  Isola Delle Femmine

Another lovely place to visit just a short bus ride from Palermo is the beach at Isola Delle Femmine, or the Island of Woman. Though the town is on the mainland, it gets its name from the small island and nature reserve 500 metres off its coast, exceptional for its unique sea and animal life.