Palermo is the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018:
Founded by the Phoenicians, once belonging to the Roman and Byzantine Empires, ruled by the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire for a short time, Palermo has a real mosaic of history. Today the city is capital of Sicily and has been made the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018.
A real hub of culture, art, history and gastronomic excellence, Palermo is finally shaking off its Mafioso stereotype and enjoying the recognition it deserves. There really is something for everyone in this vibrant, exciting city.
Nine UNESCO sites in and around the city
Palermo’s unique fusion of Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures, is most prominent in the nine UNESCO sites in and around the city. Perhaps the most spectacular, is the Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace. Every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling are decorated with striking mosaics representing both religious and secular figures. The Cathedral chapels of the seaside town Cefalù and Monreale, perched on the hill overlooking Palermo, feature similar, but no less spectacular decorations.
Arabesque red domes and Byzantine mosaics
A fascinating UNESCO trio can be found in Piazza Bellini. The arabesque red domes of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti immediately catch the eye. Dating from the 6th century, the church was converted into a Mosque following the Islamic conquest, and was returned to the Christians around 1136. The Church of San Cataldo was built around 1160 and was used as a Post Office in the 18th century. Founded in 1143 and annexed to San Cataldo, the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio shares Arab-Norman features with its neighbours and features stunning Byzantine mosaics.
The Admiral’s Bridge and the Zisa Palace
Two more UNESCO sites can be found further out of town. The Admiral’s Bridge, built in 1132 was designed to connect the city to the gardens beyond the Oreto River. Considered a masterpiece of medieval engineering, it combined the skill of Arab workers with heavily influenced Byzantine techniques used by the Normans. An unusual site, the Zisa Palace looks like it could belong in Africa. This Arabesque castle was built with an ingenious air-conditioning system and features honeycombed ceilings, marble friezes and glittering mosaics.
Palermo Cathedral – Arab, Byzantine, Norman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque
Palermo Cathedral, a real highlight on the UNESCO list, was built in 1185 by Walter Opham, the Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Palermo and was intended to be a “Rival” to the Cathedral at Monreale. Constructed on a site that had previously been used as a church and subsequently a mosque, the building encompasses a wide range of architectural styles including Arab, Byzantine, Norman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.
A Royal Pantheon and Solar Noon projections
A royal pantheon shelters the tombs of many illustrious names and there is an impressive collection of riches in the treasury. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Cathedral is “la Meridiana”. This is a bronze line on the floor, whose opposite ends mark the positions of the summer and winter solstices. When the sun reaches the position of solar noon, an image of the sun is projected through a hole in one of the domes, and passes through this bronze line. Signs of the Zodiac along the line, represent various dates.
Teatro Massimo and “The Godfather III”
Teatro Massimo, is another of Palermo’s unmissable sights. The tragic conclusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather III” took place on the steps of this impressive building, which is the largest opera house in Italy, and the third largest in Europe.
Considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world, the opera house is also renowned for its unusual mechanical roof, whose parts can be opened like petals to provide ventilation. If you don’t have the chance to go to a performance, it’s possible to take a guided tour of the splendid auditorium, see props and costumes used in original productions, and if you’re very lucky, catch a glimpse of rehearsals.
The Fountain of Shame and the Crossroads of the Four Corners
Palermo is brimming with exquisite churches, art galleries and museums dedicated to subjects ranging from archaeology to the Inquisition. A popular monument is the Pretoria Fountain, which became known as The Fountain of Shame due to its frolicking nude nymphs and Greek Gods. A short walk away, you come across the Quattro Canti, a crossroads whose corners were decorated by the Roman architect Giulio Lasso between 1608 and 1620. Each corner features a fountain, and a series of statues, marble columns and inscriptions which correspond to the four seasons.
8,000 Mummified Bodies or Botanical Gardens?
The Capuchin Catacombs, are certainly Palermo’s most macabre place of interest. Certainly not for the fainthearted, over 8,000 mummified bodies, dating from the 17th to 19th century, can be found, many of them hanging from the walls. The less courageous visitor may prefer a stroll in the 200 year-old Botanical Gardens, which are home to many weird and wonderful specimens.
Sizzling street food in bustling local markets
Palermo’s Arabic influences can be heard, seen, smelt and tasted in the local markets. Maintaining traditions from the 10th century, vendors shout and scream to attract customers. Sizzling street food can be found everywhere and the markets are certainly one of the best places for the more adventurous to try Pani Ca’ Meusa, which is basically a spleen burger. Served with salt, lemon and sometimes ricotta cheese, this delight is considered to be a real speciality of Palermo. Quite frankly, one nibble was enough for me.
A “Hubbub” by day, bars and DJs at night
La Vucciria, meaning “voices” or “hubbub” is certainly Palermo’s scruffiest market. Here you can find seafood, herbs, local produce plus souvenirs and local handicrafts. The area was badly bombed in World War II, which is still evident today. At night the shabby Garraffello Square becomes a hub of activity, young people gather to drink in the various bars and DJs often perform.
Palermo’s vibrant and colourful markets
Ballarò is Palermo’s oldest market and stretches from Piazza Casa Professa all the way towards Porta Sant’Agatahere. Here you will find locals haggling over the latest bargains, because although originally famous for selling fresh fruits from the countryside outside Palermo, now the cheapest household goods, food and clothing can be found in this sprawling market. The Mercato del Capo, running the length of Via Sant’Agostino, is another vibrant market offering fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and where you can watch fish being gutted and prepared.
Fancy a break at the beach?
If you need a break from city life, you can take a trip to the famous Mondello Beach, which however gets extremely crowded. A more relaxing option is the lovely town of Cefalù, a 45 minute train journey away, where you can also visit the UNESCO cathedral.
The Mafia is still around, but not so much
It is impossible to visit Palermo without thinking about the city’s unfortunate legacy of crime. As a visitor, you are certainly not going to come across any shady godfather types. Although the Mafia no longer has political power in Palermo, there are still a large number of businesses which pay the “pizzo” or protection money. The Addiopizzo movement, founded in 2004, consists of business owners who refuse to pay protection money. They also organise “Anti-mafia” tours of Palermo.
Falcone and Borsellino are not forgotten
A sombre monument on the motorway into Palermo, which you will pass if you travel to or from the airport, marks the spot where Giovanni Falcone, a prominent anti-mafia judge, his wife and 3 bodyguards, were assassinated by a mafia bomb in 1992. His colleague Paolo Borsellino was killed by a car bomb only 57 days later. Palermo Airport is named after the 2 judges.
Sicilian street food is amazing!
You will certainly work up an appetite while visiting Palermo and gastronomic delights are also within easy reach. Street food is essential sustenance and includes arancina, fried rice balls filled with ragù, or ham and mozzarella; sfincione, thick pizza topped with tomatoes, onions, anchovies and oregano; and pane e panelle, chickpea fritters served with bread. Caponata is a heavenly sweet and sour salad dish consisting of aubergines, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, pine nuts and raisins. Seafood is also extremely popular and octopus is boiled up and served as it comes.
For those with a sweet tooth…
For those with a sweet tooth, Cannoli are irresistible pastry tubes filled with fresh ricotta cheese. And for a truly calorific breakfast, you can feast on Brioche with Gelato, basically a bun stuffed with ice cream. You cannot go to Sicily without sipping on a granita, a drink made from shaved ice, and usually flavoured with lemon, although other varieties such as strawberry and pistachio exist.
Over 750 events including concerts, operas and exhibitions during 2018
A crossroad of cultures and civilisations, the city is an ideal destination to begin exploring Sicily and deserves more than a few days visit. Stunning mosaics, elegant buildings, crumbling beauty, boisterous markets, hectic street life and exquisite culinary delights are just some of the reasons to visit this romantic, earthy city. Over 750 events including concerts, operas and exhibitions will take place during 2018 to celebrate the Italian Capital of Culture, a title Palermo surely deserves.
Palermo Information and Hints
Many of the main sights in Palermo can easily be visited on foot. There is a good transport system and you can take a bus to places further out of town such as Zisa and Monreale. There is also a handy free shuttle bus that does a circuit of some of the most popular tourist attractions.
It is a good idea to check opening times, which can vary, especially in churches.
We stayed in an apartment in a historic building just a few minutes away from Piazza Politeama. Francesco was a fantastic host and even brought us homemade cannoli for breakfast.
The Addiopizzo movement organizes stays in B&Bs and hotels that do not pay protection money.
Cultural Events 2018
Food and Drink
You are guaranteed to eat well almost everywhere and street food is cheap and cheerful. Be careful when ordering fresh fish in restaurants and establish prices before you order.
Antico Caffè Spinnato
Principe di Belmonte, 107, 90139 Palermo PA, Italy
+39 091 749 5104
Dating back to 1860, this café serves exquisite pastries, delicious ice-cream and a wide variety of pizza, vegetable dishes, arancina and other Sicilian delights, all at reasonable prices.
Antica Focacceria S. Francesco
Via Alessandro Paternostro, 58, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
+39 091 320264
In business since 1834, this is an ideal place for a pizza, pasta or snack and is famous for its spleen sandwiches.
Vecchia Trattoria da Toto
5, Via Coltellieri, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
+39 333 315 7558
For a rustic, no-frills experience, try out Toto’s in the Vucciria market. Here you will find incredible local dishes served by Enzo, the entertaining boss. The house wine is robust and this is an excellent place to watch the world go by, sometimes rather noisily.