Palermo city guide

Cathedral palermo
Cathedral

Palermo is the capital of both the province of the same name and of the entire island of Sicily. It is also, with just under 700 thousand people, the fifth largest city in Italy in terms of population. The city is located on the northern coast of the island. Palermo’s beautiful historic center is sandwiched between the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cathedral. The many peoples that have conquered Sicily over the centuries have all left their own mark on the city’s architecture.

What to see and do in Palermo

Top 10 tourist attractions

01. Palazzo dei Normanni and Cappella Palatina

Cappella Palatina Palermo
Cappella Palatina

The Palazzo dei Normanni is a huge palace facing the Piazza della Vittoria. The main attraction of this palace is the mosaic-covered Cappella Palatina.

02. Corso Vittorio Emanuele

The Corso Vittorio Emanuele is popularly called Càssaro and is the oldest street in the city. It runs gradually downhill from the Porta Nuova to the Porta Felice, which is near the coast. What is unusual about this street is that many other streets open onto it, but it is only crossed by the Via Roma and the Via Maqueda. The intersection with the latter is marked by some Baroque style historic buildings. The Corso Vittorio Emanuele is lined by various attractions such as the 12th century San Giovanni degli Eremiti Church. The Piazza Bologni is surrounded by baroque buildings.

03. Cathedral

The Cathedral of Palermo is dedicated to Santa Maria Vergine Assunta and was built toward the end of the 12th century. Inside the church one can see the tombs of three Norman kings. The architectural style is Gothic, but with very many Catalan influences. Do not skip the treasury.

04. Piazza Pretoria

The Fontana Pretoria is located in the center of the square of the same name. This huge fountain consists of several basins decorated with numerous statues of naked nymphs, tritons and river gods. Prudish Palermitans also called the monument Fontana della Vergogna (“Fountain of Shame”). The square itself is surrounded by churches and stately buildings.

05. Archaeological Museum

Palermo’s Archaeological Museum is among the finest in Italy. The artifacts on display include ancient Etruscan, Egyptian, Roman and Greek art. The highlight of the collection consists of sculptures, friezes and tomb decorations found near the ancient Greek city of Selinous.

06. Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs

The city’s Capuchin Abbey is best known for its associated Catacombs. These underground passages were used as cemeteries from the early 17th to the late everywhere in the corridors. Often these have been graced with modern clothing by the next of kin.

07. Prisoner’s Walk

One of Palermo’s best views is from the so-called Passeggiata delle Cattive (“Prisoner’s Path”). This is a terrace overlooking the sea near the Porta Felice. It was built in the 17th century and can be reached by stairs from Piazza Santo Spirito. The “prisoners” were widows who were (captivae, in Latin) as a result of the grief caused by the mourning period.

08. Martorana Church

The Martorana Church, or Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, is one of the oldest and most beautiful churches of the city. It is an Albanian-Italian church, following the Orthodox Byzantine rite with Albanian as the liturgical language. The interior is characterized by its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics. The San Cataldo Church, next to the Martorana, has a beautiful marble floor.

09. San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi

The San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi Church is one of the churches built in an Arab-Norman style. Built in 1070, it is the oldest Norman construction in the city. The current appearance of the church is the result of a renovation in the 1920s.

10. Teatro Massimo

The Teatro Massimo, dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele, was built by Giovanni Battista Basile and his son Ernesto between 1875 and 1897. The dome, decorated with ceiling frescoes, and the richly ornamented auditorium are the highlights.

Other Palermo highlights

The San Domenico Church and the Santo Spirito Church are also worth a visit.

Curiosities

Palermo was founded as early as the 7th century BC. The name derives from Greek (Pánormos) and more or less means “large port”. Around the 11th century, Arab influences caused the letter n to change to an l. Other names by which the city was known were Phoenician Ziz and Arabic Madinah, meaning “city.”

Shopping in Palermo

Galleria delle Vittorie

The Galleria delle Vittorie is Palermo’s most famous shopping arcade. The building was inaugurated on October 2, 1935, which is also reflected in the futuristic architectural style in vogue during the fascist period. The intention was to imitate other already existing Italian shopping malls. The square five-floor building has an entrance on each side. Above each entrance are fascist murals.

Markets

The oldest, largest and most famous market in Palermo is called Ballarò and is located near the Casa Professa in Piazza Ballarò. The market spreads between Piazza Casa Professa and the bastions of Corso Tukory. The neighborhood where the market is located has become quite prestigious over the years.

The Vucciria Market is held in the Piazza Caracciolo.

Day trips from Palermo

The town of Bagheria is nicknamed “city of the villas”. Corleone, a name that will sound familiar to Godfather fans, is one of the bigger towns in the central part of the province. The small island of Ustica, located 60 off the coast of Palermo, is well-known for its snorkeling.

Public transportation to/from Palermo

The official name of the nearest airport is Aeroporto Falcone e Borsellino (but is generally called Aeroporto Palermo-Punta Raisi) and is located 35 kilometers (31 miles) near the town of Cinisi. There is a direct train connection to Palermo by the so-called Trinacria Express train. The A29 freeway towards Trapani also leads to the airport.

There are 10 railroad stations of various sizes in Palermo. The most important one was built in the 19th century and is simply called Stazione Centrale.

The city’s largest port is called Porto Civile. It is here that passengers from the big cruise ships come ashore. Outside of this port, there are a large number of smaller tourist ports and some fishing ports.

Public transport inside Palermo

There are four different ways to travel around the city. The local train system consists of two lines, one of which goes to the airport. Bus transportation within the city is provided by the company AMAT. Some lines also go to communities outside Palermo. Since 2015, the city also has four streetcar lines. AMAT is also responsible for car sharing.

Palermo Tourist information

Region: Sicily. Province: Palermo. Postal code: 90100. Area code: 091. Town Hall: Palazzo delle Aquile, Piazza Pretoria, 1 (tel. +39 0917401111). The city’s tourist office is called C.I.T. (Centro di Informazione Turistica). There are six offices, which can be found near the city’s main attractions. Four of them are open only in the morning and early afternoon. The C.I.T.’s Bellini and Cavour are also open in the afternoon and early evening.

A brief history of Palermo

Palermo was founded as early as the 7th century BC. The name comes from Greek (Pánormos) and more or less means “great port.” Around the 11th century, Arab influences caused the letter n to change to an l. Other names by which the city was known were Phoenician Ziz and Arabic Madinah, meaning “city.”

Early history

"Sicilian Vespers" by Francesco Hayez
“Sicilian Vespers,” painted in 1846 by Francesco Hayez. The painting can be seen in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome.

People must have been living in the area even before the 7th century BC, since prehistoric graffiti has been found on the territory.

Palermo was a Phoenician colony before being incorporated first by Pyrrhus and then by the Romans.

Middle ages

In the 5th century, the region was conquered by the Barbarians. These were in turn overpowered by the Byzantines. The Arabs, in the 11th century, got rid of the Byzantines. The city was declared the Emirate of Sicily and a period of prosperity and splendor followed.

The next occupiers were the Norman Ruggero I and his descendants. These were succeeded by the Swabian dynasty. The high point of this period was the time when Frederick II was in power.

The Sicilian Vespers

In 1282, a popular uprising, known as the “Sicilian Vespers”, started in Palermo. It was directed against the House of Anjou, which had meanwhile come to power. King Charles ruled with such a heavy hand that he antagonized all every part of the population. Moreover, he imposed high taxes in order to obtain money for a war against the Byzantine Empire. After an officer searched a Sicilian woman on the way to evening mass (hence Vespers), he himself was stabbed and the French were all either killed or chased away. The Santo Spirito Church where the rebellion started is also called the Chiesa del Vespro.

In 1283, Peter of Aragon was crowned king of Sicily. The Spanish retained power until the end of the 17th century.

18th Century and Later

Starting in the 18th century, new rulers followed each other in rapid succession. Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy, Charles III of Spain and Ferdinand IV of Bourbon all governed the island. The latter, as Ferdinand I, even became “King of the Two Sicilies.” (The second Sicily was the southern half of the “boot”).

In 1860, a revolt against the house of Bourbon ensued and Garibaldi’s troops were welcomed into the city with cheers.

Palermo

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