Towns and cities in Sicily

A guide to Palermo, the bustling and fascinating capital of Sicily

An introduction to Palermo

Villas in Sicily near Palermo >>

PalermoPalermo, the regional capital of Sicily, is one of those cities with its own very distinct, almost tangible atmosphere, a place of mystery where reality often outperforms the traveller’s imagination and preconceived stereotypes. It is a buzzing Mediterranean centre whose 1 million inhabitants are a fascinating cocktail of apparently conflicting characteristics.

Palermo’s history has been anything but stable as the town passed from one dominating power to another with remarkable frequency. Its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean brought wave upon wave of invaders including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons just to name the most influential. The result of this quilted history is evident today in the vast range of architectural styles, the intriguing fusion of ingredients used in many local dishes and in many place names which are obviously not of Italian origin.

Visiting Palermo is still somewhat of an adventure in a world where so many places have become tourist-friendly to a fault. You won’t find many restaurants with menus translated into 5 different languages, you may have trouble communicating in English in many places, and some parts of the old town centre have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war. There are many back streets that have only just opened up to those from without and it is still often difficult to obtain any information worth having. However, this is also a stimulus to those who wish to embark on a little adventure, to discover things for themselves, to dig into the very fabric of the city and to try to understand what really makes Palermo (and its people) tick.

The often faded grandeur of many of Palermo’s wonderful palaces and churches in the centre gives way to popular areas whose way of life doesn’t fully belong to the 21st Century. This is particularly true of the markets, whose Arabic origins are still evident today thanks to their noise, smells, colours, narrow labyrinthine streets, the splendid array of food and other goods on display and the general ‘souk’ atmosphere.

Artistic delights abound at every corner, maybe most strikingly in the spectacular mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo of Monreale. In his book “The Normans in Sicily” John Julius Norwich described the former as follows: “It is in this building, with more stunning effect than anywhere else in Sicily, that we see the Siculo-Norman political miracle given visual expression - a seemingly effortless fusion of all that is most brilliant in the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic traditions into a single harmonious masterpiece.”

The aim of this little guide to Palermo is to give The Thinking Traveller some practical advice on how to get the most out of a visit to Palermo, where to park if coming by car, alternative ways of getting to Palermo, how to move round Palermo once there, what you can comfortably see in a given amount of time, where and what to eat etc.

Click on map to enlarge

Map of Palermo | Think Sicily

We have put together three “itineraries” both of a general and of a specific nature to help you choose from the bewildering amount of possibilities. Our ideas may give you the start you need, though of course they are only suggestions and the real discovery will be in your hands….

Villas in Sicily near Palermo >>

Practical information

Itinerary 1

Itinerary 2

Itinerary 3

 1/37 Palermo cathedral, resting place of Emperor Frederick II, Stupor Mundi.  2/37 Palermo's cathedral is a fascinating melange of architectural styles.  3/37 Palermo cathedral rising above the palms of Piazza Vittoria.  4/37 The splendid Teatro Massimo opera house in Palermo.  5/37 Teatro Massimo is the 3rd largest opera house in Europe.  6/37 Getting ready for a concert at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.  7/37 Piazza Pretoria and the 'Fountain of Shame' in Palermo.  8/37 Detail of the 'Fountain of Shame' in Piazza Pretoria.  9/37 The Foro Italico, Palermo's seafront promenade.  10/37 Having fun at the Foro Italico in Palermo.  11/37 Spring sun on the Foro Italico.  12/37 Palazzo Normanno seen from the top deck of the tourist bus.  13/37 Porta Nuova, Palermo's south gate.  14/37 Palazzo Normanno in Palermo, home to the Cappella Palatina.  15/37 The beautiful loggia inside the Norman Palace in Palermo.  16/37 Splendidly detailed mosaics at the entrance to the Cappella Palatina.  17/37 The sumptuous Arab-Norman interiors of the Cappella Palatina.  18/37 Piazza Vittoria in Palermo and its hos of palm trees.  19/37 The neo-classical Teatro Politeama in Palermo.  20/37 Photographer Lisa Limer catches the Festa di Santa Rosalia in Palermo.  21/37 I Quattro Canti, Palermo's Baroque crossroads.  22/37 One way of getting round Palermo!  23/37 The Arabic-influenced red domes of the San Cataldo church in Palermo.  24/37 The Church of San Cataldo with the Martorana Church behind.  25/37 The Chiesa delle Catena by La Cala in Palermo.  26/37 Flags flying outside the Town Hall in Palermo.  27/37 The Capo market in Palermo provides an excellent shopping experience.  28/37 Piazza Marina, one of Palermo's loveliest squares.  29/37 A strange mix of items at Piazza Marina's flea market.  30/37 Palermo's fascinating cathedral seen from the east end.  31/37 One of Palermo's many public gardens.  32/37 The mighty Castello di Ziza in Palermo  33/37 A bell tower in Palermo.  34/37 Filming in one of Palermo's 'Arabic' markets.  35/37 Palermo's central railway station.  36/37 Palermo, heading into Via Roma, one of the city's main shopping streets.  37/37 Making the most of balcony space in Palermo.