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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

 The superbly eclectic façade of Palermo cathedral.  The cathedral seen from another angle.  The cathedral seen from Piazza Victoria.  The beautiful palm trees of Piazza Vittoria near the cathedral.  The archbishop's palace on the left connected to the cathedral.  The Norman Palace, home to the Palatine Chapel.  Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Europe's third larges opera house.  One of the impressive lions protecting Teatro Massimo.  Getting ready for curtain up at the Teatro Massimo.  A concert at the Teatro Massimo.  The so-called Fountain of Shame in Piazza Pretoria.  A detail of the fountain's elegant sculptures.  Palermo's streets are home to some colourful flower stalls.  Looking out to sea from the old city walls.  The seafront promenade, Foro Italico, in Palermo.  A neoclassical temple on the seafront promenade in Palermo.  The sumptuous interiors of Palazzo Gangi, one of Palermo's great aristocratic homes.  Palermo's historic markets, including the Capo and the Ballaro' should not be missed.  Down in the Vucciria market, one of Palermo's most characterful areas.  The bell tower of one of Palermo's hundreds of churches.  The procession of Santa Rosalia on July 14th attracts tens of thousands.  The Arabic-inspired Ziza Castle in Palermo dates back to the 12th century.  The Arabic-domed church of San Cataldo.  The splendid mosaics of the Martorana church in Palermo.  Old-style vending on the streets of Palermo.  Taking it easy at Palermo's seaside resort of Mondello.  Mondello beach in May!  Looking over Mondello from Monte Pelllegrino.  Palermo and the Conca d'Oros een from Monreale.  Monreale cathedral and cloisters.  The stunning interiors of Monreale cathedral.  The little harbour of Porticello just to the east of Palermo  The fishing port of Porticello.