Villas in Sicily near Palermo >>
Our third itinerary will take you from west to east, from the historic Capo market down to La Cala, Palermo's marina. On the way, you'll be able to explore the Teatro Massimo, a maze of streets brimming with al fresco bars and restaurants, museums and artisanal craft shops. The morning is the best time to witness the hustle and bustle, colour and vitality of the Capo market, so let's head their first, starting at Porta Carini, near the top of Via Volutrno (the road that runs to the right of Teatro Massimo).
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The Capo market
Il Capo is one of Palermo’s four main Arabic-heritage street markets. Its stalls groan with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, all laid out in carefully choreographed arrangements. The calls of the hawkers, the vibrancy of the colours, and the headiness of the fragrances create an unforgettable atmosphere. You'll pass a few churches hidden away behind the market awnings, and one worth popping into is the Chiesa dell'Immacolata Concezione, a classically overwrought example of Palermitan baroque architecture. Less than 100m further on, take a left into Via Sant'Agostino and continue for another 200m, until you see the Romanesque Gothic façade and rose window of the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino on your left. This late 13th century church and its adjoining cloisters are well worth visiting, not least for the stucco work of the great Giacomo Serpotta inside.
On leaving the church, turn right and continue until you arrive at the Teatro Massimo.
While in the Capo, we recommend you try a Palermitan street food speciality: a sandwich filled with pannelle (chick-pea fritters), potato croquettes, a dash of lemon and a pinch of salt.
Teatro Massimo, the third largest opera house in Europe, has had a complex and troubled history. Originally commissioned in 1868 (after several years of deliberation), it was not until 1875 that the Palermitan architect G.B.F. Basile was given the go ahead to transform his plans into reality. Progress was slow, however, and work was suspended from 1882 to 1890. The following year, Basile died and the project was taken over by his son, Ernesto. Finally, in 1897, Teatro Massimo opened its doors to the public with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. The same year, a very young Caruso, in only his second professional role, sang in a production of La Gioconda.
For 77 years things ran relatively smoothly and many of the opera world’s most famous stars performed at the Teatro Massimo, including Gigli, Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Pavarotti. Then, in 1974, the theatre was temporarily closed so that it could be brought into conformity with modern safety regulations. Unfortunately, in the Palermo of those years, "temporary" was devoid of its usual meaning and not until 1997, some 25 years later, did the Teatro Massimo finally reopen.
The theatre is open to the public for guided tours and we recommend a visit to admire its wonderful Liberty style frescoes, its elegant salons, and, most importantly, the voluminous, sumptuously decorated arena itself. To one side of its impressive steps, under the gaze of a brass lion, is the theatre's al fresco café, the perfect spot to enjoy a drink while watching the world go by.
The opera and ballet season runs from the end of September to the end of June. There is also a season of concerts. For information on performances, see www.teatromassimo.it.
Piazza Olivella and the Regional Archaeological Museum
Opposite Teatro Massimo is a maze of narrow streets lined with artisanal craft shops, bars and restaurants. One of them, Via Bara dell'Olivella, is home to a world-renowned puppet theatre, Figli d'Arte Cuticchio (see their Facebook page at Teatro dell'Opera dei Pupi for information about shows). At the bottom end of these streets is Piazza Olivella, home to even more bars and restaurants, the imposing baroque Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio, and the Museo Archeologico Regionale Salinas. The museum, housed in an ex-convent that has been beautifully restored, boasts a superb collection of antiquities gathered from Sicily's numerous archaeological sites, including those of Selinunte, Solunto, Tindari, Himera and Mothya.
On exiting the museum, turn right and immediately right again, following Via Bara dell'Olivella down to Via Roma, one of Palermo's main shopping streets. Cross Via Roma, go past Palazzo Branciforte (unless you wish to stop for lunch in its fine internal courtyard), and turn right into Via di Lampedusa. At the end of this road on your left is the Oratorio di Santa Cita.
L'Oratorio di Santa Cita
If you've followed our second itinerary around the Kalsa, you'll have come across the Oratorio di San Lorenzo and its exquisite stucco work by Serpotta. The Oratorio di Santa Cita is another masterpiece of decorative art by Palermo's greatest genius.
Built in 1686, the Oratorio di Santa Cita was home to one of Palermo's wealthiest charitable fraternities. While its exterior was left quite plain, no expense was spared when it came to the interiors: Serpotta was commissioned to provide his magic touch. He didn't disappoint.
The decorations begin at ceiling height, cascading down the walls and weaving around the windows. Floral motifs, Corinthian acanthus leaves, curvaceous baroque flourishes, fluttering putti, and allegoric figures all jostle for position. At the lowest level, about seven feet above the ground, the walls are decorated with a series of teatrini, mini theatre-like niches, each depicting one of the mysteries (e.g. the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Agony of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Assumption of Mary, etc.). Peeking into the teatrini from above are more of Serpotta's signature putti. Their vivid expressions reflect the sorrow, the glory or the joyfulness of the scenes below them. They weep, swoon, bicker, doze and giggle, but there's always a feeling of solidarity between them.
The altarpiece is surmounted by a painting of the Madonna del Rosario, while the wall at the opposite end features a Serpottian depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, during which the combined forces of the Holy League, under the aegis of the Madonna del Rosario, decimated the Turkish fleet.
As you leave Oratorio di Santa Cita (probably with a spring in your step), turn left and then right into Via Squarcialupo. Head past the music conservatory on your left and keep going straight on until you come to the end. Take a right turn here, into Via Giovanni Meli, and you'll soon arrive at Piazza San Domenico and its eponymous church.
The Church of San Domenico
The second largest church in Sicily after Palermo cathedral in Palermo, the Chiesa di San Domenico is worth a quick look, if only to take in its impressive volume. Built over decades, between the mid-17th and the early 18th centuries, it quickly assumed a certain importance in the city and many an illustrious Sicilian is buried there. If you've had enough of churches for now, head to the adjacent department store, Rinascente, whose roof-top bar offers great vistas over the church, its piazza, Via Roman and the road opposite, which leads down to the Vucciria market.
The Vucciria market
For many Palermitani, the Vucciria is the symbol of their city. Once a thriving market, immortalised in Renato Guttuso's famous painting, in recent years it has become more of a nightlife hotspot. If you head there during the day, however, you'll discover a bit of Palermo that seems lost in time. Somewhat rundown and far from gentrification, its narrow streets have a certain dilapidated charm that is best explored by following one's nose. One curiosity is the statue of the Genio del Garraffo in Vicolo Paterna. The Genio di Palermo is an ancient, profane equivalent of a patron saint, a protector of the city and its people. In its seven iterations around Palermo, the statues of the Genio show a seated man with beard and a crown clasping a snake to his breast. At his feet sits a dog.
Our tour ends with the chance for some refreshments at La Cala, Palermo's marina, where there are a few nice waterfront bars. Simply head east down Via dei Cassari, and you'll be there in time for a well-earned sundowner!
Itinerary 1: from the Quattro Canti to the Norman Palace
Itinerary 2: the Kalsa district
Museums, art galleries, music, parks and gardens in Palermo
Back to the introduction
Eating and drinking in Palermo
Villas in Sicily near Palermo >>
Palermo 2018 - Italian Capital of Culture and host city of Manifesta 12 >>