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A cultural guide to Palermo

MUSEUMS, ART GALLERIES, MUSIC, PARKS AND GARDENS

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Palermo is a buzzing cultural centre with plenty for visitors to see and do. Here are some of the city's best museums, art galleries, music venues, parks and gardens.

Museums and art galleries

Regional Archaeological Museum A. Salina


The Museo Archeologico Regional Antonio Salinas is one of the feathers in Palermo's cap. Its exhibits recall and illustrate Sicily's history as the centre of Magna Graecia, but also its ancient Phoenician roots and its Roman heritage. Much of the museum is given over to Selinunte, and there is a fascinating display of metopes from the temples there, including an instructive and well thought-out guide to how the temples would have looked when they were built. There are other significant exhibits from Sicily's other major sites, including those of Segesta, Solunto, Mozia and Himera.

Where? Piazza Olivella, 24
When? 9.30am-6.30pm Tuesday-Saturday and 9.30am-2.00pm Sunday and Bank Holidays.

Galleria Regionale Palazzo Abatellis 


Housed in the late 15th-century Catalan-Gothic Palazzo Abatellis, Sicily's Regional Art Gallery is home to an important collection of paintings and sculptures, including several notable masterpieces: Antonello da Messina's Our Lady of the Annunciation, Francesco Laurana's sculpture of Eleanor of Aragon, and a famous fresco entitled The Triumph of Death, by an unnamed artist. Also of interest are a series of sculptures by Domenico and Antonino Gagini, a series of paintings by Pietro Novelli, one of Italy's foremost artists of the 17th century, and a portrait of Santa Rosalia by Anthony Van Dyck (who worked in Palermo before becoming the leading artist at the court of Charles I in England). 

Where? Via Alloro, 4 (near Piazza Marina)
When? as opening days and times are subject to variation, we recommend you call the gallery on +39 091 623 0011 before going.

GAM - Galleria d'Arte Moderna Sant'Anna


The beautifully restored ex-Convent of Sant'Anna provides a splendid backdrop for Palermo's collection of  19th and 20th-century art. There are over 200 works arranged in fourteen thematic groups and featured artists include Sicily's great landscape artist Francesco Lojacono, the Liberty Style master Ettore de Maria Bergler, and the world-renowned Renato Guttuso. The gallery also hosts frequent visiting exhibitions and has a café.

Where? Via Sant'Anna, 21 (just off Via Roma)
When? 9.30am-6.30pm, Tuesday - Sunday (except Public Holidays). For more info, see GAM.

RISO Museo d'Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia


Looking out over Piazza Bologni from its elegant Baroque surroundings, Palermo's gallery of contemporary art has won acclaim for its space, its collections and its educational initiatives. The works exhibited cover a wide range of disciplines, with an emphasis on young artists, both Italian and foreign, including Accardi, Anselmo, Bazan, Boltansky, Di Marco,  Dikbas, El Baz, Karouk, Mortellaro, Pivi, Reynaud-Dewar and Taravella. The RISO gallery also has a café.

Where? Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 365
When? 10.00am-7.30pm/11.30pm, Tuesday - Sunday. For more info, see RISO.

Villa Zito Fondazione Sicilia


The collection of the Banco di Sicilia runs to over 1,000 artworks, many of which are exhibited in Villa Zito, a mid-18th-century aristocratic palazzo. The artworks have been divided into three sections, each with a distinctive theme. The first is devoted to the Baroque, with works dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The second explores the theme of the 19th century Grand Tour with a collection of realist paintings. The third, meanwhile, records 20th artistic trends in Sicily and Italy. Artists featured include Bernardo Strozzi, Mattia Preti, Luca Giordano, Francesco Zerilli, Carl Werner, Johann Jacob Frey, Lia Pasqualino Noto and Renato Guttuso. The gallery also has an impressive collection of maps and hosts visiting exhibitions. In the adjacent gardens, there is a lovely al fresco bar (only open in the evenings).

Where? Via Liberta', 52
When? 10.00am - 5.00pm, Tuesday-Thursday and 10.00am-7.00pm, Friday to Sunday. For more info see Villa Zito.

Palazzo Branciforte


Once one of Palermo's grandest aristocratic palazzi, Palazzo Branciforte has had a fascinating history since it was first built by Nicolò Placido Branciforte Lanza, Count of Raccuja, in the 17th century. From 1800 it became the city government's pawn shop, a place that those in need of credit could leave their belongings in trust until they were able to pay back their loan. Interestingly, many of the thousands of Sicilians who emigrated to the New World pawned all their belongings here before their one-way trip, and some of these items - from sheets, to shoes, to pans and much more - are on display.

The palazzo subsequently became an archive and a library and then, in the late 20th century, it was purchased by the Fondazione Banco di Sicilia, which commissioned the world-renowned architect and designer Gae Aulenti (whose other projects include the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) to restore the palazzo's enormous spaces. In 2012, Palazzo Branciforte opened to the public as a multi-faceted cultural centre, with collections of ancient archaeological artefacts, coins, stamps, ceramics, sculptures, frescoes, books and much more besides. There is also a cookery school, a bookshop, an auditorium, and a very nice restaurant housed in an oasis of an internal courtyard.

Where? Via Bara all'Olivella, 2
When? As opening times vary throughout the year we recommend you consult the museum's website.

Palazzo Sant'Elia


In the majestic surroundings of one of the most impressive palazzi lining Via Maqueda, the Fondazione Sant'Elia gallery hosts frequent exhibitions of contemporary art.

Where? Via Maqueda, 81
When? usually from Tuesday to Sunday, depending on the exhibitions. To see what's on and when, check the gallery's website.

Palazzo Asmundo


If you're in the area of the Palermo Cathedral on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we recommend a visit to Palazzo Asmundo, an 18th-century palazzo-turned-museum, home to a large collection of Sicilian artefacts, including  handpainted maiolica tiles, ceramics, porcelain, maps, coins, arms and much more besides dating from between the 16th and the 18th centuries. There is also a café serving snacks and light lunches.

Where? Via Pietro Novelli, 3 (opposite the cathedral)
When? opening times are subject to variation so we recommend you check the website for up-to-date information.

Palazzo Mirto


To see how the other half lived in Palermo, head to Palazzo Mirto. Dating right back to the 13th century, this venerable palace has undergone significant changes over the years, especially during the 17th century, when it assumed its present form. Before a marriage brought it into the possession of the Principi di Mirto, the palace was the home of the Filangeri family for four hundred years. 

Palazzo Mirto's interiors are opulently decorated in a style that illustrates the wealth and taste of a typical Palermitan aristocratic family. Antique furniture dating from the 17th and 18th centuries sits exquisitely in the spacious salons, priceless Murano chandeliers hang voluptuously from the ceilings, and silk panels, tapestries and paintings line the walls. Of particular interest are the smoking room, the theatre room and the Chinese room. This latter recalls the fashion for oriental design and art promoted by King Ferdinand III, whose fantastical Chinese palace in the Favorita Park is quite a sight.

The more prosaic functioning of the palazzo is evident in the kitchens, the stables and the store rooms surrounding the ground floor courtyard.

Where? Via Merlo, 2 (just off Piazza Marina)
When? 9.00am-6.00pm, Tuesday to Saturday and 9.00am-1.00pm on Sunday. As these times are subject to change, we suggest you check before organising a visit


Music

Teatro Massimo Opera House


Built over a period of some 30 years, Teatro Massimo is Europe's third largest opera house. It opened in 1897 with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, and in the same year, a very young Caruso, in only his second professional role, sang in a production of La Gioconda. Since then, almost anyone who's anyone has sung at Teatro Massimo, including Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Pavarotti. 

The opera and ballet season runs from the end of September to the end of June and there is also a programme of concerts. For information on performances, see teatromassimo.it.

If you're not able to catch an opera or a concert, we recommend you take a guided tour to admire the wonderful Liberty Style frescoes, the 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.

L'Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana


From October to June, the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana takes up residence at the wonderful neoclassical Teatro Politeama in Palermo. Each week, on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, it performs a varied repertoire of classical music featuring some world-renowned soloists and conductors.

Where? Piazza Ruggero Settimo (better known as Piazza Politeama)
When? October-June annually, on Fridays at 8.00pm and on Saturdays at 5.30pm

Brass Group


The Brass Group is the focal point of Palermo's jazz scene. Founded in 1974, it has its own band, the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana, which performs throughout the year. Amongst those who have led or played with the band over the years are Gil Evans, Stefano Bollani, Lester Bowie, Tony Hadley, Dianne Reeves, Arturo Sandoval, Archie Shepp, Diane Schuur, Toots Thielemans, and Phil Woods.

The Brass Group also organises a series of concerts for touring bands and luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Michel Petrucciani, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Frank Sinatra, Pat Metheny and Sarah Vaughan have all performed under the auspices of the Brass Group.

Where? Real Teatro di Santa Cecilia (Piazza Santa Cecilia) and the gardens and grounds of the ex-church of Lo Spasimo (Piazza Carlo Maria Ventimiglia - near Piazza Kalsa)
When? for concert info please see the site of the Brass Group


Parks and Gardens

L'Orto Botanico


Founded in 1789, covering an area of nearly 25 acres, and containing over 12,000 species, Palermo's botanical gardens is a magnet for botanists, horticulturalists and lovers of plants in general. Next door is Villa Giulia, an elegant late-18th century formal garden. A visit to both is recommended.

Where? Via Lincoln, 2
When? every day, 9.00am-5.00pm/8.00pm depending on the time of year.

Giardino Garibaldi

Designed and created by the great Palermitan architect GBF Basile (of Teatro Massimo fame) in the 1806s, Giardino Garibaldi is one of Palermo's most visited gardens due both to its position at the centre of Piazza Marina and to its monumental ficus macrophylla (Australian Banyan/Moreton Bay Fig), reputed to be the largest tree in Europe. There are plenty of other mature flora, shady benches to sit on (if you need a break from sightseeing) and wonderful cast iron railings that hint at the iminent arrival of the Liberty Style in Palermo.

Where? Piazza Marina
When? all day, every day (until sunset)

Giardino Inglese


Another of GBF Basile's great contributions to Palermo is the Giardino Inglese. Despite its name, there's nothing English about the park - it was commissioned by the Inglese family in 1851 and is a characteristically "Italian" garden that was much in vogue in the mid-19th century. Spread over different levels, with Liberty Style pavilions, bridges, tunnels, fountains, ponds and a network of paths, the gardens are planted with a wide variety of exotic fauna, including large shady ficus macrophylla (banyan trees), towering palms, bougainvillea, jacaranda, dragon trees, jasmine and much more besides. For younger children there is a small funfair with dodgem cars and a variety of rides, while those in need of refreshment can head to the open-air café.

Where? Via della Libertà
When? everyday from around 8.00am-7.00pm.

Villa Malfitano


In the 19th century, wealthy English families who had made their fortune in the Marsala wine trade set up home in Palermo, building numerous impressive palaces, a church and parks. One particularly fine example is Villa Malfitano, commissioned by Giuseppe 'Pip' Whitaker in the late 1880s. 'Pip' was not only a wine-maker but also an archaeologist, responsible for unearthing many treasures on the Phoenician island of Mozia, whose history he documented over many years. 

Pip Whitaker's Palermitan home is a large rambling neo-renaissance affair filled with treasures and  surrounded by around seven hectares of beautifully designed mature gardens. It is possible to visit both the house and the grounds, which are planted with an international  array of plants, trees and flowers hailing from, amongst others, Tunisia, Sumatra, Australia, New Caledonia and Mexico.

Where? Via Dante, 167
When? 9.00am-3.00pm Monday-Saturday.

La Favorita


At the end of 1798, King Ferdinand IV of Napoli (also known confusingly as Ferdinand III of Sicily) was forced to flee his beloved Napoli to escape the arrival of Napoleon's forces. He arrived in Sicily aboard The Vanguard, with Nelson at the helm and his queen, Maria Carolina and Lady Hamilton amongst the passengers. Ferdinand was a keen hunter but had little land around Palermo in which to pursue his favourite pastime. His solution was to create a park for himself and the result was the massive 400-hectare Reale Tenuta della Favorita, known simply today as La Favorita. Ferdinand also needed somewhere to live, so he commissioned a fantastical Chinese-style palace at the entrance to the park.

Running along the western side of Monte Pellegrino, between Palermo and the city's beach resort of Mondello, La Favorita is now part of the 1,000-hectare Monte Pellegrino Reserve, a popular place for runners, cyclists and picnickers on public holidays. The higher levels of Monte Pellegrino offer great views over Palermo and are also home to the cave and shrine of Santa Rosalia, the city's patron saint. 

Where? between Palermo and the seaside quarter of Mondello.

Villa Trabia


Villa Trabia is a classic Palermitan aristocratic escape, a grand baroque villa built outside the city walls and enclosed in large landscaped grounds. As Palermo grew in the early 18th century, it became fashionable for noble families to have a "bolthole" in the country, a safe haven far from the madding crowd. Some went out to Bagheria, which became famous for its lavish baroque summer villas, others stayed a little closer to home, such as Don Paolo Spinelli, the original owner of Villa Trabia. 

The villa dates back to the mid-18th century but took its present name only in 1814, when it was purchased by Giuseppe Lanza Branciforte, the Prince of Trabia. The gardens, which are open to public seven days a week, are a pleasure to stroll around. A 400m-long path leads up from the main gates, through a natural garden planted with acanthus and  mature trees, across a bridge, around a couple of ornamental fountains and up to the villa itself. Paths diverge from this central thoroughfare, weaving around lawned areas and through copses and citrus orchards. Palms rise high into the sky, huge banyans provide natural shade, and the overall sensation is somewhat exotic. Today, Villa Trabia has a children's playground and is frequented by families, dog-walkers and even the fully costumed Jane Austen Appreciation Society!

Where? Via Marchese Ugo (just across Via della Libertà from Giardino Inglese)
When? seven days a week from around 8.00am to 7.00pm



Find out more about Palermo with our comprehensive guide and walking itineraries:

Itinerary 1: from the Quattro Canti to the Norman Palace
Itinerary 2: the Kalsa district
Itinerary 3: from the Capo market to the Cala marina

An introduction to Palermo
Practical information
Eating and drinking in Palermo

Villas in Sicily near Palermo >>

Palermo 2018 - Italian Capital of Culture and host city of Manifesta 12 >>

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