Palermo (Sicily) – city with millennia long history “written” by successive civilizations and rulers offers countless tourist attractions, architectural marvels, famous street food….
Palermo – the largest Sicilian city is certainly one of the places not to miss when visiting the island.
It’s the city with the millennia long Sicilian history “written” by successive civilizations and rulers, beautifully blends with its contemporary status of the regional capital. No wonder that Palermo is one of the top tourist destinations in Europe and certainly number 1 on the Sicilian Island.
Palermo was founded in 734 BC by Phoenicians at the north-eastern periphery of their Sicilian colony. During the next few centuries, somehow “miraculously” Palermo avoided major clashes with Greeks encroaching on the eastern side of the island.
While the “fragile” dividing line between the eastern Sicily controlled by Greeks and the western part of the island controlled by Phoenicians was frequently moving, Palermo (known to Greeks as Panormus) benefited period of “relative” peace. Things changed in the 3rd century BC with the arrival of Romans and beginning of devastating Punic Wars.
Norman Palace gardens
Church Ammiraglio - Frescoes
Palermo surrendered to Roman army and for the next 700 years became flourishing commercial center. Its star dimmed with the fall of the Roman Empire and short rules of Vandals. Surprisingly, while archeologists discovered remains of Phoenician settlement (some, unearthed can be seen in the large excavation hall under the Norman Royal Palace), there is little left from Greek and Roman era. It reflects the fact that Palermo was not at the center of neither Greek’s nor Roman’s World.
The city started rising back to the glory when Byzantium took control of the island. But the arrival of Arabs to Sicily was probably the culminating moment for Palermo. Believe it or not, Arabs were very good, business oriented administrators so the Emirate of Sicily brought lasting prosperity to the whole island. Palermo – the capital of Emirate of Sicily with its population of about 350 thousands became one of the largest cities in Europe. And what we are forgetting quite often – at those times Arabs were leading the Old World on almost all fronts - in architecture, art, medical science, astronomy, mathematics….
Castle Zisa- splendid example of Arabic architecture and art...
Church of St. Teatini: Bell Tower
The royal glory was brought to Palermo in the 11th century by the Norman King Roger 2nd. Since then Palermo has been growing almost continuously becoming one of the most prosperous European metropolises. Royal palaces, aristocratic residences, cathedral and numerous churches were mushrooming within ever growing city. Interestingly, architecture and in general art from that period of time was brilliantly borrowing from the past, combining the trends and styles brought by Normans from the Northern Europe with those from Byzantine and Arabs’ worlds.
Such marvels as Palermo’s Churches Martorana, San Giovanni degli Eremiti and San Cataldo as well as Palazzo Reale (Normanni) with its Palantine Chapel and castles of Zisa and Cuba are maybe the best examples of integration of various architectural styles and decorative arts in Norman era..
Palermo: Puerta Nova
Famous Quatro-Canti (Heart of the old city)
The following centuries left for future generations numerous equally beautiful structures predominantly in Sicilian Baroque style like for example Palermo’s Cathedral and Churches - San Giuseppe dei Teatini, Santa Maria della Catena, Oratorio Rosario, Teatro Massini (one of the largest scenes in Europe), gigantic “Fountain of Shame” on Piazza Pretoria, Town Gates, remarkable facades of Quatro Canti…. and here the list can only go on and on….
Surprisingly, Palermo did not experience typical cycles of prosperity and destruction at least not in violent forms. Thankfully, the “battles” for the control of the island were waged “somewhere else”. Mother Nature was also unusually merciful – so Palermo did not experience devastating earthquakes or volcanic eruptions (Etna is just too far). Shockingly, it was the heavy bombing by allied forces during WW2 that brought to ruins a major part of the city. Even today, almost 60 years later, old town was not fully rebuilt, some buildings are permanently abandoned, some in a miserable state of sorry….
Palermo: Botanical Garden with its "Open Art Gallery"
Today’s Palermo is a very unique city so taking one of sightseeing tours and visiting some of its historical monuments is not enough to fully appreciate it. It’s true that Palermo offers every visitor an opportunity to travel across at least one millennium of well preserved and rich human history. Remarkable architecture, extraordinary monuments, art…. they are all revealing the exceptional ingenuity, imagination and skills of past generations. But to feel the spirit of Palermo, to “taste” the city you have to go farther than that. Because an important part of the city’s soul is literally on the streets.
For example Palermo is famous for its street food (do not be confused – I’m not talking about hot-dog with a can of coke). Passing on such delicacies like Sfincione (Sicilian pizza), Panelle (fritters from chickpea flower), Crocche (Potatoe Croquette), Pane con la Meusa (Spleen sandwich), Arancini (stuffed rice ball), Pasta Reale (cookies from almond’s flower) not even mentioning Cannoli or Cassata seems like a sin (or dreadful ignorance?).
Street food cart - here is served famous Spleen Sandwich
... and a Street Restaurant in the Old Town
Famous Frutti Martorana (no HR available)
The “vibes & colors” of Sicilian Past fly also high on Palermo’s flea markets although today quite often they are infiltrated by “professionals” that may offer a “rung of the ladder dreamed by St. Peter to unsuspecting buyer. Some like Mercado delle Pulci is open daily, some, like the one on Piazza Marina only on weekends. Talking about colors? You will find lively part of the city visiting food markets (Ballaro, Vucciria...) where colors, shapes and aromas of “naturally grown” fruits and veggies may tempt even pickiest vegetarians while prices (very low) will shock everybody.
And if you are already tired of this buzzing city and need some place offering the peace and serenity then stop at the Garibaldi Garden (small fenced area on the Piazza Marina or visit the Botanical Garden and next to it Villa Giulia.
So here they are: Palermo "treasuries" not to miss....
The richly adorned chapel with its Byzantine-style mosaics of Christ Pantocrator and numerous scenes from Old and New Testaments creates the unique atmosphere so characteristic for Eastern Christianity. The wooden “honeycomb” ceiling is one of the best examples of elegance and lightness of the Arabic art….
See details at: --> Palatine Chapel
The 12th century Castle Zisa (Palermo) built by Norman king William 1st is one of the best examples of influence of Arabic architecture in Sicily. It was part of the gardens called Genoardo (from Arabic: “Jannat al-ard” meaning “Paradise on Earth”)....
See more at: --> Castello della Zisa
Palermo’s 16th century Pretoria Fountains - fabulous composition of life-sized mythological gods, nymphs, satyrs and animals sprinkling streams of water is a living testimony to human visions by far exceeding the time of its creation….
See details at: --> Fontana Pretoria
For visitors, the name “Villa Giulia” may be a bit confusing, so let’s make it clear – it is the public park in Palermo. When opened on June 11th, 1778 it was actually the first public park in Sicily! Originally located at the outskirts of the old city near the sea, today it borders the busy area at the corner of the Foro Italico and Lincoln Street facing on the south the Botanic Garden......
See details at: --> Villa Giulia Park
Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (Admiral’s Bridge) is one of the oldest surviving bridges in Europe. It was built over the river Oreto at the beginning of the 12th century at the order of one of the greatest commanders of those times - Admiral George of Antioch (Giorgio d’Antiochia). His military skills and records .....
See details at: --> Admiral's Bridge
The first City Hall (known as Palazzo Pretorio) was founded in the early 14th century by Frederic 2nd Aragon. But it took some 150+ years to see it completed what finally happened in 1470 thanks to the leadership of Pietro Speciale.
The quadrangular structure with the central court had entrances on each side of the building, however the main one was facing the churches San Cataldo and....
See more at: --> Palermo City Hall
Chiesa di San Cataldo located on the Plaza Bellini is one of the best examples of fusion of Oriental and Norman architectures and art reflecting centuries of influence of Islamic culture and its acceptance by Norman rulers.
The church was founded in 1154 by Majone of Bari – the chancellor of Norman king William 1st. It was designed as a private chapel in his palace but probably .....
See details at: --> Church San Cataldo
The church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is located right behind another outstanding religious monument – the Church of San Cataldo. Both of them are facing the Piazza Bellini flanked on the opposite side by the imposing church of St. Catherine and equally magnificent Palazzo Senatorio (City Hall).
Throughout the centuries the Church of Santa Maria (known also as dell”Ammiraglio and La Martorana) was expanded ......
See details at: --> Church Martorana
The complex known as Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti was built between 1130 and 1148 on the orders of King Roger 2nd. It was erected on the site of an old Gregorian monastery that in 10th century was converted into the Mosque. It also included cloister, dormitory, refectory, cemetery and the garden with an underground spring. The whole complex.....
See details at: --> Church St. John of the Hermits
Palermo’s Museum of Puppets was founded in 1975 by Antonio Pasqualino – an anthropologist devoted to keep alive the colorful world of fantasy of Sicilian marionettes. For centuries the Teatro dei Pupi (Opera dei Pupi) was a favorite Sicilian folk art. It was feeding imagination of all generations by bringing to life the tales reflecting the rich historical past. The stories from times of Saracens, Crusaders, legends inspired by Norman’s epic Song of Roland, sagas .....
See details at: --> Museum of Marionettes
Cathedral was founded in 1184 by the powerful archbishop of Palermo – Gualtiero Offamiglio in an attempt to “counterbalance” the prestige and power of the royal cathedral complex in the nearby Monreale. It was built on the footprints of an earlier Byzantine basilica which in turn was converted to the mosque during Arabs domination.
During the following centuries the cathedral underwent numerous modifications. In the 13th and 14th centuries.....
See details at: --> Palermo's Cathedral
Catacombe dei Capuccini are part of the 17th century complex of Capuchin Church and Monastery. While the Capuchin Convent still holds some objects of fine religious art, it is mostly known for its catacombs sheltering fully dressed skeletons and mummified bodies of some famous Palermo’s personages. The “chillingly” fascinating story of catacombs .....
See more at: --> Capuchin Catacombs
Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico) was founded in 1786 by the University of Palermo (at that time known as the Royal Academy of Science).
The main purpose of this initiative was the cultivation of medicinal plants that could be used for teaching in a newly opened Department of Botanical Science with objective to use them for the benefit of health of the population. Later, with the rise of environmental consciousness one of the most important tasks given to the Botanical Garden was .....
See details at: --> Botanical Garden
Construction of the plaza of the Four Corners was part of the plan to bring back to Palermo the glory and prestige of the Royal City as expected for the seat of the Spanish Government represented by the Viceroy. The works were carried out in early 1600’s by an Italian architect Giulio Lasso. Despite the name “Four Corners” the piazza is actually a corner-less “octagonal-circle” with four sides defined by the streets and remaining four by rounded baroque-style facades.
Architectonically, all four facades are very similar – each consists.......
The castle La Cuba was built in 1180 at the request of King William 2nd. Together with the castle La Zisa it was part of the chain of royal recreational residences raised outside of the walled city. Although seemingly simple when seen from the outside, the castle La Cuba is a great example of then dominant Sicilian architectural style skillfully combining Norman’s Romanesque forms with Islamic lines of “Fatimid” flavor and elements of Byzantine decorative art.....
See details at: --> Castle La Cuba
St. Rosalie was born around 1130 in a noble Palermian family. Tradition says that her parents: Duke Sinibaldi and Mary Guiscarda were descendants of King of Franks and Italy - Charles the Great (known as Charlemagne). Despite such blue-blooded genealogical lines and obvious access to the Norman Royal court there are no official records of her life. What we know is rather a mixture of traditions and myths than documented historical facts.
Apparently she was a maid of Queen Margaret (wife of king of Sicily William 1st the Wicked). This early period .....
See details at: --> Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia
The Church of St. Mary of the Chain was built at the turn of the 15th century at the small embankment near the Cala Port. It was designed by one of the greatest masters of the Sicilian architecture in those times - Matteo Carnilivari. The church is the living testimony of his talents to create harmonious combination of traditional Sicilian architecture (Catalan-Gothic influenced by Arab and Byzantine “flavors”) with “lines” of newly emerging Renaissance. After Carnilivari’s death in 1506 the finishing works were carried-out by local architects Scaglione and Belguardo, but fortunately they did not make any major changes to......
See more at: --> Church of St. Mary of the Chain
If you would like to start your trip to Sicily, please visit: --> Rediscovering Sicily
If you enjoyed this visit, then please share your experience with friends :-)