Palermo – a mere mention of the capital of Sicily conjures up images from its long, colorful and rather violent history.
A European Youth project brought together 40 of us from various parts of the continent, including Italy, Greece, Latvia and Slovakia.
Our accommodation, formerly a monastery was an oasis of calm amid the chaotic alleyways of Palermo.
We stayed 10 days in Palermo and had the opportunity to enjoy the most of it, the top things you can do in Palermo are:
1. Wander around the Palermo’s most popular and elegant streets, Via Ruggero Settimo, via Roma, and Via Liberta and be amazed by the impressive historical buildings and museums.
Palermo has some of the most ancient buildings seeped in Italian history
Palermo is a melting pot of several distinct, contrasting population factions. Ever since Phoenicians founded the city around 734 BC, powers have changed hands often. Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spanish, Normans and Austrians have ruled the city at various times. The result is a fusion in architecture (evident in ruins of palaces and churches in several different styles), culinary styles, music and places with names which are obviously non-Italian.
We had to wonder, looking at the population of 1 million hosting so many different surnames, if this was Hitler’s worst nightmare!
Cattedrale di Palermo
Beautiful 16th century fountain, which lends its names to the square which hosts it, is a major tourist attraction. Built by Francesco Camilliani originally for the garden of a Tuscany villa, it was purchased, dismantled, transported and rebuilt in Piazza Pretoria after the city of Palermo purchased it. Ten years before he created the blueprint of Teatro Massimo, Giovanni Battista Basile designed the fencing around fountain.
The tumbling cobblestone lanes, often made to seem narrower owing to heaps of trash, would suddenly turn into a breathtaking view of the Mount Pellegrino in the distance of the majestic Santa Caterina church looming above buildings.
It’s interesting to wander around the poor neighborhoods of immigrants but it can be a bit dangerous too. Be aware of the bike riders, two members of our group lost their wallets and mobile phones.
It was an odd mix of crude modernity and elegant ancient past which made the terrain even more charming to unaccustomed eyes.
The third largest theater in Europe, Teatro Massimo, was designed by Gian Battista Basile (1868). Several years of changing hands and squabbling later, his son Ernesto supervised the actual construction from 1891 to 1897. Gian Battista’s classical style exterior was retained but Ernesto put the finishing touches to the inside in Liberty style. In 1935, Decree from the Italian Ministry of Culture “Ente Teatrale Autonomo” recognized it as a public theater. Until then, several private firms supported the shows. In 1974 they were closed for a reportedly short downtime for repairs. Having fallen to decades of neglect and misuse, the venue re-opened in 1997. Today they host philharmonic concerts, opera, ballet, stage shows and rents out the space for private events and meetings.
Palazzo dei Normanni
The Palazzo dei Normanni, or the Palace of the Normans, has long been the palace which was the seat of Kings in Palermo.
The ruling Arab emirs built the majestic structure in the ninth century. The Normans, who succeeded them, lent their name and proceeded to further refine the grandeur. At the height of Sicilian prosperity under Frederick II, the palace was the renowned as the center of art, culture and education.
The marble staircase, towers, opulent halls, the courtyards and the ornate Cappella Palatina are a sight to behold. Today, it serves as the seat of the Regional Sicilian Assembly since 1947.
This mysterious 12th century structure was once used as a leper’s hospital (lazaretto) and continues to intrigue archaeologists and historians regarding the original purpose of its construction. Some texts suggest it was built by William II d’Altavilla as a barrack for the Spanish garrisons. Others claim it once had the Pescheria lake and a lush garden flanking it.
Castello della Zisa
One of the foremost examples of Arabian architectural splendor in Europe, Castello della Zisa derives its name from ‘al-aziz’, meaning the ‘the splendid one’ in Arabic. Norman king William II d’Altavilla ordered its building by Arabic architects to highlight the luxurious lifestyle of that era. It was later turned into a residence for royalty, fortress and finally a Museum of Islam.
Santa Maria dello Spasimo
Originally being built as a church, this ancient monument in Kalsa was soon commissioned to be built into a defense bulwark owing to the threat of Turkish invasion. Since then, it has served as the hospital during a plague epidemic, leper’s hospital and as an industrial warehouse. Thanks to several changing hands since the 16th century, today it serves as an important site for cultural artifacts and events.
Numerous museums strewn across Palermo do a fine job of preserving artifacts, history and art of the city. Many of them are former churches which have been turned into Museums. Museo Etnografico Pitrè, Museo Mormino and Museo Archeologico Regionale are foremost among them.
Museo Etnografico Pitrè
Address: Via Ducadegli Abruzzi 1, Palermo, Italy, IT
Tel: +39 091 740 4890
Open: Saturday to Thursday – 08:30 to 13:00 and 15:30 to 18:30
Founder Joseph Pitrè lends his name to this remarkable museum which does a fine job of chronicling local history. Located within the Chinese Palazzino, it includes artifacts like pottery, musical instruments, costumes, rugs, shawls, bags and items of everyday rural life.
Address: VialeLiberta 52, Palermo, Italy, IT
Tel: +39 091 608 5972
Open: Monday to Friday – 09:00 to 13:00 and 15:00 to 17:00, Saturday – 09:00 to 13:00
With a wide variety of artifacts like pottery, postage stamps, prints and engravings – Ignatius Mormino’s passion project is a much sought after location for tourists today. The museum is particularly fascinating for hosting many underground publications, letters, books and writings from the ‘Frost years’.
Museo Archeologico Regionale
Address: Via Bara all’Olivella, Palermo, Italy, IT
Tel: +39 091 611 6805
Open: Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday – 09:00 to 13:30, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday – 09:00 to 13:30 and 15:00 to 18:30
Housed in a 16th century church, this is one of the most significant museums of the Mediterranean region. Spread over two floors the displays include the renowned Stone of Palermo, Greek and Roman statues and an amazing collection of Tuscan art. Be aware of the timings, as restorations of several sections are afoot.
Museo delle Marionette
Address: Via a Butera, Palermo, Italy, IT
Tel: +39 091 328 0602
Open: Monday to Friday – 09:00 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 19:00; Saturday – 09:00 to 13:00
Admission: Charge (discount for children)
If ever there was a place to introduce your children to the museum and heritage of Italy, this is it! The Museo delle Marionette hosts colorful, expressive puppet theater including glove puppets, shadow puppets etc. from different parts of Europe and even Far East.
2. After having your fill of history, set out to sunbathe in one of the several beaches around Palermo.
From the quieter ones like San Vito Lo Capo, Arenella and Cefalu to the more popular golden sands of Mondello, Isola delle Femmine and Aspra – the options are many, and each within an hour’s drive from the city. Mondello, the biggest of the lot was built up from swamplands in early 1900s.
Locals assured us, that the several mansions and villas lining the magnificent coastline had a trail of blood and money to hide.
3. After the relaxing time on the beach enjoy the tasty Sicilian food.
Food in Palermo is amazing. Like any self-respecting Italian place, the pasta and pizza are heavenly, sea-food is delicious, fresh fruits and produce are readily available with street vendors and there’s an assortment of mouth-melting cheese and desserts in bakeries and patisseries. Arancini is a local specialty –ragù (meat sauce) and mozzarella stuffed in rice-balls, coated with breadcrumbs and fried – and tastes like heaven. Cannoli (Italian for ‘little tube’), shells of pastry-dough filled with sweet ricotta and crème is a must-have for those with a sweet tooth.
Fancy a Cannoli every day? (Totally worth it!), Pasticceria Cappello is the place to be.
Wherever you are in Italy you must have gelato. Italy has undoubtedly the best ice creams. yummm yummm
4. Take a photo of the Palermo’s oldest tree at the Piazza Marina.
The impressive Banyan Fig Tree is more than 150 years old. The aerial roots of this impressive tree, coming from all sides, make it an ideal place to relax in hot summer days.
5. Explore the little picturesque hill town Monreale.
Monreale lies about 15 km outside of Palermo, Sicily. Monreale Cathedral, famed for its glorious golden mosaics, was granted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
6. Support the anti mafia movement “addiopizzo” of Palermo .
Sicilian Mafia is a big part of the infamous history, and lurks as the vicious underbelly of present as well, despite anti-mob efforts. When you see the addiopizzo sign it means that these companies dared to refuse paying protection fees to Mafia.
It became even more apparent at our last, most unique (and rather unpopular!) destination – Corleone. We decided pitch for the land of the Mafia, rather than Trapani, Mount Etna, and the ancient ruins of Syracuse both owing to time constraints and the massive size of what we could cover in Sicily.
Corleone became famous (or rather, infamous!) through “The Godfather” series. Typically, Hollywood chose to glamorize the Mafia, rather than the anti-mafia who have worked tirelessly to fight corruption, nefarious politics and injustice.
The story dates back to 1861, when the unification of Italy allowed several individual black-money business owners to become landowners. By 1875, they were the strongest political entity who rigged votes, promised protection against bandits, and ultimately against themselves. With a strong network of bosses, underlings and hired killers – they now looked for newer pastures. The growing urban landscape provided just that, as internal squabbles between authorities, bureaucratic loopholes and political corruption handed them the de facto power of entire Sicily. Such organized crime came to be known as the Mafia.
Honest officials took upon themselves to address popular anguish in the early 1980s to form the anti-mafia. Salvatore “Toto” Riina unleashed one of the most brutal periods of domination by violent murders. However, by breaking the existing mafia code of not killing family members of rivals, he also invited wrath of losing rivals. One of them, Tommaso Buscetta played a major role in turning the tables as a police informant. It was the murder of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone (a popular Palermo judge who convicted nearly 400 mafiosi members) and Paolo Borsellino, which triggered widespread public revulsion and forced the official crackdown on Corleonesi Mafia. A tree in memory of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. I wish our world had more such heroes.
Others who had fought the Mafia—judges, businessmen, journalists, priests—had been assassinated, but Falcone’s death galvanized Sicily. Thousands marched in Palermo shouting “Basta! Enough!”
A local woman recalled, “It was as if a light had been switched on in a dark room.”