The ancient harbor city of Palermo is Sicily’s capital and Italy’s capital of culture in 2018 which explains why it’s worthy of a visit during your trip to Sicily. Palermo has lived to tell the rich tale of the island’s history and the different people groups that conquered Sicily have left their impact on the capital’s architecture, art and culture.
The biggest influences upon the island were the Arabs who arrived in Sicily in the 9th century and then the Normans who were the next nation to conquer and settle in Sicily. The Arabs made Palermo the capital of the island and decorated the city with gardens, parks, mosques and palaces. When the Normans arrived in 1061 it was King Roger II who championed the arts in Sicily and many of these influences can still be felt in the city today.
Start your city tour off at the Palazzo dei Normanni (also known as the Palazzo Reale or Norman Palace) which in times past was the seat of kings and rulers and today houses Sicily’s regional government. King Frederick II had his court of minstrels and literati here. It was the place where he founded the School Poetica Siciliana which marked the birth of Italian literature. The foundations of the palace date back to the 8th century BC, in the 9th Century AD the Arabs built the palace for their emirs and it was the Normans who brought the palace to its full splendor and to whom the current appearance is due.
Inside the Norman Palace, at the top of the sweeping staircase, hidden behind the palace walls, is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel). Originally designed to be a private place of worship, it is ornately decorated and the interior is simply breathtaking. You’ll find a fusion of different architectural styles which somehow work together to create a masterpiece. The exquisite Byzantine mosaics are in laid with precious stones which delicately and gracefully tell the stories of the Old Testament. The walls are decorated with marble inlay and up above is the Arabic wooden honeycombed ceiling, it is an exuberant feast for the eyes which makes this small chapel probably the most visited attraction in Palermo.
From here head down Via Vittorio Emanuele to the intersection known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners), the heart of Palermo and the point where the four ancient districts of Albergheria, Capo, Kalso and Vucciria all converge. It is a fascinating sector, officially known as Piazza Vigliena, in honor of the Spanish Viceroy who commissioned this construction in 1609. The Piazza is octagonal, four sides being streets and the remaining four being multilevel Baroque buildings each with sculptures depicting a different theme. Starting on the lowest level each building has its own fountain, moving up from here on each facade, there is a figure depicting the four seasons, Eolo, Venus, Ceres and Bacchus. Above the seasons are four different Spanish sovereigns, Charles V, Phillip II, Phillip III and Phillip IV. Finally looking at the highest level are the four patron saints of the city, Saint Agatha, Saint Ninfa, Saint Oliva and Saint Christina. The square still holds its old world charm and the best news for tourists is that you can visit at any time, and free of charge.
Another must essential stop point on the tour is the Piazza Pretoria, which is commonly known as the Fountain of Shame (Fontana della Vergogna in Italian) due to the 16 nude statues of nymphs, humans and mermaids that have found their home here. When they were originally unveiled in 1575 many churchgoers were offended especially as they had to pass by them on their way to the churches on the Piazza. Today this is one of the most photographed sectors of the city and regularly finds itself on Instagram.
There is also Palermo’s cathedral or duomo to visit, a striking building with a blend of Baroque, Byzantine, Arabic and Norman architectural styles, a testament to all the conquerors who wanted to leave their mark on the island. Glancing at the exterior of the cathedral the discerning tourist is immediately aware of its uniqueness, quite unlike any other cathedral in Europe, which leaves a memorable imprint that lasts long after the tour is over.
To add some extra culture to your tour, be sure to visit the Teatro Massimo, the third largest opera house in Europe after those of Paris and Vienna. Just over 100 years old, it was built in neo classical style with richly decorated interiors and two lions flanking the outside staircase. The theater offers an impressive ballet and opera season with programs attracting visitors from around the world and movie fans will recognize it as the stage of the climatic scene in the Godfather part III.
You can’t leave Palermo without sampling some of its famous street food and experiencing the sights and sounds of its lively historical street markets and you can even do a walking tour based around the food! Palermo is the very heart of Sicily and we know those who visit are sure to be captivated by its people, customs & unique charm.
Want to experience the best of Sicily? Come with us in 2019.
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Experience the Palermo markets & street food in the video below.