Palermo is a vibrant, colourful city with a glorious past rich in international influence. A past that’s perhaps most recognisable in its architectural and artistic heritage. Greek temples, Baroque churches, Norman residences, neoclassical theatres, Punic city walls and liberty villas – this is a lively city nestled on Sicily’s Conca d’Oro and surrounded by mountains a plenty.
A cosmopolitan capital that once benefited from the wealth of its Arabic invaders and has since maintained its multicultural character thanks to its port, Palermo is bustling with thriving alley gardens and elegant buildings. In this city, you’ll find beautiful sea waters accompanied by amazing local markets buzzing with traditions and people. Why not soak up its glorious atmosphere on a Costa Cruise? Read on to find out what to do during your trip to Palermo.
- Palermo Cathedral
- Norman Palace
- Palatine Chapel
- Capuchin Catacombs
- Monreale Cathedral
- Piazza Pretoria and Fountain
- Kalsa District
- Sant’Agostino Church
- Massimo Vittorio Emanuele Theatre
- Palermo’s Markets
- Foro Italico
- Santa Caterina Church
- Vucciria Market
- San Giovanni degli Eremiti Church
- Quattro Canti Square
- Near Palermo: Mondello
- Near Palermo: Cefalù
It’s as though this city’s millennial history has been concentrated into just one single building. In order to truly appreciate Palermo Cathedral’s rich history, it’s perhaps best to take a step back in time. Initially an Early Christian basilica, the building was later converted into a mosque before returning to use as a church. Its original neoclassical style was decided upon by Ferdinando Fuga in the eighteenth century, an architect at the Bourbon court who decided to do away with previous Gothic, Baroque and Arab-Norman influences.
However, all is not lost. You can still spot Arab-Norman influences in the main apse, Gothic influences in the entrance and Baroque details on the cupola. It’s a successful combination, and one that pairs brilliantly with the cathedral’s interiors, which house a series of important artefacts, including Federico II’s sarcophagus and the tomb of Santa Rosalia – the city’s patron saint.
Today, the Norman Palace (or Royal Palace) is the seat of Sicily’s regional assembly, but once upon a time Federico II and Corrado IV walked along its majestic corridors. In fact, the palace was once their imperial seat, and it still boasts extraordinary architecture and luxurious interiors to this day.
You’ll find hints of the Royal Palace’s exuberant past in its underground rooms, which date back to the Punic period. The Arabs built the palace’s initial structure, while the Normans turned it into more of a focal point by adding four towers connected via arcades and gardens. The structure was once connected to the cathedral by a covered street, but in 1556, the Spaniards destroyed the towers and built a majestic façade.
The palace once housed textile workshops that produced fine artefacts. And it was thanks to the Bourbons that the palace later underwent a significant transformation, which included the addition of the majestic Sala Rossa (Red Room) and various imposing frescoes. A number of restoration works were carried out during the twentieth century.
Romanesque, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman and Baroque – the building’s exteriors feature many different styles, while its interiors consist of courts and numerous neoclassical rooms, often adorned with artworks depicting mythological stories, as is certainly the case in the Sala Pompeiana.
A small jewel dedicated to San Pietro and San Paolo and built by Ruggero II, you’ll find the magnificent Palatine Chapel – consecrated in 1140 – inside the Norman Palace. Byzantine mosaics are the real star of the show in here, and you’ll spot them adorning the transept, apses and cupola. Among these mosaics – which are some of the most substantial in Sicily – are depictions of Christ Blessing, the evangelists, and several biblical scenes.
The artwork continues onto the wooden ceiling of the central nave, which features Arab-style wood carvings and paintings. Here, you’ll also spot animals, scenes from the Islamic court and Koranic paradise, and numerous dancers. The chapel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 3 July 2015.
Many who lived before us made attempts to achieve immortality. That’s right, we’re talking about mummification, an ancient tradition rooted in Sicily and embraced to the fullest in the Capuchin Catacombs. With a unique and perhaps somewhat macabre history, these catacombs have intrigued a number of intellectuals and writers over the centuries, including Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant and Carlo Levi.
Skeletons and mummies are not the only things you’ll find in here, Capuchin friars also kept an impressive number of documents and records, painting a decent portrait of their everyday life, traditions and history.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, it was common practice to mummify your loved ones. Thousands of people offered donations to the friars in exchange for the service. The last person to be laid to rest here was a two-year-old girl, who was mummified at the behest of her father. She is still housed in Santa Rosalia Chapel.
What better way to assert your power than by building an incredibly domineering church? Monreale Cathedral is one of the most important Norman monuments in Sicily. A treasure trove of beauty and wonder, it was erected to affirm King William II of Sicily’s rule, also known as Il Buono (the Good). The cathedral is incredibly rich in antiquity and is now a recognised UNESCO world heritage site.
In fact, the building has a complex history influenced by Byzantine, Romanesque and Islamic culture. It was originally built to assert artistic prowess and according to legend, it was the Virgin Mary who ordered its construction.
She supposedly appeared one night in the Norman king’s dreams, informing him where to find the treasure to finance the project. You’ll also find artistic wonders inside the cathedral depicting Biblical scenes – sort of like religious instructions for the people. We’re talking about 6,400 square meters of mosaics, which cover every inch of the cathedral’s interiors.
Piazza Pretoria and Fountain
In the centre of Piazza Pretoria, in front of the town hall, you’ll find Pretoria Fountain, which is also known as the ‘fountain of shame.’ There are at least two or three potential explanations for its nickname. The first refers to its naked statues, which caused a stir at the time. Another has to do with the very large sum of money paid by the Palermitan Senate to buy it (supposedly around 20,000 Italian scudi). And the final is that the people of Palermo used to shouted ‘shame, shame’ at senators as they filed out of the building during a time of significant poverty and famine in the region.
One thing is certain, it definitely has a troubled history. The fountain was originally commissioned by Don Luigi of Toledo to adorn the gardens at his home in Florence. The fountain was then sold to the Senate of Palermo in 1573 because, according to accounts at the time, the noble family no longer had the money to finish it.
Its journey from Florence to Palermo hardly went swimmingly. Pieces were lost and others broken or left behind in Tuscany. Once at its destination, the fountain was installed by Camillo Camillani, son of the Tuscan sculptor who created the original sculpture.
Its assembly was by no means simple, in fact, in order to make room for it, a few houses had to be demolished. The sculpture itself now sits on an oval base surrounded by a balustrade housing smaller fountains. It also features elegant statues of mythological figures and divinities.
At the time of the Emir, this area was known as ‘eletta’ (lit. the chosen one) and it’s not hard to understand why. This district of Palermo has a magical, colourful feel to it. The neighbourhood was the first to be built outside the city walls and once contained the Emir’s fortified citadel, which supposedly had four separate entrances.
The neighbourhood developed fairly chaotically, especially during medieval times. Vegetable gardens gave way to a disorganised throng of buildings and houses. The area expanded so much that it had to be attached to the Jewish quarter, and the subsequent sharing and contamination of spaces and traditions ultimately laid the foundations for the neighbourhood’s future reputation as one of the most creative and interesting city districts. Workshops, monuments and buildings alternate seamlessly, and you’ll also detect an Arabic vibe, which is accentuated by Arab-Norman monuments and influences.
It’s also a great place to discover more about local life. You’re bound to come across men cooking and selling snails (babbaluci) in paper cones here. Flavours, smells and traditions all blend together, mixing in with the gentle rise and fall of local voices and dialects.
It really does feel like a different country, a place where time takes a moment to pause, just like the local women, who sit on doorsteps in their dressing gowns to chat to their neighbours, unaware of the passing of time. And you’ll often hear men calling out to invite people to participate in the local raffle, a neighbourhood lottery that winds through the streets of Kalsa. You could be in with a chance of winning some food, money, goods or even a scratch card or two. The heart of this particular quarter revolves around Piazza della Kalsa, but the neighbourhood criss-crosses through a number of important areas leading up to Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Sant’Agostino Church is one of the most popular attractions in Palermo’s historic centre. Its façade dates back to the 1400s and was built by the Sclafani and Chiaromonte families, whose coats of arms are displayed inside. The building is a mix of different styles from various historical eras. The central doorway has a Gothic influence and is embellished with various ornate details, ranging from arabesques to floral motifs and abstract symbols.
The church’s side door is more understated and is probably a fifteenth-century carving by Domenico Gagini. The building’s interiors consist of a single nave adorned with stuccos, busts, frescoes and paintings about San Tommaso di Villanova. The building also features two chapels dedicated to Sant’Agostino and Santa Monica, which is where you’ll find sculptures and allegorical representations of virtue. The cloister dates back to the sixteenth century and is adorned with frescoes depicting the life of Sant’Agostino.
Massimo Vittorio Emanuele Theatre
This is the largest theatre in Italy and is famous for the excellent acoustics in its great hall, which is shaped like a horseshoe. A true icon of neoclassical style, the Teatro Massimo is also famous for its majestic cupola. During its original construction at the end of the 1800s, builders ran into a number of challenges, and in order to make room for it, they had to demolish a nearby church and monastery. Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi – an opera that had previously never been performed – was chosen to inaugurate the theatre in 1897.
The contractors and architect responsible for building the theatre decided it should be carved from stone and hoped to include inserts sculpted by more than 150 craftsmen. An Art Nouveau style was chosen for its interiors, which you’ll see reflected in the furnishings. One of the best places to explore is the foyer, where you’ll spot bronze candlesticks, along with several sculptures and busts. The building has had a troubled history. In fact, it was closed for several years and left in a state of disrepair, only to be reopened to the public in 1997 with a grand concert directed by Claudio Abbado with the Berliner Philarmoniker.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in Palermo’s authentic spirit, you should visit its local markets. Here, you can breathe in amazing flavours and smells, get lost among colourful stalls and traditions and experience history. You’ll catch a real glimpse of this city’s soul among stalls selling fruit, fish and vegetables.
Capo is an incredibly vibrant and picturesque market, and it’ll definitely give you an idea of everyday life in this Sicilian city. Here, you’ll find pretty much everything, from colourful, exotic fruit and vegetables to fresh fish, butcher shops and a few local salespeople.
Goods are displayed in front of stalls and are sheltered by characteristic, colourful awnings. Smells and scents waft down the pretty streets and you’ll no doubt be won over by the local salespeople inviting you to buy their goods, with unbeatable discounts and offers. Open since the fourteenth century, Porta Carini market offers a timeless glimpse into a colourful Sicilian world. This market is famous for two reasons: its fish and its street food, and that’s not forgetting the freshly squeezed juice you can purchase from a number of stalls.
Ballarò market is the place to go if you’re looking to explore Palermo’s essence in more depth. You’ll find it in the old town, and it boasts a thousand-year history. During the Middle Ages, it was famous for its quality meat, fish and spices, all of which was sourced directly from wagon trains. These days, the market winds down several streets in a disjointed fashion, leading into Piazza del Carmine.
The practice of sticking straws into products to display prices helps paint a picture of this market’s bubbly personality and individuality. Here, you really can find just about everything and there’s definitely no shortage of street food joints selling all sorts of local delicacies. These markets essentially offer a journey through the flavours, colours and traditions of a city that embraces integration and contamination on practically every street corner. On Sundays, Ballarò also hosts a flea market selling all sorts of second-hand goods, from televisions to turntables. But remember – bargaining is an art.
Once one of the most popular markets in Palermo, it’s since suffered a slight decline, but is still famous for its fishmongers. The name vucciria actually derives from the French word boucherie, which means butchery. Once upon a time, back in the 1500s, you’d find butchers here selling numerous cuts of meat. This market’s spirit and originality lies in its salespeople, who display their goods in front of stalls in plain sight, with the help of a lamp or two to provide light and emphasise the freshness of their produce.
This is a lively area. In the evening, the streets fill with young people looking to spend the night at one of the bars, pubs or taverns that animate Palermo’s nightlife. This particular market was also the inspiration for Guttoso’s la Vucciria di Palermo painting, which is hanging in Palazzo Steri.
Nature definitely has an important part to play in Palermo and you’ll find the vast green expanse of Foro Italico on the waterfront in the Kalsa district. This particular city attraction has a long history dating back to 1582, at the behest of viceroy Marco Antonio Colonna. The original structure stood tall for over 200 years, until 1734, when the area was expanded and redeveloped in order to emphasise the natural beauty of the local area. The Foro Italico is now a real favourite place to hang out for locals.
During Bourbon rule, it was called the Foro Bornonico, before being renamed the Foro Italico in 1848. Unfortunately, the green area and promenade were destroyed during the Second World War and for years, it remained uncared for and abandoned, before being restored to its original coastal beauty from 1990 to 2000.
The gardens are now pedestrianised, and feature numerous Mediterranean plants. You can also enjoy its tree-lined avenues and benches, which are perfect for admiring the view.
The Foro Italico is an important artistic attraction thanks to sculptures by architect Italo Rota. You’ll also spot the Nautoscopio here, which is a 15-metre- lookout offering 360-degree views.
Santa Caterina Church
This is one of the most beautiful churches in Palermo. Santa Caterina d’Alessandria Church boasts some wonderful architecture. It was built in 1500 on the remains of a place of worship that existed 200 years prior and has been expanded numerous times over the years, with the addition of both a cupola and chancel.
The church features a Renaissance-style façade, while its interiors are more varied. Inside, you’ll find a single nave with three Rococo chapels embellished with frescoes, stuccos and inlays. The monastery was also home to cloistered nuns belonging to the Dominican order until 2014. Today, it is open to the public and also features a sacred art museum. Inside (in the dulceria), you can try sweet treats made using recipes written by nuns belonging to Palermo’s various monasteries.
San Giovanni from Eremiti Church
The exotic allure of the red cupolas that sit atop San Giovanni degli Eremiti church have undoubtedly captured our collective imagination in Italy. They’re one of the most important examples of Sicilian-Norman art and a real icon in Palermo. The church itself has undergone numerous transformations over the years, and you can still spot traces of its past to this day.
The building is located near the Norman Palace and was constructed according to Islamic-Byzantine canons of the time. Its parallelogramical structure represents the Earth, while its cupolas symbolise Heaven. The original building was much wider and had several rooms, such as a chapter room, dormitory and refectory, in addition to San Giovanni Church and cloister. A cemetery also featured in the original plans.
Quattro Canti Square
The city’s two main arteries, Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, meet at Quattro Canti: Palermo’s historic centre. The city is essentially divided into four large areas and between 1500 and 1600, this particular district represented its centre. Back then, Spanish viceroys were hoping to enhance their power and emphasise their presence in Palermo, so they built a number of Baroque palaces and manor houses to symbolise power and elegance and to put an end to feudal power.
Quattro Cani was the most important square at the time and was commissioned by the Spanish viceroy Vigliena, before later becoming the city centre. An elegant location, it’s a great place for meetings, gatherings, parties and processions and benefits from its unparalleled, monumental setting, which embraces a mannerist style. The piazza is also referred to as Teatro del Sole or Ottagono, and one side is always lit up.
Near Palermo: Mondello
Palermo is blessed with calm, crystal clear sea waters, so if you’re planning a city break, make sure to visit Mondello, which is a Sicilian beach par excellence. It has everything you need: picture-perfect views and numerous facilities.
Here, you can enjoy the soft, white sand, clear blue sea, tree-lined avenues and ornate villas. Add a few restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels to the mix and you’re set for a break filled with pure relaxation. The location also helps: the beach is only 10 kilometres from the centre of Palermo, and you can reach it by bus. It’s also nestled between Monte Pellegrino and Monte Gallo, which helps give it a natural feel.
Near Palermo: Cefalù
At the foot of a rocky hill, almost suspended in time and space, you’ll find the Municipality of Cefalù in the province of Palermo. This destination has become a must-visit for a growing number of tourists every year. Cefalù Cathedral, built by Ruggero II, is perhaps the main attraction, but its historical centre has maintained a somewhat austere air, with its narrow, medieval streets.
The buildings bring colour to this town, and they’re adorned with architectural decorations that you’ll spot nestled between the various churches. This seaside town has a lot to do and see between its modest houses and amazing sea views. Cefalù’s historic centre is enclosed by a picturesque city wall dating back to the fifth century. Particularly romantic – and also a good omen – is a kiss under the Porta Marina, an arch with an amazing sea view.
Visit Palermo with Costa
Palermo has long been a crossroads for different societies, which it lovingly transforms into local culture dotted through its city streets. The past also lives on in the city’s local dishes, which often feature a combination of Italian ingredients and Arabic flavours. A lively, thriving place, Palermo offers unparalleled views along its avenues and gardens, which bear witness to the city’s rich and welcoming past.
This is a seaside city filled with history, along with ancient traditions and rituals that live on in its local markets. It’s a city that you just have to experience for yourself, and it’s ready to welcome you with open arms.