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What to see in Palermo

A local guide for those who want to visit Palermo, best places to see and top attractions.

Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily, is one of those cities with a very distinct, almost tangible atmosphere, a place of mystery, where reality often outperforms the traveller’s imagination and preconceived stereotypes. It is a buzzing Mediterranean centre whose 1 million inhabitants are a fascinating cocktail of apparently conflicting characteristics.

Palermo’s history has been anything but stable, and the city has passed from one dominating power to another with remarkable frequency. Its strategic position at the heart of the Mediterranean brought wave upon wave of invaders, including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French, the Aragonese and the Bourbons just to name the most influential. The result of this quilted history is evident today in the vast range of architectural styles, the intriguing fusion of ingredients used in many local dishes, and in the many place names whose etymology bypasses Italian linguistic traditions.

In a world where so many places have become tourist-friendly to a fault, visiting Palermo is still somewhat of an adventure. You won’t find many restaurants with menus translated into five different languages, you may have trouble communicating in English in many places, and some parts of the old town centre have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war.

Top Attractions

Cappella Palatina

Designed by Roger II in 1130, this extraordinary chapel is Palermo's top tourist attraction. Located on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling, the latter a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. Note that queues are likely, and you'll be refused entry if you're wearing shorts, a short skirt or a low-cut top.

Palazzo dei Normanni

Home to Sicily's regional parliament, this venerable palace dates back to the 9th century. However, it owes its current look (and name) to a major Norman makeover, during which spectacular mosaics were added to its royal apartments and magnificent chapel, the Cappella Palatina. Visits to the apartments, which are off-limits from Tuesday to Thursday, take in the mosaic-lined Sala dei Venti and King Roger's 12th-century bedroom, Sala di Ruggero II.

Cattedrale di Palermo

A feast of geometric patterns, ziggurat crenellations, maiolica cupolas and blind arches, Palermo's cathedral has suffered aesthetically from multiple reworkings over the centuries, but remains a prime example of Sicily's unique Arab-Norman architectural style. The interior, while impressive in scale, is essentially a marble shell whose most interesting features are the royal Norman tombs (to the left as you enter), the treasury (home to Constance of Aragon's gem-encrusted 13th-century crown) and the panoramic views from the roof.

Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria

Built as a hospice in the early 14th century and transformed into a Dominican convent the following century, this monastic complex wows with its magnificent maiolica cloister, surrounded by unique balconied cells and punctuated by an 18th-century fountain by Sicilian sculptor Ignazio Marabitti. The convent's rooftop terraces offer spectacular views of the surrounding piazzas and city, while the church's baroque interior harbours works by prolific artists, among them Filippo Randazzo, Vito D'Anna and Antonello Gagini.

Galleria Regionale della Sicilia

Housed in the stately 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis, this art museum – widely regarded as Palermo's best – showcases works by Sicilian artists dating from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. One of its greatest treasures is Trionfo della morte (Triumph of Death), a magnificent fresco (artist unknown) in which Death is represented as a demonic skeleton mounted on a wasted horse, brandishing a wicked-looking scythe while leaping over his hapless victims.

Teatro Massimo

Taking over 20 years to complete, Palermo's neoclassical opera house is the largest in Italy and the second-largest in Europe. The closing scene of The Godfather: Part III, with its visually arresting juxtaposition of high culture, crime, drama and death, was filmed here and the building's richly decorated interiors are nothing short of spectacular. Guided 30-minute tours are offered throughout the day in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German.

Mercato di Ballarò

Snaking for several city blocks southeast of Palazzo dei Normanni is Palermo's busiest street market, which throbs with activity well into the early evening. It's a fascinating mix of noises, smells and street life, and the cheapest place for everything from Chinese padded bras to fresh produce, fish, meat, olives and cheese – smile nicely for un assaggio (a taste).

Museo dell'Inquisizione

Housed in the lower floors and basements of 14th-century Palazzo Chiaromonte Steri, this fascinating museum explores the legacy of the Inquisition in Palermo. Thousands of 'heretics' were detained here between 1601 and 1782; the honeycomb of former cells has been painstakingly restored to reveal multiple layers of their graffiti and artwork (religious and otherwise). Visits are by one-hour guided tour only, conducted in English and Italian and departing roughly every 40 to 60 minutes from the ticket desk.

La Martorana

On the southern side of Piazza Bellini, this luminously beautiful 12th-century church was endowed by King Roger's Syrian emir, George of Antioch, and was originally planned as a mosque. Delicate Fatimid pillars support a domed cupola depicting Christ enthroned amid his archangels. The interior is best appreciated in the morning, when sunlight illuminates the magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

Museo Internazionale delle Marionette

This whimsical museum houses around 4000 marionettes, puppets, glove puppets and shadow figures from Sicily and Naples, as well as from further-flung places such as Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. The museum's beautifully decorated traditional theatre – complete with hand-cranked music machine – stages puppet shows (adult/child €10/5) most afternoons in the summer and on Friday afternoons during the rest of the year.

Piazza Bellini

The disparate architectural styles and eras of the buildings adorning this magnificent piazza should by rights be visually discordant, but in fact contribute to a wonderfully harmonious public space. The piazza's eastern edge is adorned by the delightful Teatro Bellini (Bellini Theatre).

Fontana Pretoria

Fringed by imposing churches and buildings, Piazza Pretoria is dominated by the over-the-top Fontana Pretoria, one of Palermo's major landmarks. The fountain's tiered basins ripple out in concentric circles, crowded with nude nymphs, tritons and leaping river gods. Such flagrant nudity proved a bit much for Sicilian churchgoers, who prudishly dubbed it the Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame).

Orto Botanico

Laid out by Léon Dufourny and Venanzio Marvuglia, this raffish, subtropical paradise shelters massive fig trees, tall palms and dazzling hibiscus bushes, an avenue of bizarre-looking bottle and soap trees, as well as coffee trees, papaya plants and sycamores. It's a soothing haven of silence and fascinating botany, with shaded pathways and a large herb garden focused on Mediterranean plants.

Catacombe dei Cappuccini

These catacombs house the mummified bodies and skeletons of some 8000 Palermitans who died between the 17th and 19th centuries. Earthly power, gender, religion and professional status are still rigidly distinguished, with men and women occupying separate corridors, and a first-class section set aside for virgins. From Piazza Indipendenza, it's a 1.2km walk west along Via Cappuccini.

Mercato della Vucciria

The underwhelming market here was once a notorious den of Mafia activity. It's a much more muted affair these days, outshone by its much more spirited rivals, the Ballarò and Capo markets.


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