Things to Do in Palermo
Palermo’s most famous piazza, the Piazza Pretoria, is just a few steps from the busy Quattro Canti - but a world away in terms of the kind of piazza experience it delivers.
The centerpiece of the Piazza Pretoria is the fountain, known as the Fontana Pretoria. It’s huge, designed in the 1550s by a sculptor from Florence named Camilliani. The fountain was originally commissioned for a private villa in Tuscany, but was gifted to the city of Palermo in 1574. City officials had razed several homes to make way for a grand fountain, meant to show off Palermo’s impressive city plumbing, but locals weren’t quite prepared for the fountain’s decorations when it was unveiled.
There are 16 figures on the Fontana Pretoria, all of which are entirely or partially nude, that circle the fountain. There is no side from which you can simply enjoy the water itself without seeing a nude statue - which many Palermitans in the late 16th century found scandalous.
Palermo’s beautiful opera house, the Teatro Massimo, is the largest opera house in the entire country. It’s an important landmark in the center of historic Palermo, and even if you don’t like opera you may be familiar with the theater’s imposing front staircase.
The Teatro Massimo was built in the late 1800s, opening in 1897 with a production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The original plan called for seating for 3,000 in the audience, but the theater seats 1,350 today. There are seven levels of theater boxes in a semi-circle around the seats on the floor, all pointed toward the stage - a design very typical of opera houses at the time. As mentioned, it’s the largest opera house in Italy - and it ranks third in size in Europe.
There are a few outdoor markets in Palermo that are worth exploring - for the atmosphere as much as any actual shopping you want to do - but the most famous is the Vucciria Market in the city’s historic center.
The Vucciria Market is located in the historic center in the streets around the Piazza San Domenico, and the stalls that line the streets are predominantly selling fish, meat, and produce. While these kinds of outdoor markets used to be where all the locals did their shopping, the rise of all-in-one grocery stores has meant that some of these markets no longer draw the crowds they used to. The Vucciria Market is as much a tourist attraction as it is working market these days, so it can be busy in the high season - although many of those people are tourists, not shoppers.
You may have heard about the various cultures that have ruled Sicily over the centuries, right? When you look at the Palermo Cathedral, you can see the evidence of each one of them in the crazy assortment of architectural styles on the building.
The Palermo Cathedral (officially called Santa Maria Assunta, and sometimes known simply as the Duomo) dates from the late 12th century, built on the site of a temple dating from Ancient Rome. As later conquerors took over from the original Norman builders, they imprinted their own styles on the still-growing building. The exterior includes examples of Norman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural elements, and they seem to be slapped on top of one another rather than incorporated as parts of a whole. In other words, the cathedral has a somewhat strange patchwork appearance that makes it look like the designers couldn’t make up their minds.
One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its food and markets. Mercato di Capo, located near the old city walls, is one of the best markets in Palermo, Italy on the island of Sicily. The stalls in this market sell a wide variety of food including local specialties, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish. The vendors selling local delicacies can be found along Via Volturno. Non-food items can also be found here, such as clothing and souvenirs. When you walk through the market, you will hear vendors yelling or chanting in their Palermo dialect as they try to sell their goods.
It is said that the sounds, smells, and sights of this market are some of the best preserved of Sicily's Arab traditions. The market dates back to the times when there was a lot of Muslim influence in this port city, and it has become an important part of the culture. Exploring and shopping at this market is the perfect way to experience Palermo with all your senses.
Some Italian piazzas are picturesque squares where locals stroll in the evenings, or watch their children play, or gossip with the neighbors. And sometimes, as is the case with Palermo’s Quattro Canti, they’re busy intersections.
Despite the fact that the Quattro Canti - also known as the Piazza Vigilena - is an intersection that’s often full of cars, it’s still one of the attractions visitors seek out in the city. This is largely because of the four buildings that sit at the four corners of the intersection - “quattro canti” means “four corners” - which are Baroque buildings dating from the early 17th century. The four buildings are almost identical, save for a few details.
Each of the four buildings is slightly curved, giving the piazza a rounded footprint, and there are statues in niches that represent the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of Palermo. Each building is connected to a different Palermo neighborhood.
One of the cultural traditions of Sicily is a type of puppet show in which marionettes are used to enact legendary tales of knights, pirates, and saints. This type of puppet show - or “Opera dei Pupi” - was even added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.
The tradition of Opera dei Pupi in Sicily became popular in the early 19th century, though some of the stories enacted by the marionettes date back to the 12th century. When these marionette shows were at their peak, there were traveling stages in Sicily that were built into donkey carts. There were often multiple backdrops of elaborately painted sets, and the marionettes themselves were all hand carved out of wood.
Today, there are still a few places you can see the Opera dei Pupi in Sicily, where they carry on the old marionette theater tradition, but the era of these theaters being family-run operations with the skills being passed from generation to generation are long gone.
The church known most commonly as “La Martorana” is an architectural example of Sicily’s changing allegiances over the centuries. The facade alone features three different architectural styles.
The Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is the official name) dates back to 1141. You can no longer see the original Norman facade, but you can still see the typical Norman red dome from the exterior. Thankfully, once you’re inside the church, the original 12th century mosaics still shine in all their Byzantine glory. These mosaics are the highlight of a visit to La Martorana, and if you want to see them at their best, go first thing in the morning.
Back outside the church, you’ll notice that over the old Norman facade there is now a Baroque facade and a Romanesque bell tower. After the church was completed in the mid-12th century, it was later given to a Benedictine nun by the name of Eloisa Martorana.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture of Palermo, Italy, the Ballaro Street Market is the place to go. As the city’s busiest street market and one of the most entertaining markets in Europe, Ballaro also provides a glimpse into Palermo’s past as a major commercial center and port. Said to be more than 1,000 years old, the market winds through the narrow medieval streets surrounding the Plaza Carmine in the Albergheria quarter of Palermo. While it is primarily a food market, it is also a great place to buy inexpensive clothing and other goods. Listen for vendors speaking a local dialect similar to Arabic and try to grab some food samples. Or, learn even more about Sicilian food by combining a walking tour of the market with a Sicilian cooking class.
The Palatine Chapel was once the private royal chapel of the Sicilian kings, located inside their royal palace. Today, it is an absolute must-see attraction for any visitor to Palermo who likes Byzantine mosaics.
The original royal chapel inside the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Palermo was built in the late 11th century. The Palatine Chapel - Cappella Palatina in Italian - was built on top of it in the early part of the 12th century, making the old chapel a crypt. Mosaic art was at its peak when the chapel was constructed, and the chapel’s interior is covered in gorgeous mosaics. Many surfaces are predominantly gold, which makes the entire chapel appear to glow.
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel date from the 1140s, just after the chapel was built, through the 1170s. The older mosaics are the best examples of Byzantine art in the chapel, although you’ll see even more mosaics of this quality if you visit the Monreale Cathedral in the hills outside Palermo.
More Things to Do in Palermo
Often called the Casa Professa, the Church of the Gesù (Chiesa del Gesù) is one of the most important Baroque churches in Sicily. Built by the Jesuits in the late 16th century on the edge of Palermo’s Jewish Quarter, the church took almost 50 years to build, with help from hundreds of artists and artisans. Inside, visitors will find colorful frescoes, intricate stone carvings and marble reliefs in a stunning setting for reflection and worship.
Many of the church’s frescoes were replaced after being destroyed in World War II, but are impressive nonetheless. Look for the paintings covering the dome’s vault, as well as those in the side chapels on the right, such as a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi and of St Paul the Hermit. Marble reliefs from the 18th century depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi both survive.
One of the most famous sights in Palermo - albeit an incredibly macabre one - is the extensive network of Catacombs under the Capuchin Monastery. These crypts hold thousands of mummified remains, some of which are spookily well-preserved.
The Capuchins began burying their own friars in the crypts underneath the monastery in the 16th century, and they soon discovered that the unique conditions in the catacombs - combined with their own burial traditions - preserved the bodies extremely well. It wasn’t long before Sicilians decided that being buried in the Capuchin Catacombs - and therefore being preserved after death - was a status symbol.
In total, there are more than 8,000 bodies interred in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, in varying states of preservation and from all walks of life. There are chambers dedicated to priests, monks, women, men, and children. Some are still encased in coffins, some are perched in standing positions on the walls.
La Zisa is yet another remnant of Moorish reign in Sicily. The Norman castle was built in the 12th century, and it’s worth a visit although the interior has long since been cleared of its original decoration.
The palace of La Zisa was originally designed as part of an extensive park that served as a royal summer retreat. The grounds were stocked with wild animals (and fenced), giving the royals something to hunt. The park, known as the Genoard, also included another Norman-era palace that still stands in Palermo, La Cuba.
There were architectural alterations made in the 14th century, and by the 16th century the building had fallen into disrepair - it was even being used to store items contaminated with the plague. In the 1970s, city officials in Palermo acquired and began to restore La Zisa, a project that took more than 20 years. Today, the palace houses a Museum of Islamic Art on the second floor.
The Palazzo Mirto in the historic Kalsa district of Palermo is one of the only aristocratic homes from the 17th century that is not only intact but also open to the public.
In the late 18th century, the Palazzo Mirto was built on what was once the foundation of a building dating from the 13th century. The palace was built for a wealthy family as their residence, which is exactly what it was until 1982. At that point, the family that lived there - the Lanza Filangieri family, princes of the nearby town of Mirto - gave the palace to the government of Sicily.
Today, the Palazzo Mirto is kept in the fashion of an 18th or 19th century aristocrat’s home. Many of the palace’s rooms are decorated with furniture and artwork that was originally owned by the Lanza Filangieri family, so in some cases these pieces have occupied the Palazzo Mirto for centuries.
Overlooking the Golden Valley (Conca d’Oro) on top of Mons Regalis, the medieval village of Monreale earns a spot on the travel map for its magnificent mosaic-filled cathedral, built by William II and completed in 1184. The grand Duomo, considered to be one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Sicily, is filled with mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament, covering some 68,889 square feet (6,400 square meters) of the interior.
Beside the cathedral is the abbey cloister, built around the same time as the church and expanded in the 1300s. This portion of the structure is best known for its 200-plus intricate double columns decorated in glass mosaic. Each column’s capital depicts a different aspect of medieval Sicily.
The contrast between impressive mountains and slate-coloured sea is the first thing that strikes visitors to this coastal town in Northern Sicily. But there’s more to this great city than spectacular views. Whether it’s a tour of Palermo’s historic centre, sampling world-famous cuisine and regional wine, or wandering shops selling hand-painted ceramics, docking in Palermo will likely be a highlight on any Mediterranean cruise.
Cruise liners berth at the Stazione Marittima, which was built in 1950. Taxis and horse drawn carriages are usually waiting at the exit of the port to take travellers around the city. The small winding streets of Palermo make it ideal for exploring on foot, but many cruise companies also offer shuttle buses to the centre of town.
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