Today Palermo still contains architectural finds of rare beauty, a tangible sign of the importance that the city has taken over the centuries. For those who are going to visit Palermo, a few days can be just enough to admire it in all its charm.
The city extends around the four corners formed by the intersection of two main arteries: Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, both dating from the sixteenth century. The four quadrants resulting from the intersection of the two roads and made in Baroque style, are decorated with statues depicting The Kings of Sicily, The Seasons and The patron saints of the city. Around the four corners there are four different medieval quarters: L’ Albergheria ( the Lodge), Il Capo (the Head), the Kalsa and the La Loggia. It’s in this area that you can admire the main monuments of the city. But the attractions of Palermo are not limited only to its historic interior: on the outskirts of the modern city, the Parco della Favorita, the Monastery of the Capuchins, the beach of Mondello and Mount Pellegrino certainly deserve the attention of tourists.
St. John of the Hermits is a former church built under Roger II in 1136, in the district dell’Alberghiera, on the remains of an earlier Arabic building, probably a mosque.
Its cubic forms and the five red domes are strong references to the art of the Middle East, making the mixture of architectural styles a fairly seen site in Palermo. Its interior with a single aisle is intriguing in its simplicity. Of particular attraction is the attached outer cloister, in the past an integral part of the convent which stood before the construction of the church.
Pretoria Square, on Via Maqueda, a few meters from Piazza Vigliena (better known as the four corners), was built at the end of the sixteenth century. Impressive and beautiful is the central fountain: once owned by a Spanish Viceroy, which was later sold to the city.
The marble sculptures and the numerous tanks, fill almost the entire space of the square: the scenic effect is of undoubted beauty.
The Sclafani Palace, now the seat of military corps, is the largest of Palermo. Built by Matteo Sclafani in 1330, as opposed to the Palazzo Chiaramonte erected by his brother in law, which was used as a hospital under the Spaniards
The Palace is massive in size and shape: the square structure has within it a large central atrium. This is beautifully adorned with frescoes, including the most famous, the Triumph of Death, today at the Regional Gallery of Sicily.
Palazzo Chiaramonte, is also known as Steri, a term deriving from the Latin word hosterium, in reference to a fortified building.
Built in the fourteenth century by one of the most powerful families in Sicily, the Chiaramonte, was chosen by the Spanish Viceroys as a residential home in Palermo, becoming in 1600, the Inquisition Court. The very characteristic style is mainly Gothic, but it incorporates elements from different styles, Arab and Norman. Spread over several floors, it maintains a rigid structure, rectangular in shape with a central atrium on the ground floor.
The windows that overlook the walls are tastefully decorated with marble and lava material. Thanks to restoration works, you can visit part of the Palace, including the ancient prisons. Today it houses the Rector of the University of Palermo.
The Chinese Mansion, located within the Parco della Favorita, is among the most original works of all Palermo. Commissioned in the eighteenth century by Ferdinand III of Bourbon, it was also inhabited by Admiral Nelson in the company of his mistress, Lady Hamilton. The disparate and present styles constitute a revival of Chinese motifs in neoclassical terms. Inside are displayed collections of prints and Oriental silks, as well as a series of paintings of the eighteenth century.
The Church of the Martorana is another great example of Arab-Norman style of medieval Palermo. Built by George of Antioch, Admiral of Roger II, which owes its name to Eloisa Martorana, a Benedictine nun who founded the convent to which the Spaniards gave the church.
The bell tower, structure of the twelfth century, provides access to the splendid interior: the polychrome mosaics presented both on the walls and columns give a festive effect to the whole environmen
The Church of the Magione, located in the Kalsa district, was realized in a sober Arab-Norman style. Built in 1151, it was later donated to the Teutonic Order by Henry VI: the Teutonic Knights are still present on the tombstones.
The structure with three aisles is mighty while the nakedness of the walls gives it a solemn majesty. Inside, of considerable interest, is a preparatory sketch for the fresco of the Crucifixion, the only example of its kind in Sicily.
The Capuchin Monastery, located in the homonymous square, was built in the seventeenth century. The church, in the early part of the twentieth century, has undergone restoration works and enlargement. Inside there are many valuable works of wood, including the crucifix and the altar. However, the Convent has become famous for its Catacombs.
Tradition demanded that the bodies of the dead, especially of the upper classes, were kept there for an unspecified period of time. Today there are about 8,000 skeletons, mummies and embalmed corpses: the show that presents itself is certainly macabre but no doubt attractive and interesting for the knowledge of the conservation practices of the deceased.
The Church of San Cataldo is severe in its structure and quite simple and harmonic inside: the original floor of the twelfth century is the only decorative element. Today it is home of the Equestrian Order of the Knight of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
The Church of Santa Maria del Gesù, dating from the fifteenth century, is situated in a cemetery on Mount Gryphon. Beautiful is the marble entrance; also remarkable are the frescoes and the sarcophagi inside. Joined to it, is the Chapel-La Grua Talamanca, in the Gothic style of 1400.
The Church of the Holy Spirit or of Vespers is located in the cemetery of St. Ursula. Built by order of the Archbishop Gualtiero Offamilio in 1178, it remains a symbol of pride for the Palermitani: here, in 1282 the population rose up against the Angevins, giving de facto strength to the Sicilian Vespers. Its structure with three aisles and the simplicity of the walls make the building very impressive in the eyes of the visitor.
The Church of St. John of the Lepers was used as a hospital only a few years after its completion. Commissioned by Roger I in 1071, its construction lasted almost a century. Probably built by Moorish craftsmen, it stands at the center of a palm grove. Its structure has three aisles.
The Church of Santa Teresa, built in the late seventeenth century in the Kalsa district, is one of the finest examples of the baroque architecture in Palermo. The structure with a single aisle is large and bright. The central altar and a side entrance originate from a demolished church.
The Zisa is an original Norman structure (XII century) built by the will of William I, who wanted a summer residence. Situated at the center of the square with the same name, it owes its name to the Arabic aziz, splendid.
The quadrangular structure, straight lines and the solemnity that the building inspires, are typical of the Norman style. Inside, the Hall of the Fountain still has some nice hive–style decorations (muqarnas) as well as mosaics depicting hunting scenes. The upper floor was reserved for the Sovereign Apartments.
In the past the area was surrounded by a large park crossed by a small stream (Genoardo Park), while recently the remains of an ancient spa have been brought to light. Today you can see tools and objects of Islamic manufacturing, exposed inside the building.
The Cuba was placed as La Zisa inside the Royal Park of Genoardo. It’s also a tall, rectangular building, but it has suffered severe damage during the centuries and was heavily restored in the early years of the twentieth century.
Its original function was to entertain the royal families that were home to escape the harsh summer heat of the city. The Cubola, however, is a smaller building with a red dome at its peak, typically Arabic.
The Neighborhoods of the Historic Center in Palermo
The Albergheria is the district that stretches between Corso King Roger and Via Maqueda, bordered on the north by Via Vittorio Emanuele. It was probably one of the first inhabited areas of Palermo, thanks to the work of the Phoenicians, who settled here from the eighth century BC. The area was later fortified and became one of the city’s most coveted areas by the rulers that followed through the centuries for the government of Palermo.
Along the main roads are sumptuous palaces that coexist with small streets in the center of the district. The most famous market is Ballarò, where every day you can buy every possible type of food and where freshly caught fish (if not still alive) is the most sought after by the market goers. In the southwestern part of the district is the famous church of St. John of the Hermits, to the north the Cathedral stands out. Also the Norman Palace, which today houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly, is located within the district. To highlight also, the presence of numerous palaces of nobility, including the Palazzo Sclafani, the largest of Palermo, built in 1330 (in one year only, according to the legend). Finally, it is worth mentioning the panoramic tower of St. Nicholas, built in the past as a guard outpost but then annexed to the homonymous church.
The Kalsa (whose name derives from the Arabic al-halisah, the chosen one) is the district between Via Roma and the Foro Italico, closed to the south by Lincoln Street, its construction, around the tenth century, was done to build a fortress by the Arabs: with four doors and in the shape of a square, it was the residence of the Emir in an area of town close to the sea but at the time still not very urbanized. Today its urban formation reflects the changes made in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, in addition to the damages suffered in the Second World War. The district houses the Regional Gallery of Sicily, which contains important sculptural works, paintings and archaeological finds from different periods.
The Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, with a single aisle and Baroque works and inside the Church of Santa Teresa, in addition to the Church of the Magione and St. Francis of Assisi, are among the buildings of major interest within the Kalsa .
Near the Kalsa, in the south, going through via Porta dei Greci, there are the Botanical Gardens and the beautiful Villa Giulia. To the north of the district, inside Piazza Marina, lies the tropical garden Garibaldi. Nearby, we can see Palazzo Chiaramonte, the second largest palace in Palermo. Since it became the seat of the Rector of the University, it is hardly open to the p
The Capo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Palermo. It opens immediately after the Cathedral in a series of dense, little streets and houses close to each other, with classic agglomeration in the Arabic style. In medieval times it was predominantly inhabited by Muslim merchants and mercenaries, as to be called “The district Schiavioni.”
Porta Carini, once the entrance to the medieval city, opens onto Via Porta Carini, where you usually find a large market which has its central hub in the Piazza del Capo, which extends until reaching Via Maqueda, it certainly deserves the attention of tourists. Also in this area, the thirteenth-century Church of St. Augustine, built at the request of two noble families of the time, Chiaramonte and Sclafani.
Via Sant’Agostino, which originates from Piazza del Capo, was in the past the central artery of the old Islamic quarter of Seralcadi. The Church of the Immaculate Conception cannot go unnoticed: it encloses beautiful stuccos, marbles and frescoes of rare workmanship.
The Museums in Palermo
The Regional Archeological Museum of Palermo
The Regional Archeological Museum of A. Salinas contains one of the most important archaeological collections in Italy. Seriously damaged during the Second World War, it stands today in Via Bara all’Olivella.
The numerous exhibits document the various eras in which the populations have settled in the area, from the Stone Age to Roman finds. On the first floor the exhibits are located in both the small and large cloisters and in the adjacent rooms. The findings come mainly from the excavations of Tindarys, Himera and Agrigento, while the large hall contains important remains unearthed in Selinunte.
The first floor is organized into Galleries: There are several types of artifacts found mainly in the western part of Sicily. Among them however two different bronze sculptures deserve being mentioned: Hercules killing a deer and The Aries. Finally, the third floor contains a large and well-assorted collection of tools dating back to antiquity, as well as mosaics, frescoes, and terracotta artifacts.
The Regional Gallery of Sicily
The Regional Gallery of Sicily is housed in the Palazzo Abatellis, in Via Alloro, right in the heart of the Kalsa. The beauty of the exhibits makes it one of the first in Italy, for beauty and quantity of finds. Among the most beautiful paintings, stands the famous Annunziata by Antonello da Messina.
Most famous is the Triumph of Death, work of unknown authors of the 1400. Among the sculptures instead, the bust of Eleonora of Aragon is one of the most significant works of the Renaissance present in the Gallery.
The Ethnographic Museum Pitre’
The Ethnographic Museum Pitre’ is one of the most interesting examples of its kind in Europe.
Its foundation is due precisely to Giuseppe Pitre in 1909: scholar of folklore and etymology, he decided to give life to the museum on the premises of the Chinese Mansion, where even today the Museum is located. It is certain that a lot of curiosity will flow from the visitors: the existing tools are characteristic of the Sicilian traditions, very tied up with superstitions and hearsay. In fact there are several objects to ward off the evil eye or bad luck, but there are also original objects of daily use.
Huge is the section dedicated to crafts. Of particular interest is also the area dedicated to the local clothing: clothes, cloths and linens of exquisite workmanship are on exhibit. Finally, symbols that in time have become icons of the Sicilian tradition as werll as also abroad could not be missed: such as the Sicilian cart and the Puppet Theatre.
The botanical garden of Palermo
The botanical garden of Palermo is an area of approximately 10 hectares, which extends around a central building, the Gymnasium, built in 1785.
There are numerous floral examples that have their own secular life. Some succulents have achieved considerable measures, so as to become rarities of their kind. Of particular beauty is the square which opens to an expanse of water, where there are several water lilies and papyrus and more at a distance interesting bamboo plants.
Mighty are some specimens of ficus, the root of which can cover an area of over 100 square meters. We distinguish areas where tropical plants are grown (exotic fruit, banana, and cotton) from areas where there are numerous examples of textile plants, and more areas densely populated with food crops (papaya and coffee). Because of its size and the rarity of some species, the botanical garden-of Palermo is widely regarded as among the most important in Europe.
The Theaters in Palermo
The Politeama Garibaldi Theater is the most famous of Palermo. Located in the most central Piazza Ruggero Settimo, it was built in the second half of the nineteenth century in neoclassical style. Its circular structure dominates the entrance with a large arch. Above it the famous bronze sculpture depicting a chariot with rampant horses. On the top floor is now housed the Civic Gallery of Modern Art Empedocles Restivo.
Only in… Palermo
Historical Background of Palermo
Palermo by Night
The nightlife in Palermo has nothing to envy to other Mediterranean cities. In the winter, the sizzling nightlife in Palermo is further enriched by the many university students who move to the capital to study. The premises are for all tastes: from the quieter and more discreet pubs, to places where the evenings are organized with live music and theme parties.
Via Calendai, close to Quattro Canti, is the usual meeting place of young people for a drink and to make new friends. For disco lovers instead, the supply is just as varied: it is not difficult to find places that organize evenings in which people can get loose on the dance floor, virtually every night of the week, both in town and in some localities in the region.
During the summer however, the fun moves to the sea, from Mondello to the Island of the Females, where beach parties last until dawn, with music, drink and lots of light-heartedness.