To write a comprehensive guidebook of Palermo is as unrealistic as it can be, let alone to think of creating an itinerary with obligatory routes and necessary stops. The capital of Sicily is a city full of corners, glimpses and little secrets that must be found by walking the length and breadth of its streets with senses open, ready to take in the sights, sounds and smells (thanks to an abundance of amazing street food). This cultural melting pot of a city–influenced by the Arabs, Normans, Spanish and other colonizers over the centuries–is a city of abundance: many people, much to do, much to see, many stories to hear and an overwhelming feeling of being part of an important part of Italian history.
This list is not an exhaustive one of everything to see and do in Palermo, but 16 cherry picked places for your first-of-many-more visits to the city of Panormus.
Palermo Cathedral – Climbing to the top of the Palermo Cathedral–whose construction started in 1185–is absolutely necessary to enjoy a special view of Palermo, which I often call “the city of rooftops and terraces”. From the exterior, you would expect an equally sumptuous interior, but legend has it that, in an elegant gentleman’s agreement between Palermo and Monreale, the Monreale Cathedral and the Palermo Cathedral came to the agreement to develop the interior of the former and the facade of the latter: to each their share of fame! (Not far from the cathedral, on Via dei Biscottari, there is a little bistrot garden for afternoon breaks with a lovely hammock. Called Al Fresco, the project involves the young minds and hands of the Malaspina youth prison.)
Palazzo dei Normanni – The apartments of this dreamy royal palace are so well-kept, you might expect to find the royals just out of bed! Don’t forget the palace’s Palatine Chapel, covered in one of the best representations of patience ever: entire walls covered in golden mosaics telling you the most wonderful stories of a city where palm trees and exotic animals were evidence of its cultural richness.
La Zisa – Built in 1165, La Zisa got its name from the Arabic Al-Aziza (“the splendid”) and stands in the middle of the Norman royal park Genoardo (from the Arabic Jannat al-arḍ, “paradise of the earth”). Formerly a summer residence for the kings, the symmetrical palace is unique for its union of Norman art and architecture and Arab decoration.
Villino Florio – The eclectic villa, designed by famous architect Ernesto Basile and commissioned by the prominent Florio family at the turn of the 20th century, is the perfect example of “integral design”: a synthesis of medieval elements, modern lines, refined floral carvings, baroque surfaces, Nordic trusses, turrets that refer to French castles, Romanesque columns and Renaissance ashlar.
Palazzo Abatellis – Palazzo Abatellis is a wonderful treasure chest that contains Antonello’s Annunciata by Venditti and the Triumph of Death. (Nearby, you can shop for legumes at one of the oldest dried fruit stores in the city: the bottega Fratelli Battaglia Salvatore e Giuseppe Snc sells everything in bulk, and a small bag of roasted chickpeas will be your faithful companion on your walk–although, realistically, they only last a few meters.)
Piazza Quattro Canti divides the city into four neighborhoods, represented by just as many places of exchange and rivers: Papireto, Pannaria, Kemonia and Oreto. The square itself–nicknamed “the sun’s theater”–is ringed by four buildings, each with a statue representing the corresponding district and its patron saint. Today, there are three active markets in Palermo, although there used to be four–one for each neighborhood.
Capo and Ballarò Markets – The Capo Market is definitely the most frequented by the inhabitants for purchases of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, bread and spices along with the Ballarò Market. Vendors will shout and make insistent attempts to sell you fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice in summer and orange juice in winter (remember that the seasonality of this citrus fruit is a serious matter in Sicily and there are so many varieties: May to October is the only period during which you won’t find one in season!). Stop for some boiled octopus or a panelle sandwich (a soft bread loaf covered in giuggiulena, sesame seeds, filled with thin, fried, crispy chickpea pancake)–they keep the spirits high and the heart happy! (At the Capo, when you struggling to find your path through huge amounts of peaches and melloni–it’s not a typo, that’s what watermelon is called here–stop to visit the Church of the Immaculate Conception.)
Vucciria Market – Also worth a stop is the Vucciria, now a market more meager than the others in the sale of fruits and vegetables, but a buzzing meeting point and transit intersection. To experience the energy of the spot, pass by in the evening and sit at Taverna Azzurra: this traditional spot is where most Palermitani go for la staffa–the last drink before heading home!
Villa Filippina Market – If you happen to be in Palermo on a weekend, check out the Saturday morning market at Villa Filippina with various producers from nearby: there you will find a tropical fruit producer who makes a papaya compote that on warm Castelvetrano bread and strictly sheep’s milk ricotta makes an incredible snack.
Piazza Marina Market – And if you still haven’t had enough, on Sunday, Piazza Marina hosts an antiques market that takes time and patience but will give great satisfaction to vintage enthusiasts. Take a break from hunting and go to Baldo’s for a coffee: don’t expect to find food because he doesn’t have any nor has he ever put up a sign. Ask around and you’ll be told the way to find him!
In the past, the wealth of families in Palermo was defined by the quantity and variety of plants from the old and new worlds that made the green space of every large palace a small botanical garden.
Villa Malfitano – Get lost in the gardens and you will discover beautiful plants, including mango trees! If you’re looking for an adventure, search for the dog cemetery; you will not regret following the macabre curiosity that you may have felt when reading these words.
Botanical Gardens – The one in Palermo is certainly a stop of rare beauty. In addition to finding a reprieve on hot summer days (and a few mosquitoes, but that’s the price you pay), there are plenty of succulents, water lilies, ancient trees, greenhouses with coffee trees and benches ready to welcome you and your book. If you get thirsty at some point, Talea, the café in the middle of the greenery, makes a refreshing mint and lemon water that will be able to give you temporary comfort.
Parc d’Orleans – The Parc d’Orleans was built in 1797 as a botanical experimentation site by Ferdinando IV di Borbone. It later became a private residence of the royals: there are still tales of a lavish wedding, attended by various monarchs, held behind the doors of this mansion in the 1930s. The collection of plants and animals has grown over the years and today it is the only ornithological park of Italy. Plus the space is completely public!
The funny story about this park–nicknamed the zoo of Palermo–is that it used to be forbidden for couples to visit for fear that it would become a place for lewd acts. Lovers got around the problem by bringing along younger siblings or borrowed children. Now this rule no longer exists, so rest assured you can enter holding hands with your sweetheart.
La Cappella Palatina, Palazzo dei Normanni
ARTISTS AND ARTISANS
Kemonia Puppet Theater – From the zoo, you can walk over one of Palermo’s covered rivers on Via Porta di Castro and come across the wonderful Kemonia Puppet Theater, one of the greatest examples of craftsmanship in Palermo. The almost hundred-year-old shop puts on shows with handmade marionette puppets who perform dances, speeches and songs: check online for the latest performances.
Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi – Another great exponent of Palermo’s arts was Giacomo Serpotta, who left great plaster works in the city between the mid-1600s and beginning of the 1700s. Named the “Magister Stuccator” of Europe, he was able to tell stories of incredible detail on church walls and buildings and was called by many royals to decorate their homes (also because plaster was a cheaper decoration than marble). Go find some of his works at Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi!
Edizioni Precarie – If you’re a notebook or stationary lover, don’t forget to drop by Edizioni Precarie, opened in 2013 by Carmela Dacchille. Dacchille’s shop and design project aims to recover artisan tradition and local stories: Letter Food Paper tells the story of the historic markets of Palermo by using the meat, fruit and cheese wrapping papers as writing paper–ideal for wrapping thoughts, ideas, drawings and preserving their freshness!