Things to Do in Palermo
The church known most commonly as the 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 - hence the church’s nickname - in the 1190s so she could establish a convent there. The convent flourished through the 19th century, and it was under the direction of the nuns that many of the architectural changes were made. By the early 1900s, the convent was no more - Mussolini gave the church to the Greek Orthodox in Palermo in 1935.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture of Palermo, the Ballarò Market (Mercato Ballarò) is the place to go. As the city’s oldest street market and one of the most vibrant markets in Europe, Ballarò also provides a glimpse into Palermo’s past as a major commercial center and port.
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. There are two churches facing the Piazza Pretoria - Santa Caterina and San Giuseppe dei Teatini - which may have added to the perceived inappropriate nature of the fountain’s decor.
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.
The regular opera season in the Teatro Massimo excludes the summer, so if you’re visiting in the fall, winter, or early spring you can check with the box office to find out what’s playing and whether there are any seats available. In the summer, there are sometimes smaller orchestral or ballet performances in the Teatro della Verdura in Palermo instead of the Teatro Massimo. Palermo’s grand opera house is open for tours year-round, however. Inquire at the box office inside the main doors.
One of the most famous sights in Palermo—albeit a rather macabre one—is the extensive network of catacombs under the city’s historic Capuchin Monastery. The subterranean Capuchin Catacombs (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) are home to thousands of mummified remains in varying states of preservation dating from the 16th to 20th centuries.
While Palermo has a number of bustling outdoor markets worth exploring for the lively atmosphere, the most famous is Vucciria Market, known locally as La Vucciria. Located in the historic center around Piazza San Domenico, the stalls predominantly sell fish, meat, and produce—but you can find a little of everything here.
Over the centuries, Sicily was ruled by successive waves of conquerors, each one leaving their mark on the island’s architecture, culture, and cuisine. A perfect example of this blend of cultures is the Palermo Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo), a fascinating patchwork of Norman, Arabic, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical architectural styles.
The mosaic-filled Monreale Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale) is both one of Italy’s most impressive masterpieces of medieval architecture and one of Sicily’s finest examples of Norman design. The triumph of Norman, Arab, Byzantine and classical elements was built by William II in 1184, and continues to dazzle visitors almost 1,000 years later.
Often called the Casa Professa, the Church of the Gesù (Chiesa del Gesù) is one of the most important Baroque churches in Sicily with a deeply intricate and ornate interior. Highlights include colorful frescoes, intricate stone carvings, and 18th-century marble reliefs depicting the Adoration of the Magi, all hidden away behind an unassuming facade.
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 Four Corners (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, and the patron saint on that building is the patron of that neighborhood.
More Things to Do in Palermo
Take a deep and delicious dive into Palermo’s culture and cuisine with a visit to Capo Market (Mercato di Capo), thick with stalls selling a wide variety of local produce, fresh fish, and other specialties.The atmosphere of this bustling market is testimony to the strong Arab influence in the port city, one of the hallmarks of its unique history.
The Palatine Chapel inside Palermo’s Royal Palace—once the private chapel of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily—is one of the most breathtaking and important attractions in the city. The chapel seems to glow in a golden light, reflected by the ornate mosaics that cover its interior and are considered among the best in Italy.
Zisa Castle (Castello della 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 most impressive room is called the “Fountain Room,” a two-storey chamber into which you enter from the main doors, which contains some of its original Moorish decorations.
The imposing Politeama Garibaldi Theater overlooks Palermo’s Piazza Ruggero Settimo with its triumphal arch entrance. It was built in the late 19th century, and today is home to the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana.
The word “politeama” comes from Greek and refers to the theater being built for multiple purposes, since Palermo already had a grand opera house in the Teatro Massimo. It’s primarily known for the Orchestra, however, and looks every bit inside like the classic Italian theater it is.
The theater itself is all red velvet and gold, with two levels of theater boxes lining the semi-circular main seating area. Two rows of columns ring the outside of the circular building, meeting at the triumphal arch at the entrance. Even the theater’s curtain at the front of the stage is a work of art, depicting a scene from Greek mythology painted in 1891.
Some Palermo tours include visits inside the Politeama Garibaldi Theater, and hop-on hop-off bus tours through the city stop nearby if you want to visit on your own.
One of the cultural traditions of Sicily is a type of puppet show in which rod 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 Mirto Palace House Museum (Palazzo Mirto Casa Museo) 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.
The imposing Chiaramonte-Steri Palace (Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri) sits at one side of the Piazza Marina, today home to the administrative offices of the University of Palermo, was once a fortified private home.
The palace was built in 1307 as the private home of the Chiaramonte family. The most notable interior decorations, however, were added later in the 14th century. In particular, the Grand Hall has a huge painted wooden ceiling. The scenes captured by artists include some Biblical stories, some from mythology, and others.
After the palace was no longer a private home, it was used as a prison by the Spanish Inquisition (there are small cells with anguished graffiti on the walls), and later as Palermo’s courthouse. Today, part of the palace is where the city’s university is headquartered, though much of the building is also a popular attraction for visitors.
The dramatic mountain peaks towering over Palermo along the northwestern coast of Sicily are the first thing that strikes visitors arriving at the city’s Palermo Cruise Port (Terminal Crociere di Palermo)—but there’s more to this destination than spectacular views. Famous for its cuisine, ceramics, and architecture, historic and happening Palermo is a highlight of any Mediterranean cruise.
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.
Having reopened in 2012, the 16th-century Branciforte Palace (Palazzo Branciforte) underwent a dramatic makeover courtesy of Italian architect and designer Gae Aulenti. Transformed from a lavish historic residence into a cultural center and museum of art and history, the palace is equally renowned for its impressively restored architecture as it is for its fascinating exhibitions.
Visitors can admire the vast archaeological collection, which includes exquisite frescoes, ancient coins, fine sculptures, and majolica ceramics; browse the a huge historical library, home to over 40,000 books; attend a cooking class at the Gambero Rosso cooking school; or marvel at the beautifully preserved wooden architecture of the Monte di Santa Rosalia, where temporary art exhibitions are held.
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