Palermo: The Great Italian City of Contrasts, History and Culture

J.M. Towers

On the northwest coast of the wonderful and primeval island of Sicily, gently washed by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the ancient city of Palermo, emerges majestically. Palermo is one of the most visited cities in Europe because it is eclectic, chaotic and ancient, but at the same time it is exotic, exciting and modern.During its millenary history, Palermo has been conquered and inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, and, as a result, it has a rich cultural heritage that includes Punic, Arabs and Norman vestiges, Byzantine and Baroque churches, Spanish palaces and neoclassical theaters.As a result of its culture, art and economic activity, it was one of the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean. Now, its beautiful monuments, streets and squares make it a perfect place for a great vacation. These are the most recognized landmarks in the beautiful Sicilian city.
The CathedralPalermo
You reach the Cathedral—a mandatory stop—after a pleasant walk along Via Vittorio Emanuelle. Original and lavish, and full of Arab and Norman references, the massive building looks more like a castle or palace than a church. It is located in a comfortable and spacious square that allows visitors to admire it from different perspectives. Inside, you’ll find the royal tombs of Frederick II, Henry VI and Ruggero II.Palatine ChapelPalermo
Palermo’s oldest settlement was located in the vicinity of the Chapel. Later, a Norman Palace was built, currently the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. On the first floor of the palace, you’ll find the dazzling Palatine Chapel, decorated with stunning frescoes commissioned by King Ruggero II of Sicily. It is a perfect example of coexistence among cultures, religions and seemingly irreconcilable ideologies, and constitutes a unique work of art that amazes with its golden splendor and the immaculate perfection of its mosaics.Teatro MassimoPalermo
Built in the neoclassical style and dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, it opened its doors in 1891. Famous for its excellent acoustics, it was the setting of the debut of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff.

Piazza Pretroria

This historic square is located near the intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The piazza is surrounded by an imposing set of buildings, among which stand out the Palazzo Praetorian, site of Palermo’s town hall, and the Church of Santa Caterina. In its center, the beautiful Fontana Pretroria gets all the attention from tourists and residents alike. The fountain was designed by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani, in 1555, for the Tuscan villa of the Spanish viceroy of Naples Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Zúñiga. Later, his son sold it, and it was moved to Palermo, in 1573. The nude mythological figures featured in the sculptures have given it the colloquial name Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame). It is said that the local nuns were so shocked and indignant when they saw them for the first time, they broke the nose of each of the characters.

Via Roma

Stately old palaces, particularly the church of San Domenico and the Archaeological Museum, mark one of the main streets of historic Palermo, Via Roma. Nearby is the fashionable Via Libertá, where Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Cartier have their exclusive boutiques.

Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Built around 1140 and completely restored in 1882, San Giovanni is a refuge for the soul. It represents a bridge between the cultures that have historically inhabited Palermo. With a strong Muslim influence, countless exotic plants and palms, the church exudes an air of classic orientalism.

Gastronomy and accommodation

Sicily’s cuisine is a melting pot of cultures with a fusion of flavors in which anything is possible. Some iconic dishes represent the pure essence of Arab confectioners, who produced selected sweets like the cubbaita— a very sweet nougat made with honey, sesame seeds and almonds, and the nucatuli, derived from the Arabic word nagal (dried fruit, jam). Lovers of essences, the Arabs made sweets flavored with fruit, cinnamon and even flowers: they created a jasmine ice cream called scursunera, which is still produced, in Palermo, today. They also left a sort of still or alembic for the distillation of grappa, and in accordance with the Quran, they only used the product to disinfect wounds. The Sicilians transformed it in a spirit called Rosolio.

The Arabs were defeated by the Norman legions of Ruggero II of Altavilla in the battle of Cerami, in 1063. The Scandinavian warriors and seafarers who left magnificent cathedrals in Palermo, also brought their prized herring and dried cod.

The Spaniards left a baroque influence in the regional gastronomy. They redeveloped earlier dishes with the introduction of a basic ingredient: Spanish bread. And still today, the Hispanic heritage can be found in dishes like sweet and sour pumpkin or the scacciata, a delicious, crispy pie.

Grand Hotel Et des Palmes

Sicilian cuisine was also influenced by the French, who introduced these lands to the puff pastry roll, which the peasants filled with fried vegetables while the nobles used game meat instead.

Palermo’s best five-star hotel is the historic Grand Hotel Et des Palmes. In this illustrious establishment, Richard Wagner completed his opera Parsifal, in 1881. The French writer Raymond Roussel lived here until his death, and General Charles Poletti made it his headquarters during WWII. It is considered one of the most remarkable hotels, not only of Palermo, but also of the entire island of Sicily. 

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