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What you may have missed in Palermo, Sicily.

Updated on August 15, 2020

This article is sort of personal for someone who has tracked their relatives all the way back to Palermo. In fact, the tracking process even went as far as the house that the relatives lived in. This is not important though unless you too also have a personal connection to Italy in general. Having been to Palermo it is a lively city in general. For Southern Italians is a vital place for trading and the maritime industry in Italy. Sicily though is not what many visitors to Italy view, they instead prefer to spend loads of money on perfumes and diamonds in Milan, take selfies at the Vatican and Spanish Steps in Rome, or go to see the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Do not take this the wrong way these are some of Italy’s finest jewels in addition to its food, which is why anyone should travel there in the first place. Sicily provides many gems that the mainland cannot provide which we will go over. We will look at the history behind the capital city, potential food options, things to see and do, and provide some things that even tourists miss when traveling to Palermo.

Palermo, History and Background

Palermo, History and Background

Looking into taking your vacation in a different direction or have you visited Palermo and are looking to go back. Well then I can promise this is the article that you will need as a companion. Sicily itself, especially in the South, provides much to any tourist as it has a rich history that if you are Catholic you cannot afford to miss. However, in that history, Italy’s little island just south is never really mentioned. Sicily is provided fame as the birthplace of the Italian organized crime and not given any further examination. So, with that being said, let us begin.

Palermo is located in North-Western Sicily, right on the coast which makes it a great summer destination despite intense heat. It is currently considered the capital of Sicily. Like many places in Europe, the history of Sicily starts well before Jesus Christ. The Phoenicians who emigrated in the Mediterranean Sea towards areas of Greece, Malta, Italy, and elsewhere began populating the island in the early 700’s BC. Palermo specifically was founded in 734 BC but not long afterwards was conquered by Carthage, a notable enemy of the Roman Empire. Palermo was the site of several battles during the conflicts with the Roman Empire which in history are known as the Punic Wars. Following the Punic Wars, the island was claimed by Rome. It remained this way until the 800s AD when it was conquered by an Arab Caliphate. After another 300 years, the Holy Roman Empire took the country and was identified as the Kingdom of Sicily, it's own entity until it was reclaimed by Sicily in the 19th century.

Palermo is currently the fifth most populated city in all of Italy with just over 1.2 million people. Like many large cities in the world Palermo impacted by having separate languages spoken in its streets. Italian is common of course but a variation of Italian is spoken as well which many Italians cannot speak outside of Sicily. Sicilian has similar phrases to Italian but is not spoken at all on the mainland. Palermo has tried to shift this dialect issue as Palermo is becoming a more popular tourist destination and some see it as becoming one of the premier tourist cities in the Mediterranean.

Palermo is a great tourist attraction for a beach vacation and this is due to the fact that it can become very hot and humid in its summer months. During its summer months its temperatures have gotten as high as 113 Degrees Fahrenheit (45.2 Celsius). This may not be as hot as where you may come from of course but as someone who ventured there in the summer months it can be daunting. Even for a beach vacation the waters can become as warm as the Gulf of Mexico ranging between 60 and 70 Degrees Fahrenheit. It is ideal if you live in warm waters where you are located but if not be prepared for this.

Landmarks

Palermo is filled with many areas to see but we will try to break them down as best as we can. Initially, the Palazzo dei Normanni is a great place to visit if you get a chance. It has notable architecture that is very similar ot that of a Southern England Villa. Many buildings in Palermo have this Norman architecture that makes them unique considering that many other structures are built from a Roman and Catholic Church type of architecture. Sicily though was conquered so many different times that it developed various cultural themes and specifically in Palermo much of the architecture is Norman. Another beautiful Palazzo to visit is the Palazzina Cinese, meaning Chinese palace in Sicilian. It is everything that you would think it is upon seeing it. From the outside it appears to be a mountain resort of sorts with a very Great Wall of China appearance but inside it is more decorative with walls painted like that of an actual Chinese Palace. It was built in 1799 like many kings of the period the owner King Ferdinand III wanted it to have more of a Far East feel. He had only read of places like China but many of his subjects had traveled thus far and brought back drawings and designs that he would incorporate into the Palce. Furthermore, a great place to examine history is the Regional Archeological Museum that displays artifacts from many of the conquerors of Sicily. Many items date back to Roman, Arabic and Carthaginian times and display what life may have been like in Sicily prior to the modern centuries.

Chinese Palace, Palermo.
Chinese Palace, Palermo.

An important thing to look at when traveling to Sicily is to look at the various Churches and cathedrals that exist in Palermo. Now Italy is known for many of these great and massive structures that occupy its towns. Specifically in Palermo, there are at least 18 Churches/Cathedrals that are worth visiting but we will do our best to condense this list. So, without further adieu we begin with the Palermo Cathedral which is the largest in all of Sicily. It dates back to the 18th century, so not as old as many of the structures in Italy but still older than most structures that we have in the United States. The Church that made more of impact than the Cathedral was the Chiesa di Santa Caterina which has more of an Italian feel when you enter it. Its walls are lined like a Church that was built during the post-Roman era and you would be correct. The Church was erected in 1310 and given its name due to the reverence of Saint Catherine in Catholic culture. If you did not know any better you would assume you were in the Sistine Chapel, that is the effect that this place has on any visitor. Outside of the Church there is a fountain as well which makes for a spectacular picture taking opportunity. It is called the Fontana Pretoria and definitely is worth looking at. If you are looking for something a little older than look no further than the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is older than the Church of Saint Catherine and has a more modern feel. However, in looking at it you could not tell unless you read up before visiting.

Church of St. Catherine, Palermo.
Church of St. Catherine, Palermo.

Italy is the land of the Opera House, at least some of the best ones are there. Palermo is home to two of them. The Teatro Massimo or “Greatest Theatre” is the largest in all of Italy. Built in 1897 it was bult with the intention of having the best acoustics in the world and it does. It was even ranked as one of the best Opera Houses in the world behind the Vienna and Paris Opera Houses. Interestingly, it was closed between 1974 and 1997 for renovation purposes after it was slightly damaged in World War II. It has since reopened and allows tours and offers tickets for a relatively low rate. This is not to be confused with the Teatro Politeama located in the center of Palermo. It is beautiful on both the outside and the inside providing state of the art acoustics and on the inside is more artistic than the Massimo. Palermo is nothing to sneeze at for those who enjoy the opera and is a lot less of an expense like a Paris or Vienna.

Teatro Massimo, Palermo.
Teatro Massimo, Palermo.

Food Options

Palermo is ripe full or restaurants that have all types of cuisine but we are going to simply focus on Italian cuisine today. Now for any food connoisseurs out their Northern and Southern Italian cuisine are very different. Southern Cuisine has a larger focus on seafood due to being closer to the ocean and Northern Italian food often consists of Pastas and creamy cuisine that rivals anything that you will get at any Italian restaurant anywhere else. A couple of places that will make a mark on your visit are Pablo’s Ristorante and Taverna dei Canti. Both come highly recommended on TripAdvisor and due to this they have many visitors and residents that eat at them. They provide a strictly Southern cuisine which as mentioned includes lots of fish and various crustaceans which make for a strong and hearty meal if you have been walking all day. For a coffee and a strong desert option there are unlimited cafés in the surrounding areas of Palermo to come visit. They are often great places for outside seating as well which is ideal in a place like Sicily. Almost anywhere is a good choice which can be understood from a readers perspective as “just go anywhere” which is exactly true because mostly anywhere for a coffee, tea, or any other beverage you wish is a great option. The only difficulty you should have is a language barrier.

Fish at one of Palermo's many street markets.
Fish at one of Palermo's many street markets.

Getting Around

Now, one question that is always asked how does one get around in such a massive city like Palermo. Instead of taking a taxi, try to get your hands on tickets for trams, buses and rails. You can get across the entire island in less than one hour which makes Sicily another great spot to visit as you can visit multiple places in the same day. This is awesome as well because the subway system can take you all around Palermo which is not a city that many would recommend walking around in as it is so large. However, if you wish to take a taxi, understand that Uber is not available so you can forget about a cheap taxi service. Everything is done in cash so do not even think about using a credit card of any kind. However, a more prolific approach would be to take a boat tour which there are many areas in the port of Palermo to visit and use for travel. Plus, Palermo is beautiful to see from the ocean and in some cases you can see the mainland from the ocean.

Enjoy your Visit

Palermo is a near crazy experience for anyone that has been to Italy because it provides so much more than is imagined by a typical tourists. Through this article we have shown you landmarks, getting around and food options to get you all around Palermo whether you are going for a week, day, month, year , or longer. As always, enjoy your experience there and understand that it is still Italy but not the Italy you may be used to.

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    • Ellis Distefano profile imageAUTHOR

      Ellis Distefano 

      11 months ago

      Thank you.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      11 months ago from UK

      This is a fascinating introduction to Palermo. It is well-structured and well-illustrated.

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