Top 5 Tips for Visiting Palermo
Palermo is a must-see destination on any trip to Italy. Its rich legacy of churches, palaces and markets is a feast for all five senses. However, decades of economic and political neglect coupled with the fiery temperament of its people mean that the city poses some challenges for tourists.
Follow these five top tips for a cheaper and less stressful visit.
1. Beware of Traffic
Unlike in some other countries, pedestrian crossings in Italy (and Palermo more specifically!) are not sacrosanct. In some cases, they are almost invisible due to poor maintenance. Even if you stand beside one all day, it is likely the frenzy of cars, mopeds and buses will deter you from setting foot on them. Walk onto the crossing very slowly and make eye contact with oncoming drivers. Once you are sure they are slowing down, pick up the pace but stay alert.
2. Don’t Get Ripped Off
In Palermo, there are few, if any, coffee shop chains. Each shop is privately owned, and therefore standards of service and quality vary considerably. There are often no prices on display and some even charge you for sitting down. To avoid any nasty surprises, establish the cost of each item before buying.
Similarly, in many of Palermo’s bustling food markets, traders often ask naive tourists if they would like a small taste of the wares on offer. If you decide to taste but not buy any of the product, the trader may still charge a hefty price for what little you have had. Insist beforehand that you will not pay if you do not buy any of the product.
3. Toilet Trouble
Public facilities in Palermo are bad or non-existent. Your only option when out and about is to use toilets in the privately owned bars and restaurants. A quick “posso usare il bagno per favore?” should do the trick. If not, buy the cheapest coffee. However, even these facilities can be dire. If they have soap, they probably won’t have towels and vice versa. Top tip: always carry an antibacterial hand sanitizer.
4. Tread Carefully
Broken pavements and dog-mess on public footpaths are all too common in Palermo. These factors coupled with the noxious exhaust fumes (they still use leaded petrol!) can make life difficult for even the most ardent walker. Luckily, there is a free shuttle-bus service which runs frequently around the historic centre. Contact the tourist office for more details.
5. Do you really need the PMO Tourist Card?
Palermo’s tourist office is very keen on promoting the PMO Tourist Card, which gives discounts on admission prices to key attractions for a defined period. The cost for a 72 hour card for two people is £33. Although this includes free public transport and various other perks, it only gives a maximum discount of 50% on museums and churches. This can be good value if you are planning a frenetic cultural jaunt, but potential savings probably won’t materialize if you are taking a more relaxed approach. Plan ahead.
Walking day tour of Palermo:
Walking Tours in Palermo
Old PalermoStart: San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
Finish: Piazza Marina.
Time: 3 to 3 1/3 hours. (Interior visits, of course, will consume far more time.)
Best Time: Early morning or at opening time in the afternoon.
Worst Time: Mid-morning, when all the tour buses converge.
Begin your tour by the iron gates that protect the palm-shaded garden surrounding:
1. San Giovanni degli Eremiti
The best known of all the Arabo-Norman monuments of Palermo, San Giovanni degli Eremiti is at Via dei Benedettini. Five typically Arab domes reveal the origins of the Moorish craftsmen who constructed this monastery for Benedectine monks in 1132. It honors St. John of the Hermits. The church’s tranquil, beautiful gardens are devoted to such species as the pomegranate and the jasmine. The gardens lead to the ruins of the original church that once stood here, a structure built in 581 for Pope Gregory the Great.
After a visit, walk north toward the sound of roaring traffic coming from the nearby Piazza del Pinta. En route to the piazza, you’ll pass a wall niche dedicated to Maria Addolorata, which is usually embellished with plants and fresh flowers.
Cross to the opposite side of Piazza del Pinta. From here, you’ll see the severely dignified stone archway pierced with formidable doors, leading to:
2. Palazzo dei Normanni
The chief attraction of Palermo, this mammoth palace and artistic treasure was constructed by the Arabs in the 11th century over the ruins of a Punic fort, in the highest part of the city. Over time it was expanded and turned into the royal residence of Roger II, the first Norman king. Much of the look of the present palace is from alterations it received from the 16th to the 17th century. The chief attraction inside is Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), a magnificent example of the Arabo-Norman artistic genius.
Exit from the compound’s stately entrance gate (the same one through which you entered), walk about 50 paces downhill, and then turn left onto Via del Bastione. You’ll have trouble seeing the street sign at first.
From here, you’ll skirt the Norman Palace’s massive and sharply angled foundations. After two narrow and claustrophobic blocks, climb the first set of granite steps rising from Via del Bastione’s left side. This will lead you into a verdant garden called:
3. Villa Bonanno
Imbued with the scent of jasmine and citrus trees, this public park separates the rear entrance of the Palazzo dei Normanni from the Duomo compound you’ll be visiting soon. Dotting the garden are monuments and effigies erected in honor of Sicilian patriots. If it’s a hot day, this is an idyllic place to cool off. Pop into the remains of the Roman villa to get an idea of daily life in Roman patrician times.
Walk through the garden, exiting at its opposite end, which will lead you to:
4. Palazzo Arcivescovile
Lying across the busy Via Bonello, a street of uncontrolled traffic, a portal is all that survives from the palace constructed here in 1460. The present structure is from the 18th century. It is also the Museo Diocesano (Diocese Museum), housing artifacts from the cathedral and other works of art from churches about to be demolished.
On the other side of Palazzo Arcivescovile on Via Bonello is the 16th-century Loggia dell’Incoronazione (Coronation Corridor), with ancient columns and capitals that were incorporated into the present structure. The kings of Sicily used to “display” themselves to their subjects here following a coronation. As a slight detour from this walking tour, head two blocks north after the Loggia to Via Gioeni to visit the Norman church of Santa Cristina La Vetere, one of the churches of the ancient Via Francigena, and which once housed the remains of the saint.
After viewing the palace, head east along the major artery, Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The sidewalk at this point becomes very narrow, barely passable, as cars roar by. The pavement will open within a short time onto a sweeping view of the:
At Piazza di Cattedrale, right off Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the duomo (cathedral) of Palermo, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, was built on the site of an early Christian basilica, which was later turned into a mosque by Arab rulers. Although launched in the 12th century, the cathedral has seen many architects and much rebuilding over the centuries. The cathedral today is a hodgepodge of styles, its baroque cupola added in the late 18th century.
After a look or a visit, continue east along Corso Vittorio Emanuele on narrow sidewalks until you come to:
6. Biblioteca Centrale della Regione Siciliana
Once a Jesuit college called Collegio Massimo dei Gesuiti, this building is today the home of Palermo’s main public library, providing shelter for more than half a million volumes and many ancient manuscripts, including several from the 15th and 16th centuries. A double arcaded courtyard is its architectural centerpiece. It is entered by the portal of the adjacent Chiesa di S. Maria della Grotta.
Continue to head east along Corso Vittorio Emanuele until you come to the intersection of Piazza Bologni, from here visit the:
7. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea
The spanking new contemporary art gallery is housed in the restored noble palace of Palazzo Riso and exhibits one of the finest art collections on the island, if not in all of Italy.
8. Take a Break — Galleria Coffee Shop
While in the museum, stop at this Palazzo Riso coffee shop, which offers lots of local goodies and opens onto the magnificent Piazza Bologni. There’s Wi-Fi here, in case you need to connect.
After a refueling stop, continue east for a short distance until you come to:
9. Chiesa San Giuseppe dei Teatini
Forming one of the Quattro Canti , this lavishly decorated church was built by the Theatine congregation. The interior has a dancing baroque spirit, although the facade, not completed until 1844, is along more severe neoclassical lines. The cupola of the church is adorned with majolica tiles. If you go inside (hours are Mon-Sat 8:45-11:15am and 5-7pm; Sun 8:30am-1pm), you’ll find a two-aisle nave. Flanking it are towering columns resting under a frescoed ceiling, holding up walls covered with a marble polychrome decoration. The main altar is constructed of semiprecious gems, and the chapels are lavishly frescoed with stucco decoration. The church was designed by Giacomo Besio of Genoa (1612-45).
At this point of the walking tour, you are in the very heart of Old Palermo at the famous:
10. Quattro Canti (Four Corners)
Corso Vittorio Emanuele intersects with Via Maqueda, the latter street a famous piece of Palermitano civic planning, carved out of the surrounding neighborhood in the 16th century by the Spanish viceroy Maqueda. On each corner you’ll find, on the lower tier, one of the allegories of the season; in the middle, one of the four Spanish Habsburg kings; and on top, the patron saint of each mandamento.
Directly east of this “crossroads” of Palermo lies:
11. Piazza Pretoria
This lovely square is Palermo’s most famous. It’s beautiful but controversial fountain, originally intended for a Tuscan villa, is adorned with nude statues and mythological monsters — thus, it was called Fontana della Vergogna, or “Fountain of Shame,” by outraged churchgoers. San Giuseppe dei Teatini is the church directly to the west; the eastern end of the square is flanked by Chiesa Santa Caterina (St. Catherine’s Church). Climb the stairs of Santa Caterina to get a bird’s eye view of the square. On the south axis stands Palazzo Pretorio, the City Hall. Note the plaque on the front of the building commemorating Garibaldi’s 1860 triumph, ending the Bourbon reign in Sicily.
Now walk to the southern edge of the Piazza Pretoria and go through the narrow gap between the City Hall and the Chiesa Santa Caterina. A vista over the Piazza Bellini will open up before you. At its far end rise two of the most distinctive churches in Palermo, the first called:
12. Chiesa San Cataldo
Standing side by side with Chiesa della Martorana , this is one of two Norman churches built on the remains of a Roman wall. The church, with its rose-colored cupolas, was founded in 1154 by Maio da Bari, the emir of William I. After serving various purposes — the church was turned into a post office in the 19th century — San Cataldo today is the seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher.
Next door to San Cataldo is:
13. Chiesa della Martorana
With its handsome Norman bell tower, this is the more intriguing of the two churches, thanks to its splendid mosaics. It is the loveliest Greek church remaining in Sicily. It was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, called Roger II’s “Emir of Emirs.” Regrettably, the linear symmetry of the original Norman church is today covered by a baroque facade.
14. take a Break — Pizzeria Bellini
Set directly at the base of the Church of San Cataldo, with a pleasant terrace that’s shielded from the dust and congestion of the surrounding neighborhood by an evergreen hedge and latticework barrier, this is the kind of cafe where you almost fall into the chairs, then slug back a half liter of liquid refreshment. It doubles as a restaurant, in case you want a full meal, but most participants on this walking tour opt for gelato, a coffee, or a drink. Piazza Bellini 6; tel. 091-6165691. Closed Mondays.
Retrace your steps along Via Maqueda north to Quattro Canti (Four Corners). Once there continue east along Corso Vittorio Emanuele on the street’s right-hand side. Here the neighborhood grows increasingly battered, commercial, and decrepit. In about 4 minutes, turn right onto Via Alessandro Paternostro, a narrow street one short block after Vicolo Madonna del Cassaro. Walk uphill along Via Alessandro Paternostro through a commercial section of shops. After a brief walk, note the intricately carved Romanesque facade of the:
15. Chiesa San Francesco d’Assisi
This is one of the most outstanding churches in Palermo, thanks to its dignified simplicity and unusual combination of Romanesque and baroque detailing; you get the sense that it’s still very much involved in the day-to-day life of this ancient parish. First constructed in the 13th century, it was destroyed by Frederick II after he was excommunicated by the pope. A new church was constructed and completed in 1277, although it’s seen much alteration over the years. A 1943 Allied bombing didn’t help matters, either.
From the square directly in front of the church (Piazza di San Francesco d’Assisi), head east on the narrow, unmarked street on the right-hand side of the church as you face it. Walk 1 1/2 short blocks until you reach:
16. Palazzo Mirto
This is your greatest opportunity to visit a palace from yesteryear and to see how a Sicilian noble family lived. Of the many other palaces in the neighborhood, most are closed to the public and still not restored. Palazzo Mirto miraculously remains as it was, with its original furnishings. It dates from the 18th century, having been built over earlier structures that went back to the 15th century.
After a visit, walk a few steps to the west into the broad 19th-century vistas of:
17. Piazza Marina
This is the largest square in Palermo. Its most significant architectural monument is Palazzo Chiaromonte Steri, constructed in 1307 by one of Sicily’s most influential noble families. The palace was built in a Gothic style with Arabo-Norman influences. In the middle of Piazza Marina is the Giardino Garibaldi, a beautiful park around which there’s no shortage of nightlife; it comes alive on the weekend with a flea market.