Are you passing through Palermo and you have only one day to visit the city?
Well, Palermo is a city with one of the largest historical centers in Europe (think that it covers an area of almost 2.5 square km) and it is well worth staying a few extra days to explore the great variety of fascinating monuments and places that the city has to offer. However, don’t be discouraged! It’s possible to take in a tour that takes in the most significant and interesting places in this amazing city in a signle day.
Palermo is the capital of Arab-Norman art, a symbol of co-existence of styles and different cultures that found themselves side by side between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Therefore, the famous Palatine Chapel, inside the Norman Palace that is now the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, should not be missed. It is one of the 9 sites recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Sites.
The small chapel, built starting from 1130 by the decree of the Norman king Roger II, is a deightful example of Latin, Arab and Byzantine elements living together in perfect harmony. I would suggest that you stop and quietly take in the detail of the beautiful mosaics crafted by masters from the East along with the wonderful wooden ceiling of the central nave, decorated in Islamic style and made by Arab craftsmen.
After visiting the Palatine Chapel you may like to begin walking along the Càssaro, the ancient arterial city road, founded in the Phoenician era, that today is an elongated road flanked by numerous eighteenth and nineteenth-century palaces.
You will pass immediately under Porta Nuova, one of the ancient city gates, built in the 16th century to celebrate the arrival in Palermo of Emperor Charles V.
From here, continue on towards the sea and, after a few minutes walk, you will find on your left the imposing and magnificent Cathedral of Palermo.
Built on the site of the city’s largest mosque, the cathedral was consecrated in 1185 and today it is one of the symbols of Palermo.
Built of warm limestone that lights up red at sunset, the Arab-Norman cathedral has undergone various renovations over the centuries but has managed to mantain its unique and fascinating style; do not miss the external area of the apses, with its splendid two-tone decorations of Islamic origin.
The cathedral is accessed via a monumental fifteenth-century entrance portico. The interior of the monument has undergone profound changes, being transformed into a severe and bare neoclassical cathedral in the late 18th century. Make sure to visit the Royal Tombs area which hosts, among others, the sarcophagi of Roger II and Frederick II; the chapel, to the right of the altar, dedicated to Saint Rosalia, which houses the relics of the patron saint of Palermo; and finally, in one of the side chapels of the left aisle, you will find the funeral monument of Padre Pino Puglisi, in memory of the priest killed by the mafia in 1993.
Once out of the Cathedral, continue your walk and go down to the Four Corners, which is the exact center of the ancient city inside the walls, being the intersection between the two main streets of Palermo: the Cassaro and Maqueda Street. Rich in symbolism, on the first level we find the four seasons, on the second level there are the figures of four Spanish sovereigns while on the last level there are the statues of the four Palermitan saints.
Turn right now and you are in Pretoria Square, a charming square surrounded by two old noble palaces, the town hall and the two imposing churches of Saint Catherine and Saint Joseph. The square was embellished since 1575 by a sumptuous fountain with various types of basins, enriched by dozens of statues of fantastic animals, gods, goddesses and allegorical figures. Given the nudity of the statues, which probably created a great scandal among the people of Palermo and the nuns of the nearby convent, the fountain and the entire square are commonly known by the Palermitans as “the square and fountain of shame”.
Continue on for a few meters in the same direction and you will arrive in Bellini Square, which houses two jewels of Arab-Norman art in Palermo: the famous Martorana church and the nearby church of Saint Cataldo. La Martorana, founded in 1143, represents, with its red dome, one of the famous symbols of the city. Go through the Islamic style bell tower and get a look inside, you will be captivated by the charm of a small church where Byzantine mosaics of the 12th century and baroque frescoes and stuccos blend in total harmony.
At this point, you will have seen the most iconic places of the city and your walk through Palermo can now take two different directions: you can continue to go down to the sea and get to the beautiful Marina Square which then takes you through Porta Felice, to the seaside promenade of the Foro Italico with its nearby ancient port of the city, the Cala.
Or, if you prefer to have a taste of the nineteenth-century Palermo, go up to Maqueda Street and you will find its two most elegant landmarks: the Politeama Theater and the Massimo Opera House.
Whatever direction you take, don’t miss a stroll through one of the city’s historic markets. Capo and Ballarò offer an unmissable cross-section of Palermo, an exceptional kaleidoscope of colors, aromas, flavors and voices.
Let yourself be enveloped by the exotic atmosphere of these places, only a stone’s throw from the main city streets but seeming like a world away in space and time.
Some advice: the Vucciria market, famous for the renowned painting by Renato Guttuso, unfortunately, today it’s the least vibrant of the three markets.
It woud be better to take a walk to the Capo, where you could also take a nearby trip to visit the church of the Immaculate Conception, a jewel of Sicilian Baroque style, or a walk through the stalls of Ballarò, where you could also take a look at the church of Jesus.
To appreciate the markets, better the morning hours, when they are more vibrant and you can find the celebrated stalls of fruit, vegetables and fish on display.
To see the Vucciria, however, better to go in the late evening or at night: the square turns into an alternative meeting place where you can taste the typical street food, freshly prepared, accompanied by a glass of wine from the old Taverna Azzurra.