Palermo in 48 hours
27 September 2022
Overlooking the Mediterranean, during its long history the city experienced a long list of conquerors and noble dynasties, but it never lost its identity.
Palermo - the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Sicily - charms everyone thanks to its cultural and architectural melting pot, well visible in each of the four "mandamenti" (districts) in which it is divided. Palaces and churches blend with the urban area creating a unique fabric, where the presence of the iconic city markets sets color and vitality in contrast with the austerity of the many noble palaces and monuments (many part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites). 48 hours therefore for a journey through thousands of years: we did it!
Morning meeting in front of the Norman Palace, today the seat of the Regional Assembly. The palace, a Unesco heritage site, is the oldest royal residence in Europe, home of the kings of the Kingdom of Sicily and imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV. In fact, many know it as the Royal Palace. The first floor hosts the Palatine Chapel, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the Arab-Norman Route of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale, where the century-old traces of the various Mediterranean religions and cultures are well visible. The architecture combines the Latin basilica floor plan with decorations of Islamic architecture, such as inlaid honeycomb decorations, but its core is Byzantine: the hemispherical dome houses the gigantic and breathtaking mosaic of the "Christ Pantocrator".
The 48 hours in Palermo continue towards an imposing building, in which domes, towers and battlements, gates and porticoes, majolica-tiled domes, bridged-arches and a bell tower blend together. This is the description of the Palermo Cathedral, a not to be missed stop in the historical city center overlooking Via Vittorio Emanuele.
The Ballarò market can be considered an heir of the souk given that it already occupied these streets during the Arab domination and continues to evoke its atmosphere. Let yourself be conquered by the "abbanniate", the chants with which the merchants offer their goods, and rely on your sense of smell to discover the most authentic street food: the scent of frying is a sign of freshly cooked panelle (chickpea fritters sandwich) while a cloud of smoke accompanied by the scent of meat announces that the "stigghiole" (intestines) are being cooked (and each "stigghiularu" will be happy to tell you how he prepares his version). In these parts you can choose among the many street food and wine selections or venues that Palermo reserves to its citizens and guests. After lunch, the exploration continues in the Albergheria district.
The Albergheria district, on the edge of the Ballarò market, offers an impressive display of Baroque architecture. Not too far away, the Church of the Gesù, also known as Casa Professa to the people of Palermo, is undoubtedly one of the greatest expressions of Baroque art that found its richest, most superfluous and striking expressions here. Stuccoes, frescos, sculpted decorations, variegated and textured marbles, all created by the greatest masters of art and sculpture of the seventeenth century, make it one of the most magnificent churches in Sicily.
An unmissable stop, the jewel among the Byzantine churches in Italy, the Church of St. Mary of the Admiral or Martorana Church. Built in 1100 and today on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it stands out for the contrast between the Norman-Arab style and the subsequent Baroque additions. Curious Fact: The church, although subject to the Holy See, follows the Orthodox liturgical calendar. A wealth of decorations are found inside, among which the "Christ Pantocrator" stands out. The painting is a common representation in the rich gilded mosaics that decorate the apses of the largest Orthodox churches.
The cozy “living room” of the historical city center, but certainly not the only one, Piazza Bellini will surprise you with its perimeter marked by buildings boasting architecture in a variety of styles and of diverse and distant historical periods. The Church of the Martorana, the Church of San Cataldo with its red domes, and the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, in addition to many others, overlook the plaza. The Palace of the Eagles will further amaze you. Beyond it you will find another “cultural meeting place” of Palermo: Piazza Pretoria, with the monumental fountain known as the fountain "of shame" (according to legend, the name is due to the naked statues of the fountain standing in front of the monastery of the cloistered nuns of Santa Caterina, while according to others the "shame" refers to the money spent for its construction). No hesitation, no shame: you're in a very instagrammed corner of Palermo, so take good advantage of it!
From an environmental point of view, even Palermo has a bike or scooter rental service in the historical center: choose the one you prefer and head towards the Chiaramonte Palace known as the “Steri”. A symbol of the city, it offers seven centuries of the art and history of Sicily in the first example of the new architectural style that appeared on the island in the early 1300s, the style known as chiaramontano. Elegant and solemn, the building was the residence of a powerful Sicilian family (to become, in 1600, the seat of the court and the prison of the Inquisition) and it is embellished by splendid colonnades and beautiful two-and-three-mullioned windows. Three elements stand out and bestow great value to the palace: the wooden ceiling dating back to the 1300s in the Sala Magna with paintings in a knightly theme, the graffiti evidence of the pain left by prisoners on the walls of the prison, and, above all, the famous painting by Renato Guttuso, Bagheria artist, "La Vucciria". Another cult location for social media pictures: the largest Ficus in Europe, with its roots suspended between the branches and the ground, located in the Garibaldi garden, right in front of the Steri palace. The day could be wrapped up around here, perhaps in one of the many restaurants around the marina that is located just a stone's throw away. If you have energy left, treat yourself to an evening at the Teatro Massimo, the temple of opera and dance, a worthy finale to bring down the curtain on a day full of emotions.
To recover from the long walks of day one, there are two options: climb up to Monreale and treat yourself to more discoveries and perhaps a bit of meditation, or make your way to Mondello in search of relaxation. Let's start from the second option: the beach par excellence in Palermo. Connected to the city by the immense Favorita park, the beach offers stretches of free coast and other areas that are well-equipped and served, sharing the crystal clear waters of the small bay. In the first option, the Monreale Cathedral (a Unesco World Heritage site) still offers architectural wonders to admire, and unique works of art such as its extensive, sparkling mosaics while the small village offers opportunities for peace and introspection. Whichever option you choose, after lunch we meet back in town to complete this intense two days.
The afternoon of day two can begin with a visit to the Zisa Castle, dating back to 1165 and built as a summer residence of the royal family. Gardens, pools and pergolas characterize the large park that surrounds it, while the splendor of the Arab architecture is well visible in the rooms, with an impressive symmetrical and stereometric approach to ensure the desired ventilation, coolness and humidity. Nearby there is also the former industrial complex by the same name, now the site of exhibitions and festivals, a true meeting place for the community. Not far from here, but only if you are not too sensitive, the Catacombs of the Capuchins Friars would be worth a visit. At the time, the wish to preserve the body of a deceased loved one, even after death, was so strong that those who could afford it would pay the friars handsomely to mummify their loved ones. This over the years has given rise to an "open" underground cemetery, where families have the opportunity not only to mourn on the grave of their loved ones, but to see them, talk to them and... visit them as if they were still in the world of the living.
When time draws to a close, one last effort: a quick walk downtown through the locations seen yesterday to then reach the Kalsa, the district where the deconsecrated Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo (where the sky has replaced the roof) is located, to enjoy the great emotions it offers. Still at this location, in Via dello Spasimo, enjoy a view of the murals (with a strong visual impact), that show how, through its decaying walls transformed into works of art, in Palermo, modern messages can be conveyed through century-old treasures.
To say goodbye to Palermo you can then head back to the seaside promenade of the Borgo Sant'Erasmo Pier, which has gone through a redevelopment that did not betray its maritime essence. What is better than a toast at sunset, prelude to a “thousand and one nights” dinner, to be dedicated to your next trip to Palermo.