Palermo is the capital of Sicily in the province of the same name, and is located on the north-western coast of the island in a marvellous inlet by Monte Pellegrino, described by Goethe as “The most beautiful promontory in the world”, which dominates the western border of the Conca d'Oro laden with oranges and lemons. The city extends along the slope of the fertile agricultural zone famous for its citrus fruits, between Monte Pellegrino and Capo Mongerbino, the city turns inwards, and climbs up to Monreale, with its beautiful view, the glorious Conca d'Oro also makes up part of Palermo. The mountains crown the city, the gardens dress the city in green, the sea caresses it and the sky covers the city with a blue veil, this beauty conjures up the words of the Arabian poet Jahr Zaffir Place one's side on the water as if upon a silk divan. The sun shines upon the head, a halo of gold, beautiful, flavoursome fruit. In winter the trees have fire in their leaves and water in their roots. Palermo, God's favoutite! It was here that God rested during “the creation”! Oh merciful God, in days of scorn and justice, have pity on Palermo which raised up five hundred mosques to praise your magnificence!”
Wandering through the streets of Palermo is taking part in a giant parade of witnesses to several different civilizations intimately fused together. Individual centuries and periods in history can be seen in the existing buildings and areas; admiring these masterpieces is similar to losing yourself in something timeless and unchanging, the current inhabitants disappear, and are replaced by perpetual memories, traditions and legends.
The original center of the Sicilian capital was founded over the course of 2 centuries (from VIII-VI BC) the Phoenicians gave the city the name of Ziz (flower) and it was surrounded by a city wall. The subsequent Greek settlement allowed the city to develop towards the sea, defined by the Papireto and Kemonia rivers and included the port. It was in this period that the city was given its name: Panorma, (“Port of excellence” or “all port”). The built up area spread gradually (mostly due to the work of the Arabs and Normans), through an irregular series of streets and alleys. Later, the Aragonese opened two long, straight main roads, created by demolishing many of the old buildings: the first road developed perpendicular to the coast and included Corso Vittorio Emanuele (the old Cassaro from the Arabic Qasr, the royal palace) and Corso Caltafimi: the other road ran perpencicular to the former Corso Vittorio Emanuele and stretches through existing Via Oreto, Via Maqueda, Via Ruggero Settimo and Via Libertà. The two main roads cut the city into four parts: Tribunali (north-west), Palazzo Reale (south-west), Monte di Pieta (south-east), and Castellamare (north-east) and they intersect one another in Piazza Vigliena, the well known Quattro Canti di Città (four poems of the city), an octagonal complex decorated by statues and fountains, known as the “teatro del sole” (theatre of sun), because from here you can make out the sun as it sets. In the Bourbon period the wall was extended in a southwesterly direction, up to Monreale. This zone is known as the historical center of the city –there are many buildings from various eras are situated here. They are proofs of the artistic history of Palermo, which stretches back thousands of years. The monuments left by the Normans are of particular interest, as they made use of the traditional Arabic shapes, such as in the Cuba, the piccola Cuba and the Zisa (from the Arabic al-Aziza, the glorious one) but above all in the splendid Palatine Chapel of King Ruggero II Royal Palace, famous for its incomparable mosaics. Amongst the religious buildings, some of the most notable include the churches S. Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (founded by King Ruggero I in 1072), S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its beautiful second century cloister, Martorana, S. Cataldo, S. Francesco d'Assisi and Vespro, while amongst the civil buildings, the Palazzo dei Normanni, once the seat of the Emiri, the Norman kings and the Spanish viceroys and from 1947 headquarters of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, the Palazzo Chiaramonte (or “Steri”), the Palazzo Sclafani and the Palazzo Abatellis. The majestic Cathedral stands upon the ancient Cassaro. It started as an Arab mosque on the ruins of an early Christian basilica; at the end of the 1700s it underwent a wave of late Baroque changes, which irreparably altered several of the winter and summer views of the city. At the sides of the piazza are various palazzi that stand together harmoniously; one of the most well-known buildings is the Archbishop's palace.
During the Spanish domination, suburbs flourished outside the city walls both to the north, towards the sea (Mondello, Partanna, Sferracavallo, Barcarello) and towards the south, on the road leading to Bagheria and Termini Imerese (Oreto, Romagnolo, Settecannoli). After Sicily was annexed to Italy and up until the beginning of the First World War, Palermo had a notable increase in building work; this work adhered to precise directives for new quarters with a regular ‘chessboard' layout to the south-east extremity of Via Maqueda and the city's main station is located on the parallel Via Roma. Major urban development has taken place towards the north-west as well as the lengthening of Via Maqueda, which took the name of Via Ruggero Settimo, the present day city center, on the outskirts of which, two major theatres were built at the end of the 19th century: il Massimo – temple of lyric theatre and ballet and which has the largest stage in the world (as regards back drop and depth) and il Politeama. Along Via Libertà several quarters have risen, swallowing the old suburbs, up to the edges of Monte Pellegrino, there are new quarters at the foot of the eastern slope of the mountain such as San Lorenzo where the magnificent Parco della Favorita is found and the splendid Palazzina Cinese the Arenella and Vergine Maria, but also along the western slope until Mondello, a stupendous gulf that today represents the true summer tourist center and Partanna.
In the last century new quarters have been developed, the majority are on the west side of Viale della Regione Siciliana (the real ringroad of the city, a link between the motorways for Trapani and Messina), which make up the newer, but still highly populated areas of the city eg. Uditore, Altarello and Cruillas. The Z.E.N. (which stands for expanded northern area), is a largely residential area, it is home to several important sports centers such as the Velodromo Borsellino and the new baseball stadium, but also commercial centers and palazzi of notable economic interests, such as Palazzo Gamma.
Where to stay in Palermo
The capital of the island is primarily a city of art, home of a living nation and of a people whose heritage goes back thousands of years from various, a history containing many contradictory elements, fused together, but recognizable in every gesture and movement used today. Arriving in Palermo is always an event, no matter where you come from, what mode of transport you use, no matter the season, nor the hour of day or night—it is the feeling of being in the heart of a fascinating and mysterious world, closed between a shining sun and a brilliant sea. The welcoming climate that lasts throughout the year, makes this a superb tourist spot, which means that there is a wide choice of hotels, both in the city and in the province, however, it is always wise to book in advance.
The most exclusive hotel (which welcomes prestigious clients into the refined elegance of its suites and rooms) is definitely the Grand Hotel Villa Igea, situated along the coast of Acquasanta, a luxury construction in Art Nouveau style, which offers its guests a splendid swimming pool, tennis courts and a private beach. Lively Via Roma parts from the Central Station and extends to the new zone in the city leading to Parco della Favorita, it is also home to the Grand Hotel Delle Palme the destination of the rich and famous. The Grand Hotel and Excelsior Palace, situated in Piazza Croci, are four star hotels situated close to the two most important theatres (Massimo and Politeama) and one of the most famous monument routes in the city. Close to the Cathedral of Palermo, an admirable example of Arabic-Norman art and close to the beautiful Piazza Pretoria, which has a splendid fountain and is also home to the Palazzo delle Aquile, home to the Town hall, you can stay at the Centrale Palace Hotel part of the “Best Western” chain. Those visiting Palermo on business, prefer the Astoria Palace Hotel, located close to the Mediterranean Trade Fair, the Jolly Hotel del Foro Italico, the San Paolo Palace Hotel and President, spread out along the coast including Via Messina Marine and Via Francesco Crispi, all easily reached from the port of Palermo.
In the summer season the most popular hotels are near the seashore, ie. Mondello Palace Hotel, the Florio Park Hotel of Cinisi, the Grand Hotel delle Terme in Termini Imerese, the Grotta Azzurra in Ustica, a delicious island a few miles from Palermo, all of these are four star hotels with every comfort and situated close to the sea.
There are three star hotels that are small but elegant, with great service and often equipped with meeting rooms and exhibition areas. These hotels are close to the Central Station, or can be easily reached from there, hotels such as: Massimo Plaza Hotel, Grande Albergo Sole and Hotel Principe di Belmonte and Hotel Athenaeum, the latter is in the cittadella universitaria. If you want a holiday of relaxation, and a tranquil place, submerged in green and relatively far from noise and city traffic, you can opt for the Hotel Residence Casena dei Colli, in the San Lorenzo area, the Addaura Hotel Residence, the Bel 3 in Baida or the Baglio Conca d'Oro close to Acquapark in Monreale.
Some of the hotels in the tourist areas are very well known; all of them are close to the Hotel Cala Rossa and the Hotel Città del Mare both at Terrasini, Hotel Costa Verde in Cefalù, the Saracen Club Hotel in Carini and the Torre Normanna, in Altavilla Milicia.
When visitors are planning to stay for a long time, value for money and practicality are two of the most important factors and they tend to choose, traditional family run pensions or hotels with fewer comforts, but which are just as comfortable for long stays. The majority of these hotels are spread throughout the city's historical center amongst others are Villa Archirafi Residence, Orientale, the Letizia, Hotel Moderno and Hotel Alessandra close to Stazione Centrale, the Tonic Hotel, Hotel Joli, theHotel Madonia and Hotel Petit in the area of Teatro Massimo. Finally, for young people, especially students who want to spend a few nights in Palermo, close to the University, the best solution is the Bed and Breakfast Casa Marconi.
An uninterrupted season
The variety and the quality of theatrical and cinema offerings are without doubt the strong points of the winter events in Palermo. There is also a splendid summer programme called “Palermo di Scena”, which offers films and plays as well as nature and photography exhibitions, and concerts (both classical and non), all of which are hosted in some of the most beautiful, ancient villas in Palermo, such as Villa Trabia, Villa Filippina and Villa Lampedusa.
Theatre—The theatrical tradition in Palermo has always been very rich and diverse, a mixture of Arabic, Norman, French and Spanish cultures. Street theatre that is performed today, such as the typical vastasata, still reflects Sicilian cabaret and folklore, while the Teatro dei Pupi (puppet theatre) remains faithful to its ancient roots. The theatre scene is varied in summer and winter, and the programmes offered by Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama stand out amongs the rest, these being the two main theatres in the Sicilian capital.
Teatro Massimo, has recently returned to its ancient splendor, it is certainly the temple of opera and ballet because it has the largest stage in the world. Inaugurated in 1897, it is one of the grandest theatres in Europe and plays host to the most important operas and the most prestigious names in the opera world. The Teatro Politeama (separated from Teatro Massimo by the Via Ruggero Settimo located in the heart of the centre), took over from the Massimo during its restoration and today hosts a rich programme of operas and concerts. The Teatro di Verdura is also a theatre worth visiting.
Classical music and symphonies
Teatro Golden specializes in symphonies and chamber music, and offers a season of concerts, including superb choral programmes. Many important musical companies perform optimum concerts here. The “Friends of Music” and the E. A Sicilian Symphonic Orchestra offer splendid symphonic seasons as well as chamber music seasons, while “Brass Group” specializes in jazz music and popular tunes. Prestigious musical societies offer a varied and renowned concert season.
Teatro Biondo offers a season glowing with great performances and shows, from October to June, this is seen as the most important theatre for “prosa” in Palermo. Other theatres such as Teatro Al Massimo, Teatro Crystal and Teatro Don Orione, offer exciting programmes (the latter specializes in cabaret). We have already mentioned Teatro dei Pupi, and there are other theatres that offer plays in dialect or depicting ancient folklore, who have performances mainly during the summer eg Teatro Tenda Vito Zappalà and you can catch experimental theatre/ modern dance from Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, can be seen in the vicinity of the splendid castle and at Teatro Libero.
Some of Palermo's most important cinemas have been restored in recent years, these include: the Imperia and Finocchiaro, which was a rather run down place offering second showings. Now, Palermo has over 20 screens showing new releases, and its cinematographic programme can now be defined as complete and satisfactory, even it does not have any multiplexes. Cinemas worth a mention are: Fiamma, Astoria Rouge et Noir, the Metropolitan and Tiffany, large cinemas with lots of seats, with great sound systems and excellent screens, there is also Aurora, which also shows prestigious and popular art house films.
Palermo by night
It is important for people who work during the week to be able to have a great deal of choice during their “days of freedom”, picking anything from the most tranquil of activities to the wildest nights of fun, so that all their demands can be satisfied. Palermo has a large number of “locali” (nightspots), which can be found throughout the city.
If you want a quiet, yet cheerful evening sipping a drink or a coffee with your friends, enjoying the background music, there are plenty of places to choose from, some of which are really traditional. The majority of the cafés are located in the historical center. The Caffè d'Oriente and Caffè Turco are two places that are famous for their Arabic drinks, while the Caffè Antico and Caffè del Cassaro are renowned for traditional Sicilian beverages. The New Orleans Café is also worth trying.
Pubs and Beer-houses - Live Music
As in all the other cities, in the last twenty years a large number of “locali” have appeared in the Sicilian capital, so that you can spend the evening having fun. The wide variety and the distribution of these places throughout the area gives residents and visitors alike the possibility to choose between pubs, beer-houses, and discos, where there are lots of new friends to be made. If you prefer something a little less noisy, with great background music, so that you can chat to your friends and enjoy excellent service at the same time, why not try Birreria Kovacs, which also offers a Hungarian menu. Au Domino is a historical pub in Via Principe di Belmonte, and Agricantus, has various shows and entertainment, or how about Cambio Cavalli, one of the first pubs in Palermo? If you prefer live Italian, American, English and South American music then Crazy Bull is probably the place for you, decorated in traditional American style. You may want to try the Carlotta Pub or the Villa Niscemi close to the Villa of the same name. New singers get a chance to shine at the Bier Garten and the Malox, which also allows its clients to use the internet. Discos
Amongst the popular discos in the area, the most important (without doubt) are Kandisky Florio in the ancient district of Arenella, the Anticlea Pub and the Kursaal Kalesa Club (located along the promenade of the Foro Italico) and the Country Club, which is great in the summer season, when it has large open-air dance floors. Not forgetting the famous discos in the Province such as La Conchiglia and the Palatime on the Isola delle Femmine.
For those who love playing games and challenging their friends to a friendly match, there are two great bowling alleys, Bowling La Favorita and Bowling & Games. Lovers of billiards have many rooms to choose from, one of the most popular is the Sala Mari.
Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians between the 8th and 6th century B.C. and since the beginning, the city has been connected to the sea and the port. No wonder then that one can see images of ships, fish and the sea God Neptune on the old coins. Palermo remained Phoenician until Romans seized control. In the 3rd century B.C., Palermo was divided into two parts—the old city (Paleapolis) and the new one (Neapolis).
During the Phoenician period, the city became remarkably wealthy, due to the port activity and agricultural development. As a result of the war between Carthage and Imera in 480 B.C, the Phoenician fleet found shelter in the city's harbor.
Ermocrate from Syracuse tried to conquer the city in 276 B.C. But it remained in the hands of the rulers of Carthage, until it was conquered by the Romans in 254 B.C. Asdrubale tried to retake the city, but was defeated by Cecilio Metello. Another Phoenician, General Amilcare Barca attacked the city for four years from Monte Pellegrino.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city fell in the hands of Vandal king Geiseric (455). Later, Odoacre (476) and Teodorico (493) also conquered it for a limited period of time. In 535, it was re-conquered and handed back to the Byzantine emperor Justinian. In 549, the city was occupied by Totila, but later returned to the Byzantines in 552.
The splendor of the Arab-Norman period
It was for the first time with Muslim domination in Sicily that Palermo began its ascending phase. In 831, a long siege reduced the population from 70,000 to 3,000 inhabitants and Arabic troops occupied the city. Palermo was reborn under its new rulers and experienced a thriving economy, demographic growth as well as increased political influence.
With its fertile fields, the city soon became an important center for the Muslims. In 948 under the Banū Kalb dynasty, Palermo was selected as the capital of the independent emirate of Sicily. The composition of the population at that time consisted of a colorful mix: Arabs, Greeks, Latins, Hebrews and others resided here.
In 1072, Ruggero d'Altavilla and his brother Roberto il Guiscardo conquered the city and ended the Arab dominance. In 1030, Ruggero II was crowned the King of Sicily in the majestic cathedral and Palermo was declared the capital. Under the Norman rule, the city experienced a wealthy period and Federico II (1208) transformed it into a major cultural center.
The French and the Spanish: The dark years.
With the conquest by the Angevin, Naples was declared the capital in 1266, but the misgovernment led to a rebellion by Vespri Siciliani on March 31, 1282 and the city declared itself a commune belonging to the house of d'Aragone.
The fights and attacks during this dark period led to the economic decline of the city. But finally the economic and demographic conditions underwent an improvement during the 1500s, and the aristocracy from the countryside began to settle down in the city centre.
On August 15 1647, the people of Palermo rebelled against the Spanish rulers. They were led by Guiseppe D'Alesi and Nino della Pelosa. Two years later, a conspiracy headed by Guiseppe Pesce and Antonino Lo Giudice, tried to eliminate Giovanni of Austria, but due to the lack of popular support, the plan failed.
With the Treaty of Utrecht, the Spanish rulers had to abandon the island and the city came under the brief rule of Vittorio Amedeo di Savoia (1713-18). Later, as a consequence of the Treaty of Aia, the islands and main city centers came under the rule of Carl VI of Austria.
After the Unification of Italy
The Bourbons surrendered on June 6, and on October 21 the people of Palermo voted for the reign of Italy. In the following decades, the city expanded and at the end of the 19th century it experienced an exceptional demographic growth, becoming one of the largest and most populous cities in Italy.
During the Second World War, the city endured several bombing raids, which didn't damage the famous monuments, but reduced the overall value and splendor of the smaller monuments and some of the reminders of the old aristocratic Palermo.
After the allied landing on July 24 1943, Palermo again took its role as the primary city of Italy. But when life returned back to normal, the situation also normalized in Palermo, and they started to talk less about separatism and more about increased autonomy. An increased regional autonomy led to the requirement of a decentralized administration, which Palermo was ready to execute.
The regional assembly was situated in the Palazzo dei Normanni and the regional government was accommodated in Palazzo d'Orleans. Other palaces, like il Butera, were assigned to the regional councillorship.
In this way Palermo returned to being a residential city, and today, it is a popular tourist destination.