General Information About Palermo
Palermo (pälĕr´mō), Lat. Panormus, city (1991 pop. 698,556), capital of Palermo prov. and of Sicily, NW Sicily, Italy, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Situated on the edge of the Conca d'Oro (Golden Conch Shell), a beautiful and fertile plain, it is Sicily's largest city and chief seaport. Manufactures include textiles, food products, chemicals, printed materials, and cement. There are also shipyards in the city.
An ancient Phoenician community founded between the 8th and 6th cent. BC, it later became a Carthaginian military base and was conquered by the Romans in 254 BC–253 BC Palermo was under Byzantine rule from AD 535 to AD 831, when it fell to the Arabs, who held it until 1072. The city's prosperity dates from the Arab domination and continued when, under the Normans, it served (1072–1194) as the capital of the kingdom of Sicily. Under King Roger II (1130–54) and later under Emperor Frederick II (1220–50), Palermo attained its main artistic, cultural, and commercial flowering. The French Angevin dynasty transferred the capital to Naples; its misrule led to the Sicilian Vespers insurrection (1282), which began in Palermo.
The city is rich in works of art; Byzantine, Arab, and Norman influence are blended in many buildings. Points of interest include the Arab-Norman Palatine Chapel (1130–40), located in the large palace of the Normans (today also the seat of the Sicilian parliament); the cathedral (founded in the late 12th cent.), which contains the tombs of Frederick II and other rulers; the Church of St. John of the Hermits (1132); the Palazzo Abbatellis (15th cent.), which houses the National Gallery of Sicily; the Gothic Palazzo Chiaramonte (1307); the Capuchin catacombs; and, among more modern structures, the Sports Palace (1998). The city has a university.
Palermo is the cultural capital of Sicily for 2018, with a great choice of places to eat, museums, art and entertainment we can see why. Here are 10 facts about the amazing location:
- Location and population
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and Palermo is Sicily’s largest city, with a population over 680,000. It is on the northwest coast of the island and looks over the Tyrrhenian Sea. The main beach in Palermo is Mondello and is perfect for snorkelling and swimming in the clear turquoise waters.
Palermo has stunning views, not only of the ocean but of a mountain range. Mount Pellegrino towers above the cities bay, providing panoramic views of the city. In the distance, the Madonie Regional Park can be seen, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop to Palermo during the winter. These mountains are a protected nature reserve and are home to a range of plants that are not found anywhere else in the word.
Palermo enjoys a hot, Mediterranean climate which makes it warm and dry for much of the year. The hottest months are from late April to August, and this is also when the sea temperature is the warmest. There are long, warm summers and winter rains.
Palermo has a natural harbour, which has been built upon and used throughout history as the main port of Sicily, large boats holding passengers and goods have been coming in and out for the port for centuries. Shipping fruits, fish and chemicals, the port has been the foundation and driving force of the growth of the whole island.
- History of the city
The culture of Palermo has been ever changing throughout history, as it has, on many occasions been conquered and invaded. Visiting Palermo provides a great understanding of the island, it is a unique place, like no other city, with a variety of architecture and traditions. The earliest records of civilisation in Palermo was in 8,000 BC, evidence of the existence of people in the area can be found in the wall art in caves just outside the city centre, drawn by people know as Sicani. Palermo has been invaded and taken over by Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens and the Normans, each implementing their traditions, erecting elaborate and recognisable buildings that represent their people. Empires were built on the remains of the last, and each street has buildings from different periods of time and new invaders.
- City of many names
Many of the invaders renamed Palermo once they had taken it over and settled. The Phoenicians named it Ziz, meaning flower. The Greeks called it Panormus, meaning ‘complete port,’ and Arabic invaders renamed it Balarm.
- Italy’s biggest Opera house
The Teatro Massimo opened its doors to the public in 1897, and it is not only the biggest theatre in Italy, but one of the biggest theatres in Europe. The auditorium can seat over 3000 attendants and the program includes operas, plays, dance and classical music. It is famous for not only its size but the famous flower wheel painting by Luigi Di Giovanni, the royal box and its feature in the final shooting scene in the film, The Godfather, which takes place on the entrance steps.
The feast of Saint Rosalia is one of the most important events in Palermo. The procession through the city takes place every year in July; buildings are illuminated, there are fireworks and a large parade. It is a celebration of Saint Rosalia; when the plague was infecting the city, a hunter claimed to have received a vision from her, he collected her bones from a cave outside of Palermo and then paraded them through the city, a few days after, the plague was no longer haunting the people. The festival is a symbol of victory of life, over death.
- Opera dei Pupi – traditional puppet theatre
Traditional puppet theatre has long been a popular form of entertainment, since the 15th century, it is a tradition that is wide spread on the island, but its roots are from Palermo. Still today, locals and visitors come to enjoy and watch these spectacular performances. The acts are based upon Sicilian fables, local legend and history. The puppets and sets are all handmade, and there is a puppet museum in the city centre.
- Catacombs of the Capuchins
A fascination for the history and horror lovers, the 16th-century building is home to over 8000 mummified bodies, the underground tunnels where created when Monks ran out of room in their cemetery and wanted to preserve the lives of important or wealthy people. The mummification began with just monks, priests and soldiers but it began to be a status symbol to be rested there and a luxury which could be enjoyed by the rich too. The last mummy to be added was in 1920, but some are up to 400 years old. For visitors that enjoy the bazaar and unusual, this is the place for you.
We hope these facts will be of interest to you during your stay in your family villas in Sicily. Whether you embrace the puppet theatre, brave the mummies or spend your time in the mountains, Palermo has an incredible history, stunning landscape and fascinating traditions which all make for the perfect city break.
AMAT operates bus services around the city, with one-off tickets priced at €1.30 (valid for 90 minutes after validation) or a day pass priced at €3.50 for unlimited travel. Tickets can be bought at newspaper kiosk, tobacconists or directly on board for a bigger charge.
Taxi fares in Palermo are the most economical in all of Italy, with a weekday starting fare of €2.54 and supplements of €0.13 for each successive 154 meters. Call 199 41 40 41 to book.
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
Arab-Norman architecture doesn’t get any finer than Palazzo dei Normanni. The palace is the original cradle of Italian literature and the symbol of Sicily’s affluence in the 12th century. Find the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti (just a short walk away) and take in the surreal gardens on which it is set.
The private collection of Italian and Sicilian tiles on display at Stanze al Genio offer an alternative to the typical museum. Bookings are essential.
Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita is a trove of artistic treasures, among which you will see the famous stucco sculptures by Serpotta.
Museo Archeologico Regionale features exhibits on archaeological artefacts dating back to pre-history, from the Phoenician civilisation that founded the city to the Greek and Roman.
Teatro Massimo in Piazza Verdi is an imposing opera and theatre house designed by Basile and first opened in 1897. It is the largest of its kind in the country.
Mondello is a beach community a short bus ride away from the centre. The beach is very popular for water sports while the town is home to Santuario Santa Rosalia, a shrine that pays homage to the patron saint of the city.
The subterranean network of tunnels known as Catacombe dei Cappuccini is the resting place for over 8,000 mummified residents.
Via Lincoln is a street in the historic quarter that leads to the Orto Botanico and Villa Giulia, both of which are beautiful parks and gardens to get lost in and spend an idyllic afternoon away from the crowds.
Palermo Culture and History
Palermo’s origins date back to the period between the 8th and the 6th century B.C., when the Phoenicians colonized the area that was previously inhabited by Sicans, Cretans and the Elimi.
After being contested for a long period between Rome and Carthage during the Punic wars, the city of Paleopolis was placed under Roman rule (254 B.C.).
After several attacks by various barbaric populations, the city then became a part of the Byzantine Empire, which governed it for about three centuries, until 831.
The Arabs took over from the Byzantines and under their rule, Palermo enjoyed a period of splendor and prosperity. Art and economics were developed immensely, the first thanks to the influence of Arab culture and the latter through intense trading with the main Italian ports. Palermo increased its prestige by building mosques, luxurious palaces and wonderful gardens.
The Arabs ruled until 1072 when the Normans succeeded in gaining possession of the city after a long siege, and thus began a new era during which the population spread out throughout the island. Under Norman rule, Palermo was allowed a fair amount of autonomy, while in the city, palaces and monuments that were the symbols of this crossroads of culture, such as the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) and the Cathedral - Duomo in Monreale were built.
Palermo passed into the hands of the Swabians and Frederick II after the Normans: in this period, art and literature were developed even further, culminating in the setting up of the Sicilian School of Poets.
Under the French king, Charles of Anjou, Palermo lost a great deal of its autonomy, but the people rebelled, and started up the war of the Sicilian Vespers (1282) that continued for twenty years and which was intended to throw out the French from the island.
Spanish dominion (1400 - 1700) saw the beginning of a peaceful period for this much contested city that had been in the hands of various countries over the centuries. Palermo was once again the capital and the town’s buildings and monuments were renewed. Various religious orders, which were increasingly powerful, set up a large number of churches and convents. This was a period of pomp and opulence for the clergy and the aristocracy, but was also one of poverty and pestilence for the people, whose rebellions were often put down without the sparing of blood.
After a brief interval under the Sabaudo family Dynasty (1713 - 1718) and then under the Austrians (1718 - 1735), Palermo and Sicily were once again returned to the Spanish, and became the Autonomous State of the Kingdom of Naples.
When the Bourbon family decreed that the autonomy granted should be repealed, the whole of Sicily rose up (1820 and 1848) and finally in 1860, when Garibaldi and the thousand landed at Marsala, Palermo won its freedom, and then annexed itself to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
Palermo has just been named Italy's Capital of Culture for next year - but why wait until then to visit? There are plenty of reasons to book a trip to the Sicilian city right now.
"We have all won," the city's mayor said after the announcement. He said that the most important aspect of the city's culture was its "culture of welcome", referring to Palermo's efforts in assisting the thousands of migrants who have arrived at its port over the past few years.
But there's more to the Sicilian capital than its ports, and plenty of treasures await visitors. So here are ten reasons to head south and visit Palermo.
Rich historyThis could be said of most of Italy, it's true, but what's great about Palermo is the way in which many different nations and cultures have left a mark on the city. Its strategic military and trading position attracted invaders from around the world, including the the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons, to name just a few.
Each group had an impact on the city's architecture, language and art, meaning the city's cultural sights are wonderfully varied and it's fascinating to see how each of these different cultures interacted. The Spanish invaders, for example, named one of the squares Piazza Pretoria (Square of Shame) due to the nude 16th-century statues of mermaids and nymphs - the name also refers to perceived corruption of city authorities.
The mixture of Western, Islamic and Byzantine styles is the reason many of the region's churches have been granted Unesco World Heritage status, and many are free to visit. Make the stunning Palatine Chapel (above) the first stop on your tour to see the ornate mosaics, and make time to stop at the cathedral (below). There's also 'the Church that isn't there', the name given by locals to the ruined Santa Maria dello Spasimo, which today is used for concerts.
Are you the kind of visitor who turns up your nose at tourist buses, or perhaps you just don't want to battle with the crowds at the Colosseum or Pantheon? Despite its beauty, Palermo is much less well known than the likes of Rome, Venice and Florence, meaning you'll often be forced to practise your Italian. All the more reason to visit now before it takes on the mantle of Italy's cultural capital and tourists finally dicover it.
Remember what we said about Palermo's importance as a trading centre? That spirit still lives on in the city's lively markets, Vucciria (meaning 'chatter' or 'hubbub' - just follow the noise and you'll find it), Ballarò and Capo, where you can buy cheap food, vegetables and even cheap vintage clothes, all while inhaling the scents of flowers and spices and taking in the bright colors.
Italy's largest botanic gardens can be found in Palermo. Explore all 25 acres of the Orto Botanico - even in the chillier months of the year, the Winter Garden greenhouses are beautiful. More green spaces can be found at Villa Giulia by the seafront, a 19th-century landscaped park, the Villa Bonanno, which has striking palm trees, and the Giardino Inglese in the city centre, which is a perfect spot for people-watching as workers gather there during the long Italian lunch break.
One delicious reason to visit the Sicilian capital is the food, so do as the locals do and start your day with a coffee and a pastry. The local specialties include both sweet and savoury treats, from cannoli (crispy cream-filled pastry shells) to sfincioni (a variation on foccaccia) to arancini (breaded rice balls), so make sure to try out a few different bakeries as you wander round the town.
If you like your holidays with a macarbre twist, head to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini to see the mummified remains of the 16th-century Capuchin monks and other locals who asked to be buried in their crypt - it became a bit of a status symbol. Years ago, families would visit the catacombs to pray with their deceased loved ones, and there are thousands of bodies there, in different states of preservation, and some set in particular poses.
On a brighter note, the warm weather and gorgeous coastline are the main reason most tourists flock to Sicily, and many of the island's most beautiful beaches are just a short way from Palermo. Mondello beach - which you'd never guess was a former swampland - is the closest to the city centre and the largest in the area, while the quiet Arenella beach is in the very heart of the city but rarely busy.
Great day trips
As Sicily's capital, Palermo is the island's main travel hub, and you can explore the region by hopping on a train at the central station to explore the quaint towns and villages dotted around the coast, or head to one of the island's cultural treasure troves, Cefalu, Messina, or Taormina. Alternatively, you can take the ferry to Naples, Sardinia or Genova, or a long-distance train to mainland Italy to extend your trip.
Off the beaten track
Palermo is small enough to explore on foot, meaning you can take plenty of detours to duck down side streets and take a closer look at curiosities you pass on the way. There are no shortage of quirky sights in Palermo, from the firefighters' headquarters, which is a striking example of fascist-era art deco design tucked in amongst ancient buildings. Make sure you take the hike (or the bus, for a more relaxed journey) to the Sanctuary of Santa Rosilia, a church and convent carved into a cave at the top of a hill.