Palermo is a city of decay and of splendour and, provided you can handle its raw energy, deranged driving and chaos, has plenty of appeal. Unlike Florence or Rome, many of the city’s treasures are hidden, rather than scrubbed up for endless streams of tourists. Be prepared to explore: this giant treasure-trove of palaces, castles and churches has a unique architectural fusion of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and baroque gems. Palermitans themselves have inherited the intriguing looks and social rituals of their multicultural past. Life here is full on: a very public, warm-hearted and noisy affair.
While some of the crumbling palazzi bombed in WWII are being restored, others remain dilapidated; turned into shabby apartments, the faded glory of their ornate façades is just visible behind strings of brightly coloured washing. The evocative history of the city remains very much part of the daily life of its inhabitants, and the dusty web of backstreet markets in the old quarter has a tangible Middle Eastern feel.
The flip side is the modern city, a mere 15-minute stroll away, parts of which could be neatly jigsawed and slotted into Paris with their grid system of wide avenues lined by seductive shops and handsome 19th-century apartments.
At one time an Arab emirate and seat of a Norman kingdom, Palermo became Europe’s grandest city in the 12th century but, in recent years, its fame (or notoriety) has originated mainly from headline-grabbing assassinations and political corruption. The Mafia still maintains a stranglehold on the city; many of the judges require 24-hour police surveillance and protection payoffs remain commonplace.
Best places to stay in Palermo
Sicily - Palermo (Chapter)
Flamboyant, feisty and full of life, Palermo evokes a strong response from visitors and residents alike. It’s easy to overlook the city’s many problems when you enter a church full of luminous Byzantine mosaics or witness the genial banter at a street market.
Italy by the slice: a guide to Italy's regional pizzas
Olympic debates may keep piazzas across Italy buzzing most summer nights, but only until the pizza arrives. Silence falls as diners rip into the hot crust, hastily blow on scorched fingers, then dig right in again.
Palermo destination guides
Top 10 spookiest buildings around the world
Have you ever visited a building that gave you the creeps? These 10 buildings around the world are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine. 1.
Palermo Shore Excursion: Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus Tour
While in port in Palermo, spend your time enjoying the perfect do-it-yourself shore excursion in this beautiful city. Head into the city to see all of Palermo’s top attractions on a convenient hop-on hop-off bus tour! Admire the Politeama Theatre, overlooking Politeama Square, and drive by the Massimo Theatre, one of the biggest and most famous opera houses in Italy.
Palermo City Hop-on Hop-off Tour
With a Hop-on Hop-off tour of Palermo, you will enjoy an exciting visit to the city. Starting from the terminal outside the Politeama Theatre, overlooking the square of the same name, you will drive in front of the Massimo Theatre one of the most capacious and famous opera house in Italy.