Flamboyant, guarded, feisty yet staunchly aristocratic, Palermo is a seething mass of contradictions. Pock-marked buildings, broken pavements and decrepit infrastructure reveal deep political and economic cracks, and yet all are easy to overlook when you enter a church full of luminously beautiful Byzantine mosaics, wander along a street of stately baroque palazzi (palaces) or eavesdrop on the genial banter between canny stall owners and bargain-hunting housewives at a street market. Palermo is a cryptic creature, a city where nefarious neglect and soul-stirring beauty have always linked arms, where preconceptions are concurrently affirmed and subverted, where light and shade stir impressions that bury deep under your skin.
Beyond Palermo is a string of worthy day-trip destinations. Among these is the mosaicked magnificence of Monreale Cathedral, beach-loving Mondello, the pristine marine reserve of Ustica island, and the inland town of Corleone, home to a defiant anti-mafia museum.