In Palermo, street markets evoke Middle Eastern souks, and famous monuments bear the exotic artistic signature of the Arab-Norman 12th century, when the city was one of Europe's greatest cultural and intellectual centers. Palermo is Sicily’s largest port, its capital, and a jumble of contradictions. Parts of some neighborhoods remain bombed out and not yet rebuilt from World War II; unemployment, poverty, traffic, crime, and crowding are rampant. Yet Palermo boasts some of the greatest sights and museums in Italy, and looming over it all is crown-shaped Monte Pellegrino, what Goethe called “the most beautiful headland on earth.”

Even the mix of monuments can be baffling: Byzantine mosaics, rococo stuccoes, Islamic red domes, Catalonian-Gothic arches. Yet there is magic in its madness, and those who embrace the city’s chaotic charm discover artistic gems and memorable vignettes of street life. You won’t love every inch of this alluring yet hectic place, but you’ll be swept away by much of the city, and you may come away with the travel experience of a lifetime.

Things to Do

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Now the seat of the regional government offices, Palermo's sumptuous Palazzo dei Normanni and its Byzantine mosaics are a reminder of the city's Golden Age. More Arab-Norman architecture can be seen at two side-by-side medieval churches, San Cataldo & La Martorana. The mummified cadavers at the Catacombe dei Cappucini, the "library of corpses," fascinate some but terrify others. For a breath of fresh air, stroll Palermo's Botanical Gardens or the popular golden-sand beaches of Mondello Lido, outside the city center.

Shopping

Visit Palermo's bustling street markets for a taste of local life. At La Vucciria and Ballarò, you'll find mounds of purple artichokes, piles of blood-red oranges and the odd giant octopus, while street vendors playfully shout out to passers-by. Hand-painted Sicilian ceramics make great souvenirs, but hip fashion boutiques can be found along pedestrianized Via Principe di Belmonte, north of Palermo's medieval core. For high-end brands, Via Roma and Via Maqueda in the old town are the places to go.

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Nightlife and Entertainment

Palermitani spend balmy summer nights cooling off down by Mondello Lido, but back in the center, locals converge in the city's two liveliest bar-lined squares, Piazza Verdi and Piazza Castelnuovo. Meanwhile, the large indoor stage of the neoclassical Teatro Massimo puts on first-class opera and ballet performances, as does the grandiose Politeama Garibaldi.

Restaurants and Dining

Palermo shows off its multicultural past best through its gastronomy. Arab-influenced dishes from the city's long-departed conquerors include the zesty lemon granita drink, crumbly almond pastries and spicy fish couscous. For authentic cheap eats, snack on panelle (fritters made from chickpea flour) or calzoni (deep-fried dough pockets with savory fillings) at street stalls all over the city. The daring head to the medieval La Kalsa district to try local delicacy babalucci -- baby snails marinated in parsley, olive oil and garlic.

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