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It has been as fabled as it has been feared, as loved as it has been loathed, it has been described as heaven and hell on earth, and it has served as the headquarters for kings and kingpins alike. One thing is certain about Palermo: It always leaves a lasting impression on those who visit.

Although often overlooked on the grand tour of Italy, this city is a veritable open-air museum, boasting the largest historical center in Europe (240 hectares/593 acres) that includes more than 500 palazzi and churches. It is definitely not short on cultural richness. But it's also a city where lovely Art Nouveau villas are dwarfed by concrete behemoths and where traffic is so bad that walking will get you there faster than any moving vehicle.

For many centuries, Palermo was a crossroads of innovations and ideas. The home for numerous social, political, and cultural breakthroughs, it was where the first known parliament in Europe convened, where the roots of Italian literature took hold, where paper evolved from the fragile papyrus, and where a fellow named Jawhar as-Siquilli set out to found the city of Cairo in 969 A.D.

As the capital city of Sicily, Palermo has witnessed more political turmoil and exchanges of power than many independent nations. Little did the Phoenicians know what would become of this natural harbor when they landed here sometime around 800 B.C.

Palermo's golden age came to full fruition under Norman domination led by Count Roger of Hauteville, who captured Palermo in 1072. Under his son, King Roger, Palermo became a bastion of social, cultural, and religious tolerance. Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in harmony.

Under Roger's grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the grandeur of the city started to decline once he set up court outside Palermo, creating fertile terrain for yet another takeover, this time by the Angevins. Other dynasties were to follow, yet Palermo never regained the spirit of its golden age.

In the 1980s the unthinkable happened: Mafia dons and family members started spilling the beans about Cosa Nostra. Entire families of some informants were murdered. In 1992, the people of Palermo had finally had enough. Although these days Palermo has a staggering level of unemployment, young people are willing to invest in their city instead of moving away. In the process, they hope to restore it to its original splendor of long ago.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.