You should give Palermo at least 3 days, and even then you will have grasped only some of its highlights. Most of everything you want to see is within walking distance of the Quattro Canti, where Via Maqueda meets Via Vittorio Emanuele. If you have only a day for the artistic monuments of Sicily's capital, here's how the top-five sights rank on a very short A-list:
- Palazzo dei Normanni/Cappella Palatina
- San Giovanni degli Eremiti
- Museo Archeologico Regionale
- Catacombe dei Cappuccini
- Galleria Regionale della Sicilia
The Church That Never Was
One of the most evocative moments you can experience in Palermo is to stand in the church ruins of Santa Maria dello Spasimo on a dying summer day, watching the remains of this late Gothic building catch fire with the rays of the setting sun. This sight evokes the spirit of Raphael, who came here to paint his famous portrait of the anguish of the Madonna before the cross. You'll have to go to the Prado in Madrid to see the actual masterpiece, but the inspiration for it is right here in La Kalsa.
Getting Air in Confined Quarters
In the 1800s, it wasn't proper for a woman, especially if she was widowed, to go for a breath of fresh air along the Foro Umberto, as people might "talk." The solution? Right below Palazzo Butera, a promenade in confined quarters, the Mura Delle Cattive (the Wall of the Captives), was the area designated for these "outcasts," where they could stroll in peace and not attract accusing looks.
See Palermo The Dolce Vita WayAll the walking around town can be very tiring, and some of the tiny side streets can seem off-putting. To get into those tiny little alleyways 1950s-style, entrust your tour to one of the men who drive specially outfitted, three-wheeler ape that get you around town with little hassle.
The Fountain of Shame
Adjoining Chiesa della Martorana in Piazza Pretoria, naked nymphs, gods, and goddesses romp over the 16th-century Fontana Pretoria, created by Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani for the garden of a Tuscan villa; it was sold to Palermo as a centerpiece of the city’s new waterworks. Palermitans call the nude-encrusted fountain the “Fountain of Shame”; nuns from a nearby convent went so far as to lop the noses off the naked males (you can still see some clumsy reattachments)—the sisters could not bring themselves to touch the members that really offended them.
The oratories of Giacomo Serpotta
Some of Palermo’s most delightful places of worship are oratories, private chapels funded by societies and guilds and usually connected to a larger church. Giacomo Serpotta, a native master of sculpting in stucco, decorated several oratorios in the early 18th century. Hours vary, but most are open Monday through Saturday 9am to 6pm. Admission to one oratory usually includes admission to a second one.
Serpotta was a member of the Society of the Holy Rosary, and he decorated the society’s Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico (Via dei Bambinai; tel. 091/332-779; 6€) with delightfully expressive putti (cherubs), who are locked forever in a playground of happy antics. His 3-D reliefs depict everything from the Allegories of the Virtues to the Apocalypse of St. John to a writhing “Devil Falling from Heaven.” Anthony van Dyck, the Dutch master who spent time in Palermo in the 1620s, did the “Madonna of the Rosary” over the high altar.
Serpotta also worked between 1698 and 1710 on the Oratorio di San Lorenzo (Via dell’Immacolatella; tel. 091/332-779; 3€), creating panels relating the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence to create what critics have admiringly called “a cave of white coral.” Some of the most expressive of the stuccoes depict the martyrdom of Lawrence, who was roasted to death and nonchalantly informed his tormentors, “I’m well done. Turn me over.” Caravaggio’s last large painting, a Nativity, once hung over the altar, but it was stolen in 1969 and never recovered.
The all-white Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita (Via Valverde 3; tel. 091/332-779; 6€) houses Serpotta's crowning achievement: a detailed relief of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, in which a coalition of European states defeated the Turks, more or less preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Western Europe and so defending Christianity against Islam. Serpotta’s cherubs, oblivious to international affairs, romp up and down the walls and climb onto window frames.
This city that so richly evokes past conquerors and baroque grandeur also has a rich contemporary art scene, with a beachhead in the beautiful 18th-century Palazzo Riso, home to the Polo Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia, Via Vittorio Emanuele 365 (tel. 091/587-717; 6€; open Tues–Wed and Sun 10am–7:30pm, Thurs–Sat 10am–11:30pm). Rotating exhibitions feature contemporary artists, while works by their predecessors, mostly late-19th and 20th-century Sicilian artists, fill a 15th-century Franciscan convent and an adjoining church, now the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), Via Sant’Ana 21 (tel. 091/843-1605; 7€; open Tues–Sun 9:30am–6:30pm). To best appreciate the galleries, use the excellent English-language audio guides.
House of Tiles
One of Palermo’s delightful hidden treasures is the Stanza al Genio, a collection of 2,300 historic tiles of Neapolitan and Sicilian manufacture. They cover every inch of a private apartment on the piano nobile of an old palace in the Kalsa district. An informative guide will walk you through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, explaining the glorious ceramics carpeting the walls and floors. The museum is at Via Garibaldi 11 (tel. 340/097-1561); Tuesday–Sunday tours in English are at 10am and 3pm, in Italian at 11am and 4pm. Admission is 9€.
Experience what it must have been like when the Moors had these baths all over the city. At Hammam, Via Torrearsa 17/d (tel. 091-320783; www.hammam.pa.it), there is an oasis of vigorous scrubs, sensuous steam baths, and soothing massages. Sybaritic doesn't even begin to cover it.
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.