Palermo is divided into four historical districts, or mandamenti, that spread out from Quattro Canti, or Four Corners. (Time was, and not too long ago, that it was unthinkable for Palermitani from one of these districts to marry someone from another.) The actual name of the square is Piazza Vigliena, after the viceroy who commissioned it; it marks the intersection of north-south Via Maqueda and east-west Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The square is also known as Theater of the Sun, because at any given time of day, the sun is shining on one of its four corners. Each corner of the square is decorated with a three-tiered niche: The first tier of each holds a fountain and a statue representing one of the four seasons; the second tier displays a statue of one of the Spanish Habsburg kings; and the third tier has a statue of the patron saint of whichever neighborhood adjoins the niche.
Southwest of the Quattro Canti, this is the oldest of the four mandamenti, also known as the mandamento Palazzo Reale because the royal palace was set here, in the highest part of the city. The Albergheria is filled with narrow, dimly lit alleyways and decaying buildings. Still, there are some exquisite corners—especially the splendid Piazza Bologni, with its noble palaces and statue of Charles V, and the historic market Il Ballarò extending from Piazza Bologni to Corso Tukory.
The northwestern neighborhood, enclosed within Via Maqueda, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Papireto, and Via Volturno, is a warren of tiny winding streets and alleyways spread out behind the Teatro Massimo. At its heart is the largest of Palermo’s markets, Il Capo, once the headquarters of the secret society of the Beati Paoli, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Pickpockets still adhere to this age-old principle, so watch your wallet.
Owing its name to the castle that once overlooked the sea, this northeastern quadrant is bordered by Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Cavour, Via Roma, and Via Crispi. Though heavily bombed in World War II, the neighborhood still has some spectacular palazzi and churches, such as the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita and the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. The centuries-old market La Vucciria, once the beating heart of Palermo, is here, with a few remaining butcher shops, fishmongers, and hole-in-the-wall eateries—and, more recently, a nightlife scene.
Settled a thousand years ago by Arabs, this southeast quadrant, bounded by Via Lincoln, Via Roma, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the Foro Italico, still has an exotic aura. Some patches were never rebuilt after 1943 air raids; the never-completed church Santa Maria dello Spasimo (Via dello Spasimo; tel. 091/616-1486) is a skeleton of broken Gothic vaults. Even 10 years ago, walking down La Kalsa’s narrow lanes was risky business (it’s still wise to avoid empty areas after dark), but a rash of hip restaurants and bars have recently opened in old palazzi. The excellent Galleria Regionale della Sicilia is here, as is a delightful shady park in the middle of Piazza Marina, cooled by breezes off the nearby sea.
The monumental Teatro Massimo at Piazza Verdi roughly marks the division between the Old City and the New City. Head north along Via Maqueda, which becomes Via Ruggero Séttimo, to the massive double squares at Piazza Politeama, site of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. North of the square, swanky Viale della Libertà runs up to the Giardino Inglese (the English Gardens). This is Palermo’s Art Nouveau quarter, though many streamlined beauties were torn down to make way for ugly cement behemoths, marring the neighborhood's elegance.
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