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Cities in the Spotlight: Palermo, Italy

Updated: Mar 11

Today we are once again traveling to Europe. This time we are looking at Palermo, Italy.


Palermo City Information

Palermo is a city in southern Italy, the capital of both the autonomous region of Sicily and the Metropolitan City of Palermo, the city's surrounding metropolitan province. The city is noted for its history, culture, architecture, and gastronomy, playing an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. Palermo is in the northwest of the island of Sicily, by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians as Sis ("flower"). Palermo then became a possession of Carthage. Two Greek colonies were established, known collectively as Panormos; the Carthaginians used this name on their coins after the 5th century BC. As Panormus, the town became part of the Roman Republic and Empire for over a thousand years. From 831 to 1072 the city was under Arab rule in the Emirate of Sicily when the city became the capital of Sicily for the first time. During this time the city was known as Balarm. Following the Norman conquest, Palermo became the capital of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Sicily, that lasted from 1130 to 1816. The inhabitants are known as Palermitani or, poetically, panormiti. The languages spoken by its inhabitants are the Italian language and the Palermitano dialect of the Sicilian language.


Palermo Historical Significance

Evidence of human settlement in the area now known as Palermo goes back to at least the Mesolithic period, perhaps around 8000 BC, where a group of cave drawings at nearby Addaura from that period has been found. The original inhabitants were Sicani people who, according to Thucydides, arrived from the Iberian Peninsula (perhaps Catalonia).

In 734 BC the Phoenicians, maritime traders from northern Canaan, built a small settlement on the natural harbor of Palermo, which became known as Ziz. It became one of the three main Phoenician colonies of Sicily, along with Motya and Soluntum. However, the remains of the Phoenician presence in the city are few and mostly preserved in the very populated center of the downtown area, making any excavation efforts costly and logistically difficult. The site chosen by the Phoenicians made it easy to connect the port to the mountains with two roads that today have become Via Cappuccini and Corso Pisani. These roads helped the Phoenicians in trading with the populations that lived beyond the mountains that surround the gulf.

The first settlement is known as Paleapolis, meaning "Old City", in order to distinguish it from a second settlement built during the 5th century BC, called Neapolis (Greek: Νεάπολις) or "New City". Neapolis was erected towards the east and along with it, monumental walls around the whole settlement were built to prevent attacks from foreign threats. Some parts of this structure can still be seen in the Cassaro district. This district was named after the walls themselves; the word Cassaro derives from the Arab al-qaṣr (castle, stronghold). Along the walls there were few doors to access and exit the city, suggesting that trade even toward the inner part of the island occurred frequently. Moreover, according to some studies, it may be possible that there were some walls that divided the old city from the new one too. The colony developed around a central street, cut perpendicularly by minor streets. This street today has become Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

Carthage was Palermo's major trading partner under the Phoenicians and the city enjoyed a prolonged peace during this period. Palermo came into contact with the Ancient Greeks between the 6th and the 5th centuries BC which preceded the Sicilian Wars, a conflict fought between the Greeks of Syracuse and the Phoenicians of Carthage for control over the island of Sicily. During this war, the Greeks named the settlement Pánormos, 'wide haven' due to its large anchorage, from which the present name of the city developed. The Phoenicians began using the Greek name on the city's coinage from the 5th century BC. It was from Palermo that Hamilcar I's fleet (which was defeated at the Battle of Himera) was launched. In 409 BC the city was looted by Hermocrates of Syracuse. The Sicilian Wars ended in 265 BC when Syracuse allied with the Romans of Italy and pushed the Carthaginians off of the island during the First Punic War. In 276 BC, during the Pyrrhic War, Panormos briefly became a Greek colony after being conquered by Pyrrhus of Epirus but returned to Phoenician Carthage in 275 BC. In 254 BC Panormos was besieged and conquered by the Romans in the first battle of Panormus. Carthage attempted to reconquer Panormus in 251 BC but failed.

As the Roman Empire was falling apart, Palermo fell under the control of several Germanic tribes. The first were the Vandals in 440 AD under the rule of their king Geiseric. The Vandals had occupied all the Roman provinces in North Africa by 455 establishing themselves as a significant force. They acquired Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily shortly afterward. However, they soon lost these newly acquired possessions to the Ostrogoths. The Ostrogothic conquest under Theodoric the Great began in 488; Theodoric supported Roman culture and government unlike the Germanic Goths. The Gothic War took place between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was the first part of Italy to be taken under the control of General Belisarius who was commissioned by the Eastern Emperor. Justinian I solidified his rule in the following years.

The Arabs took control of the island in 904, and the Emirate of Sicily was established. Muslim rule on the island lasted for about 120 years. Palermo displaced Syracuse as the capital of Sicily. It was said to have then begun to compete with Córdoba and Cairo in terms of importance and splendor. For more than a hundred years Palermo was the capital of a flourishing emirate. The Arabs also introduced many agricultural crops which remain a mainstay of Sicilian cuisine. After dynastic quarrels, however, there was a Norman conquest in 1072. Normans conquered Palermo after a long siege. Indeed, the feat proved difficult because the Normans had never besieged such a populous city with such powerful walls. After 5 months of siege, Normans built numerous stairs and war machines and finally conquered the city. The family who returned the city to Christianity were called the Hautevilles, including Robert Guiscard and his army, who is regarded as a hero by the natives. It was under his nephew Roger II of Sicily that Norman holdings in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula were promoted from the County of Sicily into the Kingdom of Sicily. The kingdom's capital was Palermo, with the King's Court held at the Palazzo dei Normanni. Much construction was undertaken during this period, such as the building of Palermo Cathedral. The Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe.

Thanks to the marriage between Constance, Queen of Sicily, and Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, Palermo, and the whole of Sicily was inherited by their son Frederick II, who became King of Sicily in 1198 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1220. Palermo was the preferred city of Emperor Frederick II. Muslims of Palermo emigrated or were expelled during Frederick's rule. After an interval of Angevin rule (1266–1282), Sicily came under the control of the Aragon and Barcelona dynasties. By 1330, Palermo's population had declined to 51,000.

From 1479 until 1713 Palermo was ruled by the Kingdom of Spain, and again between 1717 and 1718. Palermo was also under Savoy control between 1713 and 1717 and 1718–1720 as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht. It was ruled by Austria between 1720 and 1734. After the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Sicily was handed over to the House of Savoy, but by 1734 it was in Bourbon possession. Charles III chose Palermo for his coronation as King of Sicily. Charles had new houses built for the growing population, while trade and industry grew as well. However, Palermo had become just another provincial city as the Royal Court resided in Naples. Charles' son Ferdinand, though disliked by the population, took refuge in Palermo after the French Revolution in 1798. His son Alberto died on the way to Palermo and is buried in the city. When the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was founded, the original capital city was Palermo (1816) but a year later moved to Naples. From 1820 to 1848 Sicily was shaken by upheavals, which culminated on 12 January 1848, with a popular insurrection, the first one in Europe that year, led by Giuseppe La Masa. A parliament and constitution were proclaimed. The first president was Ruggero Settimo. The Bourbons reconquered Palermo in 1849, and it remained under their rule until the Expedition of the Thousand, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, conquered the city after the Siege of Palermo in May 1860. After the plebiscite later that year Palermo, along with the rest of Sicily, became part of the new Kingdom of Italy (1861).

The majority of Sicilians preferred independence to annexation to the Savoy kingdom; in 1866, Palermo became the seat of a week-long popular rebellion, which was finally crushed after martial law was declared. The Italian government blamed anarchists and the Church, specifically the Archbishop of Palermo, for the rebellion and began enacting anti-Sicilian and anti-clerical policies. A new cultural, economic, and industrial growth was spurred by several families, like the Florio, the Ducrot, the Rutelli, the Sandron, the Whitaker, the Utveggio, and others. In the early twentieth century, Palermo expanded outside the old city walls, mostly to the north along the new boulevards Via Roma, Via Dante, Via Notarbartolo, and Viale della Libertà. These roads would soon boast a huge number of villas in the Art Nouveau style. Many of these were designed by the architect Ernesto Basile. The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, designed by Ernesto Basile for the Florio family, is a good example of Palermitan Art Nouveau. The huge Teatro Massimo was designed in the same period by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, Ernesto's father, and built by the Rutelli & Machì building firm of the industrial and old Rutelli Italian family in Palermo, and was opened in 1897.

During the Second World War, Palermo was heavily bombed by the Allied air forces in 1942 and 1943, until its capture during the Allied invasion of Sicily on 22 July 1943. The harbour (the main objective of the air attacks) and the surrounding quarters were effectively destroyed, as was a considerable part of the city, with heavy civilian casualties. When American troops entered Palermo in 1943 they were greeted with "a thunderous welcome by what seemed the entire population demonstrating their feelings about the Fascist rule." The two captured Italian generals claimed that they were happy because in their view "the Sicilians were not human beings but animals". Anti-Sicilian prejudice was part of the fascist regime's worldview, being promoted by pro-fascist newspapers, particularly in the north of Italy.

In 1946 the city was declared the seat of the Regional Parliament, as the capital of a Special Status Region (1947) whose seat is in the Palazzo dei Normanni. A theme in the city's modern age has been the struggle against the Sicilian Mafia, Red Brigades, and outlaws such as Salvatore Giuliano, who controlled the neighbouring area of Montelepre. The Italian state effectively has had to share control of the territory, economically and administratively, with the Mafia. The "Sack of Palermo" was one of the dramatic consequences of this problem. This popular term refers to the speculative building practices that resulted in the destruction of a great number of historical buildings and green areas in favour of poor buildings, mainly between the 1950s and the 1980s. The reduced importance of agriculture in the Sicilian economy has led to a massive migration to the cities, especially Palermo, which swelled in size, leading to rapid expansion towards the north. The regulatory plans for expansion were largely ignored in the boom. New parts of town appeared almost out of nowhere, but without parks, schools, public buildings, proper roads, and the other amenities that characterise a modern city.


Travel to Palermo

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Having been the crossroads of civilizations for millennia, Palermo delivers a heady, heavily spiced mix of Byzantine mosaics, Arabesque domes, and frescoed cupolas. This is a city at the edge of Europe and at the centre of the ancient world, a place where souk-like markets rub up against baroque churches, where date palms frame Gothic palaces, and where the blue-eyed and fair have bronze-skinned cousins.

Centuries of dizzying highs and crushing lows have formed a complex metropolis. Here, crumbling staircases lead to gilded ballrooms and guarded locals harbour hearts of gold. Just don't be fooled. Despite its noisy streets, Sicily’s largest city is a shy beast, rewarding the inquisitive with citrus-filled cloisters, stucco-laced chapels, and crooked side streets dotted with youthful artisan studios. Add to this Italy’s biggest opera house and an ever-growing number of vibrant, new-school eateries and bars and you might find yourself falling suddenly, unexpectedly in love.


Must See Sites

Cappella Palatina; Designed by Roger II in 1130, this extraordinary chapel is Palermo's top tourist attraction. Located on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling, the latter a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. Note that queues are likely, and you'll be refused entry if you're wearing shorts, a short skirt or a low-cut top. The chapel's well-lit interior is simply breathtaking. Every inch is inlaid with precious stones, giving the space a lustrous quality. These exquisite mosaics were mainly the work of Byzantine Greek artisans brought to Palermo by Roger II in 1140 especially for this project. They capture expressions, detail and movement with extraordinary grace and delicacy, and sometimes with enormous power – most notably in the depiction of Cristo Pantocratore (Christ All Powerful) and angels on the dome. The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, though other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades. Some of the mosaics are later and less-assured additions, for instance the Virgin and Saints in the main apse under Cristo Pantocratore. Fortunately, these don't detract too much from the overall achievement. It's not only the mosaics you should be gazing at – don't miss the painted wooden ceiling featuring muqarnas, a decorative device resembling stalactites that is unique in a Christian church (and, many speculate, a sign of Roger II's secret identity as a Muslim). The walls are decorated with handsome marble inlay that displays a clear Islamic aesthetic, and the carved marble in the floor is stunning: marble was as precious as any gemstone in the 12th century, so the floor's value at the time of its construction is almost immeasurable by today's standards.

Palazzo dei Normanni; Home to Sicily's regional parliament, this venerable palace dates back to the 9th century. However, it owes its current look (and name) to a major Norman makeover, during which spectacular mosaics were added to its royal apartments and magnificent chapel, the Cappella Palatina. Visits to the apartments, which are off-limits from Tuesday to Thursday, take in the mosaic-lined Sala dei Venti and King Roger's 12th-century bedroom, Sala di Ruggero II.

Cattedrale di Palermo; A feast of geometric patterns, ziggurat crenellations, maiolica cupolas and blind arches, Palermo's cathedral has suffered aesthetically from multiple reworkings over the centuries, but remains a prime example of Sicily's unique Arab-Norman architectural style. The interior, while impressive in scale, is essentially a marble shell whose most interesting features are the royal Norman tombs (to the left as you enter), the treasury (home to Constance of Aragon's gem-encrusted 13th-century crown) and the panoramic views from the roof.

Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas; Situated in a Renaissance monastery, this splendid, wheelchair-accessible museum houses some of Sicily's most valuable Greek and Roman artefacts, including the museum's crown jewel: a series of original decorative friezes from the temples at Selinunte. Other important finds in the museum's collection include Phoenician sarcophagi from the 5th century BC, Greek carvings from Himera, the Hellenistic Ariete di bronzo di Siracusa (Bronze Ram of Syracuse), Etruscan mirrors and the largest collection of ancient anchors in the world.

Teatro Massimo; Taking over 20 years to complete, Palermo's neoclassical opera house is the largest in Italy and the second-largest in Europe. The closing scene of The Godfather: Part III, with its visually arresting juxtaposition of high culture, crime, drama and death, was filmed here and the building's richly decorated interiors are nothing short of spectacular. Guided 30-minute tours are offered throughout the day in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German.

Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria; Built as a hospice in the early 14th century and transformed into a Dominican convent the following century, this monastic complex wows with its magnificent maiolica cloister, surrounded by unique balconied cells and punctuated by an 18th-century fountain by Sicilian sculptor Ignazio Marabitti. The convent's rooftop terraces offer spectacular views of the surrounding piazzas and city, while the church's baroque interior harbours works by prolific artists, among them Filippo Randazzo, Vito D'Anna and Antonello Gagini.


Must Try Food & Drink

Pasta chî sàrdi; One of Sicilian favorites, this seemingly simple pasta dish of supposedly Arabic origins is an amazing combination of flavors and textures, and represents a perfect example of Sicily’s diverse culinary heritage. The sauce for pasta chî sàrdi is delicately flavored with saffron and made with the freshest possible sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, and sultanas. As for the pasta itself, bucatini are the classic choice, but some prefer a thicker type of pasta like bigoli or perciatelli. Pasta with sardines is often associated with Palermo, although it is found all across the island in its many regional varieties. However, the dish should only be consumed between March and September, when wild fennel is in season.

Frutta martorana; Frutta martorana are traditional marzipan sweets shaped to resemble fruits or vegetables. These treats can be found throughout Palermo and Messina in Sicily. It is said that frutta martorana originated in Palermo, in the Martorana monastery, where the nuns made them with a combination of almonds and sugar, shaped them like fruits, and decorated the empty, barren trees in their courtyard in order to impress a visiting archbishop. Eventually, the treats were sold to parishioners and became a great source of income for the church. The tradition is still alive in Palermo, especially on All Saints' Day, when frutta martorana can be found at most pastry shops in the city, with new varieties of the sweets, some of them even shaped like pane ca' meusa sandwich, a traditional street food item from Palermo.

Pani ca meusa; A staple street food in Palermo, this simple sandwich comprises of a soft vastedda bun that is filled with strips of fried calf’s spleen and (occasionally) lungs. The star ingredient is the meat and the basic version, known as schettu, is only topped with a squeeze of lemon juice, while the only available other option is maritatu, which includes a topping of shredded caciocavallo cheese. Believed to have originated in the 15th century, the sandwich is a favorite among the locals, but also a must-try delicacy for anyone who visits Palermo. It is typically sold by street vendors scattered throughout the city.

Tuma persa; This Italian cheese is also dubbed 'the lost cheese of Sicily' because it's produced by a single cheesemaker named Salvatore Passalaqua. Aged for more than 6 months, the cheese is made from raw cow's milk according to an ancient recipe that the cheesemaker found in his closet when he moved into a new home near Palermo. The rind of this hard cheese is coated with crushed peppercorns, and underneath it, the texture is creamy and crumbly. The flavors are earthy and milky with a sharp finish. Flavorful, but not salty, Tuma Persa can be used as a replacement for provolone and it's recommended to pair it with Sicilian wines such as Nero d'Avola, Passito di Pantelleria, and Malvasia Lipari.

Panelle; These delectable chickpea fritters are believed to have been introduced to Sicily by the Arabs who dominated the area between the 9th and the 11th century. Today, panelle are one of the most popular street foods on the island, especially in Palermo where they are traditionally served in a round bun with sesame seeds on top. Best enjoyed warm, the crunchy fritters are typically drizzled with lemon juice and, for a more substantial snack, they can be topped with fresh ricotta cheese.

Cannoli; These decadent, crispy fried pastry tubes filled with luscious ricotta cheese cream are perhaps one of Sicily's best known desserts outside of Italy. Cannoli are believed to have originated around Palermo during the 9th century, while Sicily was under Arab rule. Legend has it that they were originally prepared by the women of the ancient city of Qal'at al-Nisā' (lit. castle of women), the modern-day Caltanissetta, which at the time served as the harem of a Saracen emir. Later on, the recipe later somehow found its way to the monasteries of Palermo where nuns would prepare this lavish dessert during the carnival season. Cannoli have come a long way since then, becoming incredibly popular not only throughout Italy, but also in North America, where they were introduced by Sicilian immigrants in the late 19th century. The crispy pastry shells are typically flavored with cocoa, suet, and Marsala wine, while the delicate freshness of the sweetened ricotta is sometimes enriched with orange blossom water, candied orange peel, chocolate, zuccata candied pumpkin, or finely chopped pistachios. The name is derived from canna, a cane reed that’s cut into sections and used as a mold for frying the pastry shells, although metal cylinders have mostly replaced canna nowadays. And last, but certainly not least, cannoli shells are always filled just before serving to prevent them from getting soggy, ensuring the perfect feel of crunchiness against the creamy filling.

Cassata; Arguably Sicily’s most famous dessert, this traditional cake consists of liqueur-drenched genoise sponge cake layered with sweetened ricotta and fruit preserves, decorated with a marzipan shell and colorful candied fruits. It is believed that cassata originated as a simple sugar, egg, and ricotta cheesecake while its name is thought to have been derived from the Arabic word qas’ah, which refers to the bowl used to make the cake. This is traditionally a winter and spring specialty, and it is most often served around Easter. It’s usually chilled for 3 hours before serving. By the 14th century, cassata had become a dessert of the aristocracy. Even today, few people outside the culinary world are brave enough to prepare this elaborate delicacy at home. Other varieties of cassata exist today—cassata Catanese is quite popular in the Catania region of Italy, while cassatella di Sant’Agata is traditionally consumed during the feast of Saint Agatha, characterized by its small size, green marzipan, and a single cherry on top.

Crocchè; Crocchè is a famous Sicilian deep-fried snack. Also known as crocchè di patatte, and panzarotti in Neapolitan, it is made with mashed potatoes, eggs, Parmigiano and mozzarella cheese, and parsley or mint leaves. Additional ingredients occasionally include provolone cheese, prosciutto, and salami. This tasty snack with a crunchy exterior and silky soft interior was inspired by the famous French croquette, and it originated in the 17th century, when potatoes became a staple ingredient in Sicily. Crocchè is most commonly regarded as Italian street food, but it is occasionally also served in restaurants as a side dish or antipasto. It is best to consume it freshly fried, hot, and crunchy, when it is usually served with a splash of lemon juice.

Arancini; Arancini are big, golden rice balls filled with a savory combination of ingredients in the center. These balls are especially popular in Sicily. The fillings often include meat sauce with peas, dried prosciutto, cheeses such as mozzarella and pecorino, tomatoes, or dried capers. The balls are rolled in breadcrumbs and fried in hot oil, developing the characteristical golden color of the exterior. A popular theory says that the dish was invented in the 10th century during the Kalbid rule of Sicily. The name of the dish is derived from the Italian word for orange, arancia, referring to the similarities in visual appearance and color, so arancini means small oranges. Warm, delicious, and oily, arancini can often be found throughout southern Italy at numerous street carts. Every year on December 13th, there is a festival of Santa Lucia in Palermo, when the city is filled up with kiosks and carts selling these aromatic treats that are prepared specifically for the festival. During the holiday, there is even a sweet version of the dish, dusted with cocoa and sugar. Interestingly enough, western Sicilians call these snacks arancina in singular form, while eastern Sicilians call it arancino.

Sfincione; This traditional Sicilian focaccia is an oven-baked flatbread topped with an oregano-flavored tomato sauce made with the addition of onions, anchovies, breadcrumbs, and local cheeses such as caciocavallo, provolone, tuma, or ricotta. Sfincione is one of the island's favorite street foods, especially in Palermo, where street vendors are often seen driving around in their three-wheeled Piaggio Ape food trucks shouting "Scairsu r'uogghiu e chin'i pruvulazzu" (lit. little oil and lots of dust), referring to the crusty breadcrumb topping. The name sfincione is derived from the Arab word asfanaj and Greek sfoungári, both meaning sponge, which this flatbread resembles in appearance and texture.


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