Is Palermo Italy’s most multicultural city? The result of Italy’s quilted history is evident in the vast range of architectural styles and unexpected fusion of ingredients, as well as in many place names. Being the biggest city of an island, Palermo is the apotheosis of multiculturalism: since the beginning of civilization, invaders, European dynasties, commerce and history have all brought something unique to this city. Visiting Palermo, you will be surprised by how special the mixing of cultures from all over the world can be.
Palermo Italy: where is it?
Palermo is the regional capital of Sicily, the biggest island not only in Italy but also in the whole Mediterranean Sea. Although Palermo is Sicily’s main city, is not easy to reach when coming from the mainland. The city is connected with the rest of the country by ferries and trains, however it is quite a long trip. The best way to reach the city is by plane: the Falcone-Borsellino International Airport in Punta Raisi is well connected with major Italian and European cities.
Sights in Palermo Italy
Founded in 743 BC, Palermo is one of the oldest cities in Italy and among the first in the world to experience a modern form of civilization. Its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean brought invasions and dominations, as well as periods of prosperity; all of them left an incredible artistic and cultural heritage. Palermo’s historic city center and its province represent a unique blend of different cultures: Baroque, Gothic, Norman, Byzantine and Renaissance architecture is scattered everywhere.
- Palazzo dei Normanni: One of Italy’s most notable example of Norman architectures, the palace was the seat of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination, while today it is the home of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Among its masterpieces there is the Cappella Palatina, a priceless jewel in the history of Italy. Designed in 1130 , the chapel is an extraordinary mix of Byzantine, Norman and Arab arts. Its wooden muqarnas ceiling, the astonishing inlaid marble floors and the stunning gold mosaics make this chapel a harmonious example of contamination in art.
- Teatro Massimo: Built by Ernesto Basile in 1897 and dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II, Teatro Massimo is the third largest opera house in Europe and the biggest in Italy. Its site in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi is right on the border between the old Palermo town center and the more modern, commercial part of Palermo. The theater is a magnificent example of typical Neoclassical Italian style. The atmosphere, with its color scheme of sumptuous gold and red, is surpassed only by its sight lines and acoustics, to this day considered among the best in all of Europe.
- Cattedrale di Palermo: The imposing cathedral is the symbol of the complex past of the city, and its stones, arches and towers tell the eventful story of Palermo. Built on the site of a previous Christian basilica in a truly unique Arab-Norman style, the cathedral experienced a large number of renovations that radically changed its appearance. Today the building its a splendid mix of art and architecture with its arches, columns, towers, windows and doors belonging to different eras between 1185, the year it was begun, and the last century.
- Cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale: The beauty of Palermo is also in its province. The unique Arab-Norman style that begins in the old town center and continues out into the province was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage site in 2015, making Italy the country with the most UNESCO world heritage sites and Sicily the region hosting the most within Italy. The Cappella Palatina, the Cattedrale di Palermo, the cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale close to the city, as well as five other buildings scattered around Palermo’s historic center were declared “an example of a social-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures on the island which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration. They also bear testimony to the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions: Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French.”
- Ballarò Market: The beating heart of Palermo is its outdoor market where people, history, customs and food magically blend in the Mercato di Ballarò, the busiest market in Southern Italy. Located southeast of Palazzo dei Normanni, Ballarò is an icon of Sicily; a fascinating mix of noises, smells and people. From street food to fresh fish and vegetables, from foreign goods to authentic Sicilian specialties, this market just keeps being what it has always been for the last couple of millennia: the meeting point of populations and traditions from all over the world.
- Kalsa Quarter: Constructed in the last century, Kalsa can be defined as a city within a city. Often overlooked by visitors, the district is an authentic hidden gem built upon medieval history by Arab domination. Indeed, it was one of the first planned Arab localities to be established in Europe. The name Kalsa comes from al Khalesa, the district’s Arabic name meaning “the chosen.” The Arabic flair of the district blends with its most famous buildings, all of them built in the Italian style: the oratories of San Domenico and Santa Cita, built in the Rococo style; Palazzo Mirto, a wonderful example of 17th century architecture; and the sumptuous Palazzo Abatellis, hosting masterpieces by Antonello da Messina.
Food in Palermo Italy
Sicilian cuisine finds its roots in centuries of invasions by Mediterranean populations, and Palermo makes no exception in offering a large selection of dishes. Greek, Arab, Spanish, Norman and other Mediterranean roots can be discovered in ingredients such as capers, almonds, olives, citrus, oregano, hard durum wheat, wild fennel and sea salt. When in Palermo, you cannot miss trying at least one of these specialties:
- Arancini: fried rice balls coated with breadcrumbs and filled with ragù, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and peas.
- Pani ca’ meusa: a roll of bread stuffed with veal entrails.
- Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines): the traditional recipe mixes bucatini pasta with onions, olive oil, sardines and anchovy which is then flavored with fennel, saffron and pine nuts and topped with toasted breadcrumbs.
- Anelletti al forno: little rings of pasta that are baked in tomato sauce with provolone cheese, eggplant and eggs.
- Cannoli: tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough filled with a sweet, creamy filling. Remember, real Sicilian cannoli are always filled with ricotta cheese; no substitutes are accepted!
- Cassata: A round, iced cake that is moistened with fruit juices and layered with ricotta cheese, candied citrus peel and chocolate or vanilla filling.
Another way to enhance your vacation and discover the fascinating secrets of Sicily’s culinary tradition is to take a cooking class. You will go to one of the busy food markets in the old town center to buy typical Sicilian products that will later be used to cook a four-course meal under the supervision of a truly Sicilian chef.
Wine in Palermo Italy
For more than 2,500 years Sicily has been one of the main centers in Mediterranean viniculture. Historically famous for wine such as sweet Muscats from Pantelleria or Marsala, the island’s dry table wines have risen in popularity in the last decades to become one of the most appreciated “nectars” in the world.
One of the key territories of this success is the Alcamo area, a spectacular region in the countryside outside Palermo. The dry white wines of the Alcamo area are well known for their flawless quality. This historic landscape ia not only the perfect place for unforgettable wine tours, but is also a fantastic occasion for an impressive sightseeing tour of UNESCO-listed monuments such as Monreale Cathedral.
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