Quick show of hands – who has Palermo on their must-see-in-your-lifetime list?
The capital and largest city of Sicily does not enjoy a highly-recommended status among the travelers (and, like any other place in the South of Italy, is nowhere near the list of most-visited destinations in the country). It shows signs of habitual neglect all over its historic center. Garbage in the streets is an unavoidable constant. Few, if any, points of interest are of can’t-miss quality. Driving is notoriously nightmarish.
And yet, our first visit to Palermo – lasting just over a day and a half – left us with largely positive vibes. The eminently walkable city core is full of hidden gems. The tumultuous history left behind an interesting amalgam of cultures and styles in the architectural composition. And there is a level of vibrancy on a big-city scale that is not entirely diluted by visitors, as may happen in “top destination” locales.
Let’s start with elevated perspectives over the city, with a number of eye-catching sights regularly puncturing the mostly unremarkable roofline.
The selection of shots above is a mix of perspectives from two elevated viewpoints: the roof of the Cathedral and the observation deck of Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore.
The focal center of the old town is Quattro Canti, “the four songs”. This is where the four historic districts touched each other to combine into one multi-cultural city. There are four Baroque slightly concave façades built in a uniform way with fountains and statues, representing one of the earliest examples of town planning.
In the afternoons and evenings, the place is pretty lively. I got up very early in the morning to take pictures without passerby.
I do have all four façades and all four fountain closeups, but I suspect a couple of examples is illustrative enough in this context.
A few dozen steps from Quattro Canti is Piazza Pretoria, home of the most impressive eponymous fountain.
Behind the fountain in this perspective is the lovely dome of Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini. It featured in the elevated-views intro.
It is really too bad that the fountain is dry – the stupendous composition gotta be even more splendid with flowing water.
Another standout sight is Teatro Massimo.
At the time of construction at the end of the 19th century, the opera house was the third-largest in Europe.
Teatro Massimo is renowned for its acoustics, but somewhat ironically, if you tour the interior, you will probably be most impressed neither by the auditorium nor by the royal box but rather by the circular “echo room”, a large withdrawing lounge that has a couple of weird acoustic effects more suitable to keeping secrets from people around you rather than achieving clarity of sound. Sadly, I cannot illustrate sound effects in pictorial form.
Any large city in Italy offers those interested in religious architecture a lot to discover. Palermo is certainly not an exception. There are at least a dozen places of worship worth exploring in the city center. Interestingly, not too many of them face open squares. Here is an example of one that does – the church of San Domenico.
It is an exalted burial place of many illustrious Sicilians, but comparatively spartan on the inside.
Conversely, you can find several churches in Palermo where the unrestrained lavishness of the interior completely transcends the relative humbleness of the façade. Nowhere that is more true than at the Church of the Gesù. It has a lovely enough exterior, but make sure to step inside and be dazzled by the jaw-dropping interior, with luxurious decorative elements covering every inch of every surface.
Other similar examples on a more intimate scale can be found in churches such as San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini, Immaculate Conception, or Santissimo Salvatore, to name just a few.
A somewhat curious observation: on a Saturday afternoon in late September practically every central church in town held a wedding ceremony. Coming across seemingly a dozen different weddings on different corners was definitely a first for us.
The streets of Palermo clearly suffer from competing eyesores of trash and graffiti on practically every block away from the main thoroughfares. The obvious lack of TLC is evident all over the town as well. But occasionally, you may come across a grand perspective…
…or simply a very atmospheric one.
Under the heading of “в общественном парижском туалете есть надписи на русском языке”, we came across this unexplained sign on a street-facing utility box panel.
For my non-Russian-speaking audience, the words in the photo translate to “What did you smoke?”, and the quote above comes from a famous old song basically positing that there are Russians everywhere.
A couple of last-minute early-morning views along the two principal streets of the old Palermo, from the middle of Quattro Canti. This one is along Via Maqueda towards the opera (the distant greenery marks the spot of Piazza Verdi).
And this one is along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele towards Porta Nuova.
This photo essay lacks pictures from the unmissable Palermo markets, of which there are three distinct ones within central districts. Unfortunately, our visit to Palermo spanned Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, when the markets are significantly less bustling than at other times. So, while we walked through their locations, there wasn’t enough picture quality for me to find reasonable shots.
But this is not the end of Palermo’s visuals. The city also enjoys a serial World Heritage site that includes the Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and a few named churches. They will be covered in the next installment.