Palermo, Italy

Virtual travel to Palermo, Sicily - Italy

Top attractions & things to do in Palermo:

History, facts and travel tips about Palermo

Drenched in sunshine all year round, in a natural harbour, nestled comfortably into the coastline of the Conca d'Oro ("Golden Valley" or "horn of plenty") surrounded in verdant scenery and cocooned in mountains culminating in the peak of Mount Pellegrino (the Pilgrim Mountain) lies the stupendous city of Palermo. It was once completely cultivated into citrus groves, and plantations, but with urban growth and development, many sadly have disappeared. Notwithstanding, Palermo is renowned for its marvellous lemons and oranges, which though perhaps fewer in quantity than in years past, are still of outstanding quality.

Palermo's strength is in its beauty and civilisation more than its defensibility or military tradition. Completely accessible by sea, and situated in a valley, it has always been a target for invaders and an obvious foothold into Italy. Thus it has become one of the most conquered and occupied cities in the world.

The Phoenicians who were the first to occupy Palermo, named it Zyz, "the flower". They were later superseded by Carthaginians, then by the Romans who changed its name to Panormus.

By Medieval times the city was in the hands of Greek Byzantine powers till the ninth century, when thanks to Arab conquest, it flowered into its true splendour becoming the capital of Sicily having, in its heyday an emir, giving it great status in the Arab world. In this period the city was enriched with sumptuous palaces, more than three hundred mosques and lively markets. The city assumed the "Aswanesque" form and structure of a typical Islamic metropolis, which it has preserved to this day. The principle quarter at the time surrounded the residence of the Emir, and was known as La Kalsa. It became the zone of mosques, artisans, salesmen and soldiers, bordered by the ancient fortified castle - il Càssaro.

In the hands of the Normans, il Càssaro became the headquarters for all governors till the arrival of Frederick II who became the father of one of the greatest epochs in Palermo's history. It was he who united the cultural characteristics the city had collected over the centuries from diverse dominions, creating a coherent patchwork "whole" from its fragmented past. Building the tolerant approach to the city's Arab characteristics as his Norman predecessors had done, he created an environment in which diverse aspects of Palermo maintained their peculiarities under one comprehensive government. The result was an ethnically varied, thriving city of international renown.

During the Angevin domination, Palermo's primate Charles left Palermo and conquered Naples. In one of his many subsequent absences, the Sicilian Vespers revolt broke out, restoring Palermo to echoes of its stolen former glories, this time under Spanish Aragon rule.

Palermo remained in Aragon hands, as an independent state, and later under direct Spanish rule till the mid 1700's.

Palermo remained in Aragon hands, as an independent state, and later under direct Spanish rule till the mid 1700's.

For a short period it subsequently fell into the hands of the Bourbons before Garibaldi's unification of Italy with the Expedition of the Thousand, who bought Bourbon domination to heel, ushering in the historic period known as the Risorgimento ("Resurrection").

The extraordinary street plan of Palermo has maintained its original Medieval Arab characteristics, with closed alleys and narrow streets, typical of the ancient Islamic centre. These passageways branch from two principle streets which in meeting, divide the city into four ancient quarters. Each quarter has twisting "hairpin bend" alleys, designed to encompass housing for entire families which could become completely closed spaces at night.