Palermo – quick tour of the historic centre

Detail

A quick tour downtown in Palermo in which you can see so much in so little time? Of course it's possible! Step by step ...

1st step: Piazza Politeama

Our tour starts from the heart of Palermo: Piazza Politeama. This is not really its name, but the people of Palermo like to call it that because of the magnificent theatre, a splendid late 19th-century neoclassical building designed by the architect Damiani Almeyda.

The "Teatro del Popolo – People's Theatre" was built in 1874, it has a huge horseshoe-shaped hall with two rows of boxes, dominated by a large gallery. It can hold up to five thousand spectators and currently hosts symphonic music performances, continuing to give us moments of great intensity.

2nd step: Via Ruggiero Settimo

We now enter the main artery that crosses the city from one end to the other, taking the names Via Crocerossa, Viale della Libertà, Via Ruggiero Settimo, Via Maqueda all the way to the Central Station. From the Politeama, Via Ruggiero Settimo (named after the late 19th-century politician) takes us, amidst the shop windows of hundreds of shops and the crowds of Palermitani engaged in shopping or strolling, to the Teatro Massimo. A little shopping? Why not!

3rd Step: The Teatro Massimo (distance 300 metres)

Europe's third-largest theatre, after the Opéra National in Paris and Vienna's Staatsoper, theTeatro Massimo, was designed in neoclassical-eclectic style by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile.

The large anonymous epigraph engraved on the lintel of the portico warns us: L’arte rinnova i popoli e ne rivela la vita. Vano delle scene il diletto ove non miri a preparar l’avvenire. In simple terms, the epigraph invites us not to watch or listen to rubbish because, in the long run, it will simply make you stupid.

Today the Massimo hosts the official seasons of opera, operas and ballets. You can plan a visit, but be aware that if you stumble on the gradino della monachella – the little nun's step, it's because you didn't believe the story of the ghost of the nun in the convent that stood there before the theatre and now wanders its lonely halls at night.

Opposite the theatre, there are two pedestrian streets with unusual names: Via Bara and Via dell’Orologio they take us to Olivella, Palermo's historic nightlife district, full of small restaurants and craft shops that will entertain and refresh you also during the day. In the square of the Church of Saint Ignazio all'Olivella we also find the impressive Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum.

4th Step: Via Maqueda

This street, pronounced macheda, continues the directional heading from the Statue to the Station. Founded in the 17th century to make way for the construction of new aristocratic palazzi, it leads us straight to the junction with the street originally known as Vecchio Cassaro (today Corso Vittorio Emanuele) opening onto the marvellous Quattro Canti.

5th step: Quattro Canti (distance 1.2 km)

Piazza Vigliena, known as the Quattro Canti, is octagonal with four richly decorated and quite striking facades. The "Quattro Canti" divide the old city into four districts or "mandamenti" (the Loggia, the Capo, the Kalsa and the Albergheria). At this point, going to the right we can climb up to the Cathedral and the Palazzo Reale, taking the left we can go down to the sea, passing the Mercato della Vucciria and the Piazza Marina district, while proceeding straight on, we reach Piazza Pretoria (also called Piazza della Vergogna), the Martorana and San Cataldo, the streets of the old craftsmen (boilermakers, candlemakers, etc.) and the Ballarò market.

6th step: La Vucciria (distanza 1.2 km)

To the left of the Quattro Canti, we go down the Cassaro (Corso Vittorio Emanuele): this is Palermo's oldest street it dates back to the Phoenicians (about 2,700 years ago). It connects the Palazzo Reale to the sea and, in the section we have chosen to walk, crosses the Vucciria Market.

The Vucciria Market is accessed from some of the many small streets on either side of the Cassaro, just after the intersection with Via Roma. We enter through the main entrance: the steps that from Roma takes us to Piazza Caracciolo. This is a historic market in its heyday, hosted artists and intellectuals. The stalls display fresh fish, fragrant spices, beef and pork. Its charm lies in its bright colours, in the peaceful shouts that accompany the sale of goods, in the dilapidation of its alleyways.

The Vucciria opens northwards onto Piazza San Domenico and its great church. The square opens us to the sun shine on our way out of the narrow alleyways, and a stop in one of its cafés is an ideal opportunity for a refreshing break sampling an artisanal ice cream.

7th step: Piazza Marina (distance 1.2 km)

Continuing along the Cassaro we reach Piazza Marina (on our right). It is a fascinating district, and it is really pleasant to get lost in its alleyways, browsing among the craft shops. Villa Garibaldi occupies the centre of the square, a garden designed by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile (the same architect who designed the Teatro Massimo) just as the unification of Italy was taking place. Go through the beautiful gates, and you will find yourself in the presence of one of the oldest ficus trees in Italy; 30 metres high with a trunk 21 metres wide and a crown 50 metres wide. A true gigantic green monument, beautifully green. All around the square, along the pavement, a picturesque vintage market takes place at weekends.

Looking out over the Cassaro we find the Chiesa della Catena – The Church of the Chain, which takes its name from the story that, a few thousand years ago, the chain that closed off the port of Cala was attached to its wall. Among the period buildings surrounding the square are the interesting museum of Palazzo Mirto, the Steri and the Hotel de France. But the whole area is so rich in history and art that it deserves a closer look.

Have a wander around the centre and see a lot in a short time.

Our visit starts from the very heart of Palermo: the Politeama Square. Actually this is not its real name, but people from Palermo love to call it Politeama because the presence of the wonderful theater, a splendid, neoclassical building datinn back to the late 1800’s, the work of architect Damiani Almeyda.

The “theater of the people” was built in 1874, it has a  huge horseshoe-shaped hall  with two rows of platforms dominated by a large gallery. It could accommodate 5.000 spectators. On the roof above the entrance, there is a bronze quadriga (chariot) of Apollo by Mario Rutelli and beside it a pair of bronze horses by Benedetto Civiletti. Today the Politeama hosts performances of symphonic music and continues to offer us moments of great intensity.

1st step: via Ruggero Settimo

We start from via Ruggero Settimo, which is part of the long roadway that runs through the city to the Central Station of Railways. This street is the most elegant of the city. Here are the fashion shops and the oldest boutique, here the people of Palermo make their purchases and their walk.

2nd step: Teatro Massimo

The third largest theatre in Europe, after Paris National Opéra and the Wiener Staatsoper, the Teatro Massimo opened its doors on May 16, 1897 with a beautiful performance of Falstaff, a “brand new” opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Among the spectators was Ernesto Basile, son of the designer Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, who designed this theater according to the neoclassical-eclectic style.

The large anonymous inscription engraved on the architrave warns us: Art renews people and reveals their life. Love of art is useless where it does not seek to prepare the future. In other words, art is the only instrument of development of the people and only through it we recognize the different civilizations. Today, the Massimo hosts the official season of classical music, opera and ballet.  You can book a visit.

An old legend says that if, when going up the stairs you stumble into the step of the monachella, it’s because you did not believe to  the story of the nun’s ghost  from the convent that was there before the theater and who now wanders at night through the lonely halls.

Opposite the theater, there are two pedestrian streets with unusual names: Via Bara and via dell’Orologio bring us to the Olivella, historical district of evenings in Palermo, full of small restaurants and artisan shops where to get refreshments during the day. In the square of the Church of Sant’Ignazio all’Olivella, we also find the great Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas.

3rd step: via Maqueda

Built in the seventeenth century to make space for the construction of new palaces, it takes us straight to the intersection with the old Cassaro (now Corso Vittorio Emanuele) which opens to the wonderful Quattro Canti Square.

4th step: Quattro Canti

Piazza Vigliena, known as Quattro Canti, is an octagonal square with four richly decorated and quite appealing façades. The four corners divide the old city into four neighbourhoods or districts (La Loggia, Il Capo, la Kalsa and l’Albergheria). At this point, heading to the right, we can go towards the Cathedral and the Royal Palace, going left we can head down to the sea through the Vucciria marketand the district of piazza Marina. If we go straight on we’ll get to the Piazza della Vergogna, the Martorana and San Cataldo and the streets of the old artisans (Calderai, Candelai, etc.) and the Ballarò market. The choice is up to you.

5th step: La Vucciria

To the left of the 4 Canti we descend to the Cassaro (Corso Vittorio Emanuele). This is the oldest street in Palermo, dating back to the Phoenicians (just 2,700 years ago). It links the Royal Palace to the sea and in the stretch that you have chosen to walk down, it crosses Vucciria market.

You access the Vucciria through the different streets   that we find on the sides of the Cassaro, just after the crossing with via Roma. We recommend that you get in  by the main entrance, the staircase that opens onto via Roma leads to Piazza Caracciolo. It is an historical market. In its heyday, it was home to artists and intellectuals. In the counters we find  fresh fish, fragrant spices and beef and pork drastically (and dramatically) displayed.  Its charm consists precisely of its bright tones and peaceful shouting that accompanies the sale of goods, the disrepair of its alleys..

 

Many people believe that this disrepair captures much better the meaning of life than a quiet tree-lined street of a residential neighbourhood.  The Vucciria opens itself to the north of the square San Domenico and its large church. The square makes us rediscover the sun at the exit of the narrow streets and a stop in one of its cafés can be a chance  to think about before having a sweet home-made ice cream.

6th step: Piazza Marina (distance 1.2 kilometres)

Keeping going along the Cassaro you come to piazza Marina which you will find on your right.  It’s a fascinating area and it’s great to get lost in its narrow streets, browsing through the artisan shops. The centre of the square hosts  Villa Garibaldi a garden designed by G.B. Basile (the architect of the Teatro Massimo) just as he did the unification of Italy (1860). Go through the beautiful gates and you’ll end up in front of one of the oldest ficus in Italy, 30 metres high with a 21 metre trunk and a foliage of 50 metres. A really gigantic city monument to greenery. On the weekends, a picturesque vintage market is held all around the square and along the pavements. Looking at the Cassaro, we find the Church of the Chains. It seems that, a few thousand years ago, the chain that used to close the Old port of La Cala was attached to the church wall. Among the historic palaces surrounding the square there is the interesting museum of Palazzo Mirto, the Steri, the Hotel de France. However, the whole area is so rich in history and art that it deserves a closer look so that’s why we have chosen for you: Palermo viva

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