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.

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