On our tour, we’ll explore the historical center of Sicily’s bustling and lively capital city, Palermo. From medieval Arabic rulers to the invasion of Garibaldi and unification with Italy, the city – much like the island of Sicily – has been shaped by centuries of successive dynasties and rulers, all of which have left their mark.
Avoid the Crowds
Allows you to explore without having to be shoulder-to-shoulder in a large tour group
Written by a Cambridge-based archaeologist, whose postgraduate (MRes) research has been devoted to Early Iron Age architecture
Easy-to-follow GPS directions to get you from one point to the next on your tour
Piazza Bellini, Quattro Canti, and Palermo Cathedral
Remote Tour Included
As with all our tours, a remote tour is included that can be enjoyed from home
- Piazza Bellini - Providing a fine view of two of the city’s most important churches, this tour begins at Piazza Bellini. From here it is possible to appreciate the complex layers that only build up in places as historically and culturally diverse as Sicily, from ancient city walls to Arabesque domes. Formerly used as a car park it is now pedestrianised and serves Palermo with one of its most peaceful and attractive squares.
- Church of San Cataldo - It is underneath the church of San Cataldo that the oldest remains of the city’s fortifications can be found; dating from the time of the Carthaginians, several centuries after their Phoenician ancestors had established a trading post here. The church above is one of the most striking examples of so-called Arabo-Norman architecture, with its red bulge domes and arabesque merlons, or echelons.
- The Martorana Piazza Bellini - The interior austerity of the Church of San Cataldo is placed in stark contrast with the neighbouring Church of the Martorana, with its elegant bell tower but most importantly marvellous mosaics, completed in the twelfth century AD by Byzantine artists.
- Fontana Pretoria - This open and grand square was greatly modified by Sicily’s Spanish rulers. Initially intended as a statement of Palermo’s artistic and political civility the fountain quickly came to be regarded as a shameful vanity project, symbolic of corruption and poor governance.
- Quattro Canti Piazza - This major crossroads at the heart of the old city was intended as a grandiose cornerstone of the Spanish viceroyalty. Its heavy and austere Baroque facades, blackened by decades of pollution are somewhat depressing when compared to Roman or Parisian equivalents. Nevertheless, the junction of the city’s main streets is a handy landmark for travellers and locals, as a waypoint for groups of friends planning their evening out.
- Palermo Cathedral - Half way down the main concourse of the Via Vittorio Emmanuele is the commanding and regal Cathedral of Palermo. Built originally by the Normans and exhibiting the unique Arab influences of its craftsmen and masons, it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site protection of Arabo-Norman buildings of Palermo and Monreale.
- Eastern-end Palermo Cathedral - Fortunately, for all the alterations made to the longer southern façade, the eastern end of the Cathedral of Palermo has retained all of its original Norman splendour. From here we can appreciate this very particular architecture close up and analyse the potential influences of the various motifs.
- Porta Nuova - Here at the head of the Via Vittorio Emmanuele, we have reached the boundary of the old city and the limit of its ancient fortifications. Whilst this impressive gate from the Spanish period now dominates the view, we will take some time to consider the earlier fortifications and streets of the Roman, Arab and Norman periods.
- Palazzo Normanni - Imagine yourself a traveller of the twelfth century. After many days at sea, you have arrived at the beautiful natural harbour of Palermo. Passing through the city’s fortifications you join the ancient straight road of the Cassaro. You pass by a church tower, with arches and columns from France but then past another building, square and rigid and adorned with Islamic motifs. Walking past shops and houses, hearing Arabic, Greek and Latin as you go, you arrive at the head of the road, and the sight of the domineering court of the Norman kings of Sicily. This is where we have arrived too – the Palazzo Normanni – Palermo’s grandest statement of its royal past.
- Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti - We end our tour in the lively quarter of the Albergheria. With its olde-worlde, winding streets, raucous markets and crumbling houses, it one of the most enigmatic parts of the city. Crammed in amongst the narrow lanes is the delightful Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which displays some of the most noticeable Arab features of any building in Palermo.