Updated: Feb 5, 2020
We admit that we had reservations the first time we came to Palermo. Everyone seems to have heard about the Mafia connections and its somewhat unsavory backstreets. We first visited several years ago and were happily surprised then to see that our fears were unfounded. On this return trip we can say that it seems safer than ever. If visitors are careful, they will be delighted by Palermo and happy not to have missed its artistic treasures and delicious cuisine.
An aperol spritz at one of the many cafe's in the historic center is the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing.
We stayed in a boutique bed and breakfast hotel called Porta di Castro, which we recommend highly. From the moment we arrived at the centuries-old building, we felt like we were visiting Sicilian cousins instead of random hotel employees. Alessandro, the owner, has a carefully selected staff to look after guests in the hotel he has remade from an unconsecrated church. Dalila at the reception served us blood orange juice accompanied by authentic Sicilian pastries, while we filled in our passport information as soon as we arrived. Then she booked us a taxi trip with hotel friend Mauricio to take us to Monreale, the spectacular cathedral on the hill overlooking the city center. We happily spent the afternoon at Monreale, one of the 9 Arab/Norman UNESCO sites we were looking to check off our to-do list. We had already seen the Cathedral in Cefalu and were eager to compare the related sites in Palermo.
Our bed and breakfast, the Porta di Castro, is in the heart of the old city and within walking distance of all the principal sites. It used to be a church as evidenced in the glass-covered floor near the entrance way.
The Cathedral of Monreale is worth a trip to Palermo by itself. The spectacular Norman church was built in 1172 during the reign of William II. It is possible to climb the tower and visit the accompanying cloister. The mosaic Christ is reminiscent of the one we saw at the Cathedral in Cefalu. In addition to the Norman cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu, there are seven more Arab/Norman sites in Palermo that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. We visited them all and would recommend them. They are: The Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, the Church of San Cataldo, the Palermo Cathedral, the Zisa Palace and the Admiral's Bridge. The last two sites were the only ones not easily walkable from our hotel. We took a taxi to check the last two off our list.
Monreale's cloister garden
The all-knowing mosaic of Christ is a common theme in the Norman cathedrals.
Arab influences such as the arches and geometric designs can be seen in the Arab/Norman UNESCO sites.
The Palatine Chapel (above and below).
Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (the Martorana)
The Cathedral of Palermo
Walking on the roof of the Cathedral of Palermo affords amazing views of the city below.
The Zisa Palace