Cultures collide in the historic Sicilian capital where you’re never more than a few feet from tempting street snacks, a stunning church or a refreshing ‘aperitivo’
When to go Once a rich Mediterranean power, Sicily has been invaded by just about every neighbouring state, leading to a heady mix of Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish (and more) influences in its food, buildings and outlook on life. Its capital Palermo, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century and awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status in 2016, wears its own rich history well. It’s a year-round destination, but the hottest (and therefore busiest) months are June to September. This year Palermo is the Italian City of Culture, and will also host the 12th Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, from 16 June to 4 November (m12.manifesta.org). Accordingly, there is a host of events planned. For more information, see turismo.comune.palermo.it
We expected Palermo to be gritty, rough-around-the-edges, largely without charm or intrigue. Decades of stories about the economic situation in southern Italy and the considerable Mafia power didn’t give us high hopes, but we also didn’t feel like we could skip the capital city on our trip through Sicily. What we found in Palermo was a city with blemishes, but what city in Italy—or basically anywhere in the world—doesn’t have those? We also found a city that’s a mix of fascinating influences thanks to its location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and a city with amazing food, friendly people, and a cultural and religious history stretching back for millennia. It’s safe to say that Palermo was more than a pleasant surprise. Here’s a look at some of the fun spots and experiences we uncovered.
While thousands of migrants reach Sicily each week aboard rescue ships, another sea-borne invasion is under way on the Mediterranean island as hordes of tourists arrive aboard luxury cruise liners.
Palermo was only the 36th most visited city in Italy in 2015 but Mayor Leoluca Orlando says it is set to be in the top 10 this year, marking a turnaround for the Sicilian capital that was once a Mafia battleground shunned by outsiders.
The United Nations cultural body UNESCO recognized the city’s Norman-Arab heritage in 2015, the growing migrant population is being absorbed into the fabric of society, and next year Palermo will be feted as Italy’s capital of culture.
“Palermo used to be the capital of the Mafia, then the capital of the anti-Mafia, today it is the capital of culture,” Orlando told Reuters in an interview.
Already recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Palermo has been picked as Italian culture capital for 2018, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced after the selection by a jury led by Bocconi University Professor Stefano Baia Curioni. The other finalists were Alghero, Aquileia, Comacchio, Ercolano (Herculaneum), Montebelluna, Recanati, Settimo Torinese, Trento and a group of northern Sicilian towns.
“We’ve all won,” said a jubilant Palermo mayor, Leoluca Orlando. “The most significant cultural asset we uphold is the culture of welcome. We support the right of all human beings to be and remain different, but to be and remain the same”.