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10 reasons to visit Palermo
Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily, is one of those cities with its own very distinct, almost tangible atmosphere, a place of mystery where reality often outperforms the traveller’s imagination and preconceived stereotypes. It is a buzzing Mediterranean centre whose 1 million inhabitants are a fascinating cocktail of apparently conflicting characteristics.
At the edge of Europe and at the centre of the ancient world, Palermo delivers a fascinating mix of Byzantine mosaics, Arabesque domes and frescoed cupolas. This is a magic place where souk-like markets rub against baroque churches, where date palms frame Gothic palaces and where the blue-eyed and fair have bronze-skinned cousins.
To explore a charming history
To explore a charming history
What's great about Palermo is the way in which many different nations and cultures have left a mark on the city. Its strategic military and trading position attracted invaders from around the world, including Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Swabians, French and Spanish Bourbons. Each group had an impact on the city's architecture, language and art, meaning the city's cultural sights are wonderfully varied and it's fascinating to see how each of these different cultures interacted.
To visit churches
To visit churches
The mixture of Western, Islamic and Byzantine styles is the reason many of the region's churches have been granted Unesco World Heritage status. Make the stunning Palatine Chapel the first stop on your tour to see the ornate mosaics, and make time to stop at the cathedral. There's also 'the Church that isn't there', the name given by locals to the ruined Santa Maria dello Spasimo, today used for concerts.
To see the authentic Italy
To see the authentic Italy
Despite its beauty, Palermo is much less well known than the likes of Rome, Venice and Florence, meaning you'll often be forced to practise your Italian. All the more reason to visit now before it takes on the mantle of Italy's cultural capital and tourists finally dicover it.
To enjoy the markets
To enjoy the markets
The spirit of Palermo as a trading centre still lives on in the city's lively markets, Vucciria (meaning 'chatter' or 'hubbub' - just follow the noise and you'll find it), Ballarò and Capo, where you can buy cheap food, vegetables and even cheap vintage clothes, all while inhaling the scents of flowers and spices and taking in the bright colours.
To admire the botanic gardens
To admire the botanic gardens
Italy's largest botanic gardens can be found in Palermo. Explore all 25 acres of the Orto Botanico - even in the chillier months of the year, the Winter Garden greenhouses are beautiful. More green spaces can be found at Villa Giulia by the seafront, a 19th-century landscaped park, the Villa Bonanno, which has striking palm trees, and the Giardino Inglese in the city centre.
To taste the pastries
To taste the pastries
One delicious reason to visit the Sicilian capital is the food: here you can’t not start your day with a coffee and a pastry. The local specialities include both sweet and savoury treats, from cannoli (crispy cream-filled pastry shells) to sfincioni (a variation on foccaccia) to arancini (breaded rice balls): a ride around the town must absolutely include stops in the bakeries.
To visit the creepy catacombs
To visit the creepy catacombs
If you love holidays with a macarbre twist, you must see the mummified remains of the 16th-century Capuchin monks and other locals who asked to be buried in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. The crypt is also a must for those who love to retrace history in all its charm and mystery.
To enjoy beaches
To enjoy beaches
The warm weather and gorgeous coastline are the main reason most tourists flock to Sicily, and many of the island's most beautiful beaches are just a short way from Palermo. Mondello beach - which you'd never guess was a former swampland - is the closest to the city centre and the largest in the area, while the quiet Arenella beach is in the very heart of the city but rarely busy.
To take great day trips
To take great day trips
As Sicily's capital, Palermo is the island's main travel hub, and you can explore the region by hopping on a train at the central station to explore the quaint towns and villages dotted around the coast, or head to one of the island's cultural treasure troves, Cefalu, Messina or Taormina. There are endless beautiful destinations starting from Palermo.
To go off the beaten track
To go off the beaten track
Palermo can be explored on foot, so you can take plenty of detours to duck down sidestreets and take a closer look at curiosities you pass on the way. There are no shortage of quirky sights in Palermo, from the firefighters' headquarters, which is a striking example of fascist-era art deco design tucked in amongst ancient buildings. Take the hike to the Sanctuary of Santa Rosilia, a church and convent carved into a cave at the top of a hill.