Executive summary by darmansjah
No other city in Europe has hosted such a variety of civilizations and waves of conquerors as Palermo, shaped by 25 centuries of tumultuous history. Examples of this rich and eclectic heritage begin with the Palazzo dei Normanni, home to the island’s 9th-century Arab rulers and transformed into a sumptuous palace (now the seat of Sicilian government) by the Normans in the 12th century but retaining its Islamic aesthetic. The palace’s Cappella Palatina is completely encrusted with Byzantine mosaics, a blending of western and eastern traditions depicting harems, wild animals, and scenes from the Bible. Built in the same period, the Duomo melds similar influences with domes, towers, and elaborately tiled arches as does the evocative Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Church of St. John of the Hermits), topped with five red domes and surrounded by exotic gardens and the narrow streets of the Albergheria district, which centers on the busy Ballarò street market.
For the most breathtaking window on this unique heritage, travel 5 miles from the city center to Monreale, with its magnificent 12th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria la Nuova. Built of golden Sicilian stone by the Norman king William II on a mountaintop overlooking his capital, the cathedral is an extravagant marriage of Moorish and Norman styles, with multicolored mosaics glorifying every centimeter of wall space. Enjoy a quiet moment in the adjacent cloisters, where no two of the 216 slender pillars are alike.
La Vucciria is Sicily’s greatest market, a vibrant spectacle of merchants singing about their wares: piles of briny octopus and anchovies, mountains of fresh herbs, plump tomatoes, and glistening olives. Or take a seat overlooking the sprawling market at Shanghai, a bare-bones trattoria where fresh fish and greens are hauled up in baskets from the stalls below. Forgo the chaos for Piccolo Napoli, where the freshest seafood is simply grilled amid more formal surroundings.
The rambling 17th-century palazzo that was home to Prince Giuseppe Tomasi Lampadusa, author of The Leopard, is now the inviting Butera 28. The prince’s adoptive son and daughter-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Palma, house guests in nine spacious and comfortable apartments, host dinners, and arrange city tours and cooking lessons. In the heart of the old town, the six-room BB22 infuses an old palazzo with modern flair. The graceful Villa Igiea, an Art Nouveau doyenne-turned-hotel, on the bay 2 miles north of the city center, soothes guests with lush seaside gardens and old-world guest rooms awash in Sicilian charm.