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Palermo is a city of contrasts and most people either like it or hate it. It's a place that's ugly and pretty, thick with smog but surrounded by mountains and the blue/gray sea, with a good number of public gardens. On one block are impressive Arab-Norman buildings and on the next crumbling facades and heaps of trash. (More commonly, cruise ships that call at the island will anchor at Giardini-Naxos on the south side as it is the gateway to the splendid Taormina.)
Located on the northwestern coast of the island of Sicily, the city was founded by Ancient Greeks and eventually became part of the Roman Empire. In the ninth century, the Arabs took over and converted churches to mosques and the common language to Arabic. The Norman period followed, and in the 13th century Palermo was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The French and Spanish later passed through. Today, while Sicily is officially part of Italy (the regional government is semi-autonomous), its capital city of one million residents feels neither European nor Arabic, but some combination of the two.
The city was heavily bombed by Allied Forces during WWII, and some neighborhoods have yet to be repaired. More recently Palermo has made headlines as the base of the infamous Cosa Nostra (mafia).
To be sure there are rich neighborhoods (check out the shops on Via Liberta, Palermo's Rodeo Drive) and poor neighborhoods, sometimes on the same street. If you wander just a little off the beaten path you will find streets that just don't seem safe even in broad daylight (visitors are advised not to wear flashy jewelry and to keep close watch on their cameras, pocketbooks and wallets).
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Giardini-Naxos) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro. Most banks have ATM's. There are also individual ATM's throughout the city.
Colorful hand-painted ceramics, embroidered fabrics and coral jewelry (coral is considered a fertility symbol).
Watch Out For
The traffic is truly crazy. Use caution when crossing major thoroughfares. As mentioned above, leave your valuable belongings on the ship or guard them carefully.
Where You're Docked
You dock at a modern pier, within walking distance of downtown.
In the terminal building are a cafe, convenience store and, on the second floor, a Western Union office with Internet access.
Cabs and horse-drawn carts offering tours can be found just outside the terminal gates. In either case it is wise to negotiate a price up front. Cabs can be hired by the trip or hour. Double-decker tour buses operate around the city. Public buses run around the city and to the suburbs as well. While this is a good walking city, and you can easily walk to dining, museums and shopping, be aware the old part of the city is a jumbled warren of streets and it's easy to get lost. Also be aware, pickpockets are particularly skilled in Palermo.
Palazzo dei Normanni (Piazza del Parlamento, open Monday - Saturday 8:30 a.m. - noon, and 2 p.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. - noon), is home to the Sicilian parliament and considered the island's greatest treasure. The palace dates to the days of Arab control in the ninth century. It was restored by the Normans, and then by the Spanish. The must-see inside is Cappella Palatina, built for the very wealthy Roger II in the 12th century, and adorned with breathtaking mosaics and gold.
The recently renovated Teatro Massimo (Piazza G. Verdi) was built between 1875 and 1897 in neo-Classical style and boasts the second largest indoor stage in Europe after the Paris Opera House. The steps out front are the big attraction as this is where a key scene in "Godfather 3" was filmed (when Don Corleone's daughter Mary is shot and cries, "Papa, papa").
The city's Cathedral, Piazza di Cattedrale (open Monday - Saturday 7 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.), is of Arab-Norman design, built starting in 1185 A.D. It's actually prettier outside (a nice photo opp) than in -- your chance to see Greek-Roman, Norman and Arabic influences all blended together.
Museum Archaeologico Regionale (Via Bara all'Olivella 24, open Tuesday - Saturday 8:30 a.m. - 6:15 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.), is located in a former Renaissance-era monastery and houses some of Italy's most valuable Roman and Greek artifacts including sculptures from the temples of Selinunte, once a major Greek city on the Italian coast. The Roman collection includes mosaics and frescoes.
Inside the 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis (Via Alloro, 4) is one of Sicily's best art museums, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (daily 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. and Tuesday - Thursday 3 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.), boasting dozens of religious panels and sculptures dating from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period.
Been There, Done That
Only six miles from Palermo is the magnificent Monreale Cathedral, (Monreale, daily 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.), one of the finest cathedrals in Italy -- the design combines Norman, Arabic, Byzantine and Classical elements to create what is truly a dazzling interior. Forty-two scenes from the Bible are depicted in mosaics. To get there you can take a taxi or catch public bus no. 389, which departs from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo (the trip takes about 40 minutes). There are up to three buses per hour, and the cost each way is about $1.25.
Go shopping. Tre Erre Ceramiche ceramic shop (Via E. Arari, 49), a short walk from the ship pier, has worldwide fans including Chelsea Clinton. The ceramics here are breathtaking. Fancy stores, including Chanel, Tods, D&G (Dolce & Gabbana) and Armani, can be found on Via Liberta. Popular with Palermo's own chic set, Fiorentino, on Via Liberta, has been selling beautiful jewelry since 1890.
On our last trip we dined on seafood pasta at Sapori Perduti, a restaurant that was surprisingly hip and gourmet for being located on a downtrodden-looking side street (Via Principe di Belmonte) -- male models were sitting at the next table. The venue features new, albeit a little pricy, Sicilian cuisine. Open for lunch and dinner.
For more casual dining, visit Bar Alba (Piazza Don Bosco, off Via Liberta, Tuesday - Sunday, 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m.), where you can sample arancine (Sicilian rice balls stuffed with meat and peas and fried) and cassata Siciliana (the Sicilian version of fruit cake).
Best Choice for an Overview: The half-day Palermo and Monreale Tour will take you on a drive through the city's historic center with a stop at the Arab-Norman Cathedral. You also stop at the Martorana Church, which boasts stunning Byzantine mosaics. Then drive up to Monreale to see one of the most striking cathedrals in Italy. Walking is involved.
Best Choice for Getting Out of Town: Visit the charming medieval town of Cefalu, on Sicily's northern coast. Here you'll find cobblestone streets, antiques and ceramics shops and a 12th-century Norman cathedral. Be prepared to explore on foot.
Staying in Touch
There is Internet access in the Western Union office in the ship terminal building near where you dock. The price is about $4 per hour.
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
For More Information
On the Web: Italian Government Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Europe Bargains and Features
By Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of "Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call."
Photos appear courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Board.