A city of shabby magnificence, Palermo is not polished up for tourists in the way that Rome or Florence might be. Nonetheless, it has a magnetic energy and a hidden trove of palaces, churches, and castles that combine Arab, Byzantine, Norman, Renaissance and Baroque influences to stunning effect. Palermo is Sicily at its rowdiest and most appealing.
Via Vittorio Emanuele
Palermo has a substantial historical centre, but most of its chief attractions are along Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the two main streets in the city. Begin your tour at the Palazzo dei Normanni, a mosaic-adorned Norman palace that houses Sicily's regional government, and proceed from there toward La Cala. On the way, you will notice the distinctly Sicilian fusion of Arab, Norman, and Byzantine architectural styles among the buildings you pass. Linger at the collection of statues and fountains called the Quattro Canti (Four Corners), where Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda intersect.
If you've watched The Sopranos, or any Mafia-related film, you probably know about the Sicilian appetite for cannoli. These deep- fried ricotta-filled cones were invented in Sicily, and once you've tried them in Palermo, other versions just seem like poor imitations. While you're abandoning the diet, you should also try milza. This fried spleen sandwich is a Palermo specialty sold in restaurants and on street corners throughout the city - and it's a whole lot tastier than it sounds.
The Catacombe dei Cappuccini, in Piazza Cappuccini, date from 1533, receiving their first mummified body in 1599. Between the 17th and 19th Centuries, the bodies of affluent Palermitani were laid to rest beneath the Capuchin monastery chapel, and now 8,000 of the most privileged and well-dressed lie in rows beneath the church. The most famous occupant is two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who was embalmed so successfully that she appears merely asleep, although she died in 1920.
Re-Enact the Godfather at Teatro Massimo
If you're a fan of the Godfather movies, you will probably recognise the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele. Godfather devotees generally agree that the final scenes of the famous trilogy (remember, the part where Mary dies on the stairs) were filmed here. Even if you have know interest in the Mafia movies, the massive theatre is Italy's biggest and Europe's third-largest, so it's well worth a visit. Guided tours are available.
Take a Bus to Monreale
Take a half-hour drive or bus journey from the Piazza Indipendenza to Monreale. Overlooking the city and offering spectacular views of the Conca d'Oro (the Golden Shell), Monreale is best known for its 12th-century Norman-Arab cathedral. Here you'll find more than 6,000 square metres of stunning mosaics, encompassing 130 individual scenes. Explore the cloisters and the royal tombs, where Italy's kings William I and II are entombed, as is the heart of King Louis IV of France.