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Why go now?
History, culture and operatic street life combine to make Palermo, Sicily's capital, a compelling, captivating city. Centuries of foreign rule have left an indelible mark on the city's fabric, which has a distinct East-meets-West feel with Norman palaces, Baroque churches, souk-like markets and Byzantine domes.
Autumn is a great time to explore its fascinating back streets as they return to full speed after the summer torpor and temperatures cool to pleasant levels. The cultural calendar also kicks off with Madama Butterfly opening at the Teatro Massimo (1) opera house on 18 Sept (00 39 091 605 3580; teatromassimo.it).
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Palermo from Stansted and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick. Palermo's Falcone-Borsellino airport is at Punta Raisi, 30km west of the city. The cheapest way into town is on the Trinacria Express train to the central train station (2) (twice hourly between 5.45am and 10.05pm; €5.80). Alternatively, the half-hourly Prestia e Comandè bus (www.prestiaecomande.it) runs to the Teatro Politeama-Garibaldi (3) and central train station (2). Tickets for the 45-minute ride cost €6.10 and are available on the bus. The set taxi fare to the centre is €45.
Get your bearings
Palermo sits on Sicily's north-west coast, overlooked by the dun-coloured ridge of Monte Pellegrino. The historic centre, which extends north from the station (2) and contains most of the main sights, is made up of four quarters: La Kalsa, Albergheria, Capo and Vucciria. These are divided by the north-south Via Maqueda and the east-west Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which crosses it at a point known as the Quattro Canti (4), the "four corners". Running parallel to Via Maqueda, Via Roma is another important thoroughfare.
To the north, the 19th-century "new town" is the city's main shopping district. For free city maps, the main tourist office (5) is at Piazza Castelnuovo 34 (00 39 091 605 8351; www.provincia.palermo.it/turismo; 8.30am-2pm and 2.30-6pm weekdays only). There's also a tourist office at the airport (8.30am- 7.30pm weekdays and 8.30am- 2pm Saturdays).
Richard Wagner supposedly completed his opera Parsifal at the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes (6) at Via Roma 398 (00 39 091 60 28 111; amthotels.it/despalmes), a stately 19th-century pile with a grandiose Liberty-style lobby and elegant carpeted rooms. Doubles with breakfast start at €145.
For more modest digs, the friendly Hotel del Centro (7) at Via Roma 72 (00 39 091 617 0376; hoteldelcentro.it) has bright, classically styled rooms and an excellent location between the train station (2) and Quattro Canti (4). Doubles start at €65, including breakfast.
Near Teatro Massimo (1), A Casa di Amici (8), Via Volturno 6 (00 39 091 584 884; www.acasadiamici.com), is an attractive hostel-cum-pensione with vibrantly coloured dorms (from €18) and high-ceilinged private rooms from €50, B&B.
Take a hike
Start off at Palazzo Reale (9), aka Palazzo dei Normanni, at Piazza Indipendenza 1 (00 39 091 626 2833; federicosecondo.org; open 8.15am-5.40pm and to 1pm Sunday; €8.50). Now seat of Sicily's regional government, this muscular Norman palace is home to the Cappella Palatina, a lustrous 12th-century chapel bedecked in gold mosaics. From the palace duck under the nearby Porta Nuova (10), and push on to the Cattedrale (11), Corso Vittorio Emanuele (cattedrale.palermo.it; open 9am-to 5.30pm daily; free), whose hybrid Arab-Norman architecture incorporates crenellations and cupolas.
Continue on Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Quattro Canti (4) intersection flanked by four Baroque façades. Turn right on to Via Maqueda and, on your left, you'll see the Fontana Pretoria (12), a lavish fountain of tiered basins and naked nymphs. Nip through to Piazza Bellini, home to two of Palermo's best-known churches – La Martorana (13), now sadly closed behind scaffolding, and the Chiesa Capitolare di San Cataldo (14) (9.30am-12.30pm and 3-6pm daily; €2.50).
Lunch on the run
Taste Palermo's local delicacies at the Touring Café (15) on Via Roma 252 (00 39 091 322 726; 6am to 11pm), which serves fabulous fist-sized arancini (fried rice balls; €1.50) and daily specials such as vegetable couscous (€5).
No trip to Palermo would be complete without trawling through a neighbourhood market. The Mercato del Capo (16), Via Sant'Agostino (open 7am-8pm daily except Sunday, to 1pm Wednesday) is one of the most characteristic, with groaning food stalls squeezed into the Dickensian alleyways of the Capo area.
For a more relaxed experience, there's Sapori e dei Saperi della Legalità (17) at Piazza Castelnuovo 13 (00 39 091 757 4861). Browse the gourmet goodies, all of which have been produced on land confiscated from the mafia. Good buys include extra-virgin olive oil, wine and honey.
Join Palermo's refined café-goers for an early-evening drink at the Antico Caffè Spinnato (18), Via Principe di Belmonte 107-115 (00 39 091 749 5104; spinnato.it). This polished café in the heart of the busy shopping district has outside tables where you can sit back and people-watch over chilled Corvo white (€4.20) or granita di gelsi (€4.50), an ice drink flavoured with black mulberries.
Dine with the locals
On a hidden piazza in the shabby Vucciria district, Ristorante Santandrea (19), Piazza Sant'Andrea 4 (00 39 091 334 999; ristorantesantandrea.eu; open dinner only Monday to Saturday) is a smart choice for creative seasonal cuisine that features tagliata di tonno con cipolla in agrodolce (tuna with sweet and sour onion). Reckon on from €35 per person for a full meal without wine.
More traditional in style is Ristorantino da Spano (20), Piazza Sant'Anna al Capo (00 39 348 562 8789; ristorantinospano.it; closed Monday), a family-run trattoria in the tourist-free area behind the cathedral. Try the fettuccine alla tarantina (€6) with mussels and tomatoes.
Sunday morning: Go to church
One of Palermo's finest churches is the graceful Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi (21) (open 6.45am-noon and 4-6.30pm daily) on pint-sized Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi. It sports a solemn Gothic with striking rose window and dramatic main portal. Inside, there's the sumptuous Cappella dell'Immacolata right of the altar. Sunday Mass is at 7.30am, 10am, noon and 5.30pm.
Out to brunch
Just over the piazza, Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (22), Via Paternostro 58 (00 39 091 320 264; bit.ly/BrunchPal), specialises in classic Sicilian snacks. Its signature dish is pani ca' meusa (€2.50), a roll filled with beef spleen served from a large steel cauldron. If that doesn't appeal, go for ricotta-filled cannoli (€2). It opens at midday, daily in summer, Wednesday to Monday at other times.
Palermo's streets are almost deserted on Sunday afternoons so pay a visit to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (23), Via Sant'Anna 21 (00 39 091 843 1605; galleriadartemodernapalermo.it; open 9.30am to 6.30pm daily except Monday; €7 or €11 if there's an exhibition on), a lovely museum showcasing modern Sicilian art in a beautifully restored 15th-century palazzo.
Another option is Teatro Massimo (1) (00 39 091 605 3262; teatromassimo.it), Palermo's landmark opera house. Here you can take a guided tour (9am to 5pm daily except Monday; €8) or catch a matinee.
A walk in the park
Down by the seafront, Villa Giulia (24), Via Abramo Lincoln (open 8am to 8pm), is a historic 19th-century landscaped park with shady lanes and landscaped gardens.
Next door, there's the Botanical Garden (25), Via Abramo Lincoln 2b (00 39 091 238 91 236; ortobotanico.unipa.it; open 9am to 7pm; €5) where fig trees and palms grow alongside cacti, coffee plants, papaya and bamboo.
The icing on the cake
South-west of Palermo, the Duomo di Monreale, Piazza Duomo, a sober Norman cathedral (open 8.30am to 12.45pm and 2.30-5pm Monday to Saturday, 8-10am and 2.30-5pm Sunday; free) is one of Sicily's great masterpieces. It's decorated with sumptuous mosaics with gold designs on upper walls depicting biblical scenes. The adjacent cloisters (open 9am to 7pm Tues-Sat, until 1.30pm Sun and Mon; €6) are worth a look.
To get to Monreale take bus No 389 from Piazza Indipendenza (26). Buy tickets (€2.60 return) at the kiosk by the bus stop.