For a long time, I’ve harboured a desire to visit Palermo, inspired by its rich history of conquests and settlements by diverse cultures. The Normans, Phoenicians, Romans, Spanish, and French all invaded and left their marks on this vibrant city through their architecture, cuisine, religious influences, theatre, and music. Palermo is a Middle Eastern city in Europe, and a Norman city in the Mediterranean.

Like any great city, Palermo cannot be fully appreciated in just a couple of days. A week is hardly enough to grasp its unique energy and rhythm. To immerse oneself in its old town even that timeframe only scratches the surface. To truly understand Palermo, one would ideally need to spend several months.

The most recent invaders of Palermo are the Mafia. Originating as private militias hired to protect property of foreign invaders, the name Mafia or Mafiosi means those that distrust and show resistance towards central authority which was understandable as rulers were always changing. The Mafiosi had their own form of justice outside of the laws of the invaders. Over time, they became folk heroes for the poor subsistence farmers of Sicily. These tight knit clans evolved into a criminal organization that wielded significant influence over businesses, especially in construction and politics. They became very powerful during the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s with money pouring in for rebuilding.

Unfortunately, this period was hugely detrimental to Palermo’s heritage. With the Mafia’s control over politicians, parks were paved over, beautiful art deco mansions were demolished clandestinely, and historic buildings were replaced with shoddy and bland concrete constructions using substandard materials as the Mafia stole millions. 

However, the Mafia’s excesses eventually led to their downfall. The historic centre was almost abandoned due to their protection racket, and daily violence became the norm. The turning point came with the assassinations of two highly respected judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, by car bombs in 1992. These brazen murders sparked public sentiment against the Mafia, they were no longer folk heroes. The backlash led to the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of members of the Mafia. Though still present, the Mafia’s grip on Sicily has significantly diminished.

The heart of historic Palermo lies at the Baroque Piazza Vigliena, completed in 1620, where Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele intersect. The Quattro Canti, or “Four Corners,” mark the junction of Palermo’s four ancient quarters. Each corner has an identical four-story Baroque concave building with three alcoves for statues.

Heading southwest along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, visitors encounter Palermo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Normanni, and the Palatine Chapel renowned for its Byzantine mosaics and paintings—must-visit landmarks.

Walking northwest along Via Maqueda are numerous tourist shops and eateries. This portion of the street is the busiest in Palermo with throngs of local and foreign tourists strolling the street and eating at the dozens of restaurants. Further along is the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house built in 1897. We enjoyed a captivating symphony performance one night and spent our happy-hour people-watching at one of the bars on the square. Drinks run about $12 including service.

A short stroll further down Via Maqueda, lined with prestigious brand stores, led us to our affordable two-bedroom apartment, costing only $450 for the week. Our building overlooked another opera house, Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. We were surrounded by food shops and conveniently located near two supermarkets and the bustling Capo Market, one of the four main markets in Palermo.

Our week in Palermo was unforgettable, filled with new experiences that left me eager to return for another visit.