The city expanded to the harbor under the Arabs in the ninth to 11th centuries as capital of the Emirs of Sicily, a city of mosques and palaces equal to those in Baghdad and Cordoba.
The east exterior of Palermo’s cathedral retains the original Norman character – three apses, cross-over round arches, and curved parapets. The south side, overlooking the square, is memorable for its 1453 Gothic-Catalan portico through which you’ll enter. One of its columns, with an early Arabic inscription, comes from a mosque.
• Palazzo dei Normanni
In the ninth century, the Arabs built a palace for their Emir, and under the Norman rulers and the Hohenstaufen Frederick II, the palace became even more splendid. It suffered a long period of neglect, until the Spanish viceroy renovated and extended it to use as his residence. Since 1947, the regional parliament of Sicily has sat here.
• Cappella Palatina
This court church of the Normans was consecrated in 1140; the mosaics in the chancel were probably completed in 1143, and those in the nave somewhat later. Around 1350, the mosaic on the west wall portraying Christ between Peter and Paul was added.
• Catacombe dei Cappuccini
By far Palermo’s most bizarre attraction, but one of its most popular, is the Capuchin Abbey, known for its Catacombs. These underground passages were hewn in the volcanic rock after 1599 and used as burial places right up to 1881.
• Palazzo Abatellis and Galleria Regionale della Sicilia
Palazzo Abatellis was built in Catalan Gothic style by Matteo Carnelivari in 1490, for Francesco Abatellis, a highly-placed dignitary at the court of King Ferdinand of Spain. It served as a priory from the early 16th to mid-19th centuries, and today contains the regional art gallery. The square building has a highly decorated doorway and an inner courtyard with a two-story loggia on one side.
• Teatro Massimo
Giovanni Battista Basile and his son Ernesto built this 3,200-seat theater between 1875 and 1897. It was officially opened on 16th May 1897 with a performance of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and thereafter became one of Sicily’s major opera houses. Daily guided tours in English will take you into the sumptuous auditorium with tiers of boxes and a frescoed dome. Be sure to notice the statue of Lyra by Mario Rutelli.