The Albergheria is the oldest neighborhood in Palermo. This is where the Phoenicians founded the city, and it hosts the royal palace which all the city’s rulers have called home. Despite this rich history, today’s Albergheria is one of the most run-down sections of Palermo. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of dilapidated housing and exquisite historic buildings quite so jarring.
The Albergheria occupies the southwest quadrant delineated by the Quattro Canti, and has more than its share of artistic treasures. The Palazzo Normanni, the Casa Professa, the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and San Giuseppe dei Teatini, and the Palazzo Sclafani are just some of the architectural highlights. In the past, it was home to Palermo’s Jewish population, before they were kicked off the island in 1492.
The neighborhood was heavily damaged during Allied air raids in World War II, and has never fully recovered. Cheap housing went up around the tiny alleys and a large immigrant population moved in to take advantage of the low rents. Today, a visit to the Albergheria almost feels like a trip to another continent. Sri Lankans and Africans dominate sections of the neighborhood, and have set up shops and restaurants which are decidedly non-Italian in flavor.
One place in the Albergheria that definitely has Italian credentials is the Ballaró Market, which competes with Il Capo’s as the best in town. Stretched out between the churches of San Nicolò and Carmine, this market has everything you could possibly need for the kitchen. And on the corner of Via Nunzio Nasi is a guy selling the best street food we’ve had in Palermo: panelle, rascature and crocchè, packed into paninis.
The Albergheria is one of those rare neighborhoods which changes its face every time you turn a corner. Will you find a gorgeous church, an African hair salon selling weaves, a market stand hawking six-foot zucchini, or a Bollywood movie store? Despite the urban decay, and in some ways because of it, the Albergheria is an exciting place to spend some time.