One of the best birds-eye views of Palermo can be had from the top of the Torre di San Nicolò, near the Ballarò market in the Albergheria. The late-Gothic tower was constructed in the 13th century for defensive purposes, and now belongs to the adjoining San Nicolò church. For a structure built so long ago, the tower is in remarkable condition, and you'd have a hard time finding a better panorama of the medieval city.
Tucked into a small plaza just south of the Corso Vittoro Emanuele is the church of San Francesco d'Assisi. Originally built in 1260, the church has undergone many transformations in its 750 years, and still plays an important role in Palermo's religious life.
Although their presence is practically invisible to tourists, the Mafia is very much a reality for the residents of Palermo. One of the most tangible nuisances is the pizzo: the "protection fee" that Sicilian business owners are compelled to pay to the Cosa Nostra.
Pinocchio and Gepetto may have been from Florence, but the romantic image of a kindly, old man carving a puppet from wood is a distinctly Sicilian one. The art of puppet theater, or the Opera dei Puppi, has especially deep roots in Palermo.
Charming, horseshoe-shaped La Cala was the main fishing port in Palermo, until the 16th century when it lost most of its size due to receding waters. The spot has played an important role in Palermo since the days of the Phoenicians, so it's not surprising that there's a lot to see here.
We've been here for about two weeks, and are just starting to adjust to life on Palermo's streets. On the chaotic alleyways of this city, scenes of striking beauty are almost as common as mountains of trash. But somehow, ancient elegance and modern grime work together well, giving Palermo an authentic feeling of life. If it all were clean and sparkly, the city wouldn't be nearly as captivating.
On the streets of Palermo, the only things which stick out more than the ancient palaces are big Sicilian bellies. The sight of obese men puttering around on Vespas is a daily amusement, and even many of the toddlers have a few pounds on me. Of course, it's all perfectly understandable. Along with pizza, pasta and ice cream, Sicilians turn out to be masters of fried food.
Stepping into the neighborhood just behind the somber bulk of Palermo's Cathedral feels like entering another country. An Arabic one, to be precise. Il Capo is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, and has managed to retain a distinctly Moorish influence in its streets and market.
Palermo, at least the port-side Vucciria where we lived, is loud. There were times I couldn't believe the noise. Music was played at incredible volumes by our neighbors, including the 6-year-old below us who danced every night on his balcony in his underwear. People, standing close enough to kiss, shout at each other, because that's just the way they talk. Perhaps they're going deaf. That's it, first impression #1: People in Palermo are going deaf.
North of the Piazza Verdi, the impossible alleys and medieval monuments of Old Palermo give way to New Palermo, which feels like an entirely different city. Modern buildings, wide streets, usable sidewalks, fashionable shops and trees. In the ancient center of Palermo, trees are rarity; our dog had to adjust to peeing on cement (she didn't seem to mind).