Palermo is a city of Southern Italy, the capital of both the autonomous region of Sicily and the Metropolitan City of Palermo. The city is noted for its history, culture, architecture and gastronomy, playing an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The city was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians as Ziz ('flower'). Palermo then became a possession of Carthage, before becoming part of the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire and eventually part of the Byzantine Empire, for over a thousand years. The Greeks named the city Panormus meaning 'complete port'. From 831 to 1072 the city was under Arab rule during the Emirate of Sicily when the city first became a capital. The Arabs shifted the Greek name into Balarme (Arabic: بَلَرْم), the root for Palermo's present-day name. Following the Norman reconquest, Palermo became the capital of a new kingdom (from 1130 to 1816), the Kingdom of Sicily and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II Holy Roman Emperor and Conrad IV of Germany, King of the Romans. Eventually Sicily would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860.
The population of Palermo urban area is estimated by Eurostat to be 855,285, while its metropolitan area is the fifth most populated in Italy with around 1.2 million people. In the central area, the city has a population of around 676,000 people. The inhabitants are known as Palermitani or, poetically, panormiti. The languages spoken by its inhabitants are the Italian language, Sicilian language and the Palermitano dialect.
Palermo is Sicily's cultural, economic and touristic capital. It is a city rich in history, culture, art, music and food. Numerous tourists are attracted to the city for its good Mediterranean weather, its renowned gastronomy and restaurants, its Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings, and its nightlife and music. Palermo is the main Sicilian industrial and commercial center: the main industrial sectors include tourism, services, commerce and agriculture. Palermo currently has an international airport, and a significant underground economy. In fact, for cultural, artistic and economic reasons, Palermo was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and is now among the top tourist destinations in both Italy and Europe. It is the main seat of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale. The city is also going through careful redevelopment, preparing to become one of the major cities of the Euro-Mediterranean area.
Roman Catholicism is highly important in Palermitano culture. The Patron Saint of Palermo is Santa Rosalia whose Feast Day is celebrated on 15 July. The area attracts significant numbers of tourists each year and is widely known for its colourful fruit, vegetable and fish markets at the heart of Palermo, known as Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo.
Palermo lies in a basin, formed by the Papireto, Kemonia and Oreto rivers. The basin was named the Conca d'Oro (the Golden Basin) by the Arabs in the 9th century. The city is surrounded by a mountain range which is named after the city itself. These mountains face the Tyrrhenian Sea. Palermo is home to a natural port and offers excellent views to the sea, especially from Monte Pellegrino.
Palermo is surrounded by mountains, formed of calcar, which form a cirque around the city. Some districts of the city are divided by the mountains themselves. Historically, it was relatively difficult to reach the inner part of Sicily from the city because of the mounts. The tallest peak of the range is La Pizzuta, about 1,333 metres (4,373 ft) high. However, historically, the most important mount is Monte Pellegrino, which is geographically separated from the rest of the range by a plain. The mount lies right in front of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Monte Pellegrino's cliff was described in the 19th century by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as "the most beautiful promontory in the world", in his essay "Italian Journey".
Palermo has at least two rings of city walls, many pieces of which still survive. The first ring surrounded the ancient core of the Phoenician city – the so-called Palaeopolis (in the area east of Porta Nuova) and the Neapolis. Via Vittorio Emanuele was the main road east–west through this early walled city. The eastern edge of the walled city was on Via Roma and the ancient port in the vicinity of Piazza Marina. The wall circuit was approximately Porto Nuovo, Corso Alberti, Piazza Peranni, Via Isodoro, Via Candela, Via Venezia, Via Roma, Piazza Paninni, Via Biscottari, Via Del Bastione, Palazzo dei Normanni and back to Porto Nuovo.
In the medieval period the walled city was expanded. Via Vittorio Emanuele continued to be the main road east–west through the walled city. The west gate was still Porta Nuova, the walls continued to Corso Alberti, to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele Orlando where it turned east along Via Volturno to Piazza Verdi and along the line of Via Cavour. At this northeast corner there was a defence, Castello a Mare, to protect the port at La Cala. A huge chain was used to block La Cala with the other end at Santa Maria della Catena (St Mary of the Chain). The sea-side wall was along the western side of Foro Italico Umberto. The wall turns west along the northern side of Via Abramo Lincoln, continues along Corso Tukory. The wall turns north approximately on Via Benedetto, to Palazzo dei Normanni and back to Porta Nuova.
The cathedral has a heliometer (solar observatory) dating to 1690, one of a number built in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The device itself is quite simple: a tiny hole in one of the minor domes acts as pinhole camera, projecting an image of the sun onto the floor at solar noon (12:00 in winter, 13:00 in summer). There is a bronze line, la Meridiana, on the floor, running precisely north–south. The ends of the line mark the positions as at the summer and winter solstices; signs of the zodiac show the various other dates throughout the year.
The purpose of the instrument was to standardise the measurement of time and the calendar. The convention in Sicily had been that the (24‑hour) day was measured from the moment of dawn, which of course meant that no two locations had the same time and, more importantly, did not have the same time as in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was also important to know when the vernal equinox occurred, to provide the correct date for Easter.
The Orto botanico di Palermo (Palermo Botanical Garden), founded in 1785, is the largest in Italy with a surface of 10 hectares (25 acres).
One site of interest is the Capuchin Catacombs, with many mummified corpses in varying degrees of preservation.
Close to the city is the 600-metre-high (2,000 ft) Monte Pellegrino, offering a panorama of the city, its surrounding mountains and the sea.
Another good panoramic viewpoint is the promontory of Monte Gallo (586 m, 1,923 ft), near Mondello Beach.
The patron saint of Palermo is Saint Rosalia, who is widely revered.
On 14 July, people in Palermo celebrate the annual Festino, the most important religious event of the year. The Festino is a procession which goes through the main street of Palermo to commemorate the miracle attributed to Saint Rosalia who, it is believed, freed the city from the Black Death in 1624. Her remains were discovered in a cave on Monte Pellegrino, and her remains were carried around the city three times, banishing the plague. There is a sanctuary marking the spot where her remains were found which can be reached via a scenic bus ride from the city.
Before 1624 Palermo had four patron saints, one for each of the four major parts of the city. They were Saint Agatha, Saint Christina, Saint Nympha and Saint Olivia.
Saint Lucy is also honoured with a peculiar celebration, during which the inhabitants of Palermo do not eat anything made with flour, but boil wheat in its natural state and use it to prepare a special dish called cuccìa. This commemorates the saving of the city from famine due to a miracle attributed to Saint Lucy; A ship full of grain mysteriously arrived in the city's harbour and the hungry population wasted no time in making flour but ate the grain as it arrived.
Saint Benedict the Moor is the heavenly protector of the city of Palermo.
The ancient patron of the city was the Genius of Palermo, genius loci and numen protector of the place, that became the laic patron of the modern Palermo.