Chief town of Sicily and fifth ranking municipality in terms of population, Palermo is the crossroads of the cultures and civilisations that have conquered Sicily over the centuries. Founded by the Phoenicians between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, the territory of Palermo was subsequently ruled by the Romans, Greeks, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens and Arabs. With the arrival of the Normans in 1061 the city reached a period of splendour attributable to the construction of religious and civil buildings in Arab-Norman style.
Since 2015 the Arab-Norman Palermo has been in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The quarter inhabited by the functionaries of the Norman court was the Albergheria, which is now the location of the most famous market of Palermo, the Ballarò market, the Church of the Gesù (built in 1590) and the Palace of the Normans, located at the western end of the quarter. The Palace of the Normans, dating from the 9th century, is the oldest royal palace in Europe and owes its present appearance and the magnificent mosaics to an extensive reconstruction in the Norman period. The palace was rebuilt around the year 1130 on the orders of Roger II and contains the Palatine Chapel, the main tourist attraction of the city. It is now the seat of the regional assembly of Sicily. Another important example of the Arab-Norman style in the Albergheria quarter is the Church of Saint John of the Hermits, surmounted by five cupolas and surrounded by citrus fruit gardens. The other monuments in the city inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List are the Church of San Cataldo, the Church of Saint Mary’s of the Admiral, the Admiral’s Bridge and the Zisa palace.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, more simply known as Palermo Cathedral, dates from 1184 when its construction started. It contains royal Norman tombs and the treasures, a small collection of sacred reliquaries and jewels from the Norman period, including a tooth and the ashes of Saint Rosaly. The saint, who according to catholic tradition saved Palermo from the plague in 1624, is venerated throughout Sicily. The Feast of Saint Rosaly enlivens Palermo from 11 to 15 July with a procession in which a 17th century triumphal chariot is drawn by oxen and accompanied by the faithful in period costume. The procession winds its way from the Royal Palace along the Cassaro (the oldest street in Palermo) to the sea, then it stops in front of the Cathedral and Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena) where the mayor climbs onto the chariot and places a crown of flowers as a gift to the saint while the public shout «Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia» (Long live Palermo and Saint Rosaly). On the 14th there is a fireworks display in the evening which goes on until late into the night and the celebrations end on the 15th with the Solemn Procession of the reliquaries.
The multicultural nature of Palermo can also be seen in the cuisine, where the pastries are creative and contain ingredients introduced by Arab culture such as pistachios, cinnamon and almond paste. Besides the pastry, with cassate and cannoli, the street food is highly renowned with its arancina (stuffed rice ball), spleen sandwich, pane e panelle (chickpea fritters), bread with croquettes, Sfincione (spongy pizza bread with topping) and much more.