Palermo is a city of limitless excitement and compelling contradictions. Difficult to define yet impossible to ignore, a classic city of the Mediterranean south, bold, blaring and enticing. At one time an Arab emirate and seat of a Norman kingdom, it became Europe's grandest city in the 11th century. Today, it is known more for its decrepitude than decadence.
But behind the decay, Palermo is a beautiful city with a reserve of cultural, architectural and historical wealth to rival any of Europe's great capitals. The city's role as a crossroads between East and West has resulted in an intoxicating cultural cross-fertilisation, which finds its best expression in the city's architectural mix, a fusion of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and baroque.
Palermo's most interesting asset, however, is its populace. Like their city, Palermitans can be a demanding lot, but you will find that they are also warm and friendly, enthusiastic consumers of life's pleasures (both simple and sophisticated) and full of energy and passion. It is they who create the different intensities on the streets. The footpaths teem with people. Neighbours sit on their adjacent balconies and chat, while old ladies shout at young boys on their mopeds as they haul up their daily bread. Noisy, vociferous and a feast for the senses, Palermo is a place that some first-time visitors to Sicily consider avoiding. They would be missing out.
The busy intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda marks the Quattro Canti (Four Corners), the actual and ideal centre of Palermo.
This intersection is surrounded by a perfect circle of curvilinear façades that disappear in a clever feat of perspective up to the blue vault of the sky. It is known locally as Il Teatro del Sole (Theatre of the Sun) as each façade is lit up in turn throughout the course of the day.
In the southwestern corner is the Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini (Corso Vittorio Emanuele; admission free; 8.30- l1am & 6-8pm), topped by a soaring cupola. The monumental interior is baroque at its brashest, lovingly restored after substantial damage suffered during WWII.
Palermo's most famous medieval church is La Martorana (Chiesa di Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio; Piazza Bellini 3; admission free; (Sam- 1pm & 3.3o-S.30pm Mon-Sat, 8.30am- 1pm Sun). It is one of Palermo's foremost churches and is constantly busy with the business of weddings (always scheduled late morning and usually on Saturdays).
This 12th--century structure was the brain• child of King Roger's Syrian Emir, George of Antioch, and was originally planned as a mosque. The Greek artisans employed to decorate it brought their own Christian vision to the stunning mosaic interior. Delicate Fatimid capitals endlessly repeating the name of Allah support a domed cupola depicting Christ enthroned amid his archangels.
In 1433 the church was given over to a Benedictine order of nuns, founded by Eloisa Martorana (hence its nickname), who tore down the Norman apse, reworking the exterior in a fussy baroque fashion and adding their own frescoed chapel at the expense of some of the wonderful mosaic work. Fortunately two of the original mosaics to survive are the portraits of George of Antioch, crouched behind a shield at the fee of the Virgin Mary, and the one of Roger Il receiving his crown from Christ (the only portrait of him to survive in Sicily).
Mussolini returned the church to the Greek Orthodox community in 1935, and totally in keeping with the decoration, the Greek Eastern-rite Mass is still celebrated here.
Where La Martorana preserves its interior, the small pink-domed Chiesa di San Cataldo (Piazza Bellini 3; admission free, 9am-3.30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-12.30pm Sat, 9am-l pm Sun & public holidays) is almost bare inside. It was founded in the 1150s by Maio of Bari (WilIiam I's Emir of Emirs) but was not finished due to Maio's murder in 1160, hence the lack of adornment within. However, its main interest lies in the exterior, which illustrates perfectly the synthesis of Arab-Norman styles.
Across Via Maqueda is Piazza Pretoria, a crowd of imposing churches and buildings (many currently under scaffolding) that surround the fabulously ostentatious Fontana Pretoria.
The fountain dominates the piazza with its tiered basins rippling out in concentric circles crowded with nude nymph~ tritons and river gods that leap about the water. Designed for the Tuscan villa of Don Pedro di Toledo, Palermo bought the fountain in 1573 in a bid to outshine the newly crafted Fontana di Orione installed in Messina. Proudly positioned in front or the Palazzo Pretorio (Municipal Hall), the flagrant nudity and leering nymphs proved a bit much for Sicilian churchgoers attending the grandly formal Chiesa di San Giuseppl dei Teatini, and they prudishly dubbed it the Fountain of Shame.
Closing off the eastern side of the square is the Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Discesa dei Giudici), Palermo's finest baroque church with a typical Sicilian story. Held in trust by seven very old nuns, the door is always open and the public gets the briefest glimpse of its stunning stucco statuary, pastel frescoes and amethyst and lapis altars.
Closing off the eastern side of the square is the Santa Caterina Church (Discesa dei Giudici), Palermo's finest baroque church with a typical Sicilian story. Held in trust by seven very old nuns, the door is always open and the public gets the briefest glimpse of its stunning stucco statuary, pastel frescoes and amethyst and lapis altars.
Once inhabited by Norman court officials, Albergheria is now a poor and ramshackle quarter, home to a growing population of illegal immigrants who have revitalized its streets with their aspirations and homesickness It is also the location of Palermo's busiest market, Mercato di Ballarò.
Just off the three-tiered loggia of Palazzo dei Normanni is Palermo's premier tourist attraction, the Cappella Palatina (tel 091 705 48 79; - 9am11.45am & 3-5pm Mon-Fri, 9am-11.45am Sat & Sun), designed by Roger 11 in 1130. With every inch of its bijoux interior inlaid with precious marbles and exquisite mosaics (coloured glass onto which gold leaf has been applied) the chapel! has a jewel-like quality, and the mosaics are incredibly sophisticated, capturing expressions, detail and movement with extraordinary grace and delicacy.
The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, but other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades, an ironic reference given the fact that the chapel was decorated by Muslim artists. The wooden muqarnas (stalactite) ceiling - unique in a Christian church - is a masterpiece of honeycomb carving.
This is one of the busiest tourist sites in Palermo so be prepared to queue. Once in possession of your ticket you will have to queue once again outside the chapel as minders limit the number of people. The whole process is often badly managed, but don't let yourself be hurried through one of Sicily's finest sights.
West along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past the waving palms in Piazza della Vittoria, rises the fortress palace of Palazzo dei Normanni (Palazzo Reale; tel 0917054317; fax 09170547 37; Piazza Indipendenza l; admission incl. Cappella Palatina, 9am-noon & 2-5pm Mon-Sat, 9am-noon Sun; group visits must be prebooked by fax), once the centre of a magnificent medieval court and now the seat of the Sicilian parliament.
Guided tours take you through the Sicilian parliamentary assembly and to the sumptuous Sala di Ruggero Il, the King's former bedroom where some of the only secular mosaics of the day still decorate the walls with Persian peacocks and exotic leopards.
Next to the palace is the Porta Nuova, built to celebrate the arrival of Carlos V in Palermo in 1535 after a victory over the Tunisians. Designed in the Mannerist style, it was partially destroyed by lightning in 1667 and rebuilt with the addition of the conical top.
More than 400 years later, it still serves as a demarcation line between the old and new city.
Just south of the Palazzo dei Normanni, the San Giovanni degli Eremiti Church ( tel 091 651 50 19; Via dei Benedettini; admission: 9am-l pm & 3-7pm Mon-Sat, 9am-12.30pm Sun & public holidays), is Palermo's best-known example of the Norman-Arab architectural mix.
Built under Roger Il, it is topped by five red domes and set in a pretty, tree-filled garden with c10isters that offer temporary respite from the chaos outside. The bare interior of the now deconsecrated church features some badly deteriorated frescoes.
Bordering the Albergheria quarter, Il Capo is another web of interconnected streets and blind alleys. Impoverished like its neighbour, it too has its own street trade, Mercato del Capo running the length of Via Sant'Agostino.
The centrepiece of the quarter is the imposing monastery of Chiesa di Sant'Agostino (Via Sant'Agostino; admission free; 8 am-noon & 4-5.30pm) that ran the region in medieval times.
Ambitious builders, the Normans converted mosques and palaces, giving rise to the Arab-Norman style that is unique to Sicily. Chief among these is the cathedral (tel 091 33 43 76; www.cattedrale.palermo.it. in Italian; Corso Vittorio Emanuele; admission free; 7am-7pm Mon-Sat, 8am-1.30pm & 4-7pm Sun & public holidays), an extraordinary feast of ziggurat crenellations, majolica cupolas, geometric patterns and blind arches. Set back from the street, the foreground planted with palms, the Oriental impact is enough to skew one's compasso.
Construction began in 1184 at the behest of Palermo's archbishop, Walter of the Mill (Gualtiero Offamiglia), who was eager to challenge the supremacy of Monreale. Since then the Cathedral has been much altered, sometimes with great success - as in the three-arched portico (which took 200 years to complete), a masterpiece of Catalan-inspired architecture - and sometimes with less fortunate results, as in Ferdinando Fuga's clumsy do me. Thankfully Fuga's handiwork did not extend to the eastern exterior, which still sports the exotic interlacing designs of Walter's original cathedral.
Although impressive in scale, the interior is a marble shell, a sadly unexotic resting place for the royal Norman tombs, which contain the remains of two of Sicily's greatest rulers, Roger Il (rear left) and Frederick Il of Hohenstaufen (front left). Halfway down the right aisle is a magnificent treasury (8am-6pm Mon-Sat), whose most extraordinary exhibit is a .tooth extracted from Santa Rosalia, one of the patron saints of Palermo. Her ashes are also kept here in a silver reliquary. For information about the Festino di Santa Rosalia.
Plagued by poverty, La Kalsa is one of the city's most notorious neighbourhoods and, at least until a few years ago, most visitors were advised to keep away once the sun went down. Certainly Mother Teresa considered it no better than the Third World and even established a mission here.
Rightfully shamed, the auPlagued by poverty, La Kalsa is one of the city's most notorious neighbourhoods and, at least until a few years ago, most visitors were advised to keep away once the sun went down. Certainly Mother Teresa considered it no better than the Third World and even established a mission here. Rightfully shamed, the authorities were galvanised into action and the quarter is now the main beneficiary of the restoration project.thorities were galvanised into action and the quarter is now the main beneficiary of the restoration project.
The arterial Via Alloro hides Palermo's best museum, the wonderful Galleria Regionale Siciliana (tel 091 623 00 11; Via Alloro 4 - 9am-2pm Mon-Fri & 3-8pm Tue, Wed & Thu, 9.30am1.30pm Sat & Sun), full of treasures and paintings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.
The building itself is a gorgeous Catalan Gothic palace sensitively transformed into an exhibition space in 1957 by Carlo Scarpa, one of Italy's leading designers.
The gallery gives a great insight into Sicilian painting - something sadly lacking in more recent years - and numbers among its treasures the famous Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death), a magnificent fresco. Demonic death mounted on his wasted horse wields a wicked looking scythe, leaping over his hapless victims, notably the vain and pampered aristocrats of Palermo, while the poor and hungry look on from the side. The huge image, carefully restored, has sensibly been given its own room and can be viewed both at ground level and from a galleried platform.
Other treasures include a remarkable 12thcentury Arab door frame and Antonello da Messina's well-known panel of the Assunzione (Assumption). It is interesting to see Messina's work alongside the sculptures of Francesco Laurana, most notably his exquisite bust of E/eonara di Aragona which is exhibited in Room 4. Both artists specialise in an economy of detail that lends Messina's paintings and Laurana's sculptures a perfect stillness that sets them apart from
The Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi is Palermo's picture-perfect piazza, overlooked by the charming Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi (Piazza San Francesco; admission free; 9am-noon Mon, 9am-4pm Tue-Fri, 9am-noon Sat), which features a fine rose window and a flamboyant Gothic portal.
Understandably popular on the wedding circuit, the church's most interesting feature is the rare arch of the Cappella Mastrantollio (Chapel of Mastrantonio), carved in 1468 by Laurana and Pietro da Bonitate, and one of the only true examples of Renaissance art in Palermo. The church also showcases sculptures by the Gagini family, Giambattista Ragusa and Giacomo Serpotta.
Nearby is another of Serpotta's extravagant stucco oratories, the Oratorio di San Lorenzo (Via dell'lmmacolatella; admission free; 9am-12am, Mon-Fri), built in 1569 by the Compagnia di San Francesco. The work includes a series of panels with details from the lives of St Lawrence and St Francis, the best of which is the Martirio di San Lorenzo (Martyrdom of St Lawrence), on the far wall. A large Natività (Nativity) by Caravaggio once hung on the wall behind the altar but it was stolen in 1969 and has never been found.
The shabby streets of Vucciria illustrate the almost medieval chasm between rich and poor that existed in Sicily up until the 1950s.
Once the heart of poverty-stricken Palermo and a den of crime and filth, the Mercato della Vucciria used to be a bustling place filled with shrieking vendors, swaying carcasses and every imaginable fruit and vegetable.
These scenes inspired Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso's most important work, La Vucciria (1974), described by Leonardo Sciascia as 'a hungry man's dream'.
One of the most important museums of its kind in Europe, the wonderful Museo Archeologico Regionale (tel 091 611 68 05; Via Bara all'Olivelia 24; (8.30am-6pm Mon & Fri, 8.30am-1.30pm Sat, Sun & public holidays) houses an extensive collection.
Among its treasures are Phoenician sarcophagi (5th century BC), 10,000 Etruscan artifacts, Greek carvings from Selinunte, the Hellenistic Ariete di Bronzo di Siracusa (Bronze Ram of Syracuse), the largest collection of ancient anchors in the world, and finds from archaeological sites throughout the island.
Without a doubt, the museum's most impressive rooms are at the back ofthe luxuriant cloister. They house the huge, fragmented Gorgon's head (570 BC) from Tempie C at Selinunte and 19 (out of an original 59) of the giant-sized lions' heads that formed the spouts of an enormous fountain at Himera's Tempio della Vittoria. Beyond these is the Sala di Selinunte, featuring ali of the stone carvings from the seven Greek temples at Selinunte. The series depicts favourite scenes full of humour and energy; Hercules fights a wilting Amazon while Actaeon is devoured by his hounds. In another, Perseus gleefully beheads the Gorgon and the Cercopes twins, hung upside-down, laugh at Hercules' sunburnt bum. Upstairs, room after room houses delicate, painted vases (how did they survive so long?) and a rare collection of Etruscan mirrors.
Also worth looking out for is the bronze 5th-century-BC nude statue known as the Efebo di Selinunte (Youth of Selinunte).
The museum also has wheelchair access.
About 200m southeast of the museum, off Via Roma, is the Chiesa di San Domenico (tel 091 58 48 72; Piazza San Domenico; admission free; 9-11.30am Mon-Fri, 5-7pm Sat & Sun).
It was built in 1640 following the design of architect Andrea Cirincione; the façade was added in 1726 after the buildings that once occupied the square were demolished to give the church some space. The church serves as the city's pantheon, housing the tombs and cenotaphs of some notable Sicilians, including former Italian prime minister Francesco Crispi.
However, the real sight is the church's oratory, Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico (Via dei Bambinai 2, behind Chiesa di San Domenico; admission free; 9am-l pm Mon-Fri, 2-5.30pm Sat), which in conjunction with the nearby Oratorio del Rosario di Santa lita (Via Valverde 3; admission free 9am-1pm & 3-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am- 1pm Sat) contain some of the very best stuccowork by Giacomo Serpotta. In the case of Santa Zita the entire altarpiece is a writhing mass of allegorical statues and capering cherubs.
Striking out from Palazzo Abatellis up Via IV Aprile will bring you to the gentrified Piazza Marina with its small Giardino Garibaldi (admission free; 24hr). Surrounded on all sides by elegant palazzi. this is Palermo's quietest piazza and the garden encloses a venerable 150-year-old ficus benjamin.
Palermo's oldest tree, standing Some 25m high. Dedicated to Garibaldi, the square has witnessed its fair share of bullfights and bloody executions, unsurprising given that the largest palazzo on the square, the imposing 14th-century Palazzo Chiaramonte (tel +39 091334139; Piazza Marina 60) was the headquarters of the Inquisition.
Now part of the University of Palermo, it is only open for special exhibitions.
Just off the piazza is one of the only palaces open to the public, Palazzo Mirto (tel 091 616 7S 41; Via Merlo 2; .9am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 9am-1pm Sun).
Considering Palermitan extravagances, it is actually pretty modesl. Its walls are covered in acres of silk and velvet wallpaper and vast embroidered wall hangings. Its floors are a crazy paving of coloured marbles and mosaic work.
The real extravagance, however, is the tiny Salottino Cinese (Chinese Salon) full of black lacquer, silken wallpaper and a rather conceited ceiling painting of European aristos viewing the room from above.
Behind the Galleria Regionale Siciliana is the Complessa di Santa Maria dello Spasimo (tel 091 6161486; Via Spasimo; admission free; 9 am-midnight), the only example of Northern Gothic in Sicily with its elegant polygonal apse and tall slender nave that has stood for centuries without a roof.
It was built by a wealthy doctor, Girolamo Basilicò, on his return from the Holy Land in the early 1500s. The good doctor then commissioned Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) to produce a panel painting for the altar, the Spasimo di Sicilia, but this is now sadly missing, spirited away to Madrid (it now hangs in the Prado) by the Viceroy Ferdinando d'Ayala, who bribed the not-so-saintly abbot.
The complex is now one of the success stories of the restoration programme, having reopened in 1995 as a venue for concerts and exhibitions (evenings from June to end of September).
Across Piazza Magione from Lo Spasimo is the Chiesa della Magione (tel 091 617 05 96, Via Magione 44; admission free; 9.30am-6.30pm), also known as La Magione - a fine example of the more austere Romanesque style that the Normans first brought to Sicily.
North of Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, Palermo takes on a less worn, more cosmopolitan look.
Here, there are some glorious examples from the last golden age in Sicilian architecture when neoclassical and Art Nouveau styles were all the rage.
The grandest examples are the Teatro Massimo and the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi.
Palermo's second theatre (and the Teatro Massimo's substitute for the length of its closure) was designed in classical form by Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda between 1867 and 1874. The Teatro Politeama Garibaldi (bookings tel 091 605 33 15; Piazza Ruggero Settimo) features a particularly striking façade that looks like a triumphal arch topped by bronze chariots.
The theatre also home to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (tel 091 58 89 51; entrance Via Turati 1; 9am-7.30pm Tue-Sat, to 1pm Sun & public holidays), installed in 1910 with an array of modern and contemporary Italian art. The theatre itself is only open during performances.
Built during the years 1875 and 1897 by Giovanni Battista Basile and subsequently his son, Ernesto, to celebrate the unification of Italy, Teatro Massimo (tel 091 605 31 11, toll-free
tel 800655858; www.teatromassimo.it; 10am-3.30pm Tue-5un) has become a symbol of the triumph and tragedy of Palermo itself. Its long history is symptomatic of the conflicting powers that struggle for supremacy in Palermo society - civic pride and cultural creativity pitted against the sinister shadows of Pirandellian bureaucracy and Mafia control (which is said to have been responsible for the extraordinary 24 years it took to restore).
Appropriately the closing scene of The Godfather III, with its visually stunning juxtaposition of high culture and low crime, drama and death, was filmed here.
There are two important places out of the historical centre: the Castello della Zisa (Zisa's Castle) and the Convento dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Monastery).
A short bus or car journey southwest from Piazza Castelnuovo leads to Castello della Zisa (tel 091 652 02 69; Piazza Zisa; 9am-6.30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-1 pm Sal & Sun), one of the only remaining monuments to the decadence of Moorish Palermo. With stalactite vaults, latticework windows, fountains and even a wind chamber to protect the emir's family from the hot African scirocco (wind), the villa deserves its name which comes from the Arabic al aziz, meaning 'magnificent'. Today it houses a museum of Arabic crafts of which the main features are the superbly crafted screens and a gorgeous 12thcentury bronze basin. Take bus No 124 from Piazza Ruggero Settimo.
Despite its famous manuscript collection and the tomb of novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in the adjoining cemetery, the Convento dei Cappuccini (tel 091 21 2117; Via Cappuccini 1; 9am-noon & 3-5pm) is known for its altogether more macabre catacombs where the mummified bodies of some 8000 Palermitans who died between the 17th and 19th centuries are on show.
Originally the preserve of monks, the catacombs were eventually opened to a select and moneyed few who made substantial donations of land or money to the monastery. For their pains, these lucky individuals were laid out 'to drain' -.ugh - after death, before being washed with vinegar and powdered with arsenic and milk of lime. They were then dressed in their Sunday best and propped up in their very own niche.
Earthly power, sex, religion and professional status are rigidly distinguished. Men and women occupy separate corridors and within the women' s area there is a first -class section for virgins. The most disconcerting sight is the near-perfectly preserved body of Rosalia Lombardo (just follow the signs - in Italian and English - for 'bambina' or 'baby girl'), who died at the tender age of two in 1920. Gory and perturbing, the catacombs are one of the city' s premier tourist attractions.
Even if exciting, the visit of Palermo can be very tiring, and nothing like a day away from the noise and bustle of the town can regenerate body and mind.
Even places that gravitate around the Sicilian main town have very deep historical roots, to be found in the paintings of the cave dell'Addaura or the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, originally a pagan place of worship.
More recently the story of several cities, such as Corleone, was characterized by the Mafia phenomenon. But the attraction for excellence remains the Duomo di Monreale, the most glorious witness ofthe golden age of the Sicilian Medieval architecture.
Set in the lee of Monte Pellegrino is the fashionable beach resort of Mondello (take bus N° 806 from Piazza Sturzo), full-tobursting with Palermitan teenagers, gaudy plastic beach toys and strollers. It's great fun after the simmering intensity of the city. Originally a muddy, malaria-ridden port, Mondello only really became fashionable in the 19th century, when people carne to the seasiùe In their carriages, thus warranting the huge Art Nouveau pier which dominates the seafront and where most of the beaches are private. However, there is a wide swathe of public beach with ali the prerequisite pedalos and jet skis.
There are numerous seafood restaurants and snack stalls along the seafront (Viale Regina Elena). For something a bit more classy, try Charleston (tel 091 4501 71; Viale Regina Elena). One of Sicily's classiest restaurants in an enormous Art Nouveau palace with a wide terrace jutting out over the sea, it has hosted the great and the good. The food is suitably fine with an emphasis on Palermitan favourites.
Inspired by a heavenly vision of the Virgin and driven by earthy ambition, William Il set about building the magnificent Cattedrale di Monreale (tel 091 640 44 13; Piazza Duomo, Monreale; admission free; 8am-6pm, treasury 9.30am-noon & 3.30-5.30pm) 8 km southwest of Palermo (accessible by frequent city buses from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo). Living in the shadow of his grandfather, Roger II - who was responsible for the cathedral in Cefalù and the Cappella Palatina - and vying with his rival Walter of the MiIl, the Palermitan archbishop, WilIiam was determined that his cathedral should be bigger and better. The result was Monreale, considered the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily.
The interior ranks as one of the most impressive creations of the Italian Middle Ages. A catalogue of shimmering mosaics depicts a poor man's Bible of Old Testament stories from the Creation of Man to the Assumption. a total of 42 different episodes. What strikes one is the size of the images and their wonderfully naive style - Noah's huge arc perches atop the waves in the classic storybook image while Christ heals a leper infected .with large leopard-sized spots .
The artists were local and Venetian mosaicists, but the stylised influence of the Byzantines is all-pervasive. Completed in 1184 after only IO years' work, the mosaics are an articulate and fitting tribute to the grandeur of Sicilian culture at the time.
About 20km east of Palermo are the remains of the Hellenistic-Roman town of Solunto (tel +39 091904557; 9am-6pm Mon-Fri). Although the ancient city is only partially excavated, the ruins are beautifully sited on the slopes of Monte Catalfano.
The city was founded in the 4th century BC on the site of an earlier Phoenician settlement. Wander along the Roman decumanus (main street), and take detours up the steep, paved side streets to explore the ruined houses, some of which still sport their original mosaic floors. Take particular note of the theatre and the Casa di Leda (if you can find it), which has an interesting floor mosaic.
To get there, take the train from Palermo and get off at the Santa Flavia-Solunto-Porticello stop (15 minutes, every 30 minutes) and ask for directions. The ancient city is about a 3D-minute uphill walk.
Almost 60km north of Palermo lies Ùstica, a haven for serious divers This tiny island (8.7 sq km) is part of the Aeolian volcanic chain and is the tip of a submerged volcano. As a result the waters around the island abound with fish and coral, the limpid waters kept sparklingly clean by an Atlantic current through the Straits of Gibraltar.
In 1986 Ustica was made Italy's first marine reserve and it remains a centre for diving and marine research. In July the island hosts the International Festival of Underwater Activities, drawing divers from around the world. It's best to visit in June and September to appreciate the fabulous coastline and grottoes without the crowds.