When Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Palermo in 1999, her visit put the official stamp of approval on the Sicilian capital as a secure tourist destination. After decades of open Mafia war, the city was finally quelling crime, restoring order and emerging as yet another not-to-be missed Italian cultural gem. Clinton — then the First Lady, now a Senator from New York — was most interested in ingratiating herself with Sicilian-American voters back home. But she was telling the truth when she praised Palermo's efforts to get out from under the Mafia's shadow, which have led to a drop in the murder rate from more than 200 to less than 15 a year. The next day, Chelsea Clinton left her mom behind to explore the city — a small moment, perhaps, but one that marked Palermo's return from its dark days of gangland war.
It is now officially O.K. to bring the kids to Palermo — even without Secret Service protection. And though Mount Etna erupted last week — damaging property for the seventh time in 30 years and forcing 1,000 people to flee their homes — Palermo is a reassuring 150 km away. The city may not have the spruced-up-for-tourists look of Venice or Florence, but it is beautiful, an open-air museum of the foreign cultures that have conquered Sicily over the centuries. A short walk can lead one past Byzantine mosaics, Arab domes, Norman churches and Spanish sculptures. The most striking architectural hybrid must be the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a lush Roman Catholic sanctuary that was converted from a Muslim mosque after the 12th century departure of the Arabs. The church's Islamic roots can be clearly seen in its red domes and cubic structure. Another mixed, though ultimately Christian, visual feast is the city's main cathedral, an imposing 12th century testament to Gothic grandeur.
The 1997 reopening of Teatro Massimo, once one of Europe's premier opera houses, is a shining testament to the city's rebirth. Its fusion of Greek-inspired elegance and Romanesque dynamism makes it worth a look inside, even if the best tenors are not tuning up. But the most memorable site in town is still unfinished — and always will be. Santa Maria dello Spasimo, a 16th century church whose nave was never completed, has been reopened to visitors, who can savor a unique moment of reflection by looking up through the incomplete roof to the sky above.
Shopping ranges from casbah-like markets, such as the Vucciria off Via Roma, to an array of elegant European designer shops between Via Libertà and Via R. Settimo. Be aware that the traditional 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. siesta is in effect for most stores. If the hustle for clothes and culture leaves no time for a sit-down lunch, there are two traditional dishes that are worth a taste from street vendors and cafés: a giant suppli, a rice-filled croquette with sizzled beef and peas, and a pane e panelle sandwich of lightly fried chick-pea flour with freshly squeezed lemon. Ice cream is consistently good too, and for a local treat order it up in a fresh-baked brioche.
But if you really came looking for trouble, and have an afternoon to kill, hop a bus to Corleone, a 90-minute ride outside Palermo. In the hillside town that gave birth to the Godfather novels and films, you can visit a Mafia museum and — if you look hard enough — see some real-life mobsters still cruising around.
For a taste of how Palermitans eat at home, try Altri Tempi. Though the menu is fixed at four courses, plus local after-dinner liqueurs, customers can choose from among three to four dishes for the pasta and meat courses. Try the traditional favorite pasta alla norma, with eggplants, tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The bill will come to less than 330 a head. Via Sammartino 65, tel: +39 091 323480
Grand Hotel Villa Igiea was built in the early 1900s as one of Sicily's aristocratic estates. It's a 15-minute taxi ride to central Palermo, but worth the ride — especially if you pay a bit extra to get a room with a terrace overlooking the sea. Salita Belmonte 43, tel: +39 091 543744
Depending on the hour and your inclination, the Caffè Mazzara serves up a shot of booze or a shot of espresso. It is also one of the few places where you can dine out on a Sunday night. But whether it's food or drink that drew you, don't leave without trying the liqueur-based, cream-covered pastry baba liqueur. Via Generale Magliocco 15, +39 091 321443
Just a short bus or taxi ride north of the city, Mondello beach provides a quick reminder that Palermo is the capital of a great resort island. After watching the sun set, sample one of the fine seafood restaurants along the promenade
JEFF ISRAELY - [http://www.time.com/time/europe/magazine/, Nov. 11, 2002/Vol. 160 No. 20]