Palermo - Discovering the Arab-Norman Itinerary

Palermo is a fascinating city steeped in history that has always offered travellers stimuli and inspiration for organising tours of history and culture. These include the Arab-Norman Itinerary, World Heritage Site since 2015, which entered the World Heritage List.

The architectural style known as Arab-Norman is an artistic expression that combines, as the name suggests, Arab influences with typical Norman elements, giving rise to a model that can be found almost exclusively in Palermo and some neighbouring towns, namely Monreale and Cefalù.

A bit of history

The Arab style arrived in Palermo from the 9th century onwards, specifically from 827, the year of the beginning of Arab domination, which wrested the city and the most important towns on the island from the hands of the Byzantine Empire. The Arab period lasted about two centuries and during this long span of time, imposing works such as palaces, places of worship, minarets were built and Palermo, which became the capital of Sicily (Syracuse was before that) precisely at the behest of the Arabs, was to present a face in some respects very similar to that of the rich eastern countries.

In the 11th century, the Normans (Catholics) arrived in Italy and defeated the Arabs (Muslims), taking possession of the cities and the buildings constructed in them: some of them were destroyed, while others were profoundly modified and readapted to new functions, making it difficult to distinguish the original conformation. But that's not all, the Normans recognised the great value of the Arab craftsmen present in the area and having to build new architecture, they used Muslim builders to construct the main places of civil and religious power. This fusion thus gave rise to the Arab-Norman style, in which certain typically Arab elements (such as lowered arches, geometric mosaics, arabesques, ceilings decorated with muqarnas, i.e. sculpted and painted alveoli or stalactites) survived and merged with the new buildings.

The Arab-Norman Itinerary

In order to highlight the buildings belonging to this stylistic trend of great artistic, historical and cultural interest, an ideal itinerary has been mapped out that embraces the main sites in the Arab-Norman style, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site and includes the following sites:

In Palermo 

  • Royal or Normann Palacei and adjoining Palatine Chapel 
  • Cathedral of the Virgin Mary Assumed into Heaven
  • Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
  • Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio or della Martorana
  • Church of San Cataldo
  • Zisa Castle 
  • Admiral's Bridge. 

In Monreale

  • Cathedral and adjoining cloister

In Cefalù

  • Cathedral and adjoining cloister 

What is the best time to visit Palermo and discover these incredible buildings?
Certainly, the summer season is a happy time for this type of trip, allowing you to combine the sea with cultural discoveries; however, the climate of the Sicilian coasts is mild and pleasant even during the autumn and spring, periods that see a less intense flow of tourists and allow you to enjoy the beaches and artistic sites in total relaxation. However, lately, even in winter, Palermo and many Sicilian cities are increasingly visited by travellers, especially Italians, who wish to treat themselves to a short holiday under the banner of historical beauty, dedicating themselves to a type of tourism oriented towards food and wine and the discovery of local traditions.

At this point you have no excuse, any time is the right time to visit the sites of the Arab-Norman itinerary and beyond!

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