Sicily is a magnet for tourists, with its ruggedly spectacular coastline and ancient Greek and Roman ruins. But many travelers steer clear of Palermo, the island's capital and mafia stronghold. Yet it's a far less expensive destination than Rome. Palermo is one of the world's great "second" cities—like Manchester, England, or Buffalo, New York—that's maybe a little grittier than the better-known cultural capital that overshadows it, but full of its own historic riches. Palermo's civilization reaches at least to the Phoenicians, who settled during the first millennium B.C. From there, the city's timeline looks like a fever chart of invaders, colonists and conquerors. Of its multitude of significant old churches, two overlooking the city's Piazza Bellini perfectly embody the cultural collisions: the starkly beautiful San Cataldo, from the 12th-century Norman conquest, is topped by three small red domes, a reminder of the enduring Arab influence; right next to it, an architectural hodgepodge known as La Martorana contains stunning 12th-century Byzantine gold mosaics as well as Baroque frescoes and froufrou from five centuries later.
Palermo's own last glory days peaked in the late 1800s, when the palm-shaded city was still a glamorous getaway for European royalty and artists. That era left a legacy of art nouveau design—including the fine neoclassical opera house, the Teatro Massimo—and signaled the end of a way of life for the Sicilian nobility. During World War II, Allied bombs devastated many of the churches and sumptuous palazzos of Palermo's noble families, and decades of postwar poverty and corruption further scarred the city. The first time I visited a few years ago, there were still some bombed-out palaces with weeds sprouting in their courtyards and streets that didn't feel safe in broad daylight. Since then, money has poured into Palermo for restoration, and the historic city has come alive. Among the highlights: the new Museum of Contemporary Art in the smartly renovated Palazzo Riso.
But aside from the abundance of art, architecture and opera, Palermo is rich with more earthly pleasures—food, wine and cafés. The most famous outdoor market is La Vucciria, but knowing visitors will wander instead through the smaller Il Capo, with its rounds of swordfish gleaming in the fish stalls, mountains of fava beans, boxes of luscious Marsala fragolini, or little strawberries, heaps of nuts, olives and salted capers. Sample such Sicilian delicacies as sarde a Beccafico, sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins. That collision of the sweet and salty is the essence of Palermo: a crossroads of Europe and Arab North Africa, of ancient history and modern Italy, of bygone grandeur and the pulse of urban life.