Itinerary of the Arab-Norman: Palermo and Monreale

Sicily, with its seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, has the largest number of honors in Italy. Notably, the Itinerary of the Arab-Norman Palermo and Monreale, with its great cultural and artistic heritage, listed in the World-Heritage List in 2015, which contributed to the award of the European City of Culture to Palermo in 2018, for its amazing artistic and architectural works. This itinerary is composed of nine artistic and architectural heritage: seven of these are located in Palermo and one each in Cefalù and Monreale.

World Heritage list monuments in Palermo:

Royal Palace

It is located in the oldest part of the city, on an ancient Punic settlement. It stands out for its majesty beyond the palm trees of Piazza della Vittoria. In ancient times it was the seat of the Norman royalty and a magnificent medieval court. Today, it is the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly and you can visit it only four days a week. Visitors can see the council room and the sumptuous bedroom of Roger II, entirely covered with mosaics depicting peacocks, leopards and exotic landscapes. Inside the Palace, you can find a truly jewel of art: the Palatine Chapel, described as the most beautiful church in the world by Guy de Maupassant. It is located in Piazza Indipendenza, 1, Palermo.

Palatine Chapel

It is located on the lower floor of the Royal Palace and is considered the greatest artistic treasure of Palermo. It is a sumptuous place full of spirituality, completely covered with marble and valuable mosaics. Greek-Byzantine mosaics made in 1140, incredibly sophisticated, full of details and full of details in which movements and expressions emerge with extraordinary grace and delicacy.

Church of Santa Vergine Maria Assunta (Palermo Cathedral)

Magnificent and enchanting work, great masterpiece of Sicilian art. The sarcophagus of Frederick II lies in its interior. The crypt preserves the “Treasure of the Cathedral” and includes a collection of works of art dating from the Norman age to the nineteenth century. Among these, the stunning crown of the first wife of Frederick II of Swabia, Constance of Aragon. You can also visit the Roofs of the Cathedral. It is located in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo.

Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

It is the emblem of the architectural fusion between the Arab and Norman styles. You cannot imagine Palermo without the presence of the five beautiful red domes that cover the roof of this unique church, bordering the ancient medieval city walls. Its architecture is based on geometric rigor, markedly Islamic, with severe interiors, stripped of any decoration; a tangible example of the exceptional dialogue that occurred at that time between the two cultures, the Eastern and the Christian. The beauty of the place is enhanced by the presence of a beautiful nineteenth-century garden with palm trees that, around the ancient cloister, creates a real oasis of peace. It is located in Via dei Benedettini, 16, Palermo.

Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana)

In the ancient heart of Palermo, where once ran the walls of the old city, there is the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, a true jewel of Byzantine art, also known as the Church of “Martorana” which owes its most common name to the presence of a female Benedictine monastery, founded in 1193 by Goffredo and Aloisia de Marturano, which King Alfonso “the Magnanimous” granted the church to in 1435. It is located in Piazza Bellini 3.

Church of San Cataldo

It was built in 1154 under the reign of William I at the behest of Majone da Bari, as a chapel of a sumptuous palace, now no longer existing. It is the most peculiar example of the Arab architectural culture at the service of the Norman sovereigns with the typical red domes that dominate it. The external walls are characterized by the graphic design of the blind arches surmounted by an ornamental crowning cornice. The interior, with a central plan, has three naves divided by columns with capitals that support the acute arches. Splendid are: the floor with polychrome inlays in marble and porphyry and the altar in which are engraved a cross and the symbols of the evangelists. The church is now deconsecrated for worship. It is located in Piazza Bellini, 3.

Zisa Palace

From the Arabic al-ʿAzīza, meaning “the splendid” – it was originally located outside the city and was the summer residence of the sovereign. Inserted in the great royal hunting park of the Genoardo (paradise of the earth), which extended to the west of the city, the Zisa today is easily reachable on foot from the nearby Royal Palace which is just 1 km far. With its muqarna vaults, half-timbered windows, high battlements and beautiful fountains, the Palace undoubtedly lives up to its name. Today it is possible to visit also a rich Museum of Islamic Art inside of it, that collects works coming from Sicily and from the Mediterranean area produced between the IX and the XII century. It is located in Piazza Zisa, Palermo.

Admiral’s Bridge

It was built around 1131 at the behest of George of Antioch, admiral of King Roger II, to connect the city to the gardens located beyond the River Oreto. It still represents a monument symbol of the connection between the city center and the peripheral area Brancaccio in the square, called Piazza Scaffa. The use of the very sharp arches characteristic allowed the bridge to withstand very high loads; very interesting is also the opening of smaller arches between the shoulders of the large ones to lighten the structure and the pressure of the river below. The bridge in fact resisted without problems even the terrible Palermo Flood in February 1931. At this bridge, on the night of 27 May 1860, the Garibaldi’s troops folded, in a hard battle, those Bourbons who opposed their entry into the city. It is located in via Corso dei Mille, Palermo.

World Heritage list monuments in Monreale

Monreale Cathedral

It deserves great attention because it really is one of the most beautiful temples in the world. After Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul (Constantinople), it is the largest Byzantine mosaic work in the world. The word “mosaic”, in fact, comes from the Greek and means «patient work, worthy of the Muses». Dedicated to Santa Maria la Nova, it is an Arab-Norman masterpiece of art, built by King William II of Altavilla, called the “Good”, between 1172 and 1176. Inside about 6400 square meters of mosaic cover the surface, according to an artistic representation of the Bible, a catechesis in images, so that the people can immerse themselves in the sacred space. It is located in Piazza Gugliemo II, Monreale.


To the right of the facade of the Cathedral, in Piazza Guglielmo II, is the Cloister of the Benedictine Convent, built at the end of the twelfth century, a wonderful example of Byzantine architecture, in the centre of which is a fountain with in the centre a column richly carved in the shape of a palm stem. The capitals, with sacred and profane scenes from the Old and New Testaments and the beautiful columns, smooth, carved, decorated in relief with leaves, flowers, birds and other animals, are particularly precious.

What are the main features of the Arab-Norman style?

  • The Byzantine influence emerges above all in the architecture, with a predilection for the square basilica plan with a central Greek cross covered by a barrel vault. But also in the presence of mosaics depicting characters and various decorative motifs: the most characteristic one is the pantocrator Christ.
  • The Romanesque element is evident through the use of the Latin cross plan and massive towers on the facade.
  • Finally, the Arabic character is mainly evident from the use of pointed arches, but above all of the distinctive Moorish arches. In addition, the Arabic style is characterized by the absence of figurative sculpture: the decoration gives way to geometry and arabesques.

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