I visited Palermo in Sept 2009. I was only able to stay a few days so I know I only saw a tiny part of it, and really enjoyed what I did see. It is a very busy city, always lots going on, but in an approachable, people-oriented way. You could easily spend weeks there seeing the sights, including great people-watching, and enjoying the food.
The city was founded by Phoenicians about 2,700 years ago, and has been ruled by a half-dozen different cultures since then. An interesting place to see this is to look at the churches; as each group in power arrived, they would build their house of worship on top of (or combine it somehow with) the previous group’s, so the outside of the big cathedral shows this combination of cultures. (We saw this in Siracusa too, where the 5th-century BC Greek temple has long been a church, but the original massive stone temple pillars are still there, visible inside the church.)
The hotel I stayed in was fairly near the Opera house (Teatro Massimo, the largest theater in Italy), so I walked past it many times on my explorations. It is an impressive sight, and the people of Palermo are very proud of it. I have yet to go inside (the entrance was roped off), but the acoustics are said to be perfect. Some day I’d like to see a production there.
I recommend getting around by walking, or by public transit – driving in the city is a risky affair and parking is crazy. At intersections it looked like people just pulled their cars at high speed into a random small opening between other parked cars and the flow of traffic, and then bolted on foot. And the next car would do the same and just block the others – the cars could be several deep pointing in different directions – I have no idea how anyone ever gets their car out again. And then there are scooters everywhere too.
We sampled several arancini from little stands and cafes around the city – the small, egg shaped, fried balls of risotto with a filling inside. These seemed to be very popular with schoolkids. Some arancini were large (more like a small ostrich egg!) but others more duck-egg sized. I was not always sure if I was getting an arancini with meat or cheese or both as the filling, but since I’m omnivorous I didn’t mind! They were very filling, I found it best to buy one and share with several others.
Make sure to try some of the sweets – gelato and pasta reale (marzipan) from an excellent pastry shop such as Alba – not to be missed!