Looking for something unusual to do in Palermo Sicily? How about visiting an ancient palace with the aristocratic owners as your tour guide?
Palazzo Conte Federico is the only existing Arab-Norman palace in Palermo and is owned and lived in by the descendants of Frederick II. He was a powerful and charismatic Sicilian king and Holy Roman Emperor known as the “Wonder of the World.”
The palace is one of the oldest buildings in Palermo, built on Punic-Roman city walls that originally surrounded ancient Panormus.
The palace has been home to generation upon generation of Count Federico’s family. They bought the palace in the mid 17th century and it’s been their home for nearly 400 years. As a result, it has an appealing lived-in warmth.
Since the fringe benefits of nobility no longer exist, the palace is open to the public to help pay the taxes. It’s a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the aristocratic lifestyle and experience the many layers of Palermo’s history.
The time warp palace is an elegant mansion built around a courtyard in the Arab fashion. It incorporates a Norman tower on the top floor.
You can tour 15 rooms filled with terra cotta floors, intricate Italian tiles, and frescos, antiques, and lavish furnishings. Along the way, you’ll be regaled with tales of the family and the history of Palermo and Sicily.
The count Alessandro (a former race car driver) and countessa Alwine (a professional soprano) met at a ball in Rome in the 1980s where she was performing. The count was immediately smitten.
When she went abroad to study Chinese in Taipei, he followed her, claiming he would throw himself in the river if she didn’t marry him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Guide To the Palazzo Conte Federico: What To See
The palace has an understated exterior of simple stone walls. You almost wouldn’t know it’s there. The palace is built around a central courtyard.
The rooms of the first floor are accessed by a red marble staircase and arranged around the internal courtyard, decorated with carved stones. Each room has a name.
You begin in a reception room with stone walls and terra cotta tiles. There’s a fireplace and some Gothic style furnishings.
The next room you see is the Blue Room. It’s called the Blue Room for its blue damask walls and the plush blue circular couch in the middle.
The countess purchased the couch because she liked the way it looked. Only later was she told that it was a common style for bordellos.
The next room is one of the highlights of the palace, the Ballroom. Both Verdi and Wagner visited earlier generations of the Federicos. Wagner even played the grand piano in the ballroom.
The room boasts Baroque ceiling frescoes by Vito D’Anna and Gaspare Serenario, called Triumph of Purity among the Virtues over Time.
The fresco holds a secret. Serenario was a free mason.
In the painting, underneath the angel with a wing, is a “triangle with the eye” sign of the free masons. Apparently, the ballroom was once the most important Masonic temple in the south of Italy.
There’s a mirror on the floor that reflects the fresco and you can see the details up close.
There’s also an ornate hand painted majolica tiled floor. It bears the family crest of Frederick II — a massive eagle. There’s also a 12th century map of Palermo. It shows the old city walls with the palace marked on it.
The living room is the main reception area. It has an elaborate Mediterranean-style tiled floor, crystal chandeliers, and a frescoed and stucco ceiling. A terrace looks out over the city.
There are a couple bedrooms to see. The master is done in gold damask, a carved canopy bed, and wood beamed ceilings. A frieze with coats of arms runs along the walls.
On the top floor, there is a massive dining room and kitchen. It has a medieval vibe with stone floors, stone walls, arched windows, and a full suit of armor.
You can also see remnants of a 12th century Norman tower on the south side of the palace. It’s called Casket Tower and is one of the few remaining parts of the old city wall.
While doing restorations, some Renaissance paintings were discovered beneath the floor.
Another dining room and kitchen are on the lower floor and that’s what the family uses. There is a beautiful carved wood medieval fireplace embedded with the family coat of arms.
Personal photos, paintings, ancestral portraits, antiques, porcelain, and a weapons collection are scattered throughout the palace giving it a personal touch.
As you exit, you can see some of the count’s racing cars, some of which are quite rare and valuable. After he flipped a Ferrari in a Sicilian road race, the Contessa said, “no more racing.”
Practical Guide & Tips For Palazzo Conte Federico
Tickets & Tours
To visit the palace, you can just show up at the top of the hour and take the 45 minute tour for 10 euros. Or, you can pre-book a 1 hour guided tour. Tours are in English and Italian.
The best part is that a family member leads the tour. I was lucky to get a tour from Countess Alwine herself.
She’s Austrian and was a champion swimmer, a singer, and piano teacher. She was so charismatic and bubbly on the tour, I actually thought she might break out in song.
Opening Hours: Open daily from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm, except closed Wednesdays. It may be closed for periods in the winter months. In 2023, visits begin in March.
The palazzo is a rare chance to step into the home of an ancient noble family. Better yet, if you are interested, you can actually stay in the palace and live like modern day nobility.
Sons Nicolò and Andreas manage apartment rentals on a separate floor. There are rooms available to rent through booking.com.
The modern rooms are beautifully decorated in a luxe and authentic Sicilian style and fit 2-4 adults. They’re much larger than the typical Palermo hotel room, so it’s a fantastic option for accommodation in Palermo.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Palazzo Conte Federico. You may enjoy these other Sicily travel guides and resources:
- 2 weeks in Sicily itinerary
- One week in Sicily itineraries
- 2 days in Palermo itinerary
- 2 days in Syracuse itinerary
- 2 days in Trapani itinerary
- 1 day in Catania itinerary
- 1 day in Taormina itinerary
- Guide to the Valley of the Temples
- Guide to Villa Romana del Casale
- Guide to Monreale Cathedral
- Guide to the Ruins of Segesta
- Guide To Syracuse Archaeological Park
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