For an opera lover, the highlight of a visit to Palermo is the giant Teatro Massimo, in its day the third largest opera house in Europe (after the Palais Garnier in Paris and the Staatsoper in Vienna). It's an imposing building fronted by Grecian columns in the local yellow sandstone, set in a square named after Giuseppe Verdi, overlooked by a large bust of the old master sporting a fine moustache and looking rather cheerful. The stage is huge, big enough to support horses and a real elephant for performances of Aida, and with a giant orchestra pit which impressed Richard Wagner when he visited Palermo. The house is in the traditional Italian horseshoe style, with a wonderful royal box, and looks little different today from how it must have been at its opening in 1897. The most notable amongst many side rooms is the "Hall of secrets", whose domed ceiling gives it the weird property that if you talk quietly to your close companion, your words are inaudible just a couple of feet away - that is, unless you are standing in the exact centre of the room, in which case anything you say is amplified and reverberated back to you at ear-splitting volume.

A few minutes walk down the via Ruggero Settimo is Palermo's main concert hall, the Palateo Garibaldi, splendidly adorned by bronze horses in honour of the unifier of Italy. In fact, Sicilians have distinctly mixed feelings about Garibaldi: many regard him as having betrayed them after unification by selling out to the Piedmontese. It's the 150th anniversary of unification, and the only place any celebrations were to be seen was inside the parliament building, which is in the Palazzo dei Normanni. The name Ruggero, however, meets with unequivocal approval: the Norman King Roger II, the subject of Szymanowski's opera Król Roger, was a truly great ruler who created an all-too-brief golden age of tolerance. The interworking between Christian and Muslim cultures can be seen in the magnificent Capella Palatina built for Roger in the Palazzo Normanno, as well as the similarly extraordinary Duomo, the competing cathedral at Monreale a few kilometres away.

Palermo is a city full of stories, and if you love the stories behind those parts of baroque opera based on Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and its derivatives (Rinaldo, Alcina, Orlando, etc), there is an improbable treat. For centuries, Sicily has had a widespread tradition of the travelling storyteller, who would set up stall in a village square and display a painted cartoon strip of one of the stories of Charlemagne's knights, beside which he would relate the tales. In the nineteenth century, this transformed into puppet theatre. In a narrow side street near Palermo's cathedral, you will find the workshop of Franco Bertollino, who still paints the giant panels, as well as painting the stories onto both traditional Sicilian carts and just about every other form of transport you can think of, from trucks to Vespas. He also maintains the metre tall, 10 kg puppets used in the Teatro Argento, the family's puppet theatre, located in another side street. In the daily puppet shows, Orlando, Rinaldo and the other knights battle for the love of Angelica with immense vigour. The dragon breathes real smoke, the knights draw their swords with grace (I still can't quite work out how you do that with a puppet), mighty buffets are dealt at terrifying speed and Saracen enemies are dismembered in a bewildering variety of ways. Sadly, it's pretty much only for the tourists these days, but it's still a wonderfully bizarre experience.

Finally, lovers of opera and Italian food should take in a bowl of Pasta alla Norma, pasta with a confection of aubergines, salted ricotta cheese, tomatoes and herbs, named after Bellini's tragic heroine. Try it at the Antica Foccacceria San Francesco or in many other places - it's exquisite and worthy of its name.