On a sweltering day in Sicily, the enchanted, shady lanes of Palermo’s Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens) offer a respite from the heat while seemingly transporting a visitor back to another time and place. The huge, 25-acre garden just off Palermo’s Cala and adjacent to the historic Kalsa district and Villa Guilia, was designed in 1789 and has served as one of Italy’s important botanical research facilities ever since.

The public gardens exhibit what might be described kindly as the typical Italian management style—slow but not unintentional—and with a sense of important things happening behind the scenes. The largest Ficus macrophiia in all of Europe seems to rise up out the very depths of the earth to greet visitors. In the “experimental field” are medical plants, a tropical orchard, palm grove and historical collections with stories to tell.

It’s all a little low-key, but in this feverish city of endless historic sites, shops and scooters, an hour or two spent watching the garden workers sweep the dirt paths is welcome indeed.