Palermo is the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, which sits nestled in the glistening Mediterranean just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” Palermo itself is home to Byzantine mosaics, frescoed cupolas, Arabesque domes, Italy’s biggest opera house and an increasing number of new-school eateries and bars. Flamboyant and feisty, up-and-coming yet still remaining under most tourist’s radars, Palermo is the place to head to for an authentic slice of Sicilian life. Our writer Scott and his wife visited a few months ago.
When we originally planned our trip to Palermo we originally planned to just to use it as a base for exploring the rest of the island, mainly Mount Etna, Catania and some other cities located on the island. Although during our trip we fell in love with Sicily’s capital and actually remained there throughout our entire stay. We’ve even pencilled in a return trip in September. Here’s why we fell for Palermo’s vibrant and rustic charms and why I think you will too…
Mondello beach is Palermo’s main beach and it’s seriously beautiful. The small seaside resort – officially classed as a suburb of the capital – is blessed with soft pale sand and clear turquoise water and is seen as a paradise by locals and visitors alike. The bus can be crowded, especially on the way there, so make sure you jump on an express one and also be aware the beach can become very busy during the summer months. It’s a great place to kick back, relax, enjoy a few drinks and make the most of the fine weather Sicily is usually blessed with, honestly, it’s blissful.
Palermo has a long and interesting history and the Moor’s have a strong and obvious influence in their wonderful buildings. Some architectural highlights include the 12th-century Palermo Cathedral known officially as “Santa Maria Assunta” and is home to the impressive royal tombs. Alternatively, you can visit the elegant neoclassical Teatro Massimo which is dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II and is the third biggest Opera House in Europe. It is known for opera performances and holds almost 1500 people and is officially the largest opera house in Italy – which given the competition is quite an accolade! There are a couple of good tours available including one to the roof terrace. Another must-see is the beautiful Palazzo dei Normanni, the capital’s Royal Palace which was built in the 9th century and is home of the Palatine Chapel – make sure you don’t leave without seeing their magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
The street food and nightlife
As the sun sets, Palmero seems to really come alive and during the evening there’s a really buzzing atmosphere both in the bars and along the streets too. As we wandered around the city I was amazed at the number of stalls in different squares that have barbecues cooking street food late into the night. There was a whole range of food on offer, including tasty treats that most people would probably be open to trying. Like ‘Arancina’ for example, which is the famous deep-fried Sicilian rice balls that were sold for around €1.50. Alternatively, you could opt for ‘Sfincione’, a thick Sicilian pizza with anchovies, cheese, onions and a little oregano or another favourite ‘Panelle’ which are seriously delicious deep-fried chickpea fritters. For the more adventurous travellers there’s always the Pani ca’ meusa which literally means “bread with spleen.” You can add lemon and salt or some cheese if you want and whilst it sounds horrendous you might just be surprised!
There are so many excellent restaurants in Palermo – I’m pleased to say that we didn’t experience even one bad meal during our trip. We tried to pick restaurants that had the Addio Pizzo symbol which is a collective of businesses that have refused to pay any money to the mafia. With Palermo being located on the sea and Sicily being an island, the fish is as fresh and delicious as you would expect. The good news is that the meat dishes, especially the mixed grill, are also worth trying if you want a break from eating fish. Lots of restaurants offer a substantial and tasty set menu for between €20-€30 and sometimes is even slightly less.
For a more upmarket meal we loved Casa del Brodo dal Dottore, it’s famous for their soup and people even come and drink their soup when they are sick. If you are looking for a cheaper but still high-quality meal then I’d recommend the excellent Ferro Di Cavallo on Via Venezia. It can get very busy, but don’t be put off by the queues – it’s well worth the wait!
The vibrant markets
I loved the slice of local life that the bustling markets offered here and there are numerous markets in Palermo with the main ones being Ballaro, Mercato di Capo, La Vucciria and Antique Market at Piazza Peranni. As I mentioned before La Vucciria is a great place to go in the evenings for food and bars, but during the day it’s also home to market stalls selling seafood, herbs and local produce (up until 2pm from Monday to Saturday). Ballaro is a very large market which is primarily a food market but it also sells discounted clothes too and this place is very popular with locals. Our personal favourite was Mercato di Capo which sold food and clothes but is also a great place to stop for some street food and a beer – it seemed like you could find any type of food that you wanted here. There is also an antique market at Piazza Peranni which offers a mix of good quality antiques and cheaper knick-knacks with the latter making good souvenirs.
The intriguing Catacombs of the Capuchins
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo which is also known as Catacombe dei Cappuccini or Catacombs of the Capuchins are some very interesting burial catacombs. It is has become a popular and well-known tourist attraction but remains an incredible piece of history. Although I have to warn you, this place is not for everyone! It’s a large catacomb with rows and rows of skeletons and mummies hanging on the wall and some people have called it the ‘Museum of Death.’ I personally found it a very emotional and thought-provoking visit.
The Regional Gallery
This gallery, believed to have been built in the 15th century, is worth visiting just for the architecture alone. There are also some very impressive transitional gothic-renaissance sculptures and the two gems that the gallery proudly exhibits are the Antonello da Messina’s painting ‘Madonna of the Annunciation’ and the anonymous fresco ‘Triumph of Death’ believed to have been created in the mid-15th century. The former was a very moving and atmospheric piece of art – something that any art lover would love. The gallery also holds an excellent collection of work by Sicilian artists dated from between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century.
This was a striking castle which really added to the charm of the capital. It’s also in an excellent condition, combining Moorish and Christian art but with the former being a clear inspiration. On 3rd July it became an UNESCO site and is part of the UNESCO Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale World Heritage Site. Expect to see interesting Islamic art, beautiful fountains as well as a wonderful view from the top. You will also notice a grave marker which is dated from 1148 and is written in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin. This building really highlights Palermo’s multi-cultural past and is well worth a visit.
Overall Palermo makes a fantastic sun-soaked city destination away from the crowds, although the city’s star seems to be rising pretty quickly. It might be best to visit now before the rest of the world really does catch on…