I really didn’t know what to expect when visiting Palermo, the foreign Italian city, a stone’s throw away from Africa. I’d heard of people completely hating it! I’d heard of others absolutely loving it! But I am happy to confirm that I fit snuggly into the latter group. I loved it. This city, Sicily’s capital and Italy’s fifth biggest city, is a city with a remarkable history. It is perhaps the most fascinating city I’ve ever visited. It is colourful and chaotic in every sense of the word. Here is my guide to visiting Palermo.
A little history
(courtesy of the big wide web….)
Palermo was founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th Century BC. As a result of it’s great strategic trading position at the heart of the Mediterranean, it soon became a hotspot for invasion. Since then, it’s been ruled by one dominating empire after another. The Carthaginians (todays Tunisia), the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the French, the Swabians (German) and Aragonese (Spanish) are just a few of the many empires that have conquered, ruled and influenced Palermo. It’s tumultuous history is fully visible when visiting Palermo today. The architectural styles vary hugely, as does it’s language and art. Islamic mosques are just a stones throw away from Roman Catholic Cathedrals and local dishes are made with methods from all corners of the globe. It really is a captivating melting pot of cultures.
It’s more recent history (20th century) hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing either. Years of government neglect led to endless crumbling buildings and a huge increase in crime. For most of the century the city was under Mafia control and in the 70’s 80’s, and 90’s it was plagued by a series of mysterious Mafia murders. Today however, though the Mafia still have a presence (- we didn’t meet any….), the streets are safe and the city has a renewed energy and optimism about it. The current Mayor has worked tirelessly on a campaign to get the city to live harmoniously, making every person feel at home and welcoming all cultures equally. There has been a huge rise in refugees and migrants in the last few years. But as only a city with such a history can, it has taken the considerable influx in its stride.
Enough about the history! – I think I could literally google it for days. More about what to expect while you’re there and an actual guide to visiting Palermo…..it’s busy and bustling, dirty and vibrant. There is an endless amount to do and see. And if there is one thing that is certain – it’s that every single one of your seven senses will be set alight when in Palermo.
Things to do in Palermo
Lets get our bearings… have a look at a map and you can see Palermo towards the top left of Sicily. Zoom in and you can see where the old town centre is laid out. La Cala is the small marina area near the port. Just in from La Cala are four distinguishable quarters – two pedestrian streets separates them – Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. It’s within these four quarters that you’ll find most of Palermo’s delights. Arabic-like markets, dazzling palazzi (palaces), striking churches and an abundance of restaurants and bars. We spent two nights in Palermo, and had a full day and a half of exploring. A short but sweet amount of time in which we jam-packed as much as possible. This map here is a rough outline of the old town, and the blue line marks the rough route we took to explore the city.
Get lost in the markets: Mercato di Ballaro, Mercato della Vucciria, Mercato del Capo
I mentioned earlier that Palermo was a hotspot for trading back in the day. Well, very little has changed today. Trading has manifested into a market culture, and markets are now an essential part of everyday Sicilian life. Every town in Sicily has a market day at least once a week. Palermo has three main markets that take place daily (and many other smaller ones!). So, no trip to Palermo is complete without visiting at least one.
The main historic markters are Ballaro, Capo and Vucciria and these are in the four quarters of the old town. Due to Palermo’s Arabic roots, the markets have a very ‘bazaar’ and ‘souk’-like feel to them. If you’ve ever been to an Arabic country you’ll know exactly what I mean. I’m talking a labyrinth of streets, a maize of winding alleys. Stalls are closely stacked and are laden with vibrant fresh produce and piles of spices. Glistening fish lets off stinky fishy pangs, dried herbs hang from tarpaulin roofs, and enormous cheese wheels are laid out in large pyramids. The markets are bustling and chaotic in every sense of the word. The hum of chatter and animated shouts from competitive streets vendors fills the air.
There is not just fresh produce here either, certainly not! Sicily is world renown for its street food. So, dotted throughout are heavy makeshift grills billowing smoke, hot tubs of deep-frying oil, trailers crammed with fresh loaves of bread and plastic rickety tables for sitting at. More on street food a little later…
Was my favourite! And in my opinion, is an absolute must-see. It’s the largest and oldest and has the most character. We spent a good few hours with our jaws dropping, wandering around. A note of caution – the locals ride their motorbikes and scooters (with 2-3 people hanging off the back) straight though the market crowds. They are not bad drivers (it take a lot to navigate crowds of people – I’ll give them that!), but why they choose to take that exact route? I’m not sure! So although fascinating, it’s not the most relaxing wander.
Open daily from 7.30am-8.30pm
Very similar to Ballaro. It’s boisterous and lively and another great visit.
Open daily from 7am-8pm.
Unlike Ballarao and Capo, Vucciria is less about the produce. While in the morning there are produce stalls, I think it’s best to visit the winding alleys just off Via Roma in the afternoon/evening for cheap drinks and street food. The main square has a smattering of plastic tables and in the neighbouring alleys are tiny bars and street food stalls. We spent a Friday evening there and it was swarming with young Sicilians getting ready for the weekend. Very local and vibey.
Just round the corner from Quattro Canti (the pedestrian streets crossroads and heart of the old town) is an impressive marble fountain worth admiring. It was built in 1554 in Florence, but was then sold and relocated to Palermo in 1574.
Chiesa di Santa Caterina and Santa Maria Dell’Ammiraglio
Also very close to Quattro Canti and Fontana Pretoria, these two magnificent churches sit opposite each other looking onto Piazza Bellini. Piazza Bellini is also where the Tourism Information Site is located, so it’s a good spot to start the day. The Church of Saint Catherine (Santa Caterina) is typical of Sicilian Baroque, Rococo and Renaissance style, and is incredibly extravagant inside. There is a €2 fee to go inside, but on this occasion it’s totally worth it. Meanwhile Santa Maria is in the Byzantine style and extravagant mosaics fills it. Well worth a visit. The craftsmanship in the churches is astounding and both are well preserved.
The biggest Opera house in Italy and third largest in all of Europe (coming in only after Paris’ L’Opéra and Vienna’s State Opera). It took more than twenty years to complete and the result is a neo-romanticism building which is nothing short of spectacular. If you fancy getting a ticket to a performance – I’m sure it would be incredible. Otherwise you can take 30 minute guided tours anytime in the day.
Palermo Cathedral – Cattedrale di Palermo
Just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele (one of the main pedestrian streets), sits the Palermo Cathedral. If ever there were a building that could claim being the world’s most architecturally diverse, this vast masterpiece would be it. It was first built in the 12th Century but has undergone changes and additions with every empire who conquered Palermo (which as we’ve discussed, were MANY!) Today it is an incredible mishmash of Gothic, Arabic, Romanesque, Baroque, Norman and Byzantine architectural styles.
Open daily from Monday – Saturday, 9.30am-5.30pm.
If you’re only visiting the church, admission is free. However there is a fee of €7 to visit the Tombs, Treasury, Crypts and Terraces altogether, or a smaller fee if you only one to see one of the above. I really recommend visiting the Terraces, which is the Cathedral roof top.
Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel
I must confess we didn’t have time to go inside, choosing only to walk around it (which was still impressive!). If you have time (and don’t mind lining up to get a ticket) it’s definitely worth a visit. The site of the palace has been the seat of Sicilian Kings since the 9th Century when the first castle was built there by the Arabs. In the Norman domination it underwent huge expansion to become the grand structure we see today. Think huge halls and incredible arched courtyards. The Palatine Chapel is the real winner though. Completed in 1142, it too, is a cocktail of architectural styles and is filled with awe-inspiring, intricate mosaics and carved wood.
Both the Palace and Chapel are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Open daily from Monday-Saturday, 8:15 am – 5.40 pm. And for a limited time on Sunday’s and holidays 8.15 am – 1pm.
Tickets are €8.50.
Go for a drink (and sunset) at Hotel Ambasciatori
By now you’ve probably done a fair bit of traipsing around markets with questionable hygiene standards and spent hours gazing at incredible buildings. All part of the reason I love travel, but I must admit its tiring. You deserve a drink at Hotel Ambasciatori. I stumbled upon this place when endlessly googling ‘rooftop bars Palermo’. For a city with such an incredible array of buildings, there are not many rooftops bars! Hotel Ambasciatori an incredible place for sunset. Palermo is surrounded by dramatic mountains and has some of the most beautiful rooftops I’ve ever seen (think cathedral domes and bell towers). Couple this with a beer or an Aperol Spritz, a sinking sun, and you have a moment made in heaven.
Hotel Ambasciatori is located on Via Roma. You don’t have to be staying there to go for a drink at the rooftop bar.
Relax at Mondello – the beach
What would a guide to visiting Palermo be without talking about Mondello beach? Palermos’s best known beach is Mondello and you can drive there in just 30minutes (longer if you are taking the bus). And it is beautiful! White sands and crystal clear water will greet you. To me it’s utterly amazing that the beach and water are so nice considering Palermo is such a big, bustley, and well, rather dirty city. It’s a perfect place to cool down and chill out, but be warned that in the summer months it is packed and parking can be a nightmare.
If you have a car and feel like a little trip, then a drive to Monreale is so worth it. It’s a tiny little town nestled in one of the mountains surrounding Palermo. It has some cute streets to wander around but it’s biggest draw card is the Monreale Duomo. Built between 1170 and 1189, it is a masterpiece! It’s a mixture of Norman, Byzantine and Arabic styles, and the mosaics inside are said to be made of 2200kg of pure gold. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site and is regarded as the most beautiful of the Norman churches in Sicily. It also has great terrace (rooftop) views and a beautiful courtyard.
Open daily from 8.30-12.30 and 2.30-4.30. It is free to enter but if you’d like to visit the terraces there is a small fee.
Where and what to eat in Palermo?
A friend recommended this spot and I am SO glad she did. Bisso Bistrot is located just next to Quattro Canti (the centre cross roads) and is a small bistrot with frescoed walls and high ceilings. It serves utterly delicious local specialities at an incredible price. Fresh fish dishes, pasta dishes, salads and meat; all cooked in typical Sicilian ways. Can’t recommend enough.
Mentioned above, but a great place for evening drinks and and an amazing view.
We popped here for aperitivi before our flight out that night, it’s a hipster spot and the negroni’s were delish and people really friendly. The area is quite cool too – not far from Piazza Bellini.
Passami ù coppu
Located on Via Roma, we stopped by Passami u coppu after having a few drinks and eats at la Vucchiria market (when in Sicily you never stop eating). There was a lot of people in and around it so we thought we’d see what the fuss was about. It has a fun interior and they had a great range of street food – from tonnes of types of arancini to cannoli, calamari and panelle (read my streetfood post and you’ll know exactly what I’m on about!).
A gelato heaven not far from Teatro Massimo. You deserve it.
I didn’t go myself (we tried to go for an early dinner on our last day but it was closed..), however I’ve heard good things from multiple people. Also, it gets busy – so turn up early or book!
As I mentioned, street food is a huge thing in Sicily. And, unlike the rest of the world where it’s only recently become a thing, street food in Sicily is a centuries old tradition. Born out of poverty and practicality it is an integrated part of their culture. So much so, that I think it deserves it’s own post! See this post here on all you need to know about Sicilian street food and specialities, what to try and what not to try…
Where to stay in Palermo?
As you know, Palermo’s old town has four quarters centered around Quattro Canti – the crossroads of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. If visiting the various markets and exploring the many incredible buildings are what you’re here to do, then staying within the old town is a must. Everything will be no more than a 20min walk away. We stayed at a booking.com bed and breakfast on Via Lincoln and it was perfect for two nights.
If beaching is more your cup of tea, then staying at Mondello would makes sense. There are plenty of shops and eateries there too, so you could easily visit Palermo just for a day if you wanted….
Parking and General Tips
For all you need to know about driving in Sicily,I’ll be writing a post shortly. In short, driving in Palermo is one hell of an adventure! If you are driving you’ll no doubt need to park – which can also be an interesting adventure. Generally, most areas in the centre of town will have blue-lined parking spaces where you can pay to park. Prices for these spaces are varied depending on the area. You can by tickets at nearby parking machines or at Tabacchi shops – 50¢ to 1€ per hour. If you’re staying on or near Via Lincoln (the road our accommodation was on), you can basically park anywhere along there free of charge (according to our B&B host anyway!)… however parking along here isn’t the most orderly ordeal…
Palermo is unlike any city I’ve ever been before…
It’s a city of incredible juxtapositions – crumbling buildings standing near extravagant palaces, eye-opening markets are within stones throw of modern, hip bars. It’s a city with a fascinating culture. We whizzed through in two days, but you could easily spend more time exploring at a more relaxed pace. There are a tonne of galleries and boutique shops to discover if you do stay longer, and a budding art scene. I wouldn’t want to stay any shorter than two days – for fear of not getting a good feel for the place.
It may be a little rough around the edges – but that’s what I loved, mass tourism (and the gentrification that comes with it), just hasn’t really hit.
Hopefully this guide to visiting Palermo has helped you plan or inspired you to visit! If you have any questions please comment below, I’d love to help.
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