Sicily’s capital suffers from an image problem. Why would you want to go to Palermo, it’s just a noisy chaotic dirty mafia city, right?
Palermo was once known as one of the most elegant cities of Europe; a port town with a rich cultural heritage, fat with baroque palaces and gothic churches. Sitting at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, East and West, Sicily has been occupied over the years by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and the Spanish, creating a unique melting pot of people, food, and architecture. It has one of the largest old towns in Europe and the biggest opera house in Italy.
So why is it overlooked by tourists?
Heavy bombing during WWII signalled the start of decades of poverty and corruption. The assassinations of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino in 1992 were a watershed moment, and Palermo is now a city on the up, shaking off its long association with the Sicilian mafia.
Palermo may be a bit rough around the edges but it’s got OTT baroque piazzas, medieval streets, palm trees, creepy catacombs, sizzling street food, and souk-like markets. There’s almost too much to do here. It’s a top foodie destination and Italy’s 2018 Capital of Culture. The longer you stay, the more you’ll love it.
Read more: 28 Photos to Inspire You To Visit Palermo
TOP 5 THINGS TO SEE
- Norman Palace. Palermo’s major Arab-Norman monuments were recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Why? Because they’re a unique blend of Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab architecture, the result of the Norman policy of ethnic and religious tolerance on the island The Palatine Chapel in the Norman Palace is the most obvious example: the chapel is adorned with spectacular Byzantine domes and mosaics, Norman doors, Arabic scripts, and a muqarnas carved inlay ceiling.
- Quattro Canti. You can’t miss this baroque piazza with ornate facades; it marks the centre of town and is where the two main streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele) and four districts intersect. Part-pedestrianised, at all times of day you can find street performers and horse and carriages. Don’t forget to look up! The facades each represent a different neighbourhood, king, patron saint, and season.
- Palermo Cathedral (Duomo). The exterior of the cathedral is more impressive than the interior, which pales in comparison to Palermo’s other ecclesiastical wonders, but it’s worth buying a ticket for the amazing panoramic view from the roof. The ticket also allows you to view the tombs and crypt.
- San Cataldo and La Martorana. Also part of the UNESCO heritage cluster. If you see just one other church whilst in Palermo make it La Martorana (also known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio) for its beautiful interior. More intimate than the Palatine Chapel, the queues are also a fraction of the size. Right next door is San Cataldo with its striking red domes—the interior was never finished but has a bare beauty. Entrance to one church gets you a discount on the others.
If you’re interested in checking out the remaining UNESCO heritage sites whilst you’re in Palermo, they are: Zisa Palace, the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Admiral’s Bridge, and the nearby cathedrals of Monreale Cathedral and Cefalù.
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TOP 5 THINGS TO DO
- Explore the markets. Palermo’s historic outdoor food markets—Ballaro, Capo and Vucciria—are known throughout Italy., Ballaro, Capo and Vucciria. Each is in a different neighbourhood and is buzzing with activity throughout the day, although visit before 10 am if you want the best of the fresh produce. Definitely before 2pm. Of the three, Vucciria is the most famous but these days the most touristy. Street food can be found at all three.
- Anti Mafia tour. Help support the grassroots anti-mafia movement by taking a tour with Adio Pizzo and gain a stereotype-free understanding of the Sicilian mafia in the process.
- A night at the opera. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy, and the third largest in Europe after Paris and Vienna. The steps were immortalised in the final scenes of The Godfather Part III. It was closed for renovations in 1974 and lay abandoned for decades due to spiralling costs and corruption. Finally reopened in 1999, it’s re-emergence has become an anti-mafia symbol and point of civic pride. Ticket prices are kept low to be inclusive.
- Hit the beach at Mondello. It’s just 20 minutes on the bus (number 806) to Palermo’s beautiful town beach is an excellent escape from the city with its 1.5km of palm-flanked sands. Originally a fishing village in marshland, in the early 1900s it was drained and developed as an upscale seaside resort inspired by the French Riviera. It was a playground for the rich with its lidos and upscale Art Nouveau summer villas.
- Capuchin Catacombs. Did you know that embalming was a popular in Sicily until the 1900s? In centuries past it was a status symbol to have your dead body preserved and placed on display in Palermo’s catacombs, which are now home to the largest collection of mummies in the world with over 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies.
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TOP 5 THINGS TO EAT
- Street food. Palermo is famous for its street food. You can find arancine (fried rice balls) and pannelle (chickpea flour fritters) in the touristy joints along the main roads, but the better versions are hidden deep in the markets. The more adventurous should hunt out boiled octopous, fried offal, snails, and spleen sandwiches. One of the best things you can do in Palermo is take a street food tour with a knowledgeable guide to guide you to the best spots.
- Cannoli. The quintessential Sicilian sweet, cannoli are deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweet ricotta with crushed chocolate and candy peel. The freshness of the ricotta is the reason these will taste better in Palermo than at home. Note: the singular is cannolo.
- Brioche con gelato. Sicilians are partial to eating great big slabs of ice-cream in a brioche bun for breakfast. This is one of the best things about visiting Sicily. Fact. Sicily produces fantastic pistachios and hazelnuts so plump for the nut flavours, or mulberry (which is grown locally), or flavours based on the local sweets such as cannoli, cassata, and setteveli.
- Sfincione. A sort of quick pizza (although don’t call it that to a local), sfincione is focaccia dough blackened on the bottom and topped with garlicky herby tomato sauce, caciocavallo cheese, onions, and breadcrumbs. Often eaten as a mid-morning snack and available from vans and bakeries throughout the city. It’s speculated that the spongy dough travelled to America with the Sicilian diaspora and eventually became deep pan pizza.
- Pasta con sarde. Every Italian city has its signature dish and Palermo is no exception. Pasta con sarde is a particularly Sicilian invention, with its combination of sweet raisins and pine nuts, fragrant wild fennel, and salty sardines and anchovies. Try Trattoria da Toto near Vucciria Market.
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