Local Secrets: Palermo (10 Insider Tips from We Are Palermo)

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Palermo cathedral dome from the roof

Want to know the best tips for exploring Sicily’s capital Palermo? What better way than to ask a local.

We catch up with the Nicola Barcellona, one of the founders of local destination site  We Are Palermo. Nicola is an independent marketing consultant and sometime-nomad from Palermo, whose passion for his hometown spurred him on to create the website in order to share the true Palermitan experience with visitors to the city.

Read on to discover Nicola’s city of pastries, naked statues, ancient street markets and seaside delights . . .

Statue in Palermo' Fountains of Shame


Hi Nicola – tell us a bit about your website! Why did you decide to start it?

Well, during these past ten years I’ve worked in many different places, always facing new and exciting challenges. Just to name a few of these different locales, there was Dubai, Doha, London (please, no more tinned peas!), Barcelona as well as Rome.

Once I got away from Palermo I began to see my hometown with new eyes and really learned to appreciate the beauty of this unique city, a city that before I took for granted. And I was able to see its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

At the same time, I realized how I had underestimated the potential market for my beloved hometown. I realized then and there that as a marketer I had an obligation to use my training and skills to the best of my ability.

Why should readers visit your site? What will they find there?
We Are Palermo is dedicated to acquainting travellers with the possibility of gaining a real Sicilian experience. This isn’t your typical tourist routine. You can find plenty of those but We Are Palermo takes you behind the scenes, so to speak. No recycled outdated information allowed! Here, I’ve tried to stay away from the typical guidebook stuff. You can find plenty of that elsewhere.

On our website, your host and unofficial guide Don Tano Bongiorno (a partnership between me and American author C. M. Albrecht) guides you through the sights and sounds of Palermo, discusses the many-faceted aspects of our city and posts them in an ongoing effort to keep all information up to date.

Together, as Tano, we combine knowledge and love of Palermo transformed into English language blogs for English speaking readers the world over.

If I’m just visiting for one day, where would I go for coffee/brunch/lunch?
One day is hardly enough to grasp the beauty and atmosphere of Palermo but I would recommend a visit to one of the ancient street markets and try the street food there. The best ones today are Capo and Ballarò. Sicilian street food is one of Palermo’s greatest strengths. In fact, according to Forbes, the best street food in all of Europe is right here in Palermo.

A great lunch might be Pasta al Forno (baked anelletti pasta with ragù and cheese. (In Italy ragù is not a brand name for Italian sauces, it is a homemade meat sauce). Pasta with pesce spada is another delight.

For evening fare I’d suggest Sicily’s famous pizza. I particularly love pizza parmigiana (tomato sauce, eggplant and parmesan cheese).

What makes Palermo so unique and what do you love most about this city?
The title of my website is ‘Palermo, the most Conquered City in History’.

Palermo holds the most strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily sits in a particularly advantageous place in the sea so, in the past when the world revolved around the Mediterranean Sea, it was only natural that control of Sicily meant control of the Mediterranean.

Almost every civilized or semi-civilized country in Europe and the Middle East has at one time or another controlled Palermo: Spaniards, the Romans and Arabs. Normans too, only to name a few.

Today, that what makes Palermo’s heritage unique.

All these different nations with different mores and customs have left their mark on Palermo. Much of that history lives on today. And it is not by chance alone that Palermo has the second-largest historical city centre in Europe.

Aside from Palermo’s storied heritage, many other wonderful discoveries make Palermo unique. Some of these are:

  • the food and wine
  • the beaches and landscape
  • the rousing nightlife

Are there aspects of Palermo that frustrate you?
Oh yes. Public transportation. Undependable. Lack of attention to better city maintenance and the insouciance of some of our locals. This, to me, is the most frustrating.

Today, in 2018 residents still fail to understand the basics that constitute a more beautiful city. Instead, throwing rubbish into the street is an ingrown habit and no attempts have ever been made to educate our population in this regard.

No one suggests our citizens should be treated as in Singapore where you can be fined for dropping even a candy wrapper in the street. Some cities to have fines for people who litter. Most cities, as well as smaller communities around the world today, have been encouraged to use rubbish containers rather than litter the streets, an act that can turn a formerly pleasant neighbourhood into a real inner city slum.

Balconies on boarded up buildings in Palermo old town

What is the best way to get behind the scenes for a look at real Palermo, to really get to know the city?
That’s easy. Just follow old Don Tano’s little tours and tips. He constantly updates the website in order to keep visitors aware of the latest goings-on along with tips and caveats.

We Are Palermo works constantly to keep this site updated in order that we may bring you the visitor, the latest and most important information about our fair city. It is our fervent desire to ensure that you get the most enjoyment from your visits and that you may also increase your knowledge and appreciation of Palermo.

I created this platform not for money but out of love and I’ve attempted to build it completely around the needs of visitors rather than allowing the possibility of money to interfere. I receive no monies from any companies and places that I name have not paid for this.

When you’re away from Palermo, what is or the greatest things you miss about it?
I miss the people. Sicilians are admittedly flawed people, but are any people perfect?

The one thing that makes Sicilians unique is that they really care about their friends and always do their best to help other people, even foreigners. That is the thing I really miss when I’m abroad.

For a trip into the countryside, what would you say is your favourite place?
There are so many beautiful places around Palermo. I’d say it depends a lot on the time of year. During winter the Nebrodi Mountains can make for some excellent hiking with boar ragù for lunch. Another is the area around Menfi near the sea with enchanting landscapes and amazing wines.

What does your perfect day in Palermo look like?
The best way to get a look and feel for the real Palermo is to start your morning with a stroll through a street market and the street food. You can spend hours wandering around in Old Town to see the major beautiful localities such as Four Corners, the Fountain of Shame, the Norman Palace and the Cathedral.

At night you can enjoy pizza and then get dressed up to visit Old Town again and enjoy a drink surrounded by locals in their finery and the centuries-old buildings. Nightlife in Palermo means getting dressed up, no shorts and T-shirts. That’s not a law but you do want to fit in. Of course you do.

street near Vucciria Market in Palermo

What do you consider the prettiest street or place in Palermo?
The Mondello fishering village by the Mediterranean is great. A visit to Montepellegrino is one of the most intriguing sights to be seen around Palermo. The locals climb Montepellegrino to pay tribute to Saint Rosalia. You could enjoy that as well.

Many cities have a distinctive smell. What does Palermo smell like?
Ah . . . Palermo smells of history. Palermo is one of the world’s oldest cities and in many ways our city continues to cling to the past. It’s as if she doesn’t even want to keep up with the times. A walk through Old Town and the street markets and it’s as if time had stopped. Try it for a real blast from the past.

What are the best things Palermo has to offer in the way of food?
Street food was mentioned and that it still Number One on the list. Delightful pastries such as cannolo, cassata and of course gelato are great.

Pizza is always a treat. Everyone loves pizza. I’d go so far as to say that to leave Palermo without having tasted some of these delightful treats would be a mortal sin. Don’t be a sinner!

For the best drinks in Palermo, what do you recommend?
You can’t go wrong with our wines. Both red and white are great. Italy is a leading exporter of wines throughout Europe alongside France. Sicily is the region with the most wines that have received awards. You should definitely enjoy a glass – or two – of our local wines.

And the best thing to have for a real Sicilian breakfast?
A croissant with espresso or cappuccino is a great start. Genovese or Iris con ricotta are sweet tastes to start off the morning. Another great treat is pezzo di rosticceria.

Everyone loves gelato. In Palermo the best gelato is . . .
Local residents love Gelateria La Vela and La Delizia. Both offer real homemade ice cream. Stancampiano and Al Cassaro are good as well, but more touristy.

What is the best place to watch the sunset in Palermo?
That an easy one. A view of the sunset at the seaside is unforgettable. Mondello, Addaura and Sferracavallo have plenty of seaside bars. You can enjoy a glass of local wine while enjoying the spectacular sunset.

Is there anything about Palermo that you wish you could tell visitors?
The first thing I’d like to get across to tourists is that Palermo is not at all dangerous. Palermo is one of Europe’s safest cities and according to ISTAT, Palermo is the safest city in all of Italy.

Unfortunately, as great as some movies are, Hollywood movies often give viewers the idea that you can be caught in the middle of a shootout between rival Mafia families. Believe me, that is Hollywood, not Sicily. The Mafia exists all right, but these days euros have replaced bullets. You won’t see any signs of Mafia so you can visit Palermo without ever a concern about gangsters.

The best time of year to visit Palermo?
For greatest enjoyment of the Mediterranean seaside, any time from April to October would be ideal.

And a day at the beach?
I’d head out to Mondello, San Vito Lo Capo or Cefalù. These are the best around Palermo. But a little farther out, I love Ustica, Favignana and the Aeolian Islands for an unforgettable experience.

Come to Palermo for a visit that will leave you with wonderful and unforgettable memories . . . and lots of photos too!

rooftop walkway on Palermo Cathedral

Thanks to Nicola for sharing his side of Palermo. I used We Are Palermo extensively to plan my own trip to Palermo – it’s full of helpful tips and articles for visitors. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re planning a trip to Sicily.

You can also find We Are Palermo on Facebook and Youtube.

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cathedral rooftop with text overlay '10 local secrets - Palermo'

All image credits © The Mediterranean Traveller