Palermo is full of wonders. A city which has such a long and diverse history, giving it a distinct atmosphere. It is Italy, but not entirely. Palermo is more than that. Often referred to as as the most conquered city in the world, it paints a mixture of cultures like no other. Greek. Roman. Byzantine. Arab. Bourbon. And of course, Italian. It is a real cocktail of footprints.
After spending some family time together with my friend Silvia there, too, exploring and making our way around this buzzing city, we collected some pretty nice impressions. Today I’m sharing my Palermo Travel Guide with tips and experiences the three of us collected and shared during the trip. And I can tell you – it’s nothing compared to what this city has to offer.
HOW TO GET THERE
Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily. One can either fly to Palermo (we heard the airport is quite windy, though), or fly to Catania. We flew to Catania and then got a bus ticket for 13 Euro one way per person. It takes 2 hours and a half to get to Palermo.
WHERE TO STAY
Palermo is no longer looked at as the city of mafia, but still has some dangerous spots. It is famous for its pickpoketing traditions – still deemed to be a common occurrence during the late hours of the night. Even locals warned us about this. Luckily, we didn’t experience any of it. As in every city, some districts are definitely a lot safer and booking a stay there is much recommended. In Palermo these are Politeama/Libertà Quarter and Old Town. We stayed in Old Town at La Locanda del Gagini. A small boutique hotel, very authentic, Sicilian and clean. Breakfast wasn’t the perfect, but we definitely recommend this place for your stay, if you are looking for a good value for money and a walking distance to main attractions and streets.
WHAT TO SEE
Catedralle di Palermo is Palermo’s most famous historic spot and definitely a must-see. We went on top of it to have a look at the view. It costs 5 euro, but isn’t as worthy. You may want to go higher at Teatro Massimo, for instance.
However, the truly impressive one is Palermo’s Cappella Palatina. The chapel combines harmoniously a variety of styles: Norman architecture and door decor, Arabic arches and script adorning the roof, Byzantine dome and mosaics.
Nearby you can relax in the pretty city park Villa Bonnano – a beautiful garden with fountains, plenty of benches to sit on and lovely palm trees.
Then head to see my favorite Fontana Pretoria. Initially, it was built in Florence, and then transferred to Palermo in 1574. The fountain was considered to be a depiction of the corrupt municipality of Palermo. For this reason and because of the nudity of the statues, the square became known as “Piazza della Vergogna” (Square of Shame).
Port di Palermo is a must-visit, too. I always make a visit to the port if I’m in a marine city. This one here is full of so many boats, and is perfect for a walk.
Continue your walk towards Villa Giola – a beautiful and peaceful city park.
Next to it are situated the famous Botanical Gardens. Orto Botanico is home to at least 12,000 species. It’s historical, inspiring and peaceful. The same one which Goethe loved so much.
Go to a Puppet Theatre show – very typical for Sicily. This is something we would certainly do, if we go back to Palermo.
Pro tip: Do not assume that the city centre is anywhere by the see, as it usually is.
WHERE TO GO
For coffee: Definitely go to Piazza Bellini. Our most favorite coffee spot on a sunny day in Palermo. Also you can try the Café at Teatro Massimo.
For eating out: Our best find was Kliko restaurant. Small and very hospitable. Felt like being at home, and food was so delicious. Also try 59 Restaurant. It was on my list, but I completely forgot about it. Looks like a really nice place.
For gelato: Any Gelateria offering naturally looking pistachio gelato. If it looks synthetically colored, skip it. We would hugely recommend Bar Touring in front of the Botanical Gardens. I’m still dreaming of that pistachio and chocolate one I had. It was picture-perfect but we had to eat quickly, because Alex wanted to have it all.
For picnic: Go to Foro Italico. Large open space by the sea with green grass and beautiful marine views.
For authentic experience: Visit a street food market. Honestly, we made our way to one and we felt it was somehow creepy and full of strange and suspicious people, so we turned around. You need to research this better, if you really want to visit a street food market.
For shopping: Go to La Rinascente on Via Roma for the typical luxury experience, or walk the streets around Teatro Politeama like via Della Liberta.
Pro tip: You are in Italy. Always check how much the service is a.k.a Coperto, unless you want surprises.
WHAT TO EAT
And what not to. :) I’m joking. You need to try Sicilian pizza just for the sake of trying. It is a thick pizza, usually topped with onions, anchovies, tomatoes, herb and strong cheese. Not my type, but still you should give it a go.
However, Sicilian cuisine is as diverse as its history. In my opinion, it is very much influenced by Arab cuisine. If you like to try different things, try Arancine – luscious balls of saffron-scented rice, fried to a crispy golden brown, and are very delicious. Panelle are very traditional for Palermo. They are fritters made from chickpea flour and other ingredients. Maccu is a Sicilian soup, prepared with fava beans as a primary ingredient. When ti comes to desserts, options are numerous. Frutta martorana are traditional marzipan sweets, in the form of fruits and vegetables, which you will see everywhere. Same as Cannoli – a staple dessert of Sicily, consisting of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. Cassata consists of round sponge cake, moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit.
WHAT WE DID NOT ENJOY AS MUCH
Drivers! Those Sicilians would literally go through you without even noticing. Plus, you will never cross that street unless you make your way in a very courageous way. But still, you need to be extra careful!
Dirt. South Italy is dirtier for sure. Palermo is clean where the main streets are. You can even feel the clean smell of soap in the streets, but the streets around the port, for instance, are so dirty. Plus, many people have dogs, and they never pick up the poops. Walking around requires extra attention!