Sicily has been inhabited by the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Spanish, and of course, modern-day Italians – and the evidence is everywhere. The bustling city of Palermo, on the island’s northwest coast, has a gritty feel, but a vibrant atmosphere, incredible art and architecture, and fresh, exotic food. Use my recommendations below on what to see in Palermo.
Markets in Palermo: two recommendations
Visit the markets of Vucciria or Ballaro’ and gape at all the types of fresh fish, the abundant fruit and vegetables, or just people-watch as the Sicilians point, yell, and do their daily shopping. Take note: whatever is abundant and looks fresh and plump is what you should try to have for lunch.
Speaking of lunch, keep your eye out for hole-in-the-wall restaurants near the market or the wharf. If you find something sparsely decorated, with a few plastic tables, no menu, no prices listed, and 1 cook – usually an older woman – you’ve hit the jackpot. The food will be inexpensive, fresh, and very authentically Sicilian.
Cultural Activities: two recommendations
See a puppet show. Most likely it will be the classic Italian tale of Rinaldo from Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The show won’t be in English, so familiarize yourself with the plot beforehand. But don’t worry about the language barrier: the energy and costumes of the puppets, the puppetteers’ voices, and the scene will keep you entranced. If you really love puppets, or if you’re traveling with kids, go see the International Puppet Museum, too
See an opera at the world-renowned Teatro Massimo, featured in the movie The Godfather.
What to eat in Palermo
Don’t skip dessert – after all, cannoli and the sweet shaved ice, granita (photo above) are originally Sicilian. In addition to luscious fruits and vegetables, look for African and Spanish influences in food such as couscous and use of cinnamon. Also eat: pistachios, almonds (marzipan), oranges, olives, sardines, swordfish, and chickpeas (or things made of chickpea flour).
Mosaics in Palermo: two recommendations
Visit the Capella Palatina (photo below) in the Palazzo dei Normanni, with mosaics rivaling those of Ravenna and Constantinople. Yes, that entire photo is of mosaics. Compare them to more mosaics in the gorgeous Duomo of Monreale, which is about a half an hour away. If it works for your Sicily itinerary, go see the mosaics of African animals and bikini-clad women in the Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina, only a few hours away.
Churches in Palermo: two recommendations
Palermo has hundreds of churches, but make sure to see the Duomo or main church, and the red-domed San Giovanni degli Eremiti (see photo above), which is unlike any other church in Italy. Built in the 6th century and converted into a mosque after the Islamic conquest of Sicily, it was returned to the Christians after the Norman domination in the 12th century.
Nature near Palermo: a beach and a hike
When you’re all churched-out, or are tired of the big-city chaos and traffic, don’t forget that the ocean is never far away. Take a walk along the beach in Palermo or at nearby Mondello (photo above), or go for a hike on Monte Pellegrino, also in the photo above, for a change of scenery.
Getting to Palermo & Getting Around
Options abound: Fly into Palermo’s international airport, or take the overnight boat from Naples. Trains are great for getting between the coastal cities, including Palermo, but in general are not as efficient in Sicily as in the rest of Italy, so don’t forget to check bus schedules as well. Buses are a great option if you’re arriving in Palermo from the interior of the island, though they don’t necessarily run according to schedule, so factor in flex time when planning to take a bus. If you’re comfortable driving in Italy, then renting a car to get around Sicily is a good option, but I highly recommend not driving in the city of Palermo. To get around the city, walk, use city buses, or take taxis, and always agree on the fare before getting in.
Photo of San Giovanni degli Eremiti church by Sanjay; Photo of blood orange granita by Nyaa_birdies_perch; Photo of the mosaics in the Capella Palatina by Sanjay; Photo of Mondello and Monte Pellegrino by fachxx00
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