This is part of a series of Wanderlust Women City Guides. We hope they offer you useful tidbits of information as you plan your adventure to some of the most interesting places around the world.
Palermo is the anti-Naples when it comes to the south of Italy. It is more hip than Naples with an artsy culture and a frenetic vibe. And the men are tall, some very tall. Yet, what hurts today’s Palermo is the gritty street scene, which makes it a toss-up between Palermo and Naples as to street grime and crime.
Palermo’s varied ethnic and historic past makes it a very eclectic blend of cultures. Its beauty is evident in its architecture and its corruption and immigration problems are evident in its streets, which are downright smelly at times.
Yet, there is so much to absorb in Palermo that if you can put blinders on and walk with determination and purpose, you’re pretty much in for one of the most exciting and insightful visits to any city in Italy.
Top 3 Attractions:
It’s hard to choose just three attractions in Palermo, but if you’re pressed for time, here are the top 3 sites not to miss:
1. The Duomo of Palermo (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Tel: 091 334 373) – If on foot, you turn down a very plain, non-descript side street full of small shops and offices. What you’re rewarded with is the magnificent Duomo of Palermo. It’s a wonderful blend of Gothic, Arabic, Spanish and neo-Classical architecture melded across a thousand years. It’s a Catholic church that embraces all religions from the moment you cross its portico. Homage to astrology can be seen merely by looking at its 400-year-old heliometer which standardized time but also marked the signs of the Zodiac. Allow plenty of time to explore all of its nooks and crannies and side altars. Entry into the cathedral is free but a ticket for €7 is required to visit the crypts, tombs and the roof.
2. Teatro Massimo (Piazza Verdi, Tel: 091-605-3521) – This is the opera house made famous by Hollywood as the tragic scene in The Godfather III where Don Michael Corleone’s daughter is gunned down on the front steps. For me, it’s the opera house where my nonna played on those same steps, as a child, and watched the elegant ladies and gents climb that staircase for a magical night of opera. Half-hour tours are given everyday for €8 (kids under 6 are free) and last-minute tickets are often available for the opera and dance performances.
3. Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (Piazza Cappuccini 1, Tel: 091 212 117) – This is known as the place where the living meet the dead in Palermo, quite literally. The Cappuuccini monks needed to build an underground cemetery at the church of Santa Maria della Pace when they ran out of room above ground. The result is the mummified remains of thousands of Palermo’s nobility and bourgeois class, who were embalmed and dressed in their best silks, lace and uniforms. Then they were put on display where they remain till this very day. Creepy? Yes. Worth seeing? In a macabre sort of way. And at €3, it’s a cheap thrill.
2. Good Restaurants:
There is no shortage of great food in Palermo, from bakeries and rosticcerie, to pizzerias and trattorias. I found the best just by exploring the tiny side streets. Trattoria Biondo was like eating at my nonna’s, while Ristorante Principe has amazing pizza and caponata. While everyone knows about Sicily’s famous cannoli dessert, insiders can grab a true bite of street food (aka – voosteddi), at the famous, or infamous, Antica Focacceria San Francesco. While the Sicilian Mafia has been known to hang there, everyday folks stop in for its famous spleen sandwiches. Don’t shrug your nose until you’ve tasted one.
Palermo is a trendy, edgy city and two hotels, Hotel Plaza Opera (Via Nicolò Gallo 2) and Hotel Principe di Villafranca (Via Giuseppina Turrisi Colonna 4) with a modern vibe put you right in the heart of the city. You can walk from both to Teatro Massimo and the main shopping drag of Settimo, where you can also grab a hop-and-go tourist bus, the best way to see this city from the top deck…you can reach out and touch the pretty purple jacaranda trees. If you prefer a smaller bed and breakfast near the train station, then Harmony B & B (Via Lungarini 48, La Kalsa, Palermo) is worth a look. You can have sogni d’oro (sweet dreams) inside the historical 15th century palazzo.
There’s no shortage of nightclubs in Palermo or the laid back enoteca, or wine bars, located near Teatro Massimo. At dusk, the locals will emerge for the evening’s nightly ritual, the passeggiata and walk to the nearest outdoor table to enjoy a drink with friends. People watching in Palermo is an education on life.
The city also has a vibrant art scene and you can easily spend the evening strolling through gallery shows and openings and small, intimate museums.
For traditional shopping you can’t go wrong by visiting the shops which line Settimo and Via della Libertà. Yet, for a true taste of Sicily’s Arabic roots, head to one if its lively markets for everything from food to clothing and antiques. Be prepared to bargain, especially at the 700-year-old Kasbah-style Vucciria Market. It runs down Via Roma toward Via Emanuele in the heart of Palermo’s historic center. It’s open every day except Sundays until 2:00 PM.
Palermo is a big city but it’s also a big city full of an overwhelming immigrant population. Homeless people and gypsies line the streets, especially near the harbor and in the La Kalsa district. Be on guard and practice normal big city safety. I was flying solo and did not feel threatened walking at night. Be alert and stay safe.