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Palermo, Sicily’s throbbing heart, is a city with many faces. It’s a melting pot of cultures if ever there was one. In its historic centre, Arabic and Norman monuments stand side by side with Baroque churches, Spanish palazzi and Art Nouveau gems, and quiet alleys lead to frenetic souk-like markets. It’s a place of faded grandeur, chaotic traffic and warm hospitality. Lately it’s also become known as the street food capital of Italy – if not Europe. Granted, Palermo can overwhelm and delight in equal measure, with something surprising at every turn. Our best advice? Just follow your nose, succumb to its riot of colour and noise, and you might find yourself unexpectedly in love.
Nestled in a wide bay on Sicily’s northwestern coast between North Africa and the Italian mainland, Palermo’s attracted conqueror after conqueror for almost 3,000 years, including the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans and Spaniards. Its golden age was in the 11th-12th centuries under Norman kings, when it grew into a cosmopolitan hub famed for its wealth, both intellectual and material. In the centuries that followed, however, the city slowly declined and changed hands several times until Sicily became part of unified Italy in 1861. Today, things are looking up again. Following severe damage in World War II and decades of Mafia rule, Palermo’s basking in a resurrection of sorts, ready to reclaim its former glory.
Palermo’s biggest tourist draw is the magnificent Palazzo dei Normanni, blending Arab, Norman and Byzantine influences. Visit the lavish royal apartments (check opening times and days), then head to the world-famous Cappella Palatina, featuring glittering mosaics under an Arabic-style honeycomb ceiling. Another prime example of East-meets-West architecture is Palermo’s sand-coloured cathedral, which bears the mark of almost every conqueror that’s ever set foot here. Climb up to the roof for some of the best views of the city. The Neoclassical Teatro Massimo, the largest theatre in Italy, is also a must-see – it might be familiar from the climactic closing scene of The Godfather Part III. History fans should set aside a few hours for the Museo Archeologico Regionale, displaying one of the richest collections of Greek treasures in Italy. For something more macabre, descend to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini, the final resting place for 8,000 mummified corpses and skeletons, all in plain view. If modern art is your thing, check out Galleria d’Arte Moderna, housed in a former convent, showcasing Sicilian works from the 19th to mid-20th century. Alternatively, visit the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia for modern and contemporary exhibitions in a beautifully restored palazzo.
An integral part of local identity, street food in Palermo runs the gamut from the familiar to the truly adventurous. First up, sample the North African-inspired chickpea fritters known as panelle at the popular kiosk Friggitoria Chiluzzo, close to the waterfront. It’s best eaten in a sandwich with aubergine, potato croquettes and lemon. Arancine (stuffed rice ball) is another local staple to add to your foodie list – taste some of the varieties at I Cuochini near Teatro Massimo, or Sfrigola Palermo, five minutes from Palazzo dei Normanni. Or why not try Sicily’s own take on pizza? Baked in a rectangular pan, sfincione is thick and spongy (read: very filling) and often comes sprinkled with breadcrumbs. Antica Focacceria San Francesco and Panificio Graziano are said to offer some of the tastiest in town. Interested in the not-for-the-faint-hearted options? Look out for stigghiola (skewered lamb or goat intestines), pani câ meusa (beef spleen sandwich) or babbaluci (snails cooked with garlic and herbs). If a sit-down meal is in order, you’ll find plenty of options from family-run trattorias to refined gourmet hotspots. For local specialities at wallet-friendly prices, choose from the fresh pasta and seafood dishes at Osteria Pane e Alivi. Trattoria al Vecchio Club Rosanero, dedicated to the local football team, is another winner for value and taste. Looking for creative takes on Sicilian produce? Book a table at A' Cuncuma, offering both à la carte and degustation menus in a stylish but laid-back setting. Time for dessert? Pasticceria Cappello, dating back to 1940, should be your first port of call, known for its great cannoli (pastry tubes stuffed with ricotta), cassate (layered sponge cake) and setteveli (seven-layer chocolate cake). Or visit Caffetteria del Corso and cool down with a gelato or granita (crushed ice dessert) served in a fresh brioche – also a surprisingly good choice for breakfast!
Nowhere is the city’s North African heritage more evident than in its bustling markets: Ballarò, Vucciria and Capo. Brimming with colours, smells and street life, Ballarò is by far the city’s busiest bazaar, snaking through narrow streets and little piazzas, a five-minute walk from Palermo Cathedral. Stalls sell everything from cheap souvenirs, clothes and household items to fresh fruit and veg, cheese, meat and fish, including sheep’s heads, whole octopi and baby sharks. Plus, some of the best street food in town. Our best tip: go in the morning for the full experience. Hunting handcrafted goodies to take home? Seek out the workshops run by ALAB, a 200-strong network of artisans, scattered around the historic centre. Come evening, half the city seems to be out for a drink or a stroll. Be sure to try Sicily’s wonderful vino: top wine bars include Enoteca Picone, a local favourite since 1946 with some 7,000 wines on offer, and Enoteca Buonivini, drawing a fashionable crowd with its hip but relaxed atmosphere. Where to go for aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks with tapas-style snacks)? Try Qvivi Music Bar, with buffet-style food and the occasional live band, rustic Il Siciliano, known for its generous portions and warm ambiance or cosy Botteghe Colletti, featuring a vintage look and excellent cocktails.
Rocky or sandy, secluded or sunbed-filled, there’s a beach for every taste around Palermo. Extremely popular is the elegant seaside resort of Mondello, 11 kilometres to the north, with white sand, palm-fringed streets and plenty of eating spots. The nearby Capo Gallo Nature Reserve offers gorgeous views and a more tranquil, closer-to-nature experience. A word to the wise though: the turquoise waters are embraced by rocky slopes, so don’t forget your beach shoes. On the other side of Mondello, you’ll find Addaura beach, with lovely coves, inlets and coral seabeds to explore – bring your snorkelling gear. Got little beach lovers in tow? Head to Cefalù, just an hour from Palermo by train, boasting one of the best beaches in the whole of Sicily, with warm waters and golden sand. Speaking of Cefalù, its charming historic centre, overlooked by craggy cliffs, is made for leisurely strolling, with honey-coloured buildings, romantic piazzas and an Arab-Norman, mosaic-smothered cathedral. No wonder it was chosen as a location for the Oscar-winning film Cinema Paradiso. Monreale is another easy day trip option from Palermo, home to one of Sicily’s must-see attractions, the World Heritage-listed Cattedrale di Monreale, covered in exquisite golden mosaics. Perched on a hillside, the town also provides stunning views over Palermo and the Mediterranean Sea.
Palermo Airport (or Falcone-Borsellino Airport) is a busy one-terminal airport, 35 kilometres from Palermo’s centre. You can travel to the city by train or bus, with both taking about an hour. Alternatively, you can hire a car at the airport. Inside the terminal, a self-service restaurant, bars and a small shopping area will make your wait more comfortable.
For a beach holiday, the best time to visit Palermo is in the summer, with temperatures often in the thirties. However, the weather might be more suitable for sightseeing between May and June or in early autumn when temperatures in Palermo are more moderate but still usually above 20°C. Winter is mild with daytime temperatures around 10°C, although you’re more likely to need a brolly.