TRAVEL GUIDE: PALERMO, SICILY

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Palermo is not for the faint hearted. It’s busy, loud and it sure seems like the drivers are constantly out to kill you. But if you have the guts and the imagination to see through the chaos and the grit you’ll discover one of the most amazing and characterful cities in Europe that will completely steal your heart!

To understand Palermo, it’s crucial to learn at least a little about its complicated and tragic past. Sicily has long been the poorest region of Italy with the level of unemployment more than double the national average. Heavily bombed during World War II, after the war it gave birth to Cosa Nostra, one of the most famous and deadliest organised crime syndicates in the world. Using Palermo as their base, they turned the city into pretty much a war zone and a no go area for years with assassinations, car bombings and citizen shakedowns all part of an everyday life, unprecendented levels of government corruption and the military patroling the streets. And I still find it a little bit hard to fully comprehend that this isn’t some sort of distant history you learn about from the school books but that it all happened as recently as the early 90s.

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But thanks to a couple of very determined judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino the mafia is now very much in decline with more than 4,000 members behind bars. Most amazingly, a large percentage of money seized from criminals has been reinvested into the city to aid its regeneration and fund new social and cultural spaces. And it’s been so successful that in 2018 Palermo was named the Italian Capital of Culture.

Today Palermo continues to work very hard to shake off its bad reputation and the locals are super welcoming to tourists and keen to show visitors what their city is all about. There’s an air of cool which I really love with trendy bars taking over abandoned buildings and traditional food markets transforming into street party hubs after dark. 

The atmosphere really resonated with me and I felt an instant connection. Maybe because I could see many parallels between Palermo and where I live in London (an area that went through a transformation from one of the most deprived areas in all of Europe to one of the trendiest, hippest London neighbourhoods). One thing is for sure: if you want to experience somewhere thoroughly authentic and addictively electric, make Palermo top of your list!

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ARRIVING IN PALERMO


If you arrive by plane, you will fly into The Falcone Borsellino Airport which is located around 35km outside of the city. To get from the airport into the city your best option is to catch one of The Prestia e Comande buses from outside of the terminal building (don’t bother with taxis, they’re known for being a total rip off and locals never use them). They provide a reliable half hourly service and take 40 minutes to Teatro Politeama and around an hour to the central train station. The tickets cost 6 euro for a single and 10 euro for a return and the easiest way to buy it is to download the dedicated smartphone app.

If you prefer to explore on your own, all the major car rental companies like Hertz, Avis and Europcar have their counters at the airport too.

If you travel to Palermo from anywhere else in Sicily, you will arrive at the Palermo Centrale train station which is located at the bottom of Via Roma (one of the main streets running through the historical centre) or the main coach station (located at the back of the train station). From here you can catch a local bus or take a walk to your final destination. Get ready for a baptism of fire at the busy roundabout between the station and the Via Roma though, it will be your introduction to the crazy Palermitan drivers!

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WHERE TO STAY IN PALERMO



There are plenty of unique accommodation options in Palermo whatever vibe and style you’re after. You can stay in an exquisite 16th century Palazzo Lungarini which was once home to the aristocratic Notarbartolo di Sciara family and which has been turned into a charming b&b with three bedrooms and a self contained apartment.

Or you can stay in Stanze Al Genio, a glazed Italian tiles museum where each room has been exquisitely decorated in different architectural style from The Neoclassical Room featuring a copy of a mosaic from an ancient villa in Pompeii to The Liberty Room covered in Sicilian art nouveau patterns.



WANDER THE CITY STREETS


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There’s no better way to really discover Palermo than getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Spend a few hours exploring the little side alleys and you’ll find little local cafes and shops, hidden courtyards, more than 100 churches and some really cool graffiti.

The historic neighbourhoods of Kalsa, Castellamare and Vecchio Centro are pretty compact and easily walkable, and you’ll be sure to stumble across some hidden gems. 




FEAST ON STREET FOOD AT THE MARKETS




Palermo is Europe’s best spot for street food and the best place to enjoy some authentic snacks is at one of the traditional food markets. The four markets in the city are Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio. Modelled on the Arab souks, colourful and loud,  they’re should be high on the to do list for anyone visiting Palermo.

Vucciria is the most famous and most touristy. Join a morning street food tour run by Palermo Street Food guys who will take you round all the best spots so you can try the likes of panelle (chickpea fritters), sfincione (a hybrid of pizza and focaccia), arancini (deep fried rice balls) or even stigghiole (basically charcoal grilled intestine skewers) or pani ca' meusa (a spleen sandwich) if you’re feeling brave. But be sure to also come back after sunset (especially at the weekend) when the market basically turns into a full on street party that can easily go until 6 in the morning.

Ballarò is the biggest and arguably the most attractive. Here old Sicilian men with cigarettes precariously balanced on the edge of their mouths sell the freshest fish, the freshest and juiciest fruit and the most aromatic herbs and spices. Wander around, soak up the atmosphere and be sure to buy some fresh fruit to snack on. If you can find wild strawberries (called fragole di bosco) they are a must!

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VISIT THE PALERMO CATHEDRAL



Palermo Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen. Firstly, it’s massive! Secondly, the mixture of architectural styles means the exterior is a mosaic of porticos, blind arches, intricate interlacing carvings, porches and cupolas all fighting for your attention. At the front there are manicured gardens and a statue of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo. For a unique perspective go up onto the roof terrace and enjoy one of the best views of the city centre.

Make sure you’re dressed appropriately (covered knees and shoulders) if you want to enter the cathedral. There were plenty of people turned away at the entrance when I visited.

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ADMIRE THE PALAZZOS



Palermo is home to many private palazzos which were once homes to wealthy aristocrats and members of the royal family. They are often unassuming from the outside but once you step through the front door you’ll be blown away by the stunning baroque, rococo, or neoclassical style interiors. 

If you only have time to visit one, make it Palazzo Butera in the historical Kalsa neighbourhood. It is absolutely stunning with beautifully restored rooms, a serene courtyard, a fantastic waterfront terrace and one of the best views of the city from the roof. After years of neglect, the building was purchased by a couple of art collectors in 2016 who have been lovingly restoring it since. Right now only a handful of rooms and a number of outdoor spaces are available to explore but I can’t wait to see more next time I visit. The staff running it are super nice and enthusiastic about the building’s history and restoration so don’t hesitate to ask them all about it. And if you visit in the morning, you might even be the only visitor there meaning that you can take it all in undisturbed and at your own pace (and you’ll be free to take millions of photos)!

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SPEND A DAY AT A LIDO




You couldn’t possibly visit Palermo in the summer and not venture to the Mondello beach. It’s just simply not done! It’s much more than just a relaxing day out and a welcome break for your sightseeing schedule, it’s also an excellent insight into the lives of the locals. 

Mondello started out as a quiet fishing village before becoming one of the trendiest suburbs of Palermo and a playground for the rich elites. Today, you can take a leisurely stroll through the streets and admire the beautiful villas built in the unique Liberty style combining Sicilian architectural heritage with floral motives and organic lines inspired by the famous London department store. But the main selling point is a 1.5km long sandy beach and warm, turquoise water. During the summer season the beach is taken over by Mondello Italo Belga who operate a number of lidos along the seafront. You can even pre-book the umbrellas and sun loungers on their website. When you arrive, exchange your reservation for a magnetic wristband in one of the ticket booths which will allow you to come and go as you want throughout the day. Then show your reservation to one of the beach attendants as you enter and they’ll show you to your spot.

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If you feel like taking a break from sunning yourself on the beach, take a stroll along the promenade, past the Art Nouveau Charleston pier towards a waterfront piazza filled with cafes and excellent seafood restaurants. You’ll also pass the little harbour area with small pretty fishing boats.

The buses to Mondello (line 806) depart from Politeama/via Libertà (at the back of Politeama theatre) and the trip takes around half an hour. You can buy tickets for 1.40 euro from one of many tobacco or newspaper kiosks dotted around the city. Remember to validate your ticket in the yellow machine on board as soon as you get on (ticket inspectors are everywhere in Palermo and controls are common). The buses get super crowded in the summer though as Mondello is a popular day out for both locals and tourists.

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WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK IN PALERMO


CONO & CO


Let me share with you one of the reasons I love Sicily: granita and gelato are perfectly appropriate breakfast foods! Cono & Co is a little kiosk on Via Maqueda that offers generous portions at low prices and makes for a perfect pit stop when out exploring the city centre. Pistachio, almond, lemon and mulberry (called gelsi in Italian) are the flavours to pick and ordering a brioscia con gelato is how Sicilians have it.

Via Maqueda 257

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 09:00 - 22:00


KEPALLE 


Palermo is known as the European capital of street food and the most popular street snack is arancine: deep fried risotto rice ball filled traditionally with a meat ragu, green peas and mozzarella. But Kepalle take the humble arancini to the next level by offering a huge range of original fillings such as bbq ribs, shrimp and pistachio or chicken and curry. They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and a lot more filling that you’d expect: just what you need to keep you going during a long day of sightseeing!

Via Maqueda 270

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 10:00 - 01:00

CANNOLI & CO


Right next door to Kepalle, this place is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth! As the name suggests, they sell delicious ricotta filled cannoli but there is also plenty of other delicious artisan pastries. Soft cassata cake (made of ricotta and candied fruit encased in a marzipan shell) is my favourite.

Via Maqueda 268

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 10:00 - 24:00


PERCIASACCHI


Hidden away in a little street not far from Via Maqueda away from the tourist crowd, Perciasacchi is an elegant, laid back restaurant and a perfect spot for a relaxing pizza dinner. You can be sure of high quality ingredients, everything is local and can be traced back to the farm it came from. The menu’s inspired by traditional regional recipes and changes weekly depending on what’s in season. Try one of the Sicilian pizzas with the dough made with flour stone-ground from durum wheat and other grains historically grown on the island and toppings which you won’t find anywhere else (such as cured fish roe called bottarga).

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Opening Hours:
Tuesday - Sunday: 19:30 - 23:30


PASQUALINO


When a place is consistently filled with locals every night, you can be sure it’s somewhere you have to visit. We made two failed attempts at getting a spot at Pasqualino before we managed to snag a table and it was worth it for sure! This family run restaurant serves exclusively organic, locally sourced and delicious food. They also have a lot of gluten free options. The owner who takes on a role of a host is super friendly and welcoming, and took the time to explain the menu to us in detail between his limited English and my limited Italian. His wife was behind the counter dealing with the payments and kids also helped out. It really made the place feel homely.

Aperitivo here is good value and you can choose from a small selection of platters so you can try as many different foods as possible. I went for a focaccia sandwich platter with four different fillings that came with a side of local cold meats, cheese and olives. It was all delicious and a steal at 10 euro per person including a drink.

Via Generale Vincenzo Magliocco 64

Opening Hours:
Tuesday - Thursday: 17:45 - 00:45
Friday - Saturday: 17:45 - 01:00
Sunday: 17:45 - 00:00

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IL SICILIANO


There is aperitivo and then there is aperitivo at Il Siciliano. Whilst in most bars you can expect small snacks such as crisps, nuts, croutons or olives to accompany your drinks, here you’ll receive a massive plate filled to the brim with Sicilian deliciousness! It is popular though so don’t be surprised if you end up having to wait for a table.

Via Orologio 37

Opening Hours:
Tuesday - Sunday: 17:00 - 02:00





MAK MIXOLOGY


This bar epitomises everything that Palermo is about. It’s located on the site of historic Galleria delle Vittorie which was originally opened in 1935 in the midst of fascist period and quickly became a favourite meeting place of Sicilian elites until it closed its doors in the 70s. The building quickly fell into disrepair and laid derelict ever since becoming a symbol of the fallen city ravaged by the raging Mafia wars lasting for over 15 years. In August 2018, a local entrepreneur opened Mak Mixology cocktail bar with the intention of eventually bringing the Galleria back to its former glory. It now stands as a powerful symbol of regeneration and rebirth of the city.

Via Bari 50

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 11:00 - 02:00

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BOCUM

Bocum was Palermo’s first cocktail bar and today still remains one of the best. Located near the harbour this classy and elegant spot serves fantastic cocktails and delicious Sicilian-Asian fusion food. If you know your cocktails (and even if you don’t) you won’t be disappointed. 

Via dei Cassari 6

Opening Hours:
Monday & Wednesday - Sunday: 18:00 - 02:00


CASSARO BOTTEGA ALIMENTARE


Although not technically a restaurant (although they do have a few tables in the cute rear courtyard where you can enjoy a fresh salad lunch or an aperitivo) this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Cassaro Bottega Alimentare! This is the place to stock up on local produce to take home with you or as gifts for your friends and family. Think freshly made, delicious limoncello, olive oil extracted from olives growing on Etna slopes, pistachios from Bronte (the most prized in the world), pesto dell’Etna (this spicy concoction has the power of instantly elevating plain pasta to the level of a restaurant style dinner, I brought back three jars to satisfy my cravings), plenty of fresh pasta, Sicilian candy and more. Everything is high quality and beautifully packaged, and the staff are very helpful and keen to offer recommendations. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t buy more!

Via Vittorio Emanuele 415
Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 10:00 - 20:00


I hope you enjoyed this guide as much as I loved writing it. Have you ever been to Palermo or maybe this article has inspired you to plan a trip? I’d love to read alla about it in the comments.