A city of grit and forgotten grandeur, for too long Palermo has resigned itself to being a film set of crumbling palaces, sun-worn facades and pockmarked backstreets.
But now Sicily’s capital is reemerging from decades under the Mafia’s shadow. Their influence may not be fully over but the Mafia battleground has come a long way, with millions of euros seized from crime bosses being pumped back into rebuilding the city.
And as the tide of restoration picks up its pace, recognition is being swept along with it too. As both Cultural Capital of Italy and the host of one of Europe's most prestigious contemporary art festivals, 2018 is set to be a big year for Palermo. Here's everything you need to know before a trip:
Why should I go?
Palermo doesn't go easy on you. Incessant horns blare from its traffic-clogged streets, rows of buildings funnel the relentless sun right to the pavement, and many places seem to have a dubious opinion of opening hours. Be patient though, for it’s a city full of charm: the sweet smell of pastries drifting along cobbled alleyways, lived-in backstreets that dilate into fountain-dotted squares and countless mosaic-shrouded churches that lurk around every corner.
It’s a city where history cannot be escaped. As the ancient crossroads of the Mediterranean, Palermo's centro storico – the largest in Italy bar Rome’s – is cluttered with Arabic cupolas, Baroque facades, Byzantine mosaics and Norman relics. And now pushing through the cracks left by this rich past is a contemporary art scene, a cutting-edge food movement and a burgeoning number of exciting places to stay.
Palermo is a city in flux. Contemporary art galleries are breathing life into long-neglected buildings, new-school eateries and chic wine bars are revitalising neighbourhoods, and forward-thinking aristocrats are throwing open the doors of their Baroque palaces to paying guests.
Tourists can get involved in the tide of change too, by supporting anti-Mafia institutions during their stay; Addiopizzo is leading the charge with its list of restaurants, bars and shops that refuse to pay the pizzo (Mafia extortion money). The pace is not letting up, either. Hot on the heels of being awarded UNESCO status in 2015, in 2018 Palermo is both Italian Cultural Capital and host of Manifesta, Europe’s prestigious biennial festival of contemporary art.
The undoubted jewel in Palermo’s crown is the 12th-century Capella Palatina, the private chapel of the Palazzo dei Normanni (royal palace). Inside the Capella Palatina, the cupola, apses and nave are awash with Byzantine mosaics that sweep up from the marble floor to the richly carved Arabic ceiling.
Along with this, other city highlights include the Teatro Massimo – said to be the largest theatre in Italy – and the golden-hued, palm tree-fronted Cattedrale di Palermo. Climb the spiral staircase to the cathedral’s roof for breathtaking views over Palermo: a sweep of tiled rooftops and crumbling buildings interspersed with intricate domes, and backed by a haze of distant mountains.
Beyond this trio of old-school grandeur, an evolving contemporary art scene is unfurling itself in venues that are just as fascinating as pieces on display. A former Franciscan convent holds the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, while the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia has taken over a restored 18th-century palazzo.
Palermo is famed for its diverse street-food scene; keep an eye out for favourite dishes cannoli (crispy tubes of pastry filled with a squeeze of sweet ricotta) and arancini (fried stuffed rice balls).
Of the number of markets across the city the best bet is a morning visit to Ballarò. Noisy and unrefined, here the stalls cram into a network of streets, where the hawking of traders competes with the guttural noises of scooters and produce-laden Ape vans. At butchers severed sheep’s heads and coiling pieces of stomach sit side-by-side with less squeamish cuts of meat, while vegetable stalls overflow with bundles of greenery, purple-swirled pistachios and piles of bulbous aubergines. And if you’re hungry, there’s no shortage of smoke-cloaked stalls selling everything from flame-charred artichokes to the more acquired taste of barbecued intestines.
Away from Palermo’s markets, a good place to sample Sicily’s signature fried dishes is I Cuochini (meaning “little cooks”). This tiny local institution, with its blank walls and harshly lit food counter, is where locals go for ragù-stuffed arancini and panzerotti (piping hot mini calzones, the best of which are filled with a melted mix of salty anchovies, stringy mozzarella and tomato sauce).
For a more sophisticated meal, a growing clutch of places are reshaping Palermo’s culinary landscape. Grab a seat in the stylish black-and-white interior of Buatta Cucina Popolana, a popular restaurant with a strong commitment to the slow food movement.
Another local favourite, Bisso Bistrot is where half of Palmero seems to tip up at dinner time. Tucked behind the ornate Quattro Canti, this restored former bookshop is a low-key hangout of exposed plaster, arched doorways and low slung pendants. Meanwhile, a trip to a local enoteca to try the best of Sicily’s wines, should not be missed.
Is it worth venturing further afield?
Palermo makes an excellent base for day-trips. The Roman site at Solunto, the little seaside resort of Mondello and the hill town of Monreale – with its mosaic-smothered Duomo and stunning valley views – are all within easy reach.
Also not to be missed is the seaside resort of Cefalù, which is one hour away by train from Palermo. Backed by a vast looming rock, Cefalù’s enchanting old town is a tangle of streets that wiggle out to meet the gentle lapping waves in its bay. While it’s possible to get here and back to Palermo in a day, it’s more tempting to stay a night – or two – and embrace Cefalù’s slower pace of life, with a day spent climbing the rock and swimming in the sea, and an evening sitting out at a little pavement wine bar.