A city of grit and forgotten grandeur, for too long Palermo has been a place of crumbling palaces, sun-worn facades and pockmarked backstreets. Now Sicily’s capital is reemerging from decades under the Mafia’s shadow. Millions of euros seized from crime bosses are 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. Voted a Cultural Capital of Italy last year, Palermo is continuously on the rise. Here's everything you need to know before you visit Palermo Sicily.
Palermo doesn't go easy on you. Incessant horns blare from its traffic-clogged streets, the relentless sun pounds the pavement in summer, 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 open into fountain-dotted squares and mosaiced 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 – is cluttered with Arabic cupolas, Baroque facades, Byzantine mosaics and Norman relics. And now pushing through the cracks left by the past is a contemporary art scene, a cutting-edge food movement and a growing number of cool 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. 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 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 is 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 the city. You'll see a sweep of tiled rooftops and crumbling buildings interspersed with intricate domes, and backed by a haze of distant mountains.
For something more contemporary, head to the former Franciscan convent that now holds the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. Or, try the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia which 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 (tubes of pastry filled with 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, the stalls cram into a network of narrow streets. 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. Take a seat and order ragù-stuffed arancini and panzerotti – piping hot mini calzones.
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 features 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.
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Palermo makes an excellent base for day trips within Sicily. Great options include the Roman site at Solunto and the little seaside resort of Mondello. Then there's the hill town of Monreale – with its mosaic-smothered Duomo and stunning valley views.
Also not to be missed is the seaside resort of Cefalù, which is one hour away by train from Palermo. While it’s possible to get here and back in a day, it’s more tempting to stay a night or two. Then you can embrace Cefalù’s slower pace of life. Spend a day climbing the rock and swimming in the sea, and an evening sitting out at a little pavement wine bar.
Top image: Palermo town © Vlada Zhi/Shutterstock