Things to See and Do
Palermo is the great city nestled in the coastline of Sicily, the stunning Italian island in the Mediterranean. Known for its incredible food, sunshine and dialect, Sicily was popularised within pop culture for its deeply rooted associations with organised crime activity.
Although Palermo is a lot safer today, with little-to-no petty crime or tourist-centric crime, it’s difficult not to forget that you’re walking in the footsteps of Gambinos’, Motisis’ and Marcheses’. Palermo itself is beautiful, safe and a joy to visit.
There could be multiple reasons for travelling to Palermo, but one thing that most visitors regard as one of the best things about it is the people. You’re bound to visit local shops or market stalls, so you’ll see why Sicilians are known as the funniest of all Italians, and why they regard themselves as half devil and half angel.
Most visitors to Italy travel to the likes of Rome, Venice, Milan, Verona, Bologna, Florence or the Alps. But nothing beats a trip to the good ol’ Mezzogiorno. The southern regions of Italy are the least-visited yet still as historic as the northern regions. Some would suggest that the socio-economic divide between southern and northern Italians started way back during Italy’s reunification in the 1870s, but others suggest otherwise.
Although the south is handicapped to the north, in 2016 the south’s GDP has grown by twice as much as the north’s. It was this divide that sprung forth the mafias from the south, but since the south’s economy is improving drastically, the crime rate has gone down.
This has been the catalyst for the steady rise in Sicily tourism. Millions of foreigners flock to the Sicilian shore, but over half of Sicily’s visitors are from other parts of Italy. Italians visit Sicily knowing that they’ll see a beautiful part of their own country.
Palermo is the capital city of the island Sicily, and is over 2,700 years old. Its greatest facets include its culture, architecture and gastronomy. The history of Palermo spans over many centuries of multiple ruling states. From Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Arabs and Saracens, all the way to the 1848 Sicilian revolution, Palermo has a shopping list of historical claims.
Palermo has the title of the most conquered city in history, so where else would have such a great excuse to have historical museums? There’s 12 UNESCO heritage sites, over 100 churches and the four oldest street markets in all of Italy. There’s no better place to visit in Italy… except maybe Rome.
If this is your first visit to the Mezzogiorno region of Italy, you’ll definitely need more sun-screen and to be more careful of pick-pocketers. And with all of this in mind, here are the best things to do in Palermo!
What to Eat
As part of our rundown of gastronomic greats, we’ve comprised a list of local delicacies. Not only that, but we decided to save a lot of hassle by naming the best places (in our opinion) to get said delicacies. You can’t just expect to have only pizza and panini in Palermo, but of course the dishes you expect to see will also be made to perfection. However, when in Palermo, you must try what the locals love. If Italians from all over the mainland flock here to try the Sicilian slice of life, then you probably should too.
Francu U Vastiddaru (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 102, 90133):
Delicious chickpea fritters stemming from the island’s history of Arab rule. An extremely popular street food for the Palermo locals, Panelle is typically found slapped inside a bread roll… but it’s frequently found inside the mouths of Sicilians. You have to try it!
Simply put, if you could imagine a perfect blend of the most loved foods on Earth, this is probably the outcome. Mashed potato? Check. Egg? Check. Deep fried in breadcrumbs? Double check. This is the holy of holy of holies, the king of kings and the queen of queens all wrapped into one. You can get crocché from friggitorie, the Italian equivalent to fish and chips shops, but some cafés like this one also make them.
- Pane con la Milza
Also found in the historic old markets the city has to offer, this local delicacy doesn’t travel far outside of Sicily. It’s not for the faint of heart, not because of its delicious taste or aesthetic, but once you find out what it consists of you might be put off. The locals have stood by their chopped veal lung/spleen for some time now, so you know it’s worth putting in a bun and trying. Give it a go!
Pasticceria Capello (Via Colonna Rotta, 68, 90134):
- Torta Setteveli (Seven Veils cake)
This slice of chocolatey indulgence is typically used for birthdays, but in Palermo, everyday feels like a birthday. Seven layers of scintillating Sicilian slithers from heaven (is the unofficial description). Personally, since it has so many layers all with lashings of chocolate and hazelnut, the best way I would describe this delicacy as would be a multi-tiered Nutella cake.
Pasticceria Costa (Via Maqueda, 174, 90133):
Possibly originating from the Emirate of Sicily, the Muslim Moor era of Sicily’s history, this iconic sweet pastry is Sicily’s global gastronomic ambassador. It used to be served during the carnevale season, but Sicilians soon realised it could be enjoyed all year round. It features an intoxicating ricotta filling, which can be played around with to make different flavours. The classic white ricotta filling is the best place to start.
Another moreish Moorish sweet treat, this uses the same ricotta filling as cannoli but encases it within a traditional sponge cake. There are so many variations of what can be classed as cassata, that it can become confusing sometimes (but delicious always). Sometimes baked with marzipan, sometimes with a fruity liqueur punch and sometimes just Neapolitan gelato cake with chopped nuts. Don’t all those sound delicious? You could go on a cassata tour of Sicily trying all the different variations.
Bar Scatassa (Via Ammiraglio Rizzo, 65/f, 90142):
Imagine Crocché but with rice instead of mashed potato, and ragu instead of egg? You can’t get enough deep fried street food in Sicily, I mean, seriously. Typically found as Arancina balls, but can be served as cones, this is the favourite food of the fictional Inspector Montalbano. By the way, if you’re stopping at the Scatassa, you need to try their calzone. It’s honestly the best pizza-like dish in Sicily.
Street Vendors across the city:
Although it may not look appealing, this one is the local favourite. Seasoned and barbecued lamb guts that smell and taste incredible. Just like the Milza, give this one a go, but if you’d prefer something deep fried in breadcrumbs we don’t blame you.
All you pizza lovers beware, this one will leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth. It’s exactly what you’d expect from an Italian street vendor, a localised version of the world-loved pizza. However, this is less of a pizza, and more of a focaccia with ragu. However, this is still something you’ll never see anywhere else so it doesn’t hurt to try it.
The cheapest street food in Palermo, it’s probably what you’d call the best thing you’ve ever eaten if you were drunk on a night out. It’s basically the leftovers of beef, including marrow and cartilage, ground down into a freeze-dried form. This may sound unappealing, but it’s no different to the donner kebabs you might find your face in on nights out.
What to See
Palermo is an ideal city to get lost in, because there’s no telling what amazing architecture you might stumble upon. Palermo’s history is multi-cultural so it’s reflected in its varied architecture. Buildings such as cathedrals feature multiple styles and visuals, since Sicily was conquered so many times, when a new set of conquerors would waltz in they’d just change the sign on the door rather than knock down and rebuild.
Mount Pellegrino has been the only constant in Palermo, and its striking visual from the harbour is a behemoth to behold. There’s so many things to see in Palermo, but it’s difficult to ignore the incredible mountain that looms over the city. Sicily is full of mountains and hilly regions and Monte Pellegrino sits next to Palermo and offers an escape to nature with unparalleled views of the city and Mediterranean.
If it’s history you’re looking for, then look no further. Here are some of the best sights and tourist attractions in Palermo.
- Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normani)
This incredible palace, known as the Norman Palace, housed the kings of Sicily.
It’s one of the oldest palaces in all of Europe, as it was built by Emir of Palermo in the 9th century. Upon first glance at this incredible structure, it’s undeniable how Norman yet Moorish the design is. Currently, the palazzo holds the Sicilian Regional Assembly as well as the Astronomical Observatory.
If you’re looking for the best photo opportunities, then you need to check out the Cappella Palatina. Glorious golden arches and mesmerising mosaics line the walls creating a glorious sense of grandeur. I would recommend visiting the palace just to see the arches.
- Palermo Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo)
Originally constructed in 1185 on the instruction of Pope Gregory I, the cathedral has previously been a crypt as well as a mosque. The Moorish influence is present on the exterior and it features a fine central basilica and a tall renaissance clock tower.
The portico side entrance features wonderful frescoes and millennia-old artworks and mosaics. The cathedral has had so many additions to it over the centuries, that a lot of the styles prevalent clash each other. When have you ever seen gothic-style façades housing Saracen and Byzantine crowns? Never, that’s when. The treasure chamber inside holds various artefacts from different time periods of the original church as well as the tomb of Emperor Frederick II.
- Teatro Massimo
Towering over the surrounding buildings, the Teatro Massimo is a sight to behold. Opened in 1897, it is the largest Opera House in Italy and it’s famed for its acoustic qualities.
The exterior is more akin to that of a palazzo than a teatro, it’s honestly the best location for sights as well as sounds. You can book guided tours of the interior, but we’d recommend viewing a performance.
They are always holding concerts playing the music of Giuseppe Verdi, who has multiple streets and piazzas named after him. The teatro’s pop culture claim to fame is that the final scenes of Godfather part three were filmed there, but I nearly didn’t want to mention it since it’s such a disappointing movie. Visitors should marvel at the sounds of Verdi and the incredible feat of architecture the concert hall is, not gawp at where a Coppola flop was filmed.
- San Giovanni degli Erimiti
A small church that packs a historical punch, it was originally built as early as the 6th century.
Domed towers sit at one end of the church and feature a brilliant red colouration that is still extremely vibrant. The architectural style is a combination of Arabic and Norman but has later Roman-esque additions. Frescoes, religious paintings, mosaics; you get the drill. This one is special though, since it’s one of the oldest churches in Italy still standing today.
- Ballaro Markets (Mercato di Ballaro)
This has to be one of the essential parts of your visit to Palermo. Whether its Ballaro, or even Cap or Vucciria, the ancient food markets are the most culturally enlightening aspects to any Palermo stay. You’re literally biting into Sicilian heritage, spanning thousands of years and hundreds of variations. All the markets are smack bang in the middle of the city and are hard to miss. Delicious fresh fruits, vegetables, cakes, pastries and savouries, this is a chef’s paradise.
You can get guided tours of these old markets they’re so iconic, which you may want to consider since the locals know where to get the best produce.