Right at the heart of Sicilian life is the holiday destination of Palermo - the biggest and liveliest city in Sicily, and its capital. Tourists can explore the backstreets and hidden places of a city that boasts centuries of dizzying historical highs. The old town is full of baroque palaces, their facades rich with statues, while the traditional evening promenade - the passeggiata - is very much alive here in the summer of 2017. There are aristocrats maintaining Palermo’s historic palaces and vibrant street life on every rococo corner.
Nobody would argue that Sicily isn’t a pretty unique place full of fascinating people, landscapes, history and architecture amongst other things. In fact, it’s been described as being like ‘nowhere else in Europe’, largely due to its colourful history. Add in the fact that it finds itself at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and you’ve got an impressive cultural legacy with a sizzling mix of Arabic food, Spanish streets and Norman towers.
At a glance
- Currency: Euro
- Language: Italian
- Time Zone: GMT +1
- Average flight time: 2h 55m
When to go
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Quattro Canti is the centre of the city, divided into four quarters. It’s a popular place to stop and look at the impressive sculptures. Palermo offers many tiny, hidden and beautiful churches you can discover as you wander round the city, as well as a multitude of statues, fountains and monuments. Recognized as the oldest Arabian market in the city, the Ballaro is as popular as the city’s famous Il Capo market when it comes to food and gifts. The Via Bara dell’Olivella is also strongly recommended for unique hand-crafted souvenirs.
The UNESCO World Heritage site, Mount Etna, is an obvious favourite when it comes to local attractions, and although tourists can’t quite scale the top of this active volcano (for obvious health and safety reasons), a cable car ride - or an all-terrain vehicle – can take you pretty close. The Norman kings who conquered Sicily in 1072 left an indelible mark on Palermo, leaving in their wake a fabulous blend of Romanesque architecture, Byzantine mosaics and Arabic domes - all of which make for unmissable sightseeing opportunities in and around Palermo.
Wine and Dine
When you learn that Palermo was recently voted the European Capital of Street Food, then you know holidaying foodies are in for a treat. So, where do you start? Arancini (famous Sicilian rice balls with choice of meat or bacon) and pannele (simple squares of fried, smashed chickpeas and herbs that are eaten with bread) are chief among the delicacies offered up by Palermo’s street vendors, while sfincione (a local version of pizza) rates pretty highly too. Dessert-wise, agranita (a semi-frozen drink made with crushed ice and lemon or other flavours) is a hugely popular choice.
In terms of places to indulge in the local delicacies, then it’s difficult to look beyond the likes of Trattoria da Salvo, where you can grab an outdoor table and watch the fish being grilled right in front of you. Palermo’s wine bars have become seriously chic. Vinoveritas boasts a selection of over 3,000 Italian and international drinks options, while Enoteca Picone champions the cause of the smaller, local producers. Meanwhile, Kursaal Kalhesa (built into the medieval city walls) serves a dozen wines by the glass under ancient barrel arches.
Apart from visiting the traditional food markets, enjoying the stunning beaches, watching a puppet theatre performance and indulging in an ice-cream sandwich for breakfast (yes, this is a real thing), there’s plenty of family-friendly attractions in Palermo. The top sightseeing spot is the cathedral at Monreale, five miles south of Palermo, which has gorgeous ceilings and walls decorated by master mosaicists.
The Archaeological Museum houses an incredible collection of antiquities, recognized as one of the finest in Italy, and includes some world-famous finds. And don’t forget the mesmerising Catacombe dei Cappuccini, by far Palermo's most bizarre attraction, but one of its most popular. These underground passages were carved into the volcanic rock after 1599 and used as burial places right up to 1881. Once inside the underground vaults, visitors will be greeted by the macabre scene of about 8,000 mummified corpses arranged by sex and status - either showcased in the passageways or hanging suspended from the walls. Trust us, kids will just love it!
Action and Adventure
Action and adventure needn’t necessarily just lend itself to pursuits based on the water, as is the case with many Mediterranean destinations. The place is positively alive with all manner of exuberance and touristic interaction including outdoor dances in old squares and crowds at the sunset passeggiata, together with boisterous street markets. Strolling along Palermo’s Via Vittorio Emanuele (one of the two main streets in the city) is an adventure all on its own, as the wide-eyed visitor takes in the Palazzo dei Normanni (the mosaic-filled Norman palace that is home to Sicily’s regional government).
Six miles west of Palermo, the hugely atmospheric and rarely crowded Roman ruins of Solunto are well worth a visit. Courtyard villas with mosaic floors, a marketplace with columns and shops, the old baths still holding water and an amphitheatre overgrown with weeds symbolise Solunto.
Life's a Beach
Palermo holidays will doubtless appeal to those who have been looking forward to topping up their tan in Italy this summer. There’s a good choice of sandy areas and the temperature is ideal for sunbathing. There are several beaches in Sicily that are situated in (or very near to) Palermo including Mondello, Aspra, Cefalu, San Vito Lo Capo, Isola delle Femmine and Arenella. Mondello is the largest beach in Palermo and is the closest to the city, while Cefalu and San Vito Lo Capo are both approximately an hour away from Palermo.
The inviting golden sands of Mondello Beach - or Mondello Lido, as the locals call it - are truly spectacular. Boating and other popular water sports keep visitors entertained during their time on the beach and local restaurants and bars do a roaring trade. Positioned close to Palermo, Aspra is a small fishing village just to the east of the main city, where colourful wooden boats are seen as something of a trademark of the village. This small public beach is widely known for having some of the best ice cream in all of Sicily, and provides the backdrop to some pretty memorable sunsets too.
According to the city’s denizens and regular visitors, Palermo's nightlife has witnessed significant growth in recent years, and much of it centres round the ‘Champagneria’ district, located near the Teatro Massimo. Popular with younger generations and tourists in particular, this area now experiences a burgeoning nightlife scene. Close by, in the historical part of the city, the Kalsa area is positively awash with critically acclaimed wine bars, such as Candelai, Pub 88, Mescal Tapas and Kursal Kalhesa.
With regards to nightclubs, the northern section of Palermo is home to a good selection, with Viale Strasburgo and Via Generale Arimondi topping the bill. Among the most popular nightclubs, the ancient quarter dell' Arenella hosts Kandinsky Florio, Kursaal Kalesa, Anticlea Pub and Country Club. Try also Movida, celebrated as one of the major clubs in Palermo, with a restaurant that can accommodate more than 3,000 people, three floors, six bars, two beautiful private room, big screens, DJs and special guests.
Citrus-filled cloisters, stucco-laced chapels and vintage stores filled with the threads of faded aristocrats are just some of the beguiling sights, sounds and smells which greet romance-seeking couples making the journey to Palermo on holiday. For the ‘sounds’ bit, please refer to the opera house – Italy’s largest.
New-school eateries, bars and spas all underline Palermo’s unofficial title of being among the most romantic of Sicilian cities. Indeed, its history-rich streets and plazas provide the ideal architectural backdrop for lovers of all ages. Enjoy strolling the serene paths of Orto Botanico, or choose to spend the night at Scalea. Either way, you’re likely fall in love with Palermo as much as the company of each other.
Palermo is a city found at the edge of Europe and at the centre of the ancient world. A place where souk-like markets rub against baroque churches and where date palms frame Gothic palaces. A trip to Mount Etna really can’t be recommended enough, while the Palermo di Scena brings a host of music, cinema and ballet events to the city. The annual Santa Rosalia’s day festival in July is a traditional festival that sees the locals celebrate with a parade of relics, plus a firework display.
Palermo Food Festival is as delicious as it sounds, with workshops, celebrity chefs and food from all over the world. And opened in the late 1800s, the Teatro Massimo (Europe’s third-largest opera house), appears like a huge Roman temple, lording it up over the Piazza Verdi. Alongside the opera, rejoice at the ballet, symphony and chamber-music concerts, and remember that contemporary music and jazz is played in many late-night bars here in Palermo.