I have a word of advice for you if you are arriving in Palermo. Do not and I mean, do not, think that because you know Italy that you know Sicily. And do not think that because you know Sicily that you will know Palermo.
Even though Sicily is part of Italy, Sicilians will be quick to remind you that Sicily is closer to Africa then to mainland Italy. The people of Sicily consider themselves Sicilians first, Italians second.
As Anthony Bourdain says, “Outsiders perceive Palermo to be some sort of Godfather theme park.” But to categorize Palermo so shallowly would be to miss the heart and soul of Palermo’s people, the panormiti, a cultural melting pot made up of not just Sicilians, but also many South Asians, Albanians, Romanians, and North Africans.
Before I go on glamourizing and showing you the pretty parts of Palermo, I also want to be honest about it’s rawness. Much of Palermo is, for lack of better words, a dump. But for just as much garbage and grey and abandoned buildings there are light-filled alleys, dancing fountains, smells of garlic and tomatoes simmering that has you just looking for the nonna who is preparing it, and mountains of glorious vegetables that just beg you to take them home with you and make something of your own.
And so I give you 5 Things To Do In Palermo To Know It As Your Own:
1. Delve Into Palermo’s Market Life
I think there is no better than to get to know Palermo than by exploring its markets. This is where you will see the local people do their shopping for the day and only that day. This is where you will see the hardworking market vendors displaying their wares with pride, all clamoring to be the first one to offer you a taste, a taste of a sundried tomato that to its depth is so full of the flavor of what a tomato should be that for a minute you glimpse not just the soul of Palermo, but the soul of the world.
For just one minute you offer a prayer of gratitude that you have this ability to taste, and to see and to smell. For just this one minute, there is no other moment besides this one. For this moment, you are only here now.
There are 4 markets in Palermo: Mercato di Capo, Vucciria, Capo Ballarò and Borgo Vecchio.
Ballarò: Located a few steps from the Martorana Church and Quattro Canti, the Ballarò market is located from Piazza Ballarò in the Albergheria district along Via Ballarò past Piazza Carmine toward Corso Tukory.
Capo: The Capo market is located behind the Teatro Massimo from Via Porta Carini off Via Volturno.
Vucciria: The Vucciria begins at Piazza San Domenico along Via Maccheronai toward Piazza Caracciolo and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. .
Borgo Vecchio: Located on the streets between Piazza Sturzo and Piazza Ucciardone.
Cassata from Piccolo Napoli (yes, Bourdain dined here)
2. Devour Palermo By The Mouthful
Food is the heart and soul of Palermo, and you can taste all of the multi-cultural influences of this city by tasting its food. Tangles of pasta coated in black squid ink reminds you of the darker side of Palermo, but ending a meal with the Sicilian cassata cake (a definite must in Palermo) reminds you of its sweeter side. And whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to drink the richest, strongest, most dusky espresso you will ever have in your life.
Quattro Canti in Palermo
3. Walk And Perceive Palermo Through Your Senses
I derived some of my best pleasures in Palermo when I stopped having a destination in mind and just got out in the streets and wandered aimlessly. This is when I found myself at a street intersection (Quattro Canti) gaping in awe at the four fountains surrounding me on each corner. (I soon closed my mouth when a horse cart driver ran over to me and begged me to kiss him.)
It is when exploring the city on food that I came across the little boy daydreaming on the steps of his casa. This is when laundry swirled over my head and I felt the struggle and the hope of the people of Palermo.
4. Sit And Let Palermo Encounter You
The piazza’s (squares) of Italy are where the action is. Italians know what it means to just sit and be. My favorite moments in Palermo came from just sitting in the square, eating gelato, and watching the gentleness of the world go by. By doing this, I felt like I was letting Palermo come to me and that’s when a beautiful rainbow appeared.
5. Glimpse An Aerial View of Palermo From Monreale
Monreale is just 9 miles south of Palermo and is located on the hillside of on the slope of Monte Caputo. Here, you will see a stunning view of Palermo, but more than that you will see a charming town and one of the most stunning cathedrals I’ve ever seen, The Cathedral of Monreale. With its large antique columns and many mosaics, this is one church you don’t want to miss.
Have you been to Palermo? What was your favorite part? Leave a comment below and let me know!
My boyfriend travels often to a nearby base and says wonders about Palermo. The greatest part about Italy is being able to eat and drink it all in (and more than the food!).
Even if I’m Italian I still have to visit Sicily which I should be ashamed of really especially considering all the good things I’ve heard about the island. The markets in Palermo look my thing, I’d spend probably too much time there 🙂
Love this post! Thanks for taking me closer to Italy and Palermo. Felt like I was there after reading this!
Thanks, Susan! You would so love the food!!
Favorite place in Italy! Visited many times and it’s just beautiful! The food is amazing too 🙂
Neat insider-y guide, and great photos! I’d love to visit.
Yes, it’s definitely a true slice of Italian life!
I’d feel right at home in Palmermo’s markets. Fantastic photos, Val. You’ve really captured the city’s essence.
Beautiful photos of a place I know very little about so thanks for “introducing” me to it!
You are welcome!!
Italy draws me ever closer every day. I hadn’t really looked at Palermo – but your photos make it very appealing! Thanks!
Nice post, great pics. I love Italy, have to make it to Sicily one day.
Beautiful photos! I especially like the statue with the storm clouds overhead.
What a gorgeous, evocative wreck of a place. I love that you mix black and whites with your color photos. They really weave a spell.
I swear I started smelling olive oil, garlic, & tomato as I was reading your post. My mind is weird.
We’ve been living in Italy for 5 years now but have yet to visit Sicily. You’re right though – when you live in other parts and head south, the trash and what not can be a huge shock. But you have to look past that. It’s just so different in the south (or in this case, on the islands).
It definitely is different. I think I prefer the North, but there are still some beautiful spots in the South!
I enjoyed visiting the Catacombs in Palermo. Did you manage to visit them? I also found the Pill Boxes left over from the war to be quite impressive.
I didn’t. Now, I need to go back!