Three days in Sicily’s capital — Best things to do in Palermo
There’s a lot going on in Palermo. In fact, during a three-day visit we just scratched the surface of the place. Whatever time you have in Sicily, don’t miss a visit to this intriguing capital city of Sicily that was recognized as the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018 by Italy’s Ministry of Culture.
“There’s energy, adventure, sexiness, beauty and rough edges here —
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is an enticing city of vibrant squares, blended cultures, beautiful landmarks, and a gritty street scene. It was a great place to begin our exploration of the island.” — TWS 11-Day Sicily Itinerary
These recommendations of best things to do in Palermo are just sampling of the city’s highlights and character.
The list of places to see and things to do in Palermo seemed endless, with many historic and cultural attractions giving evidence to the city’s centuries old blending of Arab, Norman, Greek, and Jewish cultures. So we ultimately chose to take it easy and just soak up as much ambiance and history as we could, and to make sure to indulge in the great food that Palermo is known for.
Palermo markets and street food
Plan to visit at least one of the vibrant street markets — Vucciria, Capo, Ballarò, and Borgo Vecchio. They are a key element in the character of Palermo. Along the narrow streets and side alleys, you’ll find vendors’ stalls filled with clothing, fabrics, household items, and souvenirs. You’ll also find plenty of small restaurants and stalls and shops with local food products particularly cheeses, olive oil, meat, and fresh seafood.
Palermo is known for its street food, culinary delights and amazing food options in the extensive open markets of Capo, Ballarò, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio. Walking through the markets, we stopped into delis, a bakery, and fish vendors’ stalls to get a look at the plentiful meat, cheese, and fresh seafood items available in the markets. For our tastings, we sampled arancini (fried rice balls), Sicilian pizza, panelle (fried chickpea fritters), and more.
One of our stops was at Taverna Azzurra in La Vucciria Market where we hung out with the locals while enjoying local cheese, Palermo pizza, and Sangue (means blood), a traditional Palermo wine that is strong (like Marsala) and sweet (like Zibibbo).
Street food tip: Be adventurous! I was encouraged to try a Palermo specialty — pane con le milza (veal spleen sandwich). Right before I took my first bit, I also learned that the filling contained not only spleen, but some pieces of lung and trachea! I was proud of myself for trying it and the taste was fine, but I don’t think I’d eat it again.
Everywhere we looked, there were compelling scenes giving us a glimpse into everyday life. A quite memorable Palermo moment for us occurred as we were sitting down for our first tasting of Palermo street food. A funeral procession of dozens of people was making its way along the narrow street directly in front of us. What had been a boisterous environment suddenly turned quiet as the procession passed by having come from a nearby church. We learned that the deceased was a well-respected fishmonger and many were paying tribute. The group stopped in front of his fish market and engaged in a short ceremony before moving on.
Quattro Canti (Four Corners) is a central spot in the historic old city for sightseeing, shopping, and dining. The four curved buildings at each corner of the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda are imposing examples of 17th-century Renaissance architecture of the city.
Stand in the center of the intersection and spin 360 degrees and also look upward to see the unique effect shown below.
From there, take a walk down Via Maqueda from Quattro Canti for shopping and people watching. Or stop in a cafe or gelateria for refreshment.
Not far (just a few minutes walk) from Quattro Canti, is Piazza Bellini.
On the perimeter of the piazza there are historic buildings to visit, including two churches that are on the UNESCO World Heritage list — the red-domed Chiesa di San Cataldo (above) designed with Islamic influences and Chiesa della Martorana (below).
We’ve visited many beautiful churches in other parts of Italy, but I was still in awe of the Byzantine mosaics of Chiesa della Martorana, one of the two UNESCO churches in Piazza Bellini. This 12th-century church was built with the patronage of the Syrian Christian admiral George of Antioch to honor the Virgin Mary for her protection. The church is also known as Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (Church of St. Mary of the Admiral).
Other notable places are Teatro Bellini, Palazzo Pretorio, and the 14th century Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (shown below), a Dominican convent and church with the Ignazio Marabitti fountain in the cloister and a rooftop terrace with views.
Tasty treat tip: Relax in the cloister while enjoying a special pastry made in a bakery located inside.
Fontana Pretoria on Piazza Pretoria
When it was constructed in 1575, Fontana Pretoria was nicknamed the “Fountain of Shame” for its scandalous display of many nude figures. It is very impressive with its 500 separate pieces of marble sculpture. Characteristic of many buildings in Palermo are the ones surrounding the fountain shown in the photo below. It’s easy to imagine yourself stepped back in time.
In the neighborhoods
We walked a lot in the city and enjoyed soaking up the vibe, although we didn’t venture very far afield from the city center. We’re told there are many interesting areas to explore the culture of Palermo more deeply, if you’ve got the time.
While tourists like us made up much of the crowd during the day, at night the bars and clubs open and are bursting with a lively young crowd. Walking back to the hotel from dinner one evening we got a glimpse of the vibrant scene.
In the recently rejuvenated Kalsa district there are many architectural landmarks, churches, museums, and galleries. You’ll also find dining establishments throughout, from simple cafes and bars to traditional formal restaurants.
We really liked hanging out in an area near hotel along Via Principe de Belmonte and the lovely Piazza Florio, a small square and garden adorned with tall palms, for people watching and dining.
Day trip to Mondello
For a change of pace from the hectic pace of the city, Mondello is an affluent beach resort area offering relaxation and vacation fun. In the summer, it is crowded with holiday visitors from all over Italy. You can see in my photos that off-season is a much different, but pleasant situation.
Although the weather was chillier than normal when we visited, it was a pleasure to walk along the promenade and have lunch on the waterfront at Ristorante alle Terrazze in the historic Antico Stabilimento Balneare di Mondello (former bathhouse that was also used as a headquarters for the Germans and Italian fascists during WWII).
Getting there tip: Once outside the city, it is a peaceful and pleasant ride adjacent to a large park much of the way to Mondello. We took a taxi (both ways) for convenience which is about a 20-minute ride, but you can also take the 806 city bus to Mondello — a 35 minute ride.
Places to eat tips:
- Sapori Perduti, Via Principe di Belmonte, 32 — innovative takes of traditional Sicilian dishes using fresh ingredients of the area
- Osteria dei Vespri, Piazza Croce dei Vespri 6 — very popular restaurant featuring seasonal modern dishes made with local ingredients. Excellent wine list, too!
- GigiMangia Ristorante, Via Principe di Belmonte, 104D — delightful dining experience as the owner and chef personally attends to diners offering hospitality and serving local dishes
- Bisso Bistrot, Via Maqueda, 172A — bustling small restaurant located at Quattro Canti serving home-made pastas, salads, and more. Expect to wait in line during peak times.
- Ristorante alle Terrazze, Mondello — lovely restaurant right on the waterfront at Mondello Beach with delicious food and great views
Accommodations tip: Grand Hotel et Des Palmes, Via Roma, 398 — This is an elegant and modern hotel in a great location for leisure and business travelers and the service is attentive and friendly. In the morning, the lounge transforms into a warm and bright space where an excellent and extensive breakfast is served.
Hotel tip: Have a nightcap in the romantic, intimate bar after a day out and about. The mixologist will be glad to prepare a signature cocktail with gold leaf painted on the glass.
Driving tip: Don’t drive in Palermo if you don’t have to. The traffic is notoriously chaotic. You won’t need the car while there anyway. If, like us, you are going to explore more of Sicily by car from Palermo, don’t rent the car within the city of Palermo. We took a taxi from our hotel to the airport rental facility when we were ready to head to our next destination — Agrigento.