If you’re planning a trip to Palermo and are wondering what to do and where to go, your quest is over. Brace yourself – this is a long post.
1. Visit the food markets
The three main markets are Vucciria, Ballaro’ and Capo – all within walking distance from each other in the heart of Palermo. You can venture the markets on your own or join a Street Food tour to make the best out of your time, learn a bit of local history and meet other foodies. Whatever you choose to do, be prepared to experience something unique and to hear a lot of yelling! (Vucciria literally means ‘chaos’ in Sicilian).
One of the best thing about Palermo’s markets is that they never sleep. After sunset, Vucciria and Ballaro’ turn into night-life hubs, where you can enjoy a glass of good house wine for €1, snack on street food and hang out with the locals (and occasionally meet the stray dogs that own the area).
2. Go for a swim
Whether you like sandy beaches or wild rocky cliffs, you won’t have to travel very far from Palermo’s centre to find your spot. You will, however, have to face Palermo’s driving madness or the public transport hell to get there.
Mondello is the closest beach and you can get there with bus 806 from Piazza Sturzo (in the city centre, near Teatro Politeama). You can also drive through the lovely Parco della Favorita or get a taxi. Cycling could be an option, depending on how much you care about your life.
On both sides of Mondello beach, you’ll find some less explored options for rocky beach lovers. I’d recommend going early in the morning or at sunset to fully enjoy the beauty of these places and avoid the crowds.
Capo Gallo is an amazing nature reserve, with crystal clear waters and white rocks. It’s within walking distance from Mondello beach, but it can also be reached by bus. Don’t forget to take food and water with you, as you won’t find restaurants or cafes in these area. Snorkelling gear is also a must.
Addaura is on the opposite side of the coast. More rocky beaches and a somewhat more ‘posh’ location to chill out while drinking a cocktail on a beach chair.
Sferracavallo is a little fishermen’s village a bit further away from Palermo – one of those places where you’ll feel like you’re travelling back in time. The coast alternates stretches of rocky beaches and small cliffs, with boats docked at the pier which add to the decadent atmosphere of this place. Check out Barcarello beach, a very popular location among locals where you can enjoy the best sunset ever. This area is most known for its amazing restaurants on the seafront – definitely worth a go!
3. Enjoy the best seafood at Sferracavallo
4. Visit Palermo Cathedral
5. Watch an opera at Teatro Massimo
You might remember it from the final scenes of the Godfather, or you might have heard of it for being the third largest opera house in Europe (and the first in Italy). Whatever your level of knowledge or interest, the beauty of this place is simply going to blow your mind!
6. Visit Palazzo dei Normanni
Also known as the Royal Palace of Palermo, it was once the seat of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination and is today home to the regional parliament of Sicily. One of the main highlights of the palace is the Palatine Chapel, situated on the ground floor.
7. Have an ice-cream sandwich for breakfast
Or mid-morning snack, or lunch, or dinner… or any time, really! La ‘brioscia col gelato’ is an absolute must when visiting Palermo, but make sure you choose your gelateria wisely. Here’s one trick I find useful when judging the quality of gelato – always look at the colour of pistachio; if it’s too bright or unnaturally green, go somewhere else. If they don’t have pistachio, definitely go somewhere else! Some of the best gelaterie in Palermo include Pasticceria Alba (piazza San Giovanni Bosco, 7), Antico Caffè Spinnato (via Principe di Belmonte, 111) and Antica Gelateria Ilardo (Foro Italico Umberto I, 1), which is also one of the oldest gelaterie in town.
8. Have a pic-nic on the seafront
Just opposite Antica Gelateria Ilardo you’ll find a beautiful park (Foro Italico), where you can enjoy the breeze of the sea while lying down under a palm tree.
9. Go on a Serpotta tour
Once upon a time, Palermo was a place where rich people used to pay innovative artists to make the city a batter place (instead of sniffing cocaine on a yacht…). Serpotta was one of those amazing artists who enriched our churches and oratories with his beautiful stucchi. The Serpotta initerary includes Oratorio di Santa Cita, Oratorio di San Lorenzo and Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico. Very few people know about this itinerary, so you’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful sculptures in absolute silence.
10. Watch an original puppet theatre performance
‘Opera dei Pupi’ is one of the long-lasting Sicilian traditions and Fratelli Cuticchio are mostly responsible for taking this great tradition forward.
The play is a theatrical representation of Frankish romantic poems such as the Song of Roland or Orlando furioso. It is performed in Sicilian dialect, so even if you speak Italian it can be pretty hard to follow. That being said, it’s a spectacular performance and it will engage you on many different levels. There is no script, as the act is mostly improvised, and the 20+ characters are played by only two puppeteers against beautiful hand-painted scenographies. Be prepared for some ‘gruesome’ scenes including knights being sliced in half, hehe.
11. Have an aperitivo
12. Visit le Catacombe
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are a somewhat macabre attraction for horror and history lovers. The place contains a naturally occurring substance that mummifies bodies, making it the perfect location for burials. You’ll find well-preserved dead bodies on shelves and walls. The area is divided into sections for nobility, priests and families. You will also find a perfectly preserved body of a little girl who died in 1982.
13. Take a bus to Monreale
14. Eat pizza in one of the most popular restaurants
15. Take some cannoli with you!