I found myself in Palermo, Italy for the first time by accident. A young backpacker, I’d boarded the wrong train, finding myself bound for the most southern point of the Italian “boot”.
As the train pulled into Palermo’s central station, I plotted my way out, checking schedules for the next train north. Was there anything in Palermo that was worth sticking around for? I’d never heard other backpackers mention it, and the only thing I knew about the city was its history as an epicenter for Sicilian Mafia.
As fate would have it, this would not be my last time in Palermo. I fell in love with a Sicilian-Canadian, and now Palermo is a regular stop on our family visits. With every trip, I fall more in love with Palermo’s unique character. The gateway city to the rest of Sicily, it is the Sicilian capital of culture, food, architecture and history, it’s the centre of Sicilian government, as well as the islands largest port. With low tourism rates (in comparison to the rest of Italy), Palermo offers an Italian experience like no other, free of long line-ups and crowded cathedrals.
Here are five reasons why Palermo should be on your travel bucket list.
1. Fascinating history
Palermo was founded in 8th century BC, so it goes without saying that the city has a long and vibrant history characterized by Arab and Norman rule, immigration, and Mafia presence. Since the early 2000s, an Anti-Mafia movement has developed, and you will see evidence of this in Palermo. Intrepid tours that visit Palermo include a walking tour with a local guide, who will tell you more about this movement.
Another example of Palermo’s fascinating history is the Capuchin Catacombs, which date back to 1599 and serve as an “open” cemetery, which shows the history of mummification in Sicily. The Capuchin Catacombs initially housed only the bodies of Friars, but from the 1700s on, those of esteem (i.e. the rich) could buy their place in the catacombs. Mummification alongside the Friars was a symbol of status and dignity reserved for the wealthy. Today, the catacombs are a worthy tourist destination, particularly macabre compared to others around Europe.
2. Sicilian food
Sicily is famous for its distinctive food. While Italian staples such as pasta and pizza are readily available, a visit to Sicily isn’t complete without arancini, cannoli and granita. All coffee shops and bakeries sell arancini, and there are many different types, so grab a couple throughout your stay. Cannoli are a decadent staple: tube-shaped shells of pastry dough, with a creamy ricotta filling. Granita is very distinctively Sicilian. It is a semi-frozen desert made of ice and sugar, and is often flavoured with local ingredients, like fresh lemons.
3. Bustling markets
Palermo is famous for its historic outdoor street markets. These markets encompass the traditions of Sicilian people. Despite their age, these markets are busy every day as locals stop by for their groceries and goods. There are four historic markets, each devoted to a different product.
Two of these markets have retained their historicity well. Ballarò is the largest and oldest market in Palermo. It is loud, smelly, busy and sells everything from fish to odds and ends. Capo is a major trading market for meat and vegetables, and is a great spot to buy fresh bread and visit a salumeria (deli). In either of these markets you can find a small street patio and enjoy a drink while watching the action. It is best to visit early in the morning, as the markets close up in the early afternoon.
Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio used to sell Sicilian cuisine, but are no longer as active as they used to be. Instead, both markets have evolved into popular nightlife spots, and are worth visiting in the evening!
4. Gorgeous architecture
Palermo is filled with gorgeous architecture, most of which was done in Arab-Norman style. Because historically, Palermo was the capital of Sicily under both the Arabs and Normans, it is there that this combined style was created. Byzantine mosaics are a characteristic of this style, so you will find such mosaics in most cathedrals. The two most notable cathedrals of Palermo are the Cathedrale of Monreale (1174), and Cattedrale di Palermo (1185). A visit to Palermo must also include the Quattro Canti, a Baroque square which was built in the early 1600s. This piazza is octagonal, made up of four facades. Nearby Quattro Canti is the Fontana della Vergogna. This monumental fountain was built in Florence, but transferred to Palermo in 1574.
5. Budget friendly!
The less touristic nature of Palermo has kept the city affordable in comparison to other Italian cities. In Palermo, you’ll enjoy delicious pastas for as little as 6 euros, Aperol spritzes (make sure you try this delicious cocktail!) for 4 euros, and 2-euro beers. Many of the city’s attractions, such as cathedrals and monuments, are free to enter. Moreover, Palermo is a walkable city, meaning you will save your transport budget!
Palermo is a burgeoning destination in Italy for good reason. This underrated city is the perfect place to experience authentic Sicilian cuisine and culture, and learn about the incredible history of an ancient city.
Interested in checking out Palermo? You can on these small group adventures with Intrepid!