Cramming Sicily’s most fascinating city into three days is no easy feat. Use this essential guide to Palermo, Italy to experience and taste the best of it.
Spirited and energetic with a tough underbelly, the city of Palermo feels like nowhere else on Sicily. Its closest cousin on the Italian mainland may be Naples – another place that has shrugged off a turbulent past to reveal its beauty to visitors from around the world.
As a city by the sea with distinct neighborhoods both gritty and pretty, it has fine food and lovely beaches within reaching distance. This three-day guide is designed to give you the full flavor of the city. Whether it’s palazzos, piazza or panelle, it’s easy to love Palermo.
Day One: Churches, Chapels, and Opera
Dive into Palermo’s complex and fascinating history straight away. You’re in a city that has been owned not just by Sicilians, but also by Arab, Spanish, and French invaders, all of whom have left their mark. You can see it as you wander from street to street as the varied architecture tells stories of tumultuous times.
This exciting history is very well known at the Cattedrale di Palermo, a basilica-turned-mosque-turned-church. The building as you see now was finished in 1185, although subsequent rulers didn’t agree that it was complete. There were further post-Norman tweaks made over the next half a millennium. It may not have the stunningly preserved interior of the nearby cathedral at Monreale, but the sense of scale, plus the Norman tombs and 15th-century portico will stay with you as a gorgeous emblem of Sicilian history.
Break for lunch at Osteria Ballaro on Via Calascibetta. This welcoming place caters well for visitors, including those with food intolerances, and their take on street food classics like octopus balls with mint, seafood platters, and lamb stigghiola are all hearty and delicious.
Back on the trail, it’s time to see one of the city’s jewels: The Palazzo dei Normanni. It’s another patchwork quilt of a building, erected first in the 9th century and then adapted by the Normans who added a chapel in 1130. The Palatine Chapel, as it’s known, is the highlight, with golden mosaics that glow in the dim chapel light. The biblical scenes are depicted with skill and effervescence, striking awe into the crowds of visitors.
If you haven’t got plans for the evening and you’re a fan of classical music, book ahead at the Teatro Massimo. It’s an opera house of international repute, the largest in Italy and one that’s known for featuring in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films. The lavish interior makes a tour of the interior a pleasure. From the roof you can see a sparkling panorama of the city, day or night.
Day Two: Markets and The Inquisition
If you’re a very early riser, you can head to one of the city’s markets at the crack of dawn since they’ll already be in full swing. If not, don’t worry – they’re busy and bustling until the afternoon.
Choose from the Ballaro, Borgo Vecchio, Capo, or La Vucciria. Each has their own distinctive flavor and specialties. La Vucciria is probably the biggest and noisiest, with seafood and shellfish glistening on tables in a riot of color. You’ll need to get there early to pick up the absolute freshest produce, but come later to see stalls groaning with fresh vegetables, olives, cheese, bread, sun-dried tomatoes, and fragrant herbs. Haggling is expected, so don’t be shy.
If all that fresh produce has given you an appetite, you can sample some of the sizzling street food on offer all over the market and its fringes, or head for a local restaurant, known as a trattoria. If the former appeals, look out for the risotto rice balls, arancini, the chickpea fritters called panelle, and Sicily’s own pizza, sfincione.
For a glimpse of a less celebrated part of Palermo’s past, you’ll need to venture into the basement of the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri. Here you’ll find the Museum of the Holy Inquisition, on the site where hundreds of prisoners were held between 1605 and 1782.
Drawings by some of the prisoners were discovered at the start of the 20th century, and restoration work at the beginning of the 21st uncovered further evidence of archeological importance. Take a guided tour to hear the fascinating and dark history of a bright and shining city.
Day Three: The Ancient and Modern
Palermo isn’t just chapels and palaces – it has some excellent galleries, too. The Palazzo Abatellis houses the best in the city: The Galleria Regionalle della Sicilia. As the name suggests, its focus is on work by artists from the island from medieval art through to the 18th century.
From here, head to Piazza Olivella and the Museo Archeologico Regionale. Refurbishments have allowed the incredible richness to be unveiled in fresh splendor. It’s a treasure trove of Roman and Greek artifacts, including pottery, sarcophagi, temple friezes, and gargantuan anchors with heavy rust from sunken vessels.
Despite being located in a 15th-century palazzo, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna on Via Sant’Anna drags you back into the modern world. The gallery is focused on Sicilian works and organized thematically, with enthralling exhibitions and guided tours available if arranged in advance.
It’s your last evening, so ensure you leave the city with a taste of Sicily tingling your taste buds. Close by Teatro Massimo, the Ristorante Ferro on Piazza Sant’Onofrio gives traditional Sicilian classics a modern twist. Sea bass is cooked in a salt crust to retain its moisture and flavor, while creamy risotto is pepped up with sparkling wine. It’s the perfect finish to end three perfect days.
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