On our last trip to Italy, we went to Naples and around it, but we wanted to get to know Sicily, as well. We decided for the largest city, Palermo, and for the western Sicily. A mistake, if you ask me since there are more interesting places to see on the eastern coast: Syracuse, Messina, Taormina, Mount Etna. My advice is to take more time to wander around Sicily (we had only 3-4 days) and not just concentrate on one part of it.
How to get to Palermo (from Naples)
The biggest problem in our planning was how to get there. We explored every option: bus, train, boat, and plane. The overnight ferry seems like the most interesting idea, but it's the most expensive one (about 100€ for a return trip). Overnight journey with a bus or train lasts for 11h and it's not comfortable at all. However, traveling by bus is the cheapest option (about 30€ for a one-way ticket). The overnight train costs about 40-50€ for a one-way ticket. The plane ticket costs 60€ both ways.
Eventually, we decided to fly with Volotea company. It was the most practical option. Less than an hour on a plane and we'll be there. The flight was around 6 a.m. and we had to take the taxi to Naples airport (almost 20€) because there aren't public buses that early in the morning. We waited in a long line to get on the plane.
When we finally got there, the plane was small and scary. During the flight, you could hear every change in the motor functions. At times, it seemed that the motor is stopping. But I wasn't scared. Every passenger except for as us and few other tourists was a big muscular Italian in a leather jacket adorned with all kinds of gold (golden rings, necklaces, etc.). The plane crew had to take care of Cosa Nostra members, right?
Where to stay
We safely got off the plane in Palermo, where it was raining. 🙁 The train station at the airport is called Punta Raisi (like the song from the Italian ska band „Talco“!) and with the 45-min ride, you'll get to Palermo Central Station. The one-way train ticket costs about 6€. We were located near the train station, in B&B Royal Palermo (Via Oreto 110).
The accommodation was not so royal, but it was decent and for a good price (30€ for a room per night). You have to respect their check-in time (2 or 3 p.m.) because, in the morning, there's nobody there. The owner looked pretty much like the people on the plane, but he was pleasant and talkable (in Italian and a bit of English). The room was decent and clean, the bathroom as well. The best thing about our accommodation was the breakfast (included in price). A real buffet, but with the sweet option only. There were different croissants, cookies, toast with jam, etc. And a coffee machine, of course.
Most people on booking reviews complained about the neighborhood. Yes, it is a dirty neighborhood full of immigrants (mostly Pakistanis and African), but you can always expect something similar near Central Station in any city. However, it's completely safe to walk the streets.
What to see in Palermo
1) The Quattro Canti Square
The Quattro Canti (Four Corners) Square is a main baroque square in Palermo. You can find it at the end of two busiest streets in the city, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele. The square was built at the beginning of the 17th century with the financial help of the Spanish Viceroy de Villena y Ascalon. It was called Villena Square until it required its today's name in the 18th century.
Quattro Canti Square is surrounded by four richly decorated baroque palaces. In front of every palace, there is a fountain representing 4 rivers that flew through the city: Papireto, Kemonia, Oreto, and Pannaria. Today, the fountains serve as a stage for Gypsies playing on accordion and other local musicians. Above the fountains, there are 4 baroque statues: Eolo, Venus, Ceres, and Bacchus, that represent 4 seasons. On top of the facades, the statues of Spanish rulers are placed.
With its image of more of an intersection of two streets surrounded by palaces, Quattro Canti Square is a unique place in Sicily.
2) Pretoria Fountain
At first, I was surprised that the fountain is listed among the city's attractions. But it is, indeed, a magnificent fountain decorated with statues of mythological creatures and animals.
The fountain was made by Francesco Camilliani in the 16th century. It belonged to don Luigi of Toledo, who put it in his garden in Florence. When the owner fell into depts, he sold it to the Palermo's parliament. They decided to place it in front of the Pretoria palace, thus the name.
The fountain embellishes the square that once was called the Square of Shame (the square was empty with the exception of only a few naked statues) since the end of the 16th century. Nowadays, many tourists come to rest on the stone stairs next to the fountain and admire its beauty. I contemplated the fountain in order to recognize the animal statues. 😉
3) The Cathedral
The next day of my Palermo trip was reserved for the Norman heritage of the city. Normans ruled Sicily between 1130 and 1194 and left their mark on many important buildings in Palermo: palaces, churches, bridge, and cathedral. Norman Palermo is listed on UNESCO heritage site, as well as the cathedrals in other two Sicilian cities, Monreale and Cefalú.
The Cathedral is an example of Arab-Norman architectural style with its recognizable warm yellow color, geometric patterns, ziggurats, maiolica cupolas, and blind arches. The entrance to the cathedral is free. However, if you want to visit royal Norman tombs and crypt, the treasury or enjoy the panoramic view of the city from the cathedral's roof, you'll have to pay 8€ for an integrated ticket.
4) Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni)
Another Norman sight in Palermo is the Royal Palace. Norman Palace is the oldest royal residence in Europe, built in the 11th century when Normans conquered Sicily and established here their kingdom. They chose the palace for their seat.
Later, in the 12th century, King Roger II added Cappella Palatina to the building, a unique example of Arab-Norman-Byzantine architectural style. Cappella Palatina is thoroughly decorated basilica for the royal family. You can admire the details of its wooden painted roof, marvelous Byzantine mosaics, and marble incrustations. It's definitely a must-visit place when you're in Palermo!
I wanted to see only the Cappella Palatina, but that wasn't possible. You have to buy an integrated ticket for 10/12€ (with or without the royal gardens) and visit the whole complex. At the time, many chambers were closed due to the restoration works, but I could see an exhibition about Saint Rosalia, a patron saint of the city.
5) San Giovanni degli Eremiti church
In my opinion, this church is the most interesting remain of Arab-Norman architecture in Palermo. San Giovanni degli Eremiti was actually a Benedictine monastery complex in the Norman period during the reign of Roger II of Sicily (at the beginning of the 12th century). The most recognizable mark of the church is its 5 red domes, an Arabic element, which was restored in the 19th century.
The interior of the church is naked, without any decorations, but it can still offer an interesting atmosphere. While walking around the church and the cloister, populated by pigeons, you'll find inexplicable peace and mystery. At least I did. You can continue your walk in the small romantic monastery garden, full with palms, olives, citrus trees and examples of exotic oriental fauna.
The entrance fee to San Giovanni degli Eremiti is 6€. It includes the church, the garden and the remains of the monastery. However, if you want to see the famous red domes from above and take a photo without palm trees getting in your way, you'll need to enter the Church of San Giuseppe Cafasso right next door. For 2€, you can climb the bell tower of the church. They'll also give you a helmet to protect you from bumping your head against the bells. From above, you'll have an unfettered view of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, as well as the cathedral and the Norman Palace.
6) Teatro Massimo
Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe. But the theater owes his fame to the „The Godfather“ movie, whose third part was filmed here. Teatro Massimo was built in the late 19th century by the Italian architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile and his son. Its exterior is built in the Neoclassical style with elements of Greek temples and its interior in the late-Renaissance style. The theater's auditorium can take up to 1400 people.
You can choose a play from the theater's program and spend a nice evening in the largest Italian theater. On Piazza Verdi, where Teatro Massimo is located, there are many restaurants with local specialties where you can have dinner or just go for a drink before or after the play.
7) The seacoast and the harbor
I wanted to see more of Palermo than the center, so I walked to the seacoast. I passed the rich tropical Botanical garden. The seaside is a nice promenade from where you can observe ships sailing from the harbor, couples holding hands, tourists taking photos or relaxing on the stone colorful benches and locals playing football on the grassland. The grassland is called Foro Italico and it was a popular leisure destination of the upper class in the 17th and the 18th century. So, take your better half and go for a romantic walk. 🙂
What and where to eat
When we first came to Palermo, we started looking for a place to have lunch. Mission impossible. We heard and read about many Sicilian specialties: arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat and other fillings), pasta con le sarde, sardines filled with anchovy, breadcrumbs and pine nuts, etc. A lot of fish and seafood that I adore.
But a restaurant was nowhere to be found. At least not the one that was open. Later we discovered that many of the restaurants in Palermo open only in the evening, after 7, 8 p.m.
The first day, we looked for a restaurant around Via Calascibetta, from Via Roma towards the seaside, but couldn't find anything open.
Most of the restaurants are located on the other side of Via Vittorio Emanuele in the neighborhood Castellammare (for example, Ferro di Cavallo) and on the small picturesque square with nicely decorated terraces outside (Osteria Mangia e Bevi, I Grilli Downtown). However, those restaurants were full and you had to have a reservation to enter.
On our next day, I found many typical Sicilian restaurants and restaurants with fish and seafood around Piazza Verdi, where Teatro Massimo stands.
2) Street food
Sicily is known for its street food, but the only stand with street food that I found was in Via Maqueda near Teatro Massimo. The stand was always busy and the waiter a bit rude, but you could try different street food for only 2-2,50€ each. They had arancini, filled sardines served with lemon, Mediterranean sand smelts, pane con milza (bread with veal spleen) and different types of sandwiches and burgers.
3) Markets (Mercato Ballaro, Vucciria, and Capo)
Another popular spot in Palermo are markets, which sell fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as many kinds of fish and seafood. There are three markets in the city: Mercato Ballaro, Vucciria, and Mercato di Capo.
Eventually, we gave up from searching for restaurants and I decided to go to the nearest market, Mercato Ballaro, and prepare us lunch at home. There was supposed to be street food, as well, on the markets, but I didn't see any stand. Instead, I bought half a kilo of mixed seafood (already cooked), some onions and potato and made us a salad. We also had half a kilo of strawberries for dessert. Everything cost less than 9€! I also had a chat about local football clubs with the vendors.
So, if you don't find a restaurant in Palermo, you can always find some food in lively city markets. You'll also be closer to a true Sicilian if you cook home for your friends and loved ones.
On our first day, instead of a restaurant, we found a nice bistro on Piazza Borsa called Talè. We sat outside on a sunny terrace, drank good Italian coffee and we treated ourselves with Aperol Spritz. They also offer something to bite: pasta with artichokes, grilled vegetables, sandwiches, etc. A nice place for brunch and a drink.
Sicilians are also famous for their sweets. The most popular one is cannolo, a tube-shaped pastry filled with creamy ricotta filling and adorned with fresh fruits. It's the perfect mix of warm pastry and cold, almost ice-creamy filling. Cannoli were traditional dish during the Carnival season, but they quickly become popular and served all year round.
I wanted to try one, so I chose a café I Cucci on the corner of Vittorio Emanuele street and Vicolo Castelnuovo. It was a bit expensive (cannolo and cappuccino for 8€), but it was the city center. However, it was the best-looking cannolo that I saw in the town and the most delicious one.
What to buy
It's time to buy a gift for your friends back home. The souvenir shops are mostly concentrated in Via Vittorio Emanuele (between the Quatro Canti Square and the Cathedral) and in Via Maqueda (between the Quatro Canti Square and Teatro Massimo). But, what is a typical Sicilian souvenir?
1) Moorish head (Testa di Moro)
The souvenirs that we saw all around Palermo, in every souvenir shop, are little (or not so little) ceramic Moorish heads (Teste di Moro). They are made in the so-called „maiolica“ style, although the Arabs were the ones who taught Sicilians the techniques of making and adorning this beautiful and colorful ceramic pieces.
There is a legend connected with Moorish heads. A beautiful young Sicilian girl was watering her plants on the balcony when a Moorish merchant passed by. He saw her and immediately fell in love with her. They lived their happy romance until she found out that the Moor had a wife and kids in his own country. She was crazy with jealousy. She was looking for a way to punish him and, at the same time, keep him to herself.
One day, she cut his head off and used it as a vase for her plants. In a short time, her plants grew big, healthy and green. Anyone who passed by her balcony was jealous of her rich „garden“ and wanted to have the same. This is how Sicilians started to make ceramic Moorish heads, which they used as vases and decorations for their balconies.
Today, there are many differently painted Moorish head ceramics, but the most common ones represent a black Moorish head and the head of a beautiful girl. Just like the characters in the legend...
2) Caltagirone ceramics
Another similar souvenir that you could bring home from Sicily are the famous ceramic works of art from Caltagirone, a small baroque town in the center of the island. You can buy a vase, plates, mugs and other decorative objects in typical Sicilian colors (green representing the nature and yellow representing the sun) with acanthus leaf motives.
An interesting ceramic decorative object is something that looks like a grape branch on a pedestal or a bush. I didn't find the explanation what it is, but you'll see it everywhere – on people's dining tables, decorating the shelves or entrances to the gardens, as well as in the public parks (for example, the Royal Gardens). I saw them later in Capri, as well.
3) Coffa bags
The whole world probably knows coffa bags through the collection that Dolce & Gabbana promoted in the summer of 2016. However, the typical coffa bag was originally a straw basket painted in bright colors, that Sicilian women wore when they went to a market. I find the coffa bag a bit kitschy, but if you follow fashion trends, you should definitely buy one at its birthplace, Sicily. Hey, even Melania Trump is wearing it!
4) Mafia and „The Godfather“
We all know that Sicily is home of a mafia organization Cosa Nostra. Well, the last, but not least souvenir that you can find is Sicily are magnets, postcards, and mugs with people representing mafia bosses and the characters from the movie „The Godfather“, filmed in Palermo's Teatro Massimo.