Top 10 Things to Do in Palermo

by Jessica on March 8, 2010

by | March 8th, 2010  

My friends who live in Southern Italy are fond of reminding me what I’m missing by not having made it south of Naples (yet!), and I’m also quite content to have them constantly telling me about how great their part of Italy is. One of my pals in the bottom half of the boot is Cherrye Moore, who, together with her husband, runs a B&B in the Calabrian capital of Catanzaro. Cherrye’s contributing to my ongoing “top 10 things to do in Italy” series with this fabulous article about what to do when you’re in the Sicilian capital city of Palermo.

palermo_topWith its bustling streets and fervent energy, Sicily‘s capital city of Palermo is a medley of medieval buildings, Byzantine palaces and post-war grunge. It lacks Florence’s beauty and Venice’s vibrant colors, but has the unpretentious flair and confidence of a city that has survived centuries of raids, invasions and conquests.

It is this self-assurance that is most endearing about the city and it is why I fell in love.

As is the case in many Italian cities, you could spend months in Palermo and still not experience all of her charms. For those of you with less than a month, I have some recommendations.

Top 10 Things to Do in Palermo (According to Cherrye)

  1. 01viaemanuele_palermoStroll Along Via Vittorio Emanuele
    Although Palermo’s centro storico is one of Europe’s largest, most of the city’s main attractions line Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the two main streets in the city. Start at the Palazzo dei Normanni, the mosaic-filled Norman palace that is home to Sicily’s regional government, and head down Via Vittorio Emanuele towards La Cala. As you walk down the street, you will pass churches and buildings built in distinct Arab, Norman and Byzantine styles, each paying homage to the time it controlled the region. Pay special attention to the statues and fountains called the Quattro Canti, or Four Corners, where Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda intersect.

  2. 02cannoliCrunch on Cannoli
    These deep fried ricotta-filled cones just may be Sicily’s best invention – ever! – but you haven’t tried them until you’ve had them in Palermo. Seriously. The stuff you get in the United States, or even in other regions in Italy, just can’t compare. Schedule your diet appropriately and allow room for a least a few of these Sicilian specialties every day.

  3. 03vino-and-coFill ‘er Up at the Wine Pump
    Sicily is one of Italy’s largest wine producers, so if you go to Palermo and don’t try the wine, don’t whine to me about it. If you plan on staying for a while – or are a heavy drinker – head to Vino & Co in Piazza Marina where you can fill an empty five-liter jug with your choice of red or white wine. Just be sure to plan ahead – no small plastic bottles are allowed.

  4. 04milzaSnack on Street Vendor Milza
    You might be seeing a pattern with the food and wine suggestions here, but Sicily is one of the most famous culinary regions in the world – and well, I like to eat. When I told my friends I was heading to Palermo, they had one recommendation for me – eat milza. Milza, a fried spleen sandwich, is a Palermo specialty and is sold in restaurants and on street corners throughout the city. I didn’t try it – I’m a scared meat eater – but you totally should.

  5. 05duomoIdentify Architectural Styles at Palermo’s Duomo
    Palermo’s Duomo was built in 1184 by the Normans, then added to by the Goths, the Spaniards and an architect from Naples. Standing in front of the Duomo on Via Vittorio Emanuele, you can see the distinct influences of each of these groups and while the styles don’t necessarily blend, they create a magnificent architectural structure that shouldn’t be missed.

  6. 06fountain-of-shame-2Take Pictures at the Fontana Pretoria
    I didn’t do much homework before I went to Palermo, instead choosing to follow the maze of streets, fountains and piazzas where they led. So, you can imagine my surprise at stumbling into a square full of shamefully nude, yet somewhat modest, statues in the Piazza Pretoria. And I wasn’t the only one who was shocked. The Pretoria Fountain, also called the Fountain of Shame, elicited cries from church-goers when it was unveiled in 1575. Apparently, Palermo citizens thought the fountain was disgraceful and were offended by its overpowering presence as they passed it – going and coming – into one of the two churches that share the piazza.

  7. 07viccuria-marketGo Bargain Hunting in the Vucciria Market
    There are three open-air markets in Palermo, but Vucciria is considered by many to be the cream of the shop. At this 700-year-old market, budget-savvy shoppers scour through hordes of Prado handbags, Dulce and Cabbana sunglasses and other knock-off designer clothes, household items, fresh produce, meats, cheese and spices. The casbah-style market runs down Via Roma toward Via Vittorio Emanuele in what is one of the most Arabic sections of the city. It is open Monday-Saturday until 2:00 PM.

  8. 08catacombs_palermoGet Quiet in the Catacombs
    I’ve never been much of a gawk-at-the-dead type of gal, but the Catacombs in Palermo, or the Catacombe dei Cappuccini is one of the most sobering places I’ve been. The catacombs were built in 1533 and housed their first mummified body – one of the monastery’s own priests – in 1599. Between the 17th and 19th Centuries, wealthy Palermitani filled the catacombs with the bodies of their privileged loved ones. The result is a basement full of 8,000 of the wealthiest deceased dressed in their finest clothes, hats and lace and laid in rows beneath the church. The most famous addition to the catacombs is a two-year-old girl named Rosalia Lombardo who passed away in 1920. She was embalmed with a mysterious method that has preserved her body and she still looks, 90 years after her death, as if she is just sleeping.

  9. 09monrealeduomoTake a Bus to Monreale
    Just a 30-minute bus ride from the Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo, Monreale towers over the city and offers panoramic views of the Conca d’Oro (the Golden Shell). The main attraction is the 12th Century Norman-Arab cathedral that has 130 individual mosaic scenes, covering more than 6,000 square meters. Plan time to tour the cloisters and the royal tombs, where Italy’s King William I and II are entombed, along with the heart of King Louis IV of France.

  10. 10teatro-massimoRe-Enact the Godfather at Teatro Massimo
    The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo is recognized by Godfather fans as the setting of the final scenes of the famous trilogy… You know, the stairs where Mary died. If The Godfather is not your thing, this colossal theatre, the largest in Italy and third largest in Europe, is still worth a visit. Guided tours are available Tuesday-Sunday for €5.00.

You might have noticed some important museums, churches and palazzi were omitted from the list, and chances are they are pretty spectacular. The thing is, this is a Top 10 list, and let’s face it – Palermo offers much more than ten highlights. You can get the scoop on what to see in their tourism brochure, but if you go to Palermo, you should experience the city – not just see the sights. Walk around, feel the energy and get lost on the side streets.

And above all else – eat. And enjoy.

>> Need a place to stay in the city? Here are some Palermo hostels and cheap hotels in Palermo to choose from.

>> Editor’s Note: I love all of Cherrye’s suggestions for what to do in Palermo, and as a soccer fan I can’t help but notice the distinct lack of “going to a soccer game” here! Palermo is home to one of the teams that’s been a fixture in Serie A for a few years now, and they also happen to be manly enough to have pink as their uniform color. Want to check them out? Learn more at the Citta di Palermo blog.


cherrye_biopic_small

Cherrye Moore is a southern Italy travel consultant and freelance writer living in Catanzaro, Italy. She has contributed to the DK Eyewitness Guide and is the Lamezia (Calabria) Destination writer for easyJet Traveller. You can visit her blog My Bella Vita for more information on traveling to southern Italy.


photo credits: night photo at top by Netpatxi, Quattro Canti on Via Vittorio Emanuele by David Locke, catacombs by Giovy.it, Duomo at Monreale by Allie_Caulfield – all the rest by Cherrye Moore and may not be used without permission


{ 13 comments }

Melanie March 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm
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Love it!

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Marion March 9, 2010 at 7:20 am
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Thanks for the tips! I’ve never been to Sicily, but I’m planning to visit Palermo next summer and want to do all the interesting things mentioned in this blog post… except eating ‘milza’ sandwiches… :D

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Karen (South of Rome) March 9, 2010 at 11:57 am
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Ok- now you have to go to CATANIA!!!! Great job Cherrye! And Jess, you know she’s right… you must go south of Naples ;)

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Keith March 12, 2010 at 7:43 am
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You forgot one very important Sicilian delicacy, and that is panelle :)

I ate milza, and no one could (or perhaps no one WOULD) tell me what it was in English.

It was very good! :)

I miss Palermo already…

Great article!

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squeeze33 March 18, 2010 at 8:28 am
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Milza is SPLEEN :) the original name is “pani ca meusa” (pah-nee ka me-U-za”. I have never eaten that, but I wanna try :)

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Bill Davis March 21, 2010 at 6:35 pm
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Southern Italy is great. I lived in Napoli (Naples) for a couple of years in the ’70′s. It was great. The Amalfi Drive, Paestum, Herculeum, Pozzuoli, Pompei, Ischia, Capri; you could go on for hours. However it is not always fun and games. We circled Sicily a few years back. Unfortunately it was Holy Week and the already most crowded area in this already overcrowded country was totally overwhelmed. Believe me, it was not a pretty sight. After we finally got the last room in Palermo, we had a great meal and the next morning when we were debating whether to stay another couple of nights or not at this run down location, the question was settled by the front desk clerk. He innocently asked, “If you are going out, do mind if this nice couple showers in your room while you are gone? Their shower is broken.” We promptly said, “Just wait a little bit, we are checking out now!” A few days later, Sienna seemed deserted by comparison.

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Margaret Cowan March 26, 2010 at 11:35 am
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For markets I loved the Porta Carini market that almost felt like a souk with its narrow, shaded streets, with colour bursting out at all the simple stands, a wide range of people and activity and some great street food at a cafe with a basic picnic patio where I watched the passing parade.

I also enjoyed browsing around the Piazza Bellaro wmarket here I ate a great arancino as I stood at the cafe entrance in the shade.

At the Gallery of Modern Art I looked at Siclian paintings from about 1800s on and understood more about Sicilians’ way of life over the years, especially in the drier, poorer parts.

With the noise and too much walking on cement sidewalks, three days was enough for one go, but I’d like to go back and explore some more!

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Marion Cerrato April 6, 2010 at 3:59 am
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@Margaret : Thanks for these tips!

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Maryann May 31, 2010 at 2:50 am
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which is the best city in Italy to get to Palermo and which way, ie ferry, air, etc. is the best. Do we need a car in Palermo and what is the minium number to stay to get a good overview of the area?

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Jessica May 31, 2010 at 2:31 pm
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Hi, Maryann:

There are lots of ways to get to Palermo – and the best way depends in part on where you’re coming from. If you’re coming from far enough away, you might want to fly there. Here are the budget airlines that fly to Sicily:

http://www.italylogue.com/planning-a-trip/budget-airlines-that-fly-to-sicily.html

I think if you’re planning to stay only in Palermo you might not need a car, but if you want to explore more of the countryside around the city then you probably want to have a car at your disposal. And how many days to stay is an almost impossible question to answer – it depends on what you want to see and do while you’re in Sicily.

Ciao,
Jessica

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hom dep November 21, 2010 at 10:39 pm
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Hello,

First of Thank You very much for writing this article about Palermo.

I am coming there on Dec 19 during my 12 days RCL cruise and this will be our first stop from Barcelona. I will be there from 7 am to 4 pm (needs to be in boat) with 2 kids.

Do you have any suggestion or advice how we should plan to see things around Palermo.

Thanks again for sharing this on your blog. I really appreciate it.

Thanks
HD

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Jessica November 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm
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So you have only that one day in Palermo? I’d suggest getting into the historic center as quickly as possible and spending all your time there. You can explore the markets, churches, and museums at your leisure, and if you’re interested you can check with the tourism office about doing a guided tour (I assume your cruise will have guided tour options you could sign up for as well).

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Stan Bozarth January 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm
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Palermo is an interesting place. I think people need to understand the unemployment is very high…around 29% I think…and there are real problems in Palermo with garbage. Everywhere! That said we met some very nice folks and enjoyed poking around.

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