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.
With 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)
- Stroll 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.
- Crunch 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.
- Fill ‘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.
- Snack 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.
- Identify 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.
- Take 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.
- Go 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.
- Get 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.
- Take 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.
- Re-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.
>> 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 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