Considering all of the places we’d been on this trip prior to arriving in Italy, not having done any research on somewhere we’d be staying was beginning to become the norm.
Twelve months of being on the road had already passed when we zipped by train from Barcelona, across part of France and into Italy. We were feeling exhausted, a little burned out from being in a new place every two or three days, and each town and city was beginning to blend.
Simply put, I couldn’t be bothered researching anything about where we were heading. We’d book somewhere to stay, drop our bags, then walk and explore. Sometimes I wanted to just stay in the room all day and do nothing, but when I peered out the window I was tempted by what was outside.
Case in point with Palermo, Sicily. There wasn’t one thing that I knew about this town prior to arrival, and other than using booking.com to find a room for our three nights, we learned about everything else when we went online up in the B&B.
Time to discover yet another city.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele
Quattro Canti – Piazza Vigliena
Something you can’t avoid in Palermo is the variety of architectural styles; clear evidence of the region’s mixed history and melding of Western, Arabic and Norman cultures. Plus a few others.
Head to the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele in Vecchio Centro (Old Town) where the corners of four 18th century baroque palaces form Quattro Canti – also known as Piazza Vigliena.
The façades may be faded and grotty from decades of car pollution, but the charm and grandiosity is still very present. Each corner is adorned with fountains and statues depicting the four seasons, and when the sun strikes the façades, they have the most beautiful warm glow.
Chiesa Di San Domenico
It’s difficult to ignore the churches and cathedrals around the city, and in typical Palermo fashion, their styles cover Byzantine, Gothic, Norman, Arab and Baroque.
When I drew the window shutters where we stayed I was amazed at the view we had of Chiesa Di San Domenico. This Baroque stunner was built in 1727 and is more impressive outside than it it is in.
Another Baroque beauty is Chiesa Di Sant’Anna la Misericoria. The church was built in 1632, although the current façade replaced the previous one which collapsed after an earthquake in 1726.
Chiesa Di Sant’Anna la Misericoria
Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta
Chiesa Del Santissimo Salvatore
One of the most photographed, and visited, would have to be Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta. This piece of religious architecture has been touched by the hands of many-an-era.
Arab, Baroque, Byzantine, Gothic, Norman, Renaissance, Romanesque and Swabian architectural styles can all be seen in this sprawling cathedral. Hand over €5 for a lofty view from the roof, or pay an all-inclusive €7 and you get to see the treasury, crypt and tombs as well.
For an elevated view towards the cathedral and the rest of the city, nearby Chiesa Del Santissimo Salvatore has a dome worth climbing up to. If you’re not into tour groups or getting stuck behind dawdlers, then forego the main cathedral and do this one instead.
€2.50 gets you access to the dome and part of the roof terrace, and as you can see in the pics above and below, the views are bang on.
Catacombe Dei Cappuccini – Piazza Cappuccini, 1
I see dead people.
Yes, you too can quite literally get up close to more than 8000 fully dressed corpses, plus 1252 mummies, lined up against walls at the Catacombe dei Cappuccini.
It all began as a friar’s burial place in the 16th century, but soon after, the catacombs of the Capuchin monastery became a place to rest for those that could afford the rent.
The halls seem to go on forever, each categorised by gender, children, virgins and so on. Photography is prohibited, but, well, almost everyone you see is pulling out their cell phones despite the security cameras peering down from the ceiling.
Entry is €3.
Market-goers need to head to Albergheria, a slightly shabby neighbourhood that’s home to the city’s oldest Arab-style market – Mercato di Ballarò.
The best time to go is between 9am and 7pm Mon-Sat, or until 1pm on Sunday, when it’s in full swing and an absolute riot of sights, sounds and smells.
Aside from the usual fresh fruit and veg, there’s a plethora of cold meats and cheese, all kinds of seafood, live snails and delicious deli items like sun-dried tomatoes and divine baked ricotta.
There are many cafés and fast food stalls along the market streets, so grabbing a cheap bite is easy enough to do. We stopped at the tiny Al Negretto for a pick-me-up cannoli and super strong espresso.
Mercato di Ballarò – Via Ballarò, 1
Right on our doorstep was Via Maccheronai, a narrow passage linking Piazza Caracciolo and Piazza San Domenico. During the day it’s lined with stalls selling bric-a-brac, books and household items, plus a handful of stores, cafés, bars and restaurants.
There’s plenty to look at and be tempted to buy, or it’s easy enough to plonk down and enjoy a morning pastry and espresso. Lucchese café on Piazza San Domenico was our breakfast spot each day, but the fab little La Bottega del Principe on Via Maccheronai also has some great pastries, breads and cakes.
A few doors away is Insalateria, a very friendly eatery offering lots of locals faves. I tried the local specialty of pasta con le sarde (8), a divine dish that you see on many trattoria menus in Palermo. There’s the obvious sardines in that glorious sauce, plus tomato, fennel, raisins and pine nuts.
La Bottega del Principe – Via Maccherronai, 37
Pasta con sarde at Insalateria – Via Maccherronai, 20
Another place right on our doorstep was La Vucciria, one of the most lively places in the city. Many years ago it was a bustling marketplace, much like what’s depicted in the La Vucciria painting by Renato Guttuso, done in 1974.
Today there’s a few seafood vendors on Piazza Caracciolo, a quiet spot during the day, but come the evening the piazza transforms entirely.
Street food peddlers set up shop in the piazza, along with illegally placed seating, and offer aperitif to all that visit. Tables display a tempting array of seafoods and meats that are grilled or deep-fried to order.
Take a seat wherever you can and enjoy it with a vino or aperol spritz. The atmosphere is electric with chatter, music, yelling and delicious smells from plumes of smoke billowing from the char-grills.
Le Tabarin – Via Chiavettieri, 7
Where else did we eat in Palermo?
It may not be the busiest place at lunch time, but eating alfresco on Via Chiavettieri at Le Tabarin is a nice enough exercise. Something tells me this is a busy strip at aperitif hour. We chowed on a tasty anciova (anchovy, tomato, toasted crumbs spaghetti; 5) and a standard capricciosa salad. The rest of the menu covers the usuals of antipasti, crostone and primi.
Then there’s Trattoria Ferro di Cavallo just off Via Roma where, if you don’t get in early, you’ll have to wait or go with your plan b. This family-run trattoria has been going at it since the 1940s and offers well-priced local fare that’s heavy in seafood and meat.
Start with an antipasti of panelle (chickpea fritters), then go for spada e melenzana (swordfish & aubergine). Or dive straight into a delicious bowl of nero di seppia (spaghetti, squid, cuttlefish in ink; 6).
Trattoria Ferro di Cavallo – Via Venezia, 20
The food around train and bus stations is generally of the same ilk, and it’s no different to what you find near Palermo’s main bus depot. Fast food, all the way.
Booking our ongoing travel at the depot also involved a fast food lunch, though not at any international chain as you may expect. This hole in the wall, called Frank Daniel’s, pumps out cheap panini, burgers and kebabs, and thanks to having only a few tables, it’s always busy.
Hand over €4.50 and you can enjoy the porchetta – a warm roll filled with golden fries, slices of porchetta and mayo. You even get more fries on the side and a fizzy sweet drink. Pay an extra fifty cents and you get a beer instead of the soft drink. That sandwich was actually really good!
Frank Daniel’s – Corso dei Mille, 79