Get ready Palermo is about to have its moment…
Long passed over as a tourist destination, this dusty capital city is about to regain its grand status. Palermo is a stage, an opera stage. Decorative buildings, noisy and a bit parched, but stately just the same. Centuries of influences from countries all over the Mediterranean make Palermo a cosmopolitan blend of many cultures. A city dense with stunning attractions, yet scuffed by years of mafia fears which have driven tourists away. But that is all about to change as Palermo has taken steps to clean up its city and its image in hopes to attract visitors once again to this dynamic historical destination.
Getting ready for my first trip to Palermo I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had both excitement and apprehension as my travel date approached. While I had been to Sicily before, I had never been to Palermo and it felt a bit overwhelming given its unfortunate mafia history, and I was a woman traveling alone in a very old world and traditional part of Italy. I would come to find quite rapidly that this was not something to be overly concerned about, the city is vibrant and quite modern. More importantly I was about to discover just how inviting a city it was.
From the start the city was quite welcoming, pleasant and much prettier than I expected. The grandeur of the city, and the Palermitani are very proud of it. Sicilians can be a bit reserved before you get to know them, and here in Palermo it is no different yet people were helpful and eager to show off their hometown. Taking photographs can be met with a bit of apprehension but if you ask first the people are usually very willing and jovial. It is important that you are always polite when traveling but here especially where old customs remain part of daily life. Always say hello or “buongiorno” when entering a shop as these places are usually family run and it is considered an extension of their homes. All that said, travel freely and explore. Palermo is full of expressive winding streets and a soft dilapidated patina. The everyday feels very much like any small village in Sicily just with more people. The bread gets made and delivered, people linger over coffee and walk together in the piazzas. Prepared to be wowed and won over…
The travel basics, a general overview:
Hotels: It was difficult to find a hotel I really liked. Unlike most major cities the luxury travel market is sadly lacking in such a choice destination. Many major hotel brands have yet to settle on properties here and the hotel selections are are limited. I chose to stay at the Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its central location and for its historical prestige. It was quite shabby and in need of a serious refurbishment but did capture the essence of a bygone era. (Read my review here Sicily:The tale of two Grand Hotels) But generally speaking this was probably the best I was going to find and it would behoove the city to entice reputable hotel businesses to open new properties in the city.
Taxis: The other tricky situation to maneuver is the taxi situation. There are taxis available but not always where you need them to be. What you mainly find are car services which while safe overall are really interested in giving you a tour of the city or taking you on an excursion to Monreale, the must see church about half an hour out of town. Trying to get them to just take you from point A to point B comes with a discussion (and pressure) of them trying to set up a bigger job with you. Thankfully from my hotel I was able to walk to a great deal, but I did find at the end of a long day of walking the need to jump in a cab and go back to the hotel which is when I was stuck having to take one of these cars. And these cars were the same ‘private car’ the hotel reserved for me on the day I wanted to go to Monreale. And while the driver was charming and got me to my destination I found him insisting on ‘just stopping for a moment’ to show me this or that, never mind that I had made it clear that all I wanted was to go to Monreale and back. I had to finally put my foot down or this would have gone on all day. Alternatively, public buses offer good service and can be fairly reliable.
That established this dramatic city is ripe to be explored with some truly stunning sights to see. Palermo is a stage of delights…
A quick view of the highlights: Start in the heart of Palermo, at the Quatro Canti which is like being in the center of a music box. Thus named because of the four street corners, each representing one of the four seasons and always one corner exposed to the sun. Not far from there is the striking Piazza della Pretoria, with a tiered renaissance fountain in the middle originally made for the city of Florence. While the pride of Palermo is their massive cathedral, the real jewel not to be missed is the Palatine Chapel, a jaw dropping beauty of mosaic work from the floors to the ceiling, this small chapel shines. The walk between the cathedral to the chapel takes you under a massive arch, the former old gate of the city and look at the two whimsical faces carved on the sides. And for die hard Godfather fans the famed opera house is right in the middle of the city. For something truly Sicilian, a visit to the Museo dei Pupi, is a museum dedicated to the craft of wooden puppets, a tradition in Palermo. If there is a puppet show on definitely stay and see it!
The Markets: Like all great Italian towns, food markets are a must and in Sicily they are particularly spirited. Palermo’s oldest and most famous is the Vuceria, a popular street market selling anything from faux antiques, old photographs and of course fruit and veg. Street food and other food shops also abound. The Ballarò offers the best in produce and is a lot more of a true food market. If you have time visit both.
Monreale: If there is one place you must visit it is the glorious church of Monreale just outside of the city. A bus ride or a short cab ride takes you 25 minutes out of the city to the charming town, which is also worth a look, and the famed church. The church itself is breathtaking. Both inside and out the care and workmanship extends from the intricate designs, to the the mosaic floor and ceilings and the painted woodwork. It is perfection. After seeing the inside do not miss the cloisters and gardens.
Cafes and Restaurants: While I didn’t spend a lot of time there, I did eat at the well regarded Osteria dei Vespri offering an innovative take on traditional Sicilian dishes and flavours. Wonderful place with attentive service and a cozy atmosphere. Antico Caffe Spinnato is Palermo’s Grand Caffe and is great anytime of day for a light bite, coffee, or aperitivo.
Palermo is buzzing… It has been chosen as the Italian City of Culture for 2018 making it a center for Italian tourism. And equally if not more prestigious, the famed Sicilian fashion designers Dolce&Gabbana based in Milan have finally open a boutique in Palermo and to celebrate launched multiple fashion shows around the city of Palermo. Historical sites such as the Piazza della Pretoria and the Cattedrale were the red carpet runways for the latest collection, heralding that Palermo is open for business and an extremely fashionable destination.
A peak at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show showcased around Palermo