Palermo, Sicily. The rugged capital of Italy’s southernmost island, and not somewhere that makes it onto the Italian itinerary of most travellers. When I visited Palermo in July 2019, I initially only planned on staying for 3 days, but as soon as I arrived and strolled around the narrow cobbled streets of the historical centre, I knew that I would end up staying for longer.
My 3 days turned into 2 weeks, and as I write this, I am just days away from returning to Palermo, this time for a month. It is safe to say that Palermo truly stole my heart, and as I am passionate about promoting those destinations that don’t get enough love from tourists, I figured that I would write a travel guide to Palermo that includes everything from where I stayed in Palermo to all the best things to do in Palermo, day trips from Palermo, and how much to budget for a trip to Palermo, Sicily.
If you’re planning a trip to Palermo, or even if you’re not planning a trip but you’re curious to see what the Sicilian capital has to offer, then just keep reading!
Why Visit Palermo?
I hadn’t heard many good things before I visited Palermo. People complained that it was ugly (not true), dirty (not true – only on the outskirts) and big (technically true but the main tourist sights are all very close together).
Palermo has also had a pretty bad reputation historically due to organised crime, and so people often mistakenly assume that Palermo is unsafe to visit.
Well my lovelies, I am here to tell you that not only are the naysayers totally wrong about Palermo, but that Palermo is truly the soul of Sicily, a rough diamond that you will fall in love with.
There are many reasons to visit Palermo (I talked about them in this blog post!), but some of the main ones are as follows:
Palermo has yet to be discovered by mass tourism;
This means that if you’re looking for an authentic Italian experience, you will find it in Palermo. The people are unfiltered, the street food is greasy, the buildings are dilapidated (but so charming) and the traffic is crazy. Palermo is the beating heart of Italy and if you’ve previously visited cities such as Rome or Florence, Palermo will stop you in your tracks with its rawness.
Palermo is a foodie paradise;
The street food in Palermo has been named the best in Europe, a title that it truly deserves. I won’t spoil the surprise for now (there will be a whole section about Palermo food later!), but just know that if you’re looking for a gastronomical experience then Palermo is the place to be.
Palermo is friendly;
Locals in Palermo are incredibly friendly. My friend and I joked that we couldn’t go on one night out without making at least several new Facebook friends and being invited to somebody’s family home for dinner, and every night for almost two weeks, this is exactly what happened! Palermo locals may be a little rough around the edges, and they may try and sell you hash a lot, but they will go above and beyond to make you feel welcome in their city, and they will ensure that you get looked after during your time in Sicily.
Palermo is packed with fun things to do and awesome day trips!
Think that there aren’t a lot of things to do in Palermo? Think again! Whether you want to see centuries old catacombs, marvel at UNESCO churches, buy fresh fish at one of Palermo’s traditional markets or simply watch the world go by while eating cannolo, Palermo has it covered.
As far as day trips from Palermo go, you are just a stone’s throw away from the white sands of Mondello, or you can go further afield to the seaside towns of Cefalu and San Vito Lo Capo. Perhaps you want to jump on a boat to head to a nearby island, or walk up Monte Pellegrino? Whatever you fancy, it’s never very far from Palermo.
Things You Should Know Before Visiting Palermo
The currency in Palermo is the EURO.
Even if you speak a little Italian, you may find it difficult to make yourself understood in Palermo. Sicilians have a very particular dialect (complete with a kind of sign language!) that varies wildly from the Italian that you may know. A guy I met from Milan could not make himself understood in Palermo!
Don’t mention the M word (that’s mafia). Sicilians have heard all of the mafia jokes before and they don’t find them amusing. For people in Sicily, organised crime has been a dangerous and unpleasant reality for a long time and they don’t need dumb tourists like us joking about it. In case you were genuinely curious, organised crime doesn’t pose an issue for tourists at all in Palermo and the city is not the dangerous place it once was.
Be careful driving. Sicilians (and especially those from Palermo) are crazy drivers and I feared for my life many times while being driven around by locals in Palermo! Even if you’re an experienced driver, be cautious when renting a car in the Sicilian capital.
Some of the cobblestones on the streets are uneven and most of them are very slippery! I found walking in flip-flops almost impossible in Palermo so I suggest opting for pumps or sandals that have some grip.
If taking the bus, buy your ticket beforehand. Tickets are purchased from tobacco shops. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is.
Have some cash with you – many places that I visited in Palermo didn’t accept card so it’s always useful to carry cash.
Relax! Maybe your tour will begin late, or a restaurant won’t be open at the correct time, or you won’t be given enough change (or you’ll be given too much if that requires less effort for the cashier!). Sicilians are super laid back, and if you expect everything to be organised and on time then you won’t enjoy Palermo very much!
It is perfectly acceptable (and common!) to have ice-cream for breakfast! Especially popular in Palermo is dipping a brioche into coffee flavoured granita (shaved ice popular in Sicily).
Most restaurants only open for dinner between 7:30 and 8:00pm so make sure to enjoy an aperitivo in the late afternoon to keep you going!
If you think people are arguing, don’t worry. That’s just how Sicilians talk to each other. And if they are arguing? They’ll be hugging before you know it.
Best Time to Visit Palermo
Don’t shy away from visiting Palermo in high season. I visited in the height of summer (mid July) and it was amazing. Not only is the beach just a short drive away, but the heat in the centre never felt too oppressive and I wasn’t fighting through hordes of British and American tourists (see my article about the problems related to overtourism here). In addition to that, the council makes a real effort to clean the streets up in time for summer so the city is cleaner than at other times of the year.
That said, Palermo is definitely somewhere that you can visit during the cooler months. Even in January, Palermo is still around 15 degrees Celsius, and so visiting Palermo in the shoulder season (September/October or April/May) will still guarantee beautiful sunny days.
Getting to Palermo
Palermo is just a 3 hour flight from London or Manchester, and there are many direct flights from the UK, as well as daily flights to Palermo from Paris and Brussels. It is also very easy to fly to Palermo from pretty much anywhere on mainland Italy (alternatively, you can fly from mainland Italy to Trapani airport). I always check flights using Skyscanner.
If you’re on mainland Italy and don’t want to fly then I recommend taking a bus. You can get to Palermo from many places in Italy such as Bari, Rome or Naples. The bus is direct and reasonably priced.
Palermo is also easily accessible from other cities in Sicily. It is just 1 hour by train from Cefalu, a 2 hour bus ride from San Vito Lo Capo, or around 4 hours by bus or train from Catania. The coach station in Palermo is just behind the main train station, and both can be found in the Old Town district of Palermo. My hostel, Balarm Hostel, was less than a 10 minute walk from the bus/train station.
Where to Stay in Palermo
As always, I stayed in a hostel while I was in Palermo. Now, the standard generally of Palermo hostels isn’t as high as some other places I’ve been, but the one that I stayed in was good and had much better reviews than the other Palermo hostels.
Balarm Hostel is a 5 minute walk from the bus/train station and is very central (it is located right in the historical centre of Palermo and is a 5 minute walk from La Vucciria market). Breakfast is included with the price of a bed and the rooms are basic but perfectly fine.
To book your stay at Balarm Hostel, just click this link.
Things to Do in Palermo
Visit the Capuchin Monastery and Catacombs
One of the strangest things that I’ve done on my travels is to visit the Capuchin Monastery and Catacombs in Palermo. Back in the 16th century, the monastery outgrew its original cemetery and so the monks began to excavate the crypts below it to create a space to keep mummified corpses.
Originally, the crypts were reserved for friars, but eventually it became sort of a status symbol to be entombed in the catacombs, and people would write in their wills which clothes they wanted to be dressed in, or how frequently they wanted their clothes changed (often to reflect the fashions of the time!). Relatives would pay for the corpses to be kept in the spot which they had been allocated, but if the payments stopped then the body was taken away and put on a shelf until payments resumed.
Today, the catacombs are open to the public and contain about 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies that line the walls. Some of them are posed in rather spooky or amusing positions, and it’s hard not to have a macabre joke or two when walking around the crypt!
Perhaps the creepiest thing about the catacombs is not the child mummies, but the fact that some of the bodies have been so well preserved that they still have hair and fingernails!
The catacombs are open every day including holidays (apart from Sunday afternoons in from late October to late March) from 9.00 – 13.00 and then again from 15.00 to 18.00. Admission is €3.
Officially photography inside the catacombs is not allowed but there have been many documentaries and photographs taken inside the catacombs, and outside you can even buy fridge magnets with photographs of the mummies on them, so whether the Capuchin Monastery restricts photography in order to preserve the mummies, or whether it just wants tourists to have to pay to buy the professional photographs from their gift shop is unclear.
Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest opera theatre in the whole of Europe, and so it’s definitely one to add to your list if you’re sightseeing in Palermo!
Not only were some scenes from The Godfather III filmed inside Teatro Massimo, but Pavarotti himself has even performed here!
Unfortunately, the only way that you can see inside Teatro Massimo if you aren’t going to see a show is to book a guided tour – you cannot simply pay an entrance fee and wander around alone.
English language tours begin every 50 minutes (or thereabouts), between 9.30 and 18.00. Tickets cost €8 (correct at time of writing – September 2019) and the tours last for around 30 minutes.
Explore Palermo’s Historic Street Markets
Palermo is home to four ancient street markets, all of which are still open for business today! The four markets are Ballarò, Vucciria, Capo and Borgo Vecchio.
Ballarò market is the largest and oldest Palermo market of all. Ballarò is unhygienic, stinky and loud, and if you visit here in the morning, you will find people of every nationality imaginable pushing their way through the crowds to get the best produce from the vendors who are all seeing who can yell the loudest to attract passersby to their stall.
Ballarò market is the most authentic and entertaining of all Palermo’s street markets, but be sure to keep an eye (and hand!) on your valuables as Ballarò is known for pickpockets.
While Vucciria isn’t the market it once was in terms of an early morning spot to buy every ingredient imaginable for making perfect Sicilian cuisine, now Vucciria is the place to be once the sun goes down in Palermo. As soon as darkness hits, this dilapidated square comes to life, with street food vendors setting up shop, bars throwing open their doors, trattorias serving steaming bowls of spaghetti to hungry partiers and all of Palermo’s weird and wonderful people congregating together.
The history of the Capo market is an interesting one. Capo dates back to the times when Arabs ruled Palermo, and was the place where pirates and slave merchants would congregate.
Today however, Capo has left the past in the past and is a favoured spot for bargain hunters. Here you can find cheap local produce, and all of the chaos that you should have come to expect from Palermo.
Much like La Vucciria, Borgo Vecchio has become a nighttime haunt for local partiers. While it does still serve as a food market by day, when the sun goes down Borgo Vecchio is transformed into a place where you can drink cheap alcohol and dance in the streets until 4am.
Palermo’s Pretoria Fountain used to be known as the Piazza della Vergogna or ‘Square of Shame’ due in part to the naked statues that surround the magnificent fountain, but also because the statues were seen to represent the corrupt municipality of the Palermo.
However, what the figures actually represent are the 12 Olympians, as well as other mythological figures and animals.
Whatever it represents, Pretoria Fountain is one of the most impressive things to see in Palermo (and the sight of many a wedding and Instagram photoshoot!).
Join an Anti-Mafia Tour
Addio Pizzo is an organisation that works with local businesses who refuse to pay the pizza, or ‘tax’ extorted from business in exchange for ‘protection’ from the Mafia. Add Pizzo wants to bring business to these brave individuals rather than the businesses who pay the tax, and thus enable the Mafia to continue to extort local businesses.
Addio Pizzo also run various tours where you can learn all about the history of the Mafia in Palermo and Sicily as a whole.
For a full list of these tours, visit their website.
Palermo’s Cathedral is comprised of a mix of architectural styles due to a long history of additions and alterations. Palermo Cattedrale is free to enter but the outside of it is far more impressive than the interior and it is one of those buildings that will make you stop in your tracks when you see it.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a Benedictine monastery, turned mosque, turned church in the centre of Palermo that was once inhabited by a wolf-taming hermit. Yes, you read that right. A wolf-taming hermit. The hermit monk, Saint William of Montervergine, decided to tame and keep a wolf after it had killed one of his donkeys – umm, yeah.
Anyway, the building itself reflects the various architectural styles, and it is possible to enter but there is a fee of €6. It is closed on Sundays.
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio
Also known as La Martorana, the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio sits on Piazza Bellini (lots of the streets and piazzas in Palermo are named after food and drink – it’s very cute). The most impressive thing about the interior of the church is its gold mosaic decorations, made by Byzantine artists around 1151.
Entrance is €2.
Cappella Palatina Chapel
Another top tourist attraction in Palermo is the majestic Cappella Palatina Chapel, with its gold mosaics, marble floors and painted wooden ceiling. This chapel is also on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and is part of the architectural complex of the Norman Palace.
What to Eat in Palermo
I mentioned earlier that Palermo street food is the best in Europe and I wasn’t lying – however, some of Palermo’s more unusual dishes may not be for everyone.
Something that Palermo is famous for is offal. That’s right – waste products or the innards of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the pane ca’ meusa, which is a sandwich comprised of spleen, lung and trachea – oh, and cheese! The pane ca’ meusa may sound unappealing, but trust me when I say that it is delicious. Full of flavour and dripping with grease, the pane ca’ meusa is the perfect hangover food! My favourite place to get pane ca’ meusa is ‘Nni Franco U’Vastiddaru. The service is slow but the food is GOOD.
If you like the sound of the pane ca’ meusa then it may also interest you to know that Palermo street food also includes sheep’s intestines wrapped around spring onion and grilled on a BBQ and frittula, which is waste product from calves (ground bone, scrap meat and cartilage) mixed with lard and ladled onto sandwiches.
If the innards of a baby cow don’t appeal to you then you’ll be relieved to know that there is a lot more to Palermo cuisine than offal! From arancini (fried rice balls with various fillings) to chick pea fritters, potato croquettes and sweet treats like the legendary Sicilian cannoli (tubes filled with sweet ricotta and sprinkled with pistachio) and ice cream for breakfast, the food in Palermo will keep you coming back for more..
Restaurants in Palermo are all very reasonably priced, but if you want the true Palermo experience then you will eat like the locals do – on the street. On almost every corner (and in the markets), you will find street food vendors grilling their specialities, and if you want an authentic Sicilian experience then this is where you should head. If you’re not sure which street food you want to try, head down to La Vucciria market in the evening – you’ll find everything imaginable all concentrated in one piazza.
Day Trips From Palermo
Palermo is a fantastic place to base yourself for day trips. Whether it’s white sand beaches, stunning mountains or charming villages, Palermo is just a stone’s throw away from some must-visit places in Sicily, and if you have time then you should definitely check some of them out!
Please note that this list is by no means an exhaustive list of Palermo day trips. These are just the most famous and the ones that are most interesting for tourists.
The easiest day trip from Palermo is to Mondello. Mondello is just a 15 minute car ride (or 40 minute bus ride) away from Palermo and is where all of the young Palermo locals head to in the summer months to relax on the beach or rent a boat for the day.
Although Mondello gets super busy during high season and most of the beach is private, (meaning that you have to pay in order to access the beach and use the sun loungers), it’s the closest beach to Palermo and the easiest to access.
San Vito Lo Capo
San Vito Lo Capo is a bit further away (a 2 hour bus ride from Palermo), but it is a lovely seaside town with stunning white sands and an abundance of cafes selling the regional speciality of couscous, as well as tonnes of gelaterias and small bars. I actually spent a few days in San Vito Lo Capo, but if you’re short on time then it’s definitely doable as a day trip from Palermo.
Just over an hour away from Palermo (70km) is the stunning coastal town of Cefalù, which boasts both a stunning sandy beach and an old town that could have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairytale. Cefalù is one of the most charming places I’ve visited, and if you only take one day trip from Palermo then let it be to Cefalù.
Monte Pellegrino towers over the city of Palermo and is one of the most popular day trips from Palermo. Whether you want to enjoy a picnic in the stunning nature reserve or pay homage to Santa (Saint) Rosalia in her sanctuary atop the mountain, Monte Pellegrino is one of Sicily’s true gems. Even if you’re not religious, it’s worth going to the top of the mountain just to see the jaw dropping panoramic views over the city of Palermo.
Corleone is the home of the Corleonesi, one of Italy’s most infamous Mafia gangs. Located just one hour south of Palermo, it is a surprising favourite among tourists, and locals have set up the Mafia and Anti-Mafia Museum of Corleone, a place that preserves history while helping locals move on from the criminal past of the town.
Agrigento is one of the best places to visit to see the ruins of the Ancient Greek civilisations that one ruled Sicily. The Valley of the Temples is one of the largest archaeological sites in the whole of Italy and if you’re an ancient history buff then this is the place for you!
Zingaro Nature Reserve
The Zingaro Nature Reserve, or Riserva Naturale della Zingaro is en route to San Vito Lo Capo and is home to countless unspoilt beaches, hiking trails, caves and tunnels and is a favourite for nature and adventure lovers alike!
To find out more about the Zingaro Nature Reserve and plan your trip properly, please see their website.
Budgeting for Palermo
Palermo is the most affordable Italian city that I’ve been to. Here are some average prices for Palermo:
Hostel beds (in high season and with breakfast) are around €17;
Restaurant meals are usually less than €10 (with some pasta and risotto dishes being just €5);
Street food is €2-3;
A large (0.66cl) beer at any of the bars on La Vucciria (party street) is €2;
A small beer, glass of wine or shot on La Vucciria is €1;
A one way bus ticket is €1.40 or a full day pass is €3.50
So there concludes my guide to Palermo! I hope that this information helped you in planning your trip to Palermo, and if I missed anything then please let me know in the comments section below!
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