Before I visited Palermo, capital of Sicily, I hadn’t heard anything good.
‘It’s big, it’s ugly and it’s dirty,’ was all that people said to me.
Great, I thought.
I hate big cities and ugly architecture, and while a bit of trash doesn’t bother me, I don’t want to be wading through it as I go about my day.
Not feeling overly enthused about my visit to the capital of Sicily, I booked 3 nights in the only hostel I could find with good reviews and resigned myself to a mediocre few days.
Oh boy was I in for a ride.
Those three nights in Palermo turned into several months and countless trips back, and I found myself falling absolutely head over heels in love with the rugged capital of Sicily.
I honestly believe that Sicily in general does not get enough love from tourists, and that Palermo is a true hidden gem.
In this article I will address some common misconceptions of Palermo, Sicily before giving you 8 reasons why you should visit the capital of Sicily right now!
So, if you’re ready, then let’s get into it.
Introducing Palermo, the Rugged Capital of Sicily
What is Palermo like?
The term ‘melting pot’ is so overused that it is a cliché at this point, but Palermo is truly a melting pot of cultures, with the sights, smells and contrasts assaulting your senses the minute you arrive.
With a chaotic market scene closer to the souks of Marrakech than the glamour of Milan, passionate people who do not suffer fools lightly and a great deal of noise, Palermo is not for the fainthearted.
I would even go so far as to say that Palermo is the marmite of Italy, with those that love it being swept off their feet, and those that don’t tutting and vowing never to return.
Palermo is gritty.
It is unapologetic.
It is real.
Most importantly, Palermo is a city that you just have to get.
So, let’s address some of the common misconceptions and criticisms that the naysayers have about the infamous capital of Sicily.
Misconceptions about Palermo
‘Palermo is ugly’
I have been to some ugly cities.
Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Chisinau in Moldova, Tirana in Albania.
Let me tell you right now, on record, that if there is an ugly city in Italy, I haven’t seen it, and Palermo is far from ugly.
Sure, the buildings may need a lick of paint here and there, and it may not be as picture-perfect as the Amalfi Coast, but that dilapidated feel is all part of Palermo’s charm.
Palermo isn’t polished but it is real, and let us not forget that there is still magnificent architecture underneath that peeling paint.
Besides, on my most recent trip to Palermo (October 2022), I noticed a tonne of restoration work being done on the buildings, pavements, roads etc., so if you visit in the near future, you may well find that Palermo had has a facelift.
Whether your idea of beauty is narrow cobbled streets filled with hole in the wall restaurants, magnificent UNESCO churches, or Arab-Norman architecture, the capital of Sicily has got you covered.
‘Palermo is dangerous’
Many people travelling to Sicily question where Sicily is safe.
Their minds conjure up images of the Sicilian Mafia, and they end up convincing themselves that Al Pacino himself is lurking around every corner waiting to gun them down.
Is Palermo dangerous?
Compared to the vast majority of other Italian cities, Palermo is safe.
Of course, there are still organised criminals, as there are in every city, but you won’t come across them as a tourist.
There are a lot of migrants and refugees in Palermo from Africa and South Asia, and so if you have racist tendencies then you may feel unsafe, but I promise you, that’s your prejudice speaking.
If you’re asking yourself ‘is it safe to visit Palermo?’ then the one thing that I would advise you to watch out for in the city of Palermo (specifically crowded party hubs like La Vucciria) is pickpocketing.
There are not many areas to avoid in Palermo as a tourist.
The main areas to stay clear of are places you would never pass by as a tourist anyway, which are the ZEN neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, and Brancaccio, which is 5km south of the centre.
The centre of Palermo is generally safe, although the area behind the train station and Ballaro market can feel a little sketchy after dark, and so I wouldn’t advise walking alone at night there (in other words, don’t choose accommodation in these areas).
Read my post about safety in Sicily for more information.
‘Palermo is dirty’
Many people visiting Sicily wonder ‘Is Palermo dirty?‘ before they arrive, and it is true that Palermo does have a stereotype of being dirty.
You will see some trash bags on the side of the road when driving in and out of Palermo, as well as some overflowing dumpsters in certain areas (behind the train station and the markets of Ballaro and Capo), which is an unfortunate problem in Sicily as a whole.
However, for the most part, Palermo is not a dirty city, especially in the historical centre.
There is quite a lot of graffiti on the walls around the old city that you do not see in other Sicilian cities such as Catania, but graffiti does not equal dirt.
Just as with the peeling paint, Palermo’s graffiti is all part of its charm, and if you are able to see that then you are halfway to understanding the city of Palermo.
8 Reasons to Visit Palermo, Capital of Sicily
1. The vibe
Palermo has a vibe unlike anywhere else that I’ve been before.
Locals told me that as well as being the capital of Sicily, Palermo is also its soul, and I couldn’t agree more.
In Palermo, you will find people from all walks of life living alongside one another, and everything in it is exaggerated to chaotic, from the traffic to the street food and everything in between.
Sicilian people embody what non-Italians typically think of when they think of Italians – they are loud and passionate, they talk with their hands, they always seem as though they are arguing with each other, and they don’t really give a damn about the rules.
In Palermo, if you’re annoyed with someone, you make it known.
If you want to park somewhere but the only option is to block in another driver, you do it.
If a car gets too close to you as you’re walking down the street, feel free to bang on it while a string of expletives leaves your mouth at top speed.
If you’ve been waiting in line for the toilet for too long, you kick the stall door to let the occupant know that you’re getting impatient.
You get the gist.
This might sound strange, or even a little scary at first, but as long as you embrace it, you’ll soon learn the ways of the Palermitani, and you may even come to enjoy them.
2. Sicilian people
They may seem loud (that’s because they are), or even angry at times (they’re probably not), but Sicilian people are some of the most hospitable bunch I’ve met.
Not only are the staff in shops, bars and restaurants always super nice (which isn’t the case in some places!), but I also had a really easy time making friends with Sicilian people in Palermo, and found that it was almost impossible to go on a night out and not come away with at least 3 new Instagram friends.
3. Palermo street food
Palermo’s street food has been named the best in Europe (and trying it should definitely be on your Sicilian bucket list) but it isn’t always for the fainthearted.
It is not unusual to see ‘innards’ written on restaurant menus, sheep’s intestines being grilled by the side of the road, or pots of spleen, lung and trachea being stirred up and scooped onto bread rolls (Pane ca’ Meusa).
I personally love all of the grisly stuff, but for those who are not quite as adventurous, you can’t miss arancine (deep fried rice balls stuffed with anything from ragu to spinach and cheese), chick pea fritters and potato croquettes (which are often served on bread – think of it as the Sicilian chip butty).
Also native to Sicily are cannoli, tubes filled with ricotta cheese and sprinkled with pistachio, which are the perfect indulgence and not to be missed if you have a sweet tooth.
If you’re keen to experience Palermo’s traditional cuisine with a local then I highly recommend doing a street food tour with Streaty. The owner of Streaty, Marco, is Palermo born and bred and one of the best tour guides I’ve come across (you can read my review here).
You can also try a market tour and cooking class in a local’s home if you fancy getting really stuck in.
More local specialities are Pasta alla Norma, which is a traditional Sicilian pasta made with tomato and eggplant, Pasta al Pesce Spada (swordfish pasta), or Sfincione which is a kind of pizza bread (although don’t call it that to any Sicilians!).
The best thing about street food in Palermo is that not only is it extremely cheap, but you can guarantee that you are getting a real Sicilian experience when you eat it, especially if you do so in one of Palermo’s historic street markets.
If you want to read more about Sicilian cuisine, I wrote an entire article about it!
4. Palermo nightlife
My regular haunts when it came to Palermo nightlife are La Vucciria and Piazza Sant’Anna, as well the Kalsa area in general (which is where the first two spots can be found!).
Back in the days when the mafia were running rampant, Kalsa as a whole was a bit of a no-go zone.
However, these days it is full of rustic and quirky bars, street food stalls and winding cobbled streets, all of which lead to either La Vucciria or Piazza Sant’Anna, where everyone congregates and dances in the streets.
Via Maqueda, the most ancient street of Palermo is also home to a wide range of wine bars and cocktail bars, albeit a little more expensive and geared towards tourists (although Taverna Celso is a great spot).
There’s also Via Vittorio Emanuele, which is also full of bars and restaurants.
Another Palermo nightlife hotspot is Via Giudice, which has a small selection of non-touristy bars and a great atmosphere.
4. The prices
People often ask me ‘is Palermo expensive?’ and the answer to this question is always a resounding NO.
Palermo is one of the cheapest major cities in Italy, and a fraction of the price of places such as Rome or Milan.the cheapest by far.
In La Vucciria, you can get a bottle or beer or a shot for 1.50 EUR, and elsewhere you won’t often pay more than 3 EUR for beer or 4-5 for wine.
Street food is usually less than 3 EUR, and can easily get a huge portion of pasta for 5 EUR for lunch in a restaurant.
Public transport is also incredibly affordable and entrances to churches and museums in Palermo is usually 2-3 EUR.
5. The location
Not only can you find very reasonably priced direct flights from the UK and most European countries to Palermo, but Palermo is also easily accessible from Italy itself, both from Catania on the East coast of Sicily, and also from many cities on the mainland such as Bari.
Once in Palermo, you can take plenty of day trips, including Cefalu, San Vito Lo Capo, Trapani and the Erice.
The best way to get around Sicily is by hiring a car, although there are bus connections as well.
6. The architecture
The capital of Sicily is home to some stunning architecture, and Palermo’s historical centre is actually one of the largest in Europe!
Having been conquered by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians and Spaniards, the sheer variety of the architecture in Palermo is breathtaking, and one of the best things to do in Palermo is simply just to wander around and appreciate its beauty.
One of the most notable buildings in Palermo is Palermo Cathedral, which has been a place of worship since the year 600 AD!
Other buildings not to miss in Palermo are the Teatro Massimo, which is the third largest theatre in Europe, the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio which is one of the most impressive Byzantine churches in all of Italy and the Palazzo dei Normanni.
You should also head to Piazza Pretoria to see the Fontana Della Vergogna or ‘Fountain of Shame,’ a name given to the fountain by the church due to its nude statues (not really – it is actually because the fountain is in front of the council building, so the name is a nod to Palermo’s history of corruption).
7. Palermo weather
Palermo is a fantastic year-round destination, with hot summers and incredible shoulder seasons (the best time to visit Palermo is September/October, when the city is less crowded but the weather is still great).
Even in the coldest winter months, you will still experience mild temperatures and sunny days, and Sicily in general is one of the warmest places in Europe in wintertime.
8. The authenticity
As I mentioned earlier, Palermo does not try to hide what it is and it doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
It may be a bit rough around the edges, but what is beautiful about Palermo is its authenticity, and the fact that it is not a fake city, designed to live up to some cliché of what ‘Italy’ is.
If you want to experience the real Italy, without the tourist traps, inflated prices and hordes of tourists, you’ll want to head south, and better yet, head to Sicily and Palermo.
Hostels and Hotels in Palermo
Lastly, I want to include a quick word about where to stay in Palermo. The hostel scene in Palermo is still in its infancy, and as such, there is not a whole lotta choice when it comes to finding a decent hostel in Palermo.
I personally have stayed in two (one of which is no longer in business), and I haven’t heard anything about the other hostels in Palermo (good or bad), so here I am just including the one that I stayed in twice, Balarm Hostel.
I have also included 3 hotels ranging from budget to luxury.
Hostel in Palermo
Balarm Hostel is probably the best hostel in Palermo, and I’ve stayed there twice.
The beds are comfy and the security system is really good (with electric combination lockers and key cards for all the rooms, as well as having to use a code or buzzer to get into the building itself).
In addition to that, the location is perfect, close to both the train station and smack bang in the centre of the city.
Balarm is also a pretty sociable hostel, and you can drink your own beers there or buy some from the hostel itself.
There is also a free breakfast.
Budget Hotel in Palermo
Hotel Concordia is in a 19th century building and rooms have wrought iron beds, exposed brick and traditional tiled floors. It is just a 5 minute walk from the train station and close to all of Palermo’s main sights, including Quattro Candi, Palermo Cathedral and La Vucciria market.
Mid-range Hotel in Palermo
Located in the heart of Palermo, 60m from Via Maqueda shopping street, Eurostars Centrale Palace Hotel was once the noble 18th-century Palazzo Tarallo, and when you see the interior, you’ll certainly feel like you’re in a palace.
With ornate ceilings, stunning tiled floors and chandeliers, you will certainly get the Italian experience here. There’s also a gym and sauna, and the location is perfect, just steps away from the main pedestrian street in town and all the major attractions.
At the time of writing, a double room here was just 68 EUR, which is a steal.
Luxury Hotel in Palermo
The Grande Hotel Et Des Palmes is an absolutely beautiful 5 star hotel in an Art Nouveau building. Palermo Port is a 10 minute walk away and Teatro Massimo is just 5 minutes away.
You are slightly further away from the cathedral (1.6km) than the other options, but you are still incredibly central.
The word ‘grand’ really doesn’t do this place justice – tradition and luxury are an indulgent combination, and there is also an onsite cocktail bar and high end restaurant.
Palermo, Sicily | Final Thoughts
So there concludes my list of reasons why you simply HAVE to visit Palermo!
I could go on for weeks about this amazing city but I thought that I would just round up the MOST important reasons to visit Palermo (in my opinion!).
Has this article inspired you to visit Palermo?
Let me know in the comments section below!
Until next time,
If you liked this article and would like to support my work, please click the button above to donate a couple of bucks and buy me a coffee. The ad revenue that I receive on this website is minimal, so support from my readers enables me to keep creating content that you (hopefully!) love to read.