Before I visited Palermo, 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 the stuff as I go about my day.
Not feeling overly enthused about my visit to the Sicilian capital, 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 two weeks, and I found myself falling absolutely head over heels in love with this charming city. I honestly believe that Sicily in general does not get enough love from tourists, and that Palermo itself does not deserve the bad reputation that it has. In this article I will address some common criticisms of Palermo before giving you six reasons why you should visit Palermo right now!
So, why should you visit Palermo, Sicily and are ALL the haters wrong?
Misconceptions about Palermo
This may seem like a strange starting point, but as I went into Palermo with nothing but negative reviews buzzing around my mind, I couldn’t help but be looking out for the things that people had mentioned. I also pride myself on being honest with you guys, and if I were to tell you that Palermo is totally without problems then I’d be lying. Palermo is not a perfect city, so let’s address some of the common criticisms that people have of Palermo…
‘Palermo is ugly’
Now. I have been to some ugly cities. Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Chisinau in Moldova, Tirana in Albania. Berlin. Belgrade.
The list goes on.
However, let me tell you right now, on record, that if there is an ugly city in Italy, I haven’t seen it. Palermo may not rival the Amalfi Coast when it comes to aesthetics, but it is far from ugly. Sure, the buildings may need a lick of paint here and there, 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.
Whether your idea of beauty is narrow cobbled streets filled with hole in the wall restaurants or breathtaking UNESCO churches, Palermo has got you covered. If you prefer nature then Monte Pellegrino is just a stone’s throw away, and if you’re a beach bum then there are countless white sand beaches with crystal clear turquoise waters just a short bus ride away.
‘Palermo is dangerous’
Thirty years ago the Mafia were a real presence in the city of Palermo and tourists were not advised to go there. These days however, the Mafia do not pose an issue. Of course, in every country there are organised criminals working behind the scenes, but, just like any other city, tourists are largely not affected by this and you will not be caught in the crossfire of a Mafia war on your weekly trip to the market.
A word of warning – locals in Southern Italy and especially Palermo don’t like hearing the word ‘Mafia’ and may take offence if you say it/bring up the topic in general. One Italian told me that saying ‘Mafia’ in Palermo is like saying ‘n – – – – r’ in the USA – now I don’t know if every Italian has this opinion but either way, I would err on the side of caution and refrain from using the word anyway.
The one thing that I would advise you to watch out for in Palermo is pickpocketing. Some of the crowded party hubs such as La Vucciria unfortunately attract pickpockets, and I witnessed one girl in particular sidling up to unassuming men and attempting to take their phones and wallets. As with anywhere, keep a close eye (and hand!) on your belongings (this means not leaving your iPhone in your back pocket!!) and you will be fine. I guarantee that Paris and Barcelona have more of a pickpocketing problem than Palermo.
‘Palermo is dirty’
It is true that people in Palermo simply have too much rubbish and there are no adequate services in place to deal with it, which is why you will see some trash bags on the side of the road when driving in and out of Palermo. However, while one guy told me that in the winter months, the city centre is incredibly dirty, some other locals said otherwise. I’m not quite sure who to believe, especially as everybody’s definition of ‘dirty’ is different, but what I can tell you is that if you visit Palermo in the summer months, you will not find an overly dirty city.
Another reason that people may find Palermo dirty is the fact that 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. Now, you can call me crazy but I didn’t have a problem with the graffiti in Palermo. 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 there in your understanding of Palermo.
Palermo may not be up to, say, Singaporean standards of cleanliness, but it is far cleaner than cities such as Marrakech or Hanoi.
So, if the haters are wrong about Sicily’s capital, then what are some of the reasons to visit Palermo?!
6 Reasons to Visit Palermo, Sicily’s Capital City
1. The Vibe of Palermo
Palermo has a vibe quite unlike anywhere else that I’ve been before. Locals told me more than once that Palermo is the soul of Sicily, and I can’t disagree. In Palermo you will find all kinds of people living alongside one another, and the city never seems to sleep. 5am on a Wednesday is no different to the same time on a Saturday, with La Vucciria buzzing until dawn with street food vendors and dive bars.
Everything in Palermo is exaggerated and crazy, from the traffic to the food (more on that later), and even the locals themselves. Palermo locals embody what non-Italians typically think of when they think of Italian people: 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 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. If you’re a shopkeeper or a waiter and finding the correct change is posing too much of a problem, you just round it up. Or down. Whatever’s easiest.
All of this may sound a little uncomfortable or strange, but after just a few days in Palermo, I was beginning to learn the ways of the city and I actually really enjoyed the ‘don’t give a f-ck’ attitude. You may benefit from being a little streetwise if you plan to visit Palermo, but if you don’t mind the sheer wackiness of it all then Palermo is a city where you will thrive.
2. Palermo Street Food
Palermo’s street food has been named the best in Europe 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 sandwiches (these greasy sandwiches, known as Pane con la Milza or Pane ca’ Meusa, are perfect for the end of a drunk night out or the next day to help with the hangover!).
I personally tried all of the above, and aside from the cartilage that was served up to me on my plate of ‘innards,’ I loved every single one. The only peculiar street food that I didn’t get a chance to try in Palermo was frittula, which is essentially the waste left over from mechanically processed calves (think ground bones, scrap meat and cartillege) mixed with lard and ladled onto a sandwich. Yum!
For those who are not so adventurous but still want to sample Palermo’s street food, you can’t miss arancini (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 (cannolo is the singular form of the word) – cannoli are tubes filled with ricotta cheese and sprinkled with pistachio (the classic ones anyway – they are available in a multitude of flavours) and they are the perfect indulgence, not to be missed if you have a sweet tooth.
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!).
For me, the best thing about street food in Palermo is that not only is it extremely cheap and can be found absolutely everywhere, but that you can guarantee that you are getting a real Sicilian experience when you eat it. Street food in Palermo has not changed to accommodate squeamish tourists, and while the hygiene conditions may be a little questionable and the ingredients might not quite be what we are used to, the street food alone is a good enough reason to visit Palermo.
3. Palermo Nightlife
Techno nightclubs are honestly my idea of hell on earth, but as I am aware that I seem to be in the minority with this opinion, I should tell you that Palermo has a handful of techno clubs that the locals rave about, such as MOB and Country DiscoClub.
However, my regular haunt in Palermo was La Vucciria. Back in the days when the mafia were running rampant, Vucciria was a bit of a no-go zone. However, while it is definitely still a little seedy, I could not get enough of it. During the daytime, La Vucciria is a quiet marketplace with a handful of stalls selling fresh produce, household appliances and tacky souvenirs. At night, however, is when La Vucciria comes alive, and the bars along the cobbled streets all throw open their doors, local vendors set up even more street food stalls, and restaurants display their daily specials on blackboards outside.
In La Vucciria you will find every kind of person imaginable. From artists to musicians, Spanish tourists to university students, hippies, goths, drag queens and a man who likes to cycle around blaring music and balancing a bottle of beer on his head, La Vucciria takes all sorts. La Vucciria is home to anyone and everyone, and this strange mismatch of people all party alongside one another on the cobbled streets until the sun comes up.
La Vucciria is so friendly that my friend and I had a joke that we couldn’t have one night out without making several new Facebook friends and being invited on a trip somewhere, and every night for almost two weeks this is exactly what happened! All you need to do to make a friend for life in La Vucciria is allow somebody to borrow your lighter and the next thing you know, they’re inviting you on a trip to a National Park, writing down their home address and telling you that you can stay with their family for a week!
I met some great friends here (and yes, we went on day trips!) and as long as you keep your wits about you*, you will have the time of your life partying at La Vucciria.
If this all sounds too much for you, then you should check out Piazza Sant’Anna. It is a sort of cleaner, more respectable version of La Vucciria but there are still a few great bars around there and usually a really cool atmosphere. Via Vittorio Emanuele, 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 (but we did find one very cool bar in an alleyway that sold €3 cocktails and cheap beer so seek and ye shall find!).
*I say this because La Vucciria is known for pickpocketing, and I did unfortunately witness this happening. However, in my opinion, this can be quite easily avoided by the following:
– leaving your bank card at home (everywhere here is cash only anyway so you won’t need it.
– having a bag that is difficult to open (e.g. a bag that has a zip and a buckle) and keeping your hand on it as much as you can.
– not having your phone in your back pocket (it amazes me how many people do this).
4. Palermo Prices
I’ve been to a few places in Italy and Palermo is the cheapest by far. If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know by now that I probably (definitely) drink too much and so any city with cheap alcohol is a good place to be in my book.
In the Vucciria area a 0.66cl bottle of beer will cost you 2 EU, a glass of wine is 1 EU and a shot is also 1 EU. Honestly that information in itself should be enough to persuade you to visit Palermo, but if that’s not enough, you can get a nice meal in a restaurant for less than 10 EU, while street food is always around 3 EU.
Accommodation is also super cheap in Palermo. My hostel was around 17 EU per night including breakfast which is pretty good for Italy, but if you want to stay for a longer period of time then you can find a one bedroom apartment in the centre of Palermo for as little as 180 EU per month!
Public transport is also incredibly affordable and entrances to churches and museums in Palermo is usually 2-3 EU.
5. Palermo’s Location
Not only can you find very reasonably priced direct flights from the UK to Palermo, but Palermo is also easily accessible, both from Catania on the East coast of Sicily, and also from many cities on the mainland.
Once in Palermo I recommend using it as a base for day trips as Palermo is perfectly situated to explore Western Sicily. Places easily reached from Palermo are Mondello, Cefalu, San Vito Lo Capo, Trapani and the National Park Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro.
6. Palermo’s Architecture
Palermo is home to some stunning architecture, and it’s historical centre is 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.
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 (or Normal Palace).
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!
So there concludes my list of 6 reasons why you simply HAVE to visit Palermo, Sicily! 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!
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