A bright red panini truck sits at the end of a narrow street, blasting dance music at full volume. A car sits behind it and both make it hard to pass even though I am walking. Soon, a woman will drive down the alley from the other end, finding her way blocked by both the panini truck and the car behind. She’ll raise a single hand in protest at the driver of the car in front of her. He’ll shrug, his mouth full, a large sandwich in his hand. He is having lunch and can’t be bothered. It isn’t until a second car comes barreling down, halting to a stop with the driver bolting out and screaming that things actually start moving. The panini truck, still playing club music, will resign and jet off to another alley. The man behind it will shove the rest of the sandwich into his mouth and clear the path himself.
And this is Palermo: seemingly lawless chaos that somehow figures itself out in the end.
Getting here was similar. Though I was taking Alitalia for the first time, I knew from warnings by Italian friends about the inconsistency of their service. It wasn’t until I was at Fiumicino, sprinting from one terminal to the next, cutting in the security line by following an Italian who was late for another flight (someone once told me the only rule in Italy is “whatever you can get away with”), then sprinting across several other terminals that I realized this as truth. I arrived too late for my connecting flight to Palermo, I thought, but I was wrong. The plane was still boarding when I arrived breathless and sweating. It would not leave for another 40 minutes. Alitalia’s tardiness the second time seemed to resolve the first. And, like the cars in the alley, the chaos all seemed to work itself out to an acceptable end.
I arrived late at Palermo’s Falcone–Borsellino Airport*. The train wasn’t running (for whatever reason they cancelled the last one), so I opted for the bus. After scouring the half-closed airport for an ATM that would actually accept my card, I made my way to the bus stop to the right of the exit. On my way, taxi drivers attempted to lure me into their cars. They would be charging a premium of anywhere from 40-70€. Nothing seemed to make sense and my Italian was failing me. Thanks to a helpful local, I managed to find my way into town.
This still did not keep me from getting lost. I had yet to acquire an Italian SIM card, so I relied on directions and poorly made screenshots of where I was supposed to go. I ended up wandering the lonely streets of Palermo at midnight for what felt like 40 minutes. Suddenly, a blip appeared on my map screen. It was updating my progress, despite my not having data. It was like a modern miracle, a guardian angel in digital form. Not quite. The City of Palermo offers free Wi-Fi in some zones. So much for my religious experience.
In the next five days, I found myself adapting to the energy of the city. It felt like a more intense version of Naples; denser traffic, overwhelming smog, heavier foods and thicker accents. Crossing the street here made crossing the street in Naples seem like child’s play, which in turn made doing the same in Rome seem entirely civil. By the end, it all somehow made sense and I found myself weaving across rows of moving cars and speeding scooters like everybody else.
Palermo has many layers. From the fancy hotels along the north end of Via Roma to the street life of Ballarò Market, from the tourists in the centro storico to the Chinese clothing stores on Via Lincoln, there is more to the city than just old buildings and churches. It is a mixture of diversity, a result of numerous invasions in its long history and its location in the Mediterranean. The architecture in many of the sites reflect both Norman and Arab influences, culminating in a look and feel that is wholly unique. On the street, there is a mixture of people from Italian to African. Numerous Middle Eastern restaurants can be found and the kebab pizza at one Mounir Pizzeria & Kebab is a local favorite.
Though the accordion player in Piazza Verdi opts to perform the theme from The Godfather, you won’t find the stereotypical mafioso image prominent here, though the mafia definitely exists. There is a youth group that occasionally holds rallies against them, I’m told, and many of the historic buildings are seemingly destroyed to make way for profitable highrises by mafia-controlled developers. Despite all this, it should not affect your visit unless you plan on doing some construction.
Traffic clogs Via Vittorio Emanuele, a major street that runs through the geographic heart of Palermo’s historic center (where one finds the Quattro Canti, four statues that bound the area where the street crosses Via Maqueda, otherwise known as Piazza Vigliena). You can feel the smog as you breathe. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it. Day workers, tourists and students all fill the quarter, making it a bustling hub.
You’ll find many of Palermo’s top attractions near this street. I visited many, but I’ll share my favorites. First, there’s the Cattedrale di Palermo (Palermo Cathedral) and the Museo Diocesano at the western end near Porta Nuova, one of the city gates. The Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace, otherwise known as Palazzo Reale) sits just beyond the gate, a popular attraction that includes the royal apartments, the Cappella Palatina and an art exhibition. Additional top attractions include the Chiesa del Gesù (also known as the Casa Professa; I found this to be the most beautiful of the churches here, though I was not able to enter the Cappella Palatina), the mosaic-filled Chiesa della Martorana (also known as the Chiesa della Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio), and the Fontana Pretoria with its nude statues (the nickname for Piazza Pretoria is “Piazza della Vergogna,” or “Square of Shame”).
If you’re into art, check out the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) for more recent historic art, the Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo della Sicilia at Palazzo Riso for contemporary art, Palazzo Mirto for old decorative relics presented in a historic palace, the free Museo Archeologico “Antonino Salinas” for restored artifacts, and the Sala Gialla along the side of Teatro Politeama, which happened to be showing a fascinating temporary exhibition on Sicilian emigration to America. If you’re interested in the performing arts, try and catch a show at the stunning Teatro Massimo.
After wandering the busy streets of Palermo, you’ll likely want a breather… literally. To escape the smog, there are several park areas that are worth checking out. Near the Palazzo dei Normanni on the western end of Via Vittorio Emanuele but before the city gate is Villa Bonanno, a nice garden that offers a relaxing walk within its premises. Near the coast on the other side on Via Lincoln, you’ll find Villa Giulia, a big and really beautiful park that also has a cafe at one end with restroom facilities. Across the street from this park is the Foro Italico waterfront area where you can watch both kids and adults fly their kites come week’s end.
But you’re no doubt in Palermo also for food. If you’re like me, you’ll arrange your itinerary to check out the popular attractions as you walk from one eatery to the next. The Sicilians specialize in a vast number of culinary delights too plentiful to describe entirely here. There is the arancina (a fried risotto ball with various fillings), panino con la milza (the spleen sandwich as seen on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods — it tastes pretty good with cheese), pane e panelle (a sandwich filled with fried gram flour crisps), involtini (a bite-sized item rolled up with eggplant or fish), caponata (an eggplant stew), and frutti di mare (literally, “fruits of the sea”). For dessert, there’s the ubiquitous cannolo, the cassata or the more manageable cassatina (a frosted cake with a creamy center), gelato con brioche (gelato served with brioche), the granita (an ice dessert that is also available with brioche), and the amazing torta setteveli (a delicate layered cake of crisps and mousse).
For most of the savory Sicilian specialties, I recommend Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Bar Touring on Via Roma (also good for sweets), and Antica Focacceria del Massimo (Da Basile). For desserts, head to Antico Caffè Spinnato and Pasticceria Cappello (this is where you should get the setteveli). For cheap sandwiches, there are two historic musts: Pani Ca’ Meusa Porta Carbone (they only serve panini with milza and panelle) and Nni Franco U’ Vastiddaru. Finally, heading into Vucciria Market will yield fun places to drink with young locals, if that’s your thing.
Ultimately, Palermo alone offers much to explore. The interesting history and the amazing (and cheap) food make it a worthwhile destination. The city also serves as a good home base for day trips to nearby cities like Monreale, Cefalù, Bagheria, Trapani and Marsala. Additionally, the apparently lovely Agrigento is a two hour’s ride away. With all this combined, Palermo makes for a pretty magical stay, chaos and all.
I’ll close with some tips in no particular order:
– It’s fine to drink water from the tap
– Utilize side streets to get away from congestion and smog**
– Like the rest of Italy, pay at the cashier (cassa) before getting your food or drink
– Head to restaurants early if you want a seat
– There is a semi-hidden restroom in the Cattedrale di Palermo that requires an 80-cent donation
– Make sure things are open before visiting (even individual galleries can be closed, though they will often reduce admission prices)
– Save your tickets to attractions as you may get a discount or free admission to associated sites
– Try not to eat too much at once; arancine take up a surprising amount of stomach space
* Named in honor of two anti-mafia magistrates from Palermo who were assassinated by the Sicilian mob in the early 90s (thanks for the comment, Angelo Chiello!)
** But stay close to main streets and remain aware, lest you become a target for thieves or inadvertently wander into dangerous territory (thanks for the comment, Alessia Valenti!)
And now the photos (hover over for details)…