48 Hours in... Palermo
In a glorious setting against a mountainous backdrop, facing out to the Tyrrhenian Sea, Sicily’s capital, Palermo, is an irresistible jumble of Unesco-listed Arabian and Norman architecture. Despite its jaw-droppingly beautiful palaces, churches and piazzas, the city doesn’t feel overly-primped for tourists, plus there’s authentic (and delicious) street food, and a vivacious-verging-on-chaotic street life that resembles a Fellini outtake.
WHY GO NOW?
If you’re looking for balmy weather, then Palermo is far enough south to bask under bright blue skies for much of the winter. With fewer tourists and cooler weather, now is the ideal time to explore the city, and its opera and ballet season, at the magnificent Teatro Massimo, lasts until May.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Sicily is off the southeastern coast of mainland’s Italy Calabria, adjacent to the toe of Italy’s vertiginously heeled boot. Palermo, on the north coast, is accessible via flights from all over Europe, by boat from numerous Italian ports as well as Valletta in Malta, and by train from Rome and Naples. Its city centre is eminently walkable. The Quattro Canti piazza is where the city’s four historic quarters meet.
On the marina, the exquisitely restored five-star Grand Hotel Villa Igiea lives up to its name and marries antique frescoes and antiques with contemporary comforts. The infinity pool is overlooked by a small Roman temple, and there are fabulous views over the marina and Gulf of Palermo. Alternatively, city-centre four-star Mercure Palermo Excelsior has a great location, comfortable rooms and a sunflower-yellow 19th-century facade.
DID YOU KNOW...
Sicily is famous for its desserts, but one of the most curious is dedicated to Sicily’s St Agatha, who suffered the horrifying fate of having her breasts lopped off. In a tribute to her, these are – yes – round buns, topped with white icing and with a cherry-nipple on top, called the ‘Minne di Sant’Agata’ – the breasts of St Agatha.
Palermo has some fantastic street food, so it’s worth taking advantage of one of the local foodie tours, which will guide you to the best of the local snacks. Tours often combine a historical tour with tastings, and you’ll get to explore one of Palermo’s famous local markets.
A FUSION OF FLAVOURS
With many occupiers over the centuries, Sicily’s past is stitched into its cuisine, with flavours dating back to Greek, Roman, and Arabic times. Sicilian specialities include arancini, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with meat or cheese. Caponata is a zingy salad made from aubergine, olives, capers and celery, served cold. Sfincione is a doughy deep-pan pizza, traditionally topped with tomatoes, onions and anchovies. Palermo favourites include not-for-the-fainthearted pane con la milza (veal spleen sandwiches) and stigghiola, skewers of barbecued lamb or kid intestines.
A CULTURAL AFTERNOON
A florid mix of east-meets-west styles, Palermo Cathedral was built on the site of the former rulers’ mosque in the 12th century, but has been remodelled many times. A highlight is climbing to its rooftop for stupendous views. Close by is the 12th-century Palazzo dei Normanni, seat of Sicily’s rulers and now home to the regional assembly, but you can visit the royal chambers and the mesmerising mosaics of the 12th-century Cappella Palatina. A short walk from here are the extraordinary Capuchin catacombs. It became a status symbol to be buried here from the 17th to 19th centuries, and visitors can still see the mummified bodies of bygone Palermo glitterati, neatly dressed in their Sunday best. Emerging into the fresh air, a stroll around the marina is good for regaining your composure.
All over Italy, this is the time when Italians begin to think of aperitivo, whereby you commence the evening with a drink and some snacks. To soak up some local atmosphere, try Bar Garibaldi, on Via Alessandro Paternostro. It’s part of a series of nooks and corners on the same street, all part of the same bar. Eclectic tracks and interesting books abound, and you’ll be surrounded by cool, young and not-so-young locals hanging out, playing cards and sipping sundowners.
DRESSING FOR DINNER
Palermo offers everything from relaxed trattorie, to fine dining restaurants. For the former, try out the rambling Caffè del Kassaro on Via Vittorio Emanuele, with platefuls of steaming punchy pasta dishes, for the latter there’s Osteria dei Vespri, which offers more sophisticated Sicilian cuisine and has a white arched interior or tables outside on the charmingly ornate Piazza Croce dei Vespri.
NIGHT OUT ON THE TOWN
19th-century, elaborately colonnaded Teatro Massimo on Piazza Verdi is one of Europe’s most opulent opera houses – in a pretty competitive field – with a gold-meets-red- velvet, box-lined auditorium under its frescoed dome. Does it look familiar? The final scenes of The Godfather Part III were shot here. Now is prime time to catch an opera or ballet, as the season lasts from October to May.
It’s worth heading out of the city to enjoy some of the surrounding countryside and wonder at another jaw-droppingly beautiful cathedral, at Monreale, with some of Italy’s finest Norman architecture and fantastical gilded mosaics.
The four roads leading outwards from the Quattro Canti are worth browsing for local ceramics, whose brilliant colours blaze with Sicilian sunshine. For fabulously decorative dishware and fruit-crowned portraits, try Tre Erre on Via Roma.
Don’t leave Palermo without tucking into a cannolo, a crispy pastry shell filled with sweet ricotta. Taste some of Palermo’s most heavenly cannoli at Pasticceria Cappello on Via Colonna Rotta.