The Palermo City Guide was created in collaboration with the talented writer, food-lover & current Sicilian resident, Henna Garrison.
Sicily is a world apart from mainland Italy and Palermo is a city that embodies the Sicilian atmosphere wholeheartedly. It’s surprising and seductive: the gritty alleyways, chaotic markets, and noisy streets blend easily with elegant architecture, pockets of peaceful green and some of the most unique churches you will find in all of Italy. It’s a city that has been built and rebuilt, conquered, divided and united, and exposes its vulnerability and diversity at every corner. But at the same time it is in a league of its own: stunning views, wide smiles and abundant food welcome any eager visitor willing to open their heart to such a unique spot.
Cattedrale di Palermo - Piazza della Cattedrale - A blend of cultures, this enchanting church was first the site of a Byzantine basilica and later converted into a mosque, but the current structure you see today was erected as a church in 1185. Various additions and modifications provide a rich mix of architectural styles ranging from Norman to Gothic and Catalan.
Palazzo dei Normanni - Piazza Indipendenza, 1 - Current home to the Sicilian Parliament, this elegant palace was originally built in the ninth century for the Arab Emir. It was elaborated on during Norman rule but later neglected until the Spanish viceroy reclaimed it as his residence. Inside you’ll find the beautifully mosaiced Palatine Chapel, the rich Royal Apartments and the Hall of Hercules, where Parliament sits. The adjacent park grounds outside are beautiful to explore as well.
Cappella Palatina - Piazza Indipendenza, 1 (inside the Norman Palace) - Consecrated by the Normans in 1140, the mosaics in this court church are unparalleled. You’ll be dazzled by rich colors and bold gold and an interior feeling of harmony between Latin, Byzantine and Arabic styles.
Quattro Canti - Intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda - This is no ordinary crossroads. Between 1608 and 1620 the Roman architect Giulio Lasso designed this beautiful junction to join the two main streets of Palermo: one leading to the sea and the other leading to the hills. Notice stunning concave facades at each corner and fountains at ground level with sculpted figures and classical Greek columns.
Teatro Massimo - Piazza G. Verdi - The third largest theater in Italy, this 3,200-seat theater was built between 1875 and 1897 by Giovanni Battista Basile and his son Ernesto. Check the ticket office for day-of deals, or 8 euros will get you a 45 minute guided tour inside the building. It’s worth a peek!
Orto Botanico - Via Lincoln, 2 - Tucked back along the sea by the central train station, the Botanic Garden covers 11 hectares and houses more than 12,000 species of plants from all over the world. It’s worth a visit if you’re looking for some calm amidst the craziness of Palermo's streets.
Fontana Pretoria - Piazza Pretoria - This stunning fountain outside of the Municipal Hall was designed by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani between 1554 and 1555 for the Tuscan villa of Don Pedro di Toledo. But in 1573 the city of Palermo bought and installed the fountain in attempt to compete with the newly created Fontana di Orione of Messina. The creative creatures spouting water are both whimsical and terrifying.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini - Piazza Cappuccini, 1 - If you’re feeling brave, head underground to visit the catacombs where you’ll find about 8,000 mummified corpses of all ages and styles, dressed to impress. Not for the faint hearted.
Teatro Politeama - Piazza Ruggero Settimo - The second most important theater in Palermo and home to the Symphony Orchestra, this neoclassical style theater is as beautiful inside as out.
Monreale - Monreale isn’t quite in Palermo's city center: it’s a tiny hill-town famous for its exquisite mosaics in the town’s Norman cathedral. It’s worth the bus ride just for the views.
If you’ve indulged in a typical Sicilian breakfast of granita and brioche (flavored slushies stuffed into a freshly baked sweet bread), then you’ll probably won’t be hungry for a sit-down meal. Which is perfect because Palermo is the city for street food. Anywhere you see a covered basket and a boisterous man yelling, there’s probably good food hiding. Here are some of our favorites.
Mercato Ballarò - At this never-ending open air market, trust your gut and go with what looks good and fresh. From enormous pots of boiled potatoes and artichokes to baked ricotta slabs spread with olives and just made caponata, you’re bound to find something that strikes your fancy.
Franco u Vastiddaru - Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 102 - The place for the traditional pani ca’ meusa (not for vegetarians, this delicious sandwich is stuffed with innards). The classic version is served hot with salt and lemon, or alternatively try it with Caciocavallo cheese or ricotta. For a less meaty alternative try pane panella (a simple sandwich filled with fried chickpea flour). You can take away or take your chance getting a table. Best enjoyed under the sun with an ice-cold beer.
Buatta Cucina Popolana - Via Vittorio Emanuele, 176 - The street food taste but in a hip atmosphere if you feel like giving your legs a rest. We prefer the window seats so you can watch the action go by.
Antica Foccacceria San Francesco - via Alessandro Paternostro 58 - Another great place to taste a variety of local street food specialties in a charming old building facing the Saint Francis Church. Grab your selection of foods at the counter and enjoy your lunch in the upstairs seating area. Plus they have a great assortment of Sicilian pastries for dessert!
Bar Touring - Viale Alcide De’ Gasperi 237 - In front of the Botanic Gardens is this unassuming bar that makes delicious arancini (deep fried rice balls with a variety of fillings) of unparalleled dimensions.
COFFEE & PASTRIES
Pasticceria Cappello - Via Colonna Rotta, 68 (7 veli) - Truth be told the coffee is nothing to shake a stick at, just regular old Illy. But you’ll need it to jump start yourself out of the sugar coma that this legendary pasticceria will give you. For chocolate decadence look no further than the Settestrati (or Sette veli) cake.
Ideal Caffè Stagnitta - Discesa dei Giudici, 42 - Here they roast their own coffee, so expect a powerful punch from their house blend espresso. Don’t forget to order a brioche (they even have coffee flavored) to go along with your mid-morning or afternoon caffeine. Take a peek inside their bottega next door for all sorts of typical sweet treats, coffee by the bean, and artisanal jams etc.
Bar Tearoom - Piazza Marina, 2 - Your typical Italian cafe experience where you have to jostle to get your order in but then can sit back (inside or out) and enjoy a cappuccino and a treccia (a sugar coated braided bread) while you watch the world wander by.
Gelateria Brioscia - Via Mariano Stabile, 198,
Cremolose - Piazza Alberico Gentili, 16
Peppe Cuti Al Gelatone - Via dell'Autonomia Siciliana, 9
Spillo La Birroteca - Cortile di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, 2 - Beer lovers rejoice. You’ll find over 100 different brews to choose from and a decent selection of snacks if you’re feeling like you want to nibble before dinner.
Champagneria Bottiglieria del Massimo - Via Salvatore Spinuzza, 59 - Watch the action go by at this hole in the wall that has a surprisingly complex drink list. From top-tier rums to local beers, something for everyone.
Cioccolateria Lorenzo - Via IV Aprile, 7 - For an alternative aperitivo, head to this intimate pastry place for a warm tea or a sparkling prosecco alongside something sweet.
Caffe del Teatro Massimo - Piazza Verdi, 29 - For an elegant and quiet aperitivo, try the outdoor tables at Teatro Massimo. Secluded and sophisticated. Sundays around noon they often have jazz.
Osteria Ballaro - Via Calascibetta, 25 - They have both a casual enoteca area and a more formal dining room, but either way you’ll be treated to delicious dishes with fresh, local ingredients.
Osteria Mercede - Via Pignatelli Aragona, 52 - For fresh fish head here and you’ll have a tough time making a choice. Make sure to call ahead to reserve your spot.
Trattoria il Vecchio Mafone - Via Judica, 22 - Another spot for great seafood at a good price. Try any of their pasta dishes, but we’re partial to the Nero di Seppia (Squid ink pasta.)
Mercato Antico - Piazza Marina - Stroll around this piazza on Sundays for funky vintage finds.
Libreria Easyreader - Via Alessandro Paternostro, 71 - Cute and curated, this bookshop has items for not just native Italians. Hand-painted postcards and small gift items are tucked in between shelves of books.
Dudi Di Tetamo Maria Romana - Via Quintino Sella, 71 - “A bookstore for kids...but not only” is the slogan at this sweet shop filled with kid and non-kid items.
Link.02 - Via Gaetano Daita, 55 - For some fresh fashion finds, head here and see what’s new.
Palermo Airport: Falcone–Borsellino Airport (PMO)
Airport shuttle: A shuttle runs about every half hour to and from the airport to the central train station, making stops throughout the city center. One way costs 6.30 euro, round trip 11 euro. You can purchase on the bus, online, or at the airport as you exit from baggage claim. The trip takes around an hour, more or less depending on traffic and time of day.
Train Station: Palermo Centrale - Tickets can be purchased at the ticket counter or from automated vending machines. You can reach Palermo all the way from Milan by train if you are truly feeling brave! As with all Italian trains, validate your ticket in one of the many green machines on the platform before you board.
City Bus: There’s a fairly decent city bus route but traffic can be intense, so be ready for unpredictable schedules. Tickets can only be bought from Tabaccheria, some bars or newsagents and cost €1.30 for a 90 minutes of riding time. You must stamp the ticket in one of the machines near the entrances of the vehicle upon boarding.
Tourist trains and hop on/off bus: There are some small trains and a hop on/off bus that circulate the main city center sites. It may be worth it if you’re travelling with children or only have a short time.
On foot: Our choice for navigating Palermo. Break out your sneakers and get ready to pound some pavement. Palermo is best explored on foot if you want to get a true sense of the city.
Taxis: Are expensive! Be prepared to cough up some dough if you want a private ride. There are shared taxis that are not as reliable when it comes to destination, but can be a good choice to or from the airport or train station.
Car: May luck be with you if you choose to rent a car! Driving in Palermo is not particularly recommended as most of the streets are closed to non-resident traffic. If you do drive into the city, try finding a reasonable garage to stow your car for the duration of your visit. Sicilian drivers are notoriously crazy, but it is a good way to explore outside of the big city.
Bike: It’s not too common to see bikers on the busy streets of Palermo. Again, our advice, stick to your own two feet.
**Need a toiletry case for all your travels? Or want a souvenir to remember your trip to Palermo? Check out the Palermo Dopp Kit, handmade with Italian vegetable tanned leather! **