Palermo is a clash–a battleground of sorts where class, lifestyle and cultural identity impose on one another everyday. For me, it’s an enigma.
Sicilians are the warmest people you’ll meet, but then again, they have a legacy of tensions with North Africa, of racism and xenophobia. Palermo has a wealth of Baroque architecture, but their definitive style is Arab-Norman architecture, and now, a burgeoning street art scene. They embrace the slow-cooking movement, but have legendary street food. They are equal parts finger-snapping street vendors, as languid, sunshine dwellers.
700k reside in the capitol of Sicily, the largest city on the largest island in the Mediterranean.
Palermo’s landscape is so stark and vivid, one can’t compare it to ‘postcard’ Italy–Rome, Venice, or the ever trending Florence. Personally, I believe that these destinations verify the beauty we know exists in Italy; but in Sicily, something lies unknown, undiscovered.
The city has a rough reputation. Palermo of today seems to be falling to pieces. But in all honesty, they don’t seem too broken up about it.
Despite the reputation, you step off the plane onto the tarmac.
The first trick; how does one get to the city?
A sweeping countryside with red, mountainous terrain out one window and a choppy sea outside the other, eventually your ride will reach the urban fringe.
Both commutes drop you near to the central walking street, Via Maqueda.
20h00 Dinner – Bisso Bistro
Via Maqueda, 172A, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
Drop your bags at your AirBnb and head straight to this place. Sumptuous, yet inexpensive, Bisso Bistro looks like something your favorite joint in Brooklyn is trying to replicate. Exposed ceilings, beams, funky chandeliers, chatty intellectuals, a bartender with a moustache who speaks English with a thick accent; they’re all here.
There’s probably a wait-list. Tutto Bene. It’s all good. Drink a 2€ glass of Sicilian wine on the street corner and sink into the surroundings. Then, prepare for an excellent introduction to Sicilian food.
I have the theory ☝🏽that Sicilian food is the original fusion cuisine.
No, really. It starts from 2 distinct origins, Italy (duh), and North Africa. And when you surround yourself with the agricultural diversity that’s available in Sicily, you get one of the more complex culinary traditions in the world.
🧀🍕🍝The Italian base lends pastas, pizza, tomatoes, garlic, cheese, etc.
🍚🍆🍊Northern Africa brings oranges, mint, saffron, rice, semolina, tuna, aubergine.
🦑🐙Geography lends terre et mer, calamari, octopus, olives, capers, dates, pistachios.
It’d be wrong to restrict Sicilian food to ‘Italian.’
Drinks – Bonter Bar
Across from Teatro Massimo (we’ll stop here later), down the dark, narrow alley Via Orologio, young Sicilians and Erasmus gather at night.
Bonter Bar is the best on the street. This cocktail bar houses a cast of stuck-in-the-30’s hipsters with large suspenders, pinstripe trousers and hand-knit shirts. But hey, with cocktails, they don’t play around.
They use high quality products, have a good vibe, and were also friendly enough to introduce me to the Italian jewel, Madame And Monsieur Gin from the Jerry Thomas Project. A lifelong friendship was forged.
10h00 – 11h00
Everything is at your disposal on this lovely, yet often hectic road. In the morning, however, it shows its calm side. Grab an espresso, cornets, and a table on a sunny terrace. Or check a couple of things off your list.
These landmarks are within a dozen steps from one another.
11h00 – 12h00
Al Pacino, Mr. Corleone, took his last seat here in Godfather 3. The theatre, 3rd Largest in Europe is well-kept, and renowned for its stellar acoustics. Its unique round structure should be worth the visit to Palermo by itself. 8€ for a 30-min tour of this spectacle.
While Massimo was known as the theatre for the Sicilian bourgeois, the other, Politeama was for the Sicilian middle class. I toured Politeama, and while still very beautiful, it needs refurbishing. Palermo doesn’t have a plan to make this happen any time soon, but it’s still worth a visit.
12h00 – 14h30
Castellamare & Kalsa
Breezy neighbourhoods by the water stand still as postcards. Small, winding roads with weathered buildings and fresh-swept streets. Balconies reach like an outstretched hand, ushering you through these visually stunning quarters.
Terraces, Piazzas, and Bistros–it’s the Sicilian version of diners, drive-ins and dives. Stop for grilled octopus, fresh calamari and a glass of white wine, or indulge with fat slices of Focaccia, while posting up on the corner facing some ancient fountain.
Afterwards, I recommend a good amount of wandering.
Gagini Social Restaurant – 👨🏻🎨🍤An elegant Sicilian, slow-food restaurant with stone interior, and large contemporary paintings.
Restorante Quattro Mani -🍝🍋A modern Sicilian restaurant sourced by organic, sustainable and almost exclusively local traders.
Flies buzz in summer heat; a motorbike leaves white pamphlets floating in its wake. An emptied Coca-Cola bottle lies strewn to the side of a black, empty alleyway.
This neighbourhood, a bit inland from the historical center of Palermo, hosts as a plethoric number of passageways, hidden landmarks, and the sprawling Ballaro market.
Turn the corner to yammering locals, and colors, vibrant colors. Green celery stalks, ruby tomatoes, and pink filets of swordfish. Fresh and local produce, seafood and street food, Ballaro Market is a reflection of the lush culture in Palermo.
Other Places of Interest:
Torri di San Nicolo di Bari – A tower open to the public with a view of the city.
Torre Dei Federic – Bed and Breakfast in a medieval building with Norman facade and baroque interior.
MoltiVolti -🍲🎨Coworking space/ colorful restaurant, ideal if you need to stop for a snack and wifi.
15h30 – 17h30
Palazzo dei Normanni
The pearl of Arab-Norman architecture, the Norman Palace. If you visit one thing in Palermo, this should be it.
The zenith of Palermo: origins tell that this area was initially a fortress during the Roman Empire. In the 9th century, North Africa invaded and conquered the Sicilian region. They prospered over a period of 200+ years in Sicily, and are believed to have begun the construction of this building. Then, the Normans arrived.
This gorgeous palace is actually a collaboration. The Normans hired Arabs to accomplish textile work to transform the fortified area into an ornate palace for the kings of Sicily.
The vivid golds and light blues from the North African region while the characters are painted in a Norman style.
Now, it also holds congress.
Nello Musumesci serves a five-year term as the President of Sicily, which is considered a region of Italy and has the power to establish its own laws.
18h00- 20h00 Apero
Mazzini 30 Taverna
A high end cocktail bar with elegant decor and an outside area. Sicilian charcuterie plates, among other delicious tapas.
Hic! La Folie Du Vin
Another option nearby with planchas accompanied by Sicilian wines instead of cocktails. A lively crowd in a small establishment.
Dinner – Frida
There is a pizzeria in Palermo that rivals any pie that I’ve had before, and its name is Frida.
Specializing in Roman and Neopolitan style pizza, this pizzeria leavens bread for 48 hours before using it. I have no idea what that does, but the pizza is excellent.
The secret is to forego the other two styles and order a Quadro, folded corners and stuffed crust. I’d heard of this only in legend.
Also; the place also seems to be a LGBTQ hub of Palermo. So, that’s cool.
7h00 Palermo Central
What? You didn’t know you were going to get up so early? My bad. But trust me, it’s worth it.
Cefalu is a beautiful, picturesque town of stone buildings, steep terrain, and radiant waters. Spend the day here. Yes, the entire day.
Lay your towel on the sand and watch the waves roll, gregarious Sicilians surround you, and seagulls bounce upon the current. Open up that book you haven’t touched since the flight.
The beach is entirely unpretentious, one of my favorite things about Sicily. I’ve never felt classed out of a place. I never received that condescending glance from an old rich lady, or a guy who feels like he deserves priority.
13h00 Antica Foccaceria
Mouthwatering slices of focaccia, stuffed calzones, proscuitto sandwiches, this place is perfect for a brown bag lunch, either by the ocean or on an open piazza. It’s the embodiment of the Sicilian dream.
Also, the eggplant pomodoro was heavenly.
14h00 Cefalu Cathedral
A 10th century Cathedral, Norman architecture, very well-maintained and beautiful.
I’d recommend heading back before it gets too late. Grab a coffee or an Apero back in Palermo before you catch the bus to the Airport. Make sure to allow plenty of time–my commute was easy, but I’ve read horror stories about late buses and a slow airport. Tutto Bene. Enjoy yourself, and leave a comment if you enjoyed your stay.
All photos are originals.