Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Bourbons… There are many rules that have gone through all of Sicily; especially Palermo, being located in a strategic enclave of the island.
Later Art Nouveau at the beginning of the 20th century; starting point of the allied reconquering after the Second World War. Unfortunately, in recent decades, incompetence, corruption, and especially the Mafia or “Cosa Nostra” comes to our head when we talk about Sicily in general.
Despite all the bad reputation that there is regarding Palermo in terms of order, cleanliness and security, we were enormously seduced by the historical and cultural variety, the fame of its markets, the gastronomy, and the power to lose a little to know a little more, which is the reality and feel of today’s palermitani.
Since our time on the island was going to be limited (9 days), we could not book for Palermo more than a day, the first one. However we think it was enough to get an idea of the city and see the points of greatest interest. On the other hand, if you plan to go out to see Monreale and its famous cathedral or take a dip in the beaches of Mondello, maybe two to three days will be ideal.
HOW TO GET TO THE CENTER OF PALERMO FROM THE AIRPORT
Our adventure started at Palermo airport on a Saturday morning. We had been warned about the chaos of the city traffic and the difficulty of parking in the center. So we decided not to pick up the rental car, which we were going to explore the island from the first day. Instead we took a bus back and forth to Palermo center to return the next day to pick up our car. I would definitely recommend this option. You will save on rental days and gain in comfort.
To go by bus to the center you have to take the number 29 of the Prestia and Comandè Company. There are buses throughout the day making this way that leaves you at Piazza Giulio Cesare, the central bus station. You can check the schedules here. Although, in the web of the company indicate that the route is of 20 minutes, the truth is that it is superior to the 40 minutes. The price of the return ticket is € 10 per person.
WHERE TO STAY
The historical center of Palermo is a compendium of streets and narrow anarchic alleys. It remembers us the Arab architecture that we can see in Spanish cities, which were also under this rule distributed around 4 main areas or neighborhoods separated by the arteries of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and via Maqueda, with the famous and historic intersection of Quattro Canti in the center.
The areas that separate are the famous neighborhoods of Vucciria, La Kalsa, Capo and Albergheria.
After reviewing our dear Lonely and pointing out the spots that we consider of most interest, we decided to reserve our Airbnb in the neighborhood of Vucciria. With no doubt this neighborhood has something special and alive.
Only with the tour of the bus station to our accommodation we already come in direct contact with the peculiarities of the neighborhood and its people; a lot of noise, heat, and a portal literally falling to pieces, although the interior was completely renovated and clean.
This personally did not surprise me, since I had lived a year in Italy, in Perugia, during my Erasmus in 2011/2012. That’s why I was more than accustomed to seeing many historic buildings that were scary to enter from outside but once inside they surprised and delighted you.
Although each neighborhood, to us, has its charm, the one that we liked the most was the one of the Vucceria. That is why our recommendation is that you choose this neighborhood to stay and be seduced by the magic of Palermo where decadence and beauty go hand in hand.
discovering PALERMOin one day
Once we overcome that heavy duty that is in any trip: flight, airport, bus, suitcases etc.; and left all the luggage in the house, we leave at midmorning to the streets full of hope and desire to begin our journey and adventure.
MERCATO DELLA VUCCIRIA
VUCCIRIA IN THE MORNING
Our first contact with Palermo came looking in the streets and alleys that surrounded our accommodation trying to reach the famous Mercato Della Vucceria.
As we commented, the neighborhood had a rather run-down and decadent look, with historic and dirty buildings. Palermo, as well as other cities I’ve visited such as Naples and Havana, lets you glimpse an ancient era of heyday, culture, beauty and refinement that due to the needs of history has come down. In the market of the Vucciria was where we find these contrasts to be best represented.
Here, undoubtedly, also lies the originality and beauty of the city. In those contrasts and lights and shadows between art and flaking; markets with screams and empty alleyways in silence, dirty streets and portals, and clean interiors.
After walking several streets exploring the neighborhood, we reached the first places where the famous “Mercato di Vucciria” began. First some food stalls like fish, meat or fruit, leading to antiques and second hand stalls. There, they sold from old devices like Walkman’s and analog cameras to old relics: coins, newspapers and magazines of the Second World War. Around these booths were crowded bars of people taking the mandatory Italian aperitivi.
HERITAGE FROM A SPANISH EPOCH?
We left the market for one of the streets that ended in Piazza di San Domenico. In this square is the imposing Chiesa di San Domenico; the most important architectural work in the neighborhood of Vucciria.
Perhaps it is because we are accustomed to the trail of Madrid that comes to be a large Vucciria market, but this market did not surprise us as much as we expected. Just as the neighborhood itself loved it, the Vucciria market did not quite live up to our expectations.
VUCCIRIA BY NIGHT
Staying in this neighborhood we could see the contrast between day and night. After dinner and on our way to our lodging we began to listen to music that surrounded each alley. The same streets that in the morning were a bustling market at night were filled with teenagers wanting to party. Full bars, foosballs on the street, scooters going through impossible places, street food stalls. The icing on the cake, Piazza Garraffello where there was a DJ playing live.
Although the party itself and the appearance of people collided, very “bacalareo” style of 2000 in Spain (full face piercings, tank tops, tribal tattoos, noisy scooters and many shouts), we had no problem with anyone. All the young palermitanis were very friendly and eager to have fun.
At no time did we intend to investigate the night of Palermo. However we found it very curious and gave us a much more general view of the neighborhood. I invite you to discover this Side B of the Vucciria too.
After our daytime immersion in the Vucciria market, our tour continued towards the northwest looking for the neighborhood of Capo, whose first stop was the famous Teatro Massimo, which schedule is Tuesday to Sunday, 09:30 – 17:30. The price is € 8 with a guided tour. We unfortunately could not enter because it was, at that time, in renovations.
This theater is one of the best known and most photographed in the city. It is known worldwide for the final scene of The Godfather III. This film closes the saga in the stairs of this theater. It is undoubtedly one of the most emotional and best scenes in film history.
As for the mythical scenarios as for being a great approach to the modern Sicilian reality (besides being one of the great classics of the cinema) we recommend to see the saga of The Godfather. Especially if you are going to travel to Sicily)
MERCATO DI CAPO
After leaving the Teatro Massimo and walking to Palermo Cathedral, we stumbled -without realizing- the Mercato di Capo. This one, unlike Vucciria, impressed us and left open-mouthed: Streets after endless streets full of all kinds of posts. From furniture, chairs, art and antiques, to innumerable and varied stalls of food and snack per portare vía that made your mouth water.
Cries about prices and products, people, chaos, smells here we found the palermitani market that we had read and what we were looking for.
We had no setback. However it is necessary to mention that as in all places where there are agglomerations one has to be careful with rogues and pickpockets. It is important to have our cell phone, wallet or camera well controlled.
CATTEDRALE DI PALERMO
After Capo, we descend again southwards looking for the cathedral at the intersection with the busy Via Vittorio Emanuelle.
The Cathedrale di Palermo was built in Norman times, but with so much cultural passage it underwent numerous modifications and additions, mainly gothic cut.
The outside appearance is monumental, but nevertheless inside is quite austere. Its main interest is the Treasury of the Cathedral of Norman time and the crypt. Unfortunately we could not visit them as we were running short of time. Added to that, we had to pay an extra entrance to see the treasure, in addition to the basic entry of € 3.
CAPPELLA PALATINA AND PALAZZO DEI NORMANNI
A short distance from the cathedral and belonging to the neighborhood of Albergueria was our next stop. Without doubt the most famous point of interest of the city, La Cappella Palatina and Palazzo dei Normanni.
The Capella Palatina is a chapel of the Norman period. Just to enter leaves you without words. The floor is inlaid with marble, the ceiling with Mozarabic wood and already inside the most famous and best preserved Norman mosaics in the world, with a gold background and gemstone bezels. The illumination of the chapel makes it possible to see why Palermo was one of the principal capitals and axis in 12th century Europe.
Adjacent to the Chapel is the Palazzo dei Normanni, seat of the Sicilian Parliament and which we were lucky to visit since Monday to Thursday holds parliamentary sessions.
The group entrance to the Cappella Palatina and the Palazzo dei Normanni is priced at € 8.50. The hours are from 08:15 to 17:40.
CATACOMBE DEI CAPPUCCINI
As the day progressed, the heat became more and more intense. We noticed it especially in the walk that we took to another one of the most well-known and controversial points of Palermo: the Catacombe dei Cappuccini.
To reach them, the road is relatively easy from the Palazzo dei Normani. Follow the Via Vittorio Emanuele straight and then take the detour on the Cappuccini road. The walk will take about 25-30 minutes.
Le Catacombe dei Cappuccini (09-13 / 15-18, 3 €) are composed of several galleries. In them they are more than 8000 palermitanis of the centuries XVII and XIX. It is divided in different corridors correctly cataloged by gender, ages, profession, etc., finding sections of the Cappuccino monks themselves, nuns, children, teachers and even the aristocracy of the time.
Not all corpses are equally preserved, so we find from pure skeletons to embalmed bodies that allow to observe more details.
It would be too brave to deny how dantesque this visit is, especially when we did it. There was virtually no one and we got lost in countless halls surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of corpses. Suddenly a monk in a brown robes and hood that covered almost his entire face appeared. Before that scene Ascen could not help shouting. We do not know with certainty if the scene seemed comical to the monk or if he was frightened by the scream; he disappeared down a corridor and we did not see him again.
Continuing back to the historic center, we could not miss one of the most well-known points of the city. The intersection of Quattro Canti already mentioned above.
It is located at the crossroads of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele Avenue with the Via Maqueda. Thus divide the four quadrants of the four neighborhoods (La Kalsa, Vucciria, Capo and Albergheria). This intersection consists of a square surrounded by a circle of historic buildings forming a unique perspective.
It was built inspired in the Quattro fontane of Rome in the 17th century. It emphasizes above the effect of the sun illuminating the different facades with the passage of the hours. It is as if it were a solar clock. For that reason also it was nicknamed “Il teatro del sole”.
The architecture of the façades is similar, changing the sculptures and inscriptions. The structure is as follows: 4 virgins at the top, 4 kings at the middle (including Charles V and Philip IV) and 4 springs at the base with 4 nymphs representing the 4 seasons.
Next to Quattro Canti, down to Vía Maqueda is the one that, for us, was the most beautiful square and fountain in Palermo, Piazza Pretoria, surrounded by Palaces and the imposing Fontana Pretoria in the center.
The fountain is covered with statues of nymphs, newts and gods. Unlike the rest of the city here everything is marble, lights and splendor. For a moment it moves you to the famous piazze and fontane of Rome, distancing you from the chipped palermitanis.
CHIESA DI SAN CATALDO
Following the direction of the street and just next to Piazza Pretoria we find the Chiesa di San Cataldo. We could not see its interior, since it was a wedding at that time. The print reminds of the descriptions of stone, sun and palm trees that Giuseppe de Lampedusa made in his book “Il Gattopardo”
CALA DI PALERMO
Our advance continued through the neighborhood of Kalsa to the Cala di Palermo; the oldest port in the city, where we took a leisurely walk, ending our visit to Palermo.
Our advice is to accompany your walk along this port with one of the flavor marvels of Sicily, the thousand flavors and types of granites, or crushed ice, ideal for cooling off the powerful Sicilian sun.
WHERE TO EAT
Our only day discovering Palermo gave us also delight our palates. More than planned meals we stopped to take anything in the middle of the road. For Ascen it was his first day in Italy so he wanted to try everything. An Arancino accompanied by a rich Estathé in Mercato Della Vucciria; a Trancio di pizza in Cattedrale di Palermo, the first of many gelatti di Pistacchio we ate along the whole trip…
The only time we sat down to eat, and even so was improvised, was at Pizza Ferrari.
We entered this place simply because it was the only thing we found open at 11pm. After this beating of day, we decided to do something strange, for us, when we travel: to take a nap. Nap that lasted 3 hours; when we got up there was not even an open restaurant. So when we found this pizzeria, which did not look bigger than a normal neighborhood pizzeria, we did not hesitate to enter. However, we were surprised by the incredible pizzas they made. This, accompanied by a Peroni, sent us to heaven. You just need to look at the menu to make you drool.
And this is another of Palermo’s highlights; that originality, improvisation and ability to surprise you when you do not expect it, architecturally, gastronomically and socially speaking.