After the sun rose on the next morning on the 12-hour train ride from Rome to Palermo, finally we could see an incredible view. The tracks were right along the northern coast of Sicily and it felt like we were riding right next to the waves. We could also see Cefalù (a seaside, historic town popular for beach-goers) as we rode past, a beautiful, scenic town that given more time we would have definitely liked to stop there for a day or two. We disembarked from the train just before 11am and the sun was shining. It was difficult to believe we were in the middle of winter.
The train station is quite close to the city center, but your first impression of Palermo when stepping out of the station is a loud and clear indication that Palermo isn’t the most prepared or inviting towards tourists. It’s certainly not that they aren’t friendly people, the city is just not very practiced at making things simple and clear for visitors. This wasn’t a drawback for me, but I could see that a lot of travelers, especially if they had just come from Rome as their first time leaving the comforts of their home, would be very taken aback when comparing Palermo with Rome’s abundance of English and ease of touring. Immediately upon leaving the train station you must navigate the streets of Palermo without any crosswalks (or meaningless crosswalks), and watch the vehicle traffic lights so that you can cross diagonally into the middle of the street and wait for the other oncoming cars to stop at their light so that you can cross again.
Where to Stay
You should definitely stay in or near the neighborhood of Palermo called Il Capo. It was an extremely central location, convenient to all the main sites of the city and has a really cool bazaar-like vibe to it. We stayed in a very spacious and reasonably priced Airbnb apartment that we had to ourselves.
Where to Eat/Drink
It’s incredible not only how many restaurants in Italy cater to many dietary needs, but also that the locals all go there and also recommend them to tourists. Every vegan/vegetarian restaurant we visited in Italy was fantastic and this one was no exception. A complete meal for lunch was about 10 Euros and about 15 Euros for dinner. The perfect place if you are vegetarian, celiac or simply want organic food. I ordered a vegan ragù because how often as a vegetarian myself do I get the chance to eat ragù? Alex had a soup with mini spaghetti noodles and we both got a glass of wine. Everything was fantastic!
The place to go for all of Sicily’s famous ‘snack’/street food bites. They have enormous arancine which are fried, stuffed rice balls usually filled with a kind of ragù and in Palermo are round like an orange, hence the name (arancina means orange in Italian). It may be important to note that only in Sicily is it spelled arancina/arancine (plural). Other parts of Italy spell it arancino/arancini. Sicilians seem to be more or less prideful of the distinction.
A rustic and inviting bar that’s great to go to for aperitivi (pre-dinner drinks meant to stimulate appetite). I enjoyed a Spritz with Prosecco and Aperol, an incredibly typical Italian cocktail.
Just across the street from Il Siciliano, another excellent spot for aperitivi in Palermo. The space has a great vibe that’s warm and relaxed and a fairly young crowd. I had another typical Italian cocktail: Campari Soda. If you have had Campari Sodas in the U.S. or elsewhere, definitely give them another try in Italy if you aren’t a fan. I found that the times I had tried them back home, the bartenders definitely did not get the ratio right and found the ones in Italy to be very appetizing. We also tried a Bellini which is made with Prosecco and peach purée-also delicious.
Do not miss this lunch or dinner spot! Alex and I tried to go here our first day in Palermo but we got intimidated and turned away. The reason we left was because the tables are very small and the restaurant was packed. The server motioned for us to sit and share a tiny table with a scowling couple that had just been seated there. We took one look at them and decided we would not enjoy our own meals by imposing on the unfriendly couple. You will find though as we did, that sharing tables is very common all throughout Sicily. Fortunately we went back early the next day (about 1pm) and got our own table to enjoy one of the best meals we had in Sicily. The space is extremely cool and stylish and the food is delicious and affordable. Definitely enjoy an espresso (the technical term because you actually just order a caffe) after your meal!
Antica Focacceria San Francesco
This restaurant was founded in 1834, it’s an institution in Palermo and survived even the darkest times in Palermo. It may not have the best street food in the city, but for the history and the name, it is definitely worth a visit! You order at the counter and grab a table to eat your local Palermitan snacks. The neighborhood it is situated in is really interesting as well.
Getting to Know Palermo
After arriving in Palermo, settling in and eating lunch, our first instinct was to go check out the water. We passed by a few sites including a Banyan fig tree more than 150 years old and one of the largest in Europe. Then we went to a new park along the waterfront where there were tons of stray dogs fucking. It was a pretty dingy place and the rest of the waterfront seemed dirty and kind of pitiful as well. Fortunately we later read more about Palermo’s history and grew to respect its rough vibes and we also realized that the waterfront is just about the shittiest part of the city for a reason.
The years 1950-1960 were dark years in the city and known as the “sack of Palermo”. The Mafia reigned and many liberty villas were destroyed, replaced with ugly concrete apartment blocks. The historical centre was largely abandoned and the city began to expand northward. Although in 1990 a few metro stations were opened and the historical center started to become reclaimed, the years 1992-1993 was the period of the bombs. The Mafia started to change their strategy and become really aggressive. Many policeman, politicians and judges were killed. Fortunately the Palermitans were finally sick and tired and started a real protest and “the Primavera” of Palermo began.
The coastline of Palermo has been about the last area of the city to be cleaned and restored. Although it is gorgeous to look out at the sea, it makes perfect sense that at least for now the waterfront of Palermo is definitely not its highlight and we didn’t spend anymore time there before we left the city.
Alex tried an arancina before heading back to the Airbnb to do research on Palermo. Then we left to go out for aperitivi (pre-dinner drinks) at Il Siciliano.
After we each had a cocktail we went to Mercato Vucciria. Our time hanging out that night at the Mercato was the quintessential Palermo experience for us. Tons of people were there, primarily hanging out in an alleyway and buying drinks from this liquor store/dive bar. There were children, young adults and middle-aged adults as well. The alley was filthy, puddles of mysterious liquids and flattened cardboard boxes were littering the ground. A couple children about 6-10 years old were riding mopeds through the crows and a few others were selling cigarettes and lighters to the locals. Everyone seemed to know each other and every time someone new joined they would be greeted with hugs and kisses. There were also a couple of large stray dogs that kept running through the crowd of people nearly toppling us over a few times. It was definitely a cool experience and not one I expected to have in Italy.
For a late dinner we headed to the beer bar called Spillo, passing the cathedral and some other sites along the way. I definitely do not recommend this bar. The beer was extremely expensive and they were out of most of the few beers they had. The food was nothing to write home about and certainly not Italian, it was American type bar food e.g. onion rings, burgers, etc.
Second Day in Palermo
The morning of our last full day in Palermo we slept in for the first time in a few weeks and then headed to an amazing restaurant called Bisso Bistrot for an early lunch, about 1pm. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around a ton. We walked through the different neighborhoods and got to know the distinct vibes that each possessed. There were a lot of buildings in ruins and many parts definitely had a northern African vibe going on. We also saw all of the main sites we had saved on our maps to use offline including the Palermo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) and the Fontana Pretoria, which when it was first unveiled in 1575, the outcry was so loud it could be heard across the city. In time, Palermitans learned to live with this outrage although afterward referred to it as ‘the fountain of shame’.
Still fairly full from lunch, we later went for a light dinner to Antica Focacceria San Francesco for some cannoli and a slice of pizza.
The next morning we woke up early to catch the bus to Siracusa at 8am. The next and last bus for the day wasn’t until 2pm. Fortunately the bus station was right next to the train station and it was about 12 Euros each. The ride from Palermo was about a 3 hour trip. I was nervous that it wouldn’t make a stop so I didn’t drink any water that morning in case I had to use the bathroom. It did end up making a stop half way though at a gas station somewhere in the middle of the island which was a relief.
You may not end up leaving Palermo thinking “I really want to move here as soon as possible” but you will hopefully have learned that Palermo’s colorful history is unmatched. You could devote your life’s work understanding the history of Palermo alone. The architecture, the changing periods of rulers and influence, the recent history with the mafia, etc. everything about Palermo is fascinating. It’s difficult to grasp in just a few days and you will surely leave Palermo only more curious about how this city’s history has shaped the way it is today.
Knowing embarrassingly little about Palermo when we first arrived, we found this list completely resonated with us as we started exploring the city. I know that someday I will find myself back in Palermo, its contrasts and hidden secrets will pull me back.
Palermo is difficult to describe
Palermo is sensual and fascinating
Palermo is chaotic
Palermo is an Arabian city not Muslim
Palermo is a city that changes continually
Palermo has blinding light
Palermo is a bridge between east and west
Palermo is a hell of traffic and smog
Palermo is near yet exotic
Palermo is the most European of North African cities
Palermo is not clean
Palermo in summer is an experience on the edge of reality
Palermo in spring and autumn is an experience on the edge of paradise
Palermo is exuberant
Palermo is a city of contrasts
In Palermo public transport works badly
Palermo has an eclectic, multiform beauty
Palermo has marvellous gardens, although they are more than often hidden
In Palermo you can eat anything, any time, any place
In Palermo you come across fantastic markets
In Palermo you can get around on foot
Palermo is a huge bazaar on the border of Europe
Palermo can be frightening but it is not dangerous
Holidays in Palermo are exciting
Palermo is sweet and sour, like many of its culinary dishes
In Palermo hospitality does not know the meaning of the word ‘private’
Palermo is a province with cosmopolitan scars
Palermo is by the sea, but sometimes this goes forgotten
Palermo is a word of Greek origin which means ‘all port’
Palermo is made of layers like an onion
Palermo has beautiful, dusty museums
Palermo is conflict between pleasure and boredom
Palermo is its Baroque churches and its Arabian water system
In Palermo there is the mafia, but the mafia is not like it is in the films
Palermo always seems different from what others have you told you it is like