Palermo is hauntingly beautiful.
When we were booking our bank holiday weekend away, I had a sudden change of heart. Instead of heading to Eastern Europe, I decided I wanted some sun, in a far-fetched hope that maybe I could get a little bit of a tan for our wedding (which was a full month later…). After checking out the south of France and Bari, we found flights to Sicily that were relatively inexpensive. This YouTube video further sold us on our destination.
Palermo was the center of the Sicilian mafia, and that connection to the mob can be felt in the city to this day. You fly into an airport named after a judge, Giovanni Falcone, who was killed by the mafia at the height of their power. On the way into the city, you pass another memorial to him and the others, his wife and police escorts, who lost their lives in that bombing. After decades of corruption, you get the sense that Palermo is a city past its prime.
We arrived at night, and the roads to our Airbnb definitely looked sketchy. In the dark, all we could see were run down buildings, tons of graffiti, and a sense of emptiness in the city. When the sun rose the next day, we could actually see the city which is so beautiful in its dilapidatedness.
We planned two days of trips outside Palermo for our first two days (to Erice and Segesta and then to Cefalú), which was definitely the right call. The areas we explored outside Palermo are definitely more tourist-friendly. Palermo itself is raw and gritty. Many parts of the city are basically falling down. There’s trash, though not as much as my research had led me to anticipate.
Unlike many of the places we’ve visited in Italy, finding someone who can speak English is not a given in Palermo. Though the city appears to be in decay, there are many, many families, especially young families. For every incredible, gorgeous, amazing church, there are still many others that have been boarded up and left to rot.
The bank holiday weekend was an excellent time to visit because of Palermo’s May Day celebrations. We really picked the right day to spend in Palermo, the Monday, which was May Day. It was such a special time to be there.
In Boston, we lived in the North End before our move to London. The North End is known as the Italian neighbourhood of the city, but after visiting Palermo, we now know that the neighbourhood and its traditions were probably influenced by Sicilian Italian immigrants. The things we saw that day had a vague sort of familiarity and homeyness from my three years living in the North End. It was really special.
We walked through street festivals and wandered around family barbeques held in the little streets. As we took in the sights of the city, we were surrounded by families dressed up for the weekend’s festivities.
I’ve waxed poetic. Palermo had that effect. It is unlike any place I’ve ever been, and I’m so glad we went there. Sicily is truly beautiful, in a way that is different from other European places we’ve visited.
Cattredale di Monreale
Take a cab up to Monreale and go see the beautiful Norman cathedral. It shouldn’t be very expensive, around €10, so don’t let them talk you into a much more expensive ride. Once we got there, the May Day street fair had started with drum corps and singers proceeding out front. It was quite a scene!
We walked inside and were stunned. You will marvel at the beautiful interior and the incredible craftsmanship.
Can you believe it was started in 1174? The detail is incredible.
You can climb to the top of the duomo, so we purchased tickets and headed up there. It is well worth it for the view over Palermo!
We took a cab back into the city and directly to the Norman Palace or Palazzo Normanni. Built in the 9th century, this palace has and continues to be a very important building to the governing of Sicily, having been home to many of its kings and now serving as the seat for the the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
To be perfectly honest, the palazzo was somewhat anticlimactic after our grand Monreale adventure. The rooms were pretty bare and the famous Cappella Palatina has similar design elements to Cattredrale Monreale (I was getting confused while sorting through my pictures!).
After that, we wandered around. On the weekends, the city closes down the main streets to traffic to make way for pedestrians and tourists. It gives the city a nice feeling, with so many people out and about. The main thoroughfares are fairly well-kept, but as soon as you step off them, the crumbling begins again.
I really wanted to see one particular church, the Chiesa del Gesù, but other than that we mostly meandered, past the Cattedrale di Palermo and the many piazzas lining Via Vittorio Emmanuele.
We cruised by the Fountain of Pretoria, but it was closed for repairs.
We wandered through the Ballaro again, which unfortunately was mostly closed for May Day.
The Chiesa del Gesù, however, did not disappoint. It is stunningly beautiful.
I meannnn, wow. Overall, we had a lovely day in Palermo!
Andrew found us a charming Airbnb in Castellammare. Rolling up to it in the dark, you may not have realised that it was, in fact, a nice neighbourhood, but almost every night there was live music and people out and about. It was a great area, walking distance to most sights.
Our Airbnb had a balcony, which was fabulous.
It was very close to the charming Piazza San Domenico, where we caught this scene at the Chiesa on our return from Cefalú:
Palermo was not the easiest place to find gluten free options. It is on the ocean, so I ate a lot of seafood! It was wonderful. The best meal we had in Palermo was lunch on our last day. After wandering through the city streets, we happened upon a beautiful piazza and enjoyed a fabulous meal. In Piazza Bologni, off of Via Vittori Emannuele, is Ristorante Carlo V. Go when it is sunny, sit outside and admire the views while eating delicious Italian food!
Our first night we wandered through the Ballaro and then came upon two adorable restaurants, Gangini Restaurant Social and Bocum Mixology. Unfortunately, Gangini filled up before we could snag a table, but the apertivo we had at Bocum was fabulous.
We tried some other spots, including one restaurant whose name I can’t remember (will consult my fellow travellers!), which we chose for its great reviews on TripAdvisor. It wasn’t all that great, but certainly memorable. Palermo is home to many, many cats. We were seated outside in a sort of tent for our meal and every few minutes we’d hear a “BOOM!” and then scurrying feet overhead. You could see the paw prints through the tented ceiling! It would appear that the restaurant is directly in the path of a “cat superhighway” and they ran over all throughout our meal. It was hilarious.
The food that stands out from our time in Palermo was the little gelateria down the street from our Airbnb – Gelateria la Kala. We stopped in there all three nights we spent in Palermo and the man working there knew just what we liked by the time we left. It was great. I mean check out this chocolate selection!
I’ll take this moment to give a bon vivant shout to Sicilian wines. Wow! Their wines are SO good. Seriously. So good. Mainland Italian wines get all the glory, but Sicilian wines are consistently excellent and they tend to cost less. I’m pictured here outside, in front of a beautifully uplit dilapidated building enjoying our first red of the trip:
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I prepared like a good little bon vivant and would order Sicilian wines with my dinner when we were out. I was surprised to love each of them! Sicily has volcanic soil and you can taste a bit of ashiness in the reds. Delicious. The whites are also delicious.
I had the best sparkling wine of my life there in Palermo. No joke. It was delicious. I made the barkeep at Bocum bring me the bottle so I could take a picture. My attempts to email the winery and ask if they distribute to the UK (I mean come on, I’d be the most popular member of the AWC rolling up to events with a bottle or two of this stuff!), have proven fruitless as, alas, they have not responded to me. So, I’ll just remain average amongst my peers and hope that some day I’ll cross paths with this vino spumante once again, so that my celebrations are bubbly and delicious.
Palermo has a bustling nightlife. Two of the three nights we were there, there was excellent live music outside in our neighborhood. One night we could barely get home because of all the people crowding the streets around the band! Bars and restaurants set up seats along the streets and people grabbed drinks and bites to eat at the outdoor markets. It was lovely for warm spring nights.