Palermo Recommendations

Teatro Massimo Palermo

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This is by no means a comprehensive guide to everything there is to do in Palermo, Italy. These are just the things I have done and suggest you do as well. For your convenience I’ll put a hyperlink glossary here so you can click and skip the intro and go to the section of interest.

  1. Safety – The Mafia!!!
  2. Getting to Palermo
  3. Transportation in Palermo
  4. Where to Stay
  5. What to Do
  6. Eats and Drinks

Introduction

Palermo is an awesome city. It’s become one of my favorite Italian cities, alongside Naples, and for similar reasons. Palermo is old – really old (profound, I know). But Palermo really shows its age, as does most of Sicily. You’ll see many buildings that externally appear to be crumbling and falling apart. You lean against a wall and pieces of it fall to your feet. But you go inside and find a renovated, bustling restaurant serving up Sicilian classics. 

It’s got beautiful architecture, amazing food, friendly people, great nightlife, and proximity to some of the most breathtaking beaches you’ve ever seen.

Porto Palermo
Porto Palermo

Safety – the mafia!

I frequent the ItalyTravel subreddit and often see people say something to the effect of “Going to Palermo – should I be concerned about The Mafia? Will I see them on the streets?”

Ok – I’m no expert in organized crime, but the likelihood of a tourist in Palermo encountering organized crime members first-hand is extremely low. Palermo organized crime is not quite what it once was. Do the Palermo No Mafia tour if you want to learn more. I’m sure it still exists – many poorer southern Italian cities have their history of this, and it lingers. 

The crime that tourists experience in Italy is usually petty crime like pickpocketing. The rates of petty crime are higher in cities further like Rome, Bologna, and Milan. For reference, reported crime in Italy is highest in Milan, and Palermo doesn’t even make the top 10

Sure – a car is probably more likely to disappear in Palermo (my local friends don’t leave their car anywhere without using one of those steering wheel locks). But you likely won’t be in that car when it disappears. 

So just go, enjoy, and don’t buy those stupid, tacky Godfather shirts from the market. You have better taste than that, come on. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Getting to Palermo

By Plane

The most efficient way to get to Palermo for most people (coming from mainland Italy or elsewhere in Europe) will be to fly. By plane, the most useful airport is Aeroporto di Palermo Falcone e Borsellino (PMO). Getting to and from the airport can be done via a simple train. The destination station will depend on where your lodging is. If you’re staying towards the southern side of the city center, you’ll want to go from Punta Raisi to Palermo Centrale (tickets for this route here). On the norther side, it will be Palermo Lolli (tickets here).

By Ferry

If you’re coming from somewhere like Naples, it might make sense to take a ferry. I always Direct Ferries for finding ferries because it shows all the options in one place (find a ferry here).

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By Train

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t Sicily an island? You know trains can’t swim, right?”  Well think again. Trains can swim. Well, kind of. If you think of Italy as a boot, the tip of the toe is about 2 miles (3 km) from kicking a Sicily-shaped soccer ball. Trains from the boot transfer onto a ferry, get transported across the water, and continue onto Sicily. It’s pretty amazing. Train on a boat. Steve Martin and John Candy missed out. 

train on a boat - strait of messina from Siciliy to Calabria
Train on a boat! This is from Calabria to Messina.

The train station that most people will want to get to is Palermo Centrale

  • From Catania: Catania Centrale to Palermo Centrale, approximately 3 hours and 40 minutes (buy train tickets on Trainline here).
  • From Tropea: Tropea to Palermo Centrale, approximately 5 hours (buy train tickets on Trainline here).
  • From Rome or Naples: In a few cases, it might make sense to take a night train. Trenitalia offers night trains on what’s called Intercity Notte. You’ll fall asleep around 10pm and wake up around 7am in Palermo. I detailed how this works here. The benefit to taking the train over flying is you have more flexibility with luggage. You don’t pay extra for a suitcase on a train.

My suggestion with buying train tickets in Italy is to skip the line at the machine and buy the tickets on Trainline. Please check out my post, Essential Resources for Italy Travel.

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Transportation in Palermo

Once you’re in Palermo, all transportation will be either by foot or taxi. Personally, I’ve never taken a taxi in Palermo. It’s very walkable and is mostly flat. I have a high tolerance for walking, and a 30 minute walk doesn’t bother me – but others may prefer a taxi.

Where to Stay In Palermo

For booking accommodations, my go-to services are Hostelworld and Booking.com. Booking.com has a cool Genius program that earns you discounts the more you book. 

Twice now I’ve stayed at A Casa di Amici, a hostel on the north end of the city. The staff and owners there are awesome, it’s got a great social vibe, organizes events, and has an Afro-drum circle kind of aesthetic. If you like hostels, I can’t recommend this one enough. 

If you want a more private experience, I also stayed at Camera Vento Porto Antico La Cala and would definitely recommend it again. It’s a simple place with just the essentials – a comfortable bed, bathroom, and coffee. It’s clean and well-located. It’s located on a busy (i.e. loud) street, but earplugs were included as a nice touch. 

FYI – Palermo is a loud and a bit hectic city, so most places you stay are unlikely to be peaceful.

If hostels aren’t your thing, or you just want to look around some more, just try to keep it within a 15 minute walk of Teatro Massimo and you’ll be close enough to everything.

Some hotel options to consider:

*Please note: as a frequent, solo traveler, I usually stay in hostels, not just for the cost savings, but also for the community experience. So, my hotel recommendations may not always be places I have personally stayed. However, most people want to stay in hotels, so I want to provide recommendations. I vet online reviews and geographical location for every place I recommend, and will only recommend places that I would stay myself if budget allowed.

Things to Do and See

Walk around the city – this is one of my favorite things to do in Palermo because it’s so easy to get lost in the old streets, and there’s always a picturesque setting hiding around every corner. If you’re interested in learning more, you can do a walking tour like the Palermo No Mafia tour or a street food and history walking tour.

Visit a Sicilian street market to see classic Sicilian market culture. The more well-known ones are Mercato del Capo, Mercato di Ballarò, and Vucciria. I could just post up at one of these markets and eat, drink, and people watch all day.

Palermo market street food
POV: Me posted up at Mercato del Capo.

Market trip + cooking class – for a unique experience, take a cooking class where you first go to a Sicilian market with your teacher to buy the ingredients – learn more here.

For finding guided tours in Palermo, click the link below to check out GetYourGuide.

Teatro Massimo in Palermo is the largest opera house in Italy, known for its grand architectural design and its capacity to host impressive opera and ballet productions. If you’re reading this looking for an expert on opera and ballet, you’ve come to the wrong place – but regardless, the building is quite a spectacle. A guided tour is pretty inexpensive (more info here).

The Palermo Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, combines various architectural styles including Norman, Gothic, and Baroque. It’s pretty stunning, both inside and out. Entrance is free.

Photo of Palermo Cathedral
Palermo Cathedral

The Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel give you a glimpse into Palermo’s royal history, blending influences of Byzantine, Arab, and Norman design, with it’s elegant golden mosaics throughout. The official site for buying tickets is here.

Piazza Pretoria is home to the Fontana Pretoria AKA the “Fountain of Shame” due to it’s controversial history over it’s nudity-themed sculptures. Oddly enough, the fountain was originally built in Florence then disassembled and sold and re-assembled in Palermo (obviously they were going for efficiency here). 

Piazza Pretoria and the "Fountain of Shame"
Piazza Pretoria and the “Fountain of Shame”

If you want to see the Cathedral, Royal Palace, and Piazza Pretoria with an expert tour guide, check out this tour.

The Orto Botanico gardens (official site for tickets here) is a great place to get out of the busyness of the city and see some nature. The highlight for me was the enormous and old trees (Ficus Macrophylla) which you can see both here as well as in Giardino Garibaldi.

Orto Botanico
Orto Botanico Palermo

Quattro Canti is a Baroque square right in the historical center of the city. You’ll surely pass through it on your way to something,

Day trip to Monreale – Here you can see the beautiful Cattedrale di Monreale and Chiostro. Also being at a higher elevation, you get a pretty great panoramic view of Palermo. To get there, you’ll need to take a bus from stops: Indipendenza – Palazzo Reale to Fontana Del Drago – Palermo (about 35 minutes – route here).

Monreale view of panoramic overlook and Chiostro
Monreale overlook from the top of the cathedral and inside the chiostro

Beach day at Mondello – the water at Mondello is really nice, better than Cefalù in my opinion. Like most Italian beaches, it’s really crowded. I suggest bringing as few valuables as possible. You can take bus 806 from Liberta’ – Croci and arrive in about 30 minutes.

two pictures from Mondello beach near Palermo
Mondello Beach

Day trip to Cefalù – a great place for a beach day, historic downtown visit, lunch, and sight seeing. It’s very very touristy – expect crowds. But it draws a crowd for a reason. You can get to Cefalù from Palermo by train in about 50 minutes – tickets here.

collage of Cefalù showing beach and cathedral
Cefalù beach and cathedral

If you’re looking for more tours for Palermo, check out GetYourGuide and Viator

Nightlife

If you’re wanting to go out and explore some of the nightlife, check these places out. 

Vucciria – You’ve never seen anything like this in the US. If you only have one “Palermo night life” item on your list, it should be this. Around 10 or 10:30pm, the Vucciria street market vendors close up, and in the center of the piazza a DJ set pops up and within a couple hours the whole block will be packed full of hundreds of people dancing and drinking at what’s effectively an open discoteca. Bars and 1 euro shots all around, and the party goes on until the sun comes up. 

Vucciria party scene at night
Vucciria party scene at night

Botanico Bar – A great bar on a narrow alley. I love the vibe here!

Castigamatti Dischi e Bar – This is a cool spot with a bigger outdoor area, plus they have a DJ and a small dance floor inside.

BorderLine – A really cool live music bar.

Bolazzi – another live music spot, also serving food.

Pub crawl – specifically, Pub Crawl Palermo. This is a great way to meet other travelers and have a good time for not a lot of money. The crowd tends to be on the younger side.

Live music at Monkey Pub. Bonus they do jazz during the day.

Monkey Pub Palermo
Live music at Money Pub Palermo

Eats and Drinks

Palermo, and Sicily in general, is full of regional specialties that you must try. Italy is a culinarily diverse country. Every region [and often city] has a specialty. 

Typical Palermitano food:

Arancina: A Sicilian classic is Palermo’s arancina, a fried rice ball filled with ragù, mozzarella, and peas. Make sure to say the feminine arancina in Palermo, and not arancino. There’s an east-west divide in Sicily over the correct name, so much so that in 2017 when the Moretti beer brand tried to make regional labeling suggesting food pairings, they foolishly used “arancina” resulting in a boycott of the beer brand by Palermo. The shape varies a little too – in Palermo, it’s a round ball (the name comes from the orange, after all), whereas in Catania it’s more of a cone shape (like the volcano, Mt. Etna – cute, I know).

Caponata: Another classic of Sicily in caponata, a dish of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, olives, and capers cooked in a sweet and sour sauce. This is one of my personal favorites. 

Panelle: This is a crispy chickpea fritter, a popular street snack in Palermo. They’re essentially fried chickpea rectangles. They’re really good, but in small amounts, in my opinion. Sometimes they’re put on bread and eaten as a sandwich (I heard you like your carbs on your carbs, so here’s some fried bean rectangles on some bread). 

Panelle
Classic panelle

Sfincione:  Palermo’s thick spongy-crust pizza topped with tomato sauce, onions, anchovies, and caciocavallo cheese.

Stigghiola: A street food classic in Palermo – this vegetarian favorite is grilled lamb or goat intestines, sometimes wrapped around a green onion. 

Granita: The classic semi-frozen treat made with crushed ice and flavors like lemon, almond, or mulberry. Lemon is the most popular and my personal favorite. It’s really great in the heat of summer, or literally any other time of year if you’re like me and don’t have seasonal food preferences. 

Cannoli: This needs no introduction. I’ll just say that the best cannolo I’ve ever eaten was at I Segreti del Chiostro. Pro tip – only get a cannolo somewhere where they assemble it when you order it. The longer the ricotta sits in the shell on display, the softer the shell will get and it will loose its crispy goodness.

Pasta con le Sarde: A pasta dish with sardines, wild fennel, saffron, and pine nuts. It’s, as one would expect, a very very fish pasta.

Pani Ca Meusa: Ok this is a weird one, but I really enjoyed it. It’s lung and spleen sandwiches with, lemon, salt, and caciocavallo cheese – a Sicilian street food specialty. The first time I had this was at 4am after going to the Vucciria street party.

Pani câ meusa sandwich in Palermo
Pani câ meusa. I’ll eat it, just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Carne di Cavallo: It’s horse meat. Oh, get over it – it’s on the same level ethically as the beef you ate yesterday. It’s found often in southern Italy and Sardegna. It’s not something Italians eat every day, and it’s probably losing popularity. 

Where to Eat in Palermo 

I think the best places to eat in Palermo are the street markets. There, you can see all the food on display before you order it. The markets usually have tables set up like outdoor restaurants, so you can just pick out your food, get a beer (go for Sicilian brand Messina), post up at a table, and just eat and people watch. Three of the big markets are Mercato del Capo, Mercato di Ballarò, and Vucciria Market.

Here are some restaurants I like as well

FUD – a newer and trendier spot (they’re a fan of wordplay here, hence the name). Good spot for burgers. I had a donkey burger (don’t judge me).

Donkey burger at FUD
Donkey Burger at FUD

Altri Tempi – This is a simple place with decoration stuck in 1980 and a menu probably older than that. I love finding places like this. Here you can find classic Palermo dishes. I sat down with the menu already on the table – the waiter asked me, “English or Italian?” to which I responded “Italian” and he took the menu from the table and said “ok well this one is dialect – here’s the Italian one”.

Trattoria Altri Tempi Menu
Menu at Altri Tempi

Pasqualino Tavernetta Bio – restaurant/bar serving organic fare, but also just a good place for an aperitivo. 

Voglia Di Pizza – this is nothing special, but I had an amazing pizza here for so cheap. It was Neapolitan style kind-of, but a bit smaller in diameter and thicker crust as a result. 

I Segreti del Chiostro – This was the best cannolo I ever had. Here’s the thing – the trick to a good cannolo is that it has to be assembled right before you eat it. The longer it sat in that display case pre-made, the soggier the shell will be. 

Pasticceria Cappello – Really really great bakery with awesome dessert options. 

cake at Cappello
Pistacchio cake at Cappello

Aperitivo on Via Chiavettieri/Via Bottai (the same street as Voglia di Pizza). This strip is full of places to grab a drink and have appetizers, or dinner if you prefer.

On my list for the next time, locally recommended:

Bars 

Covered previously in the “things to do” section, but if you’re just looking to get out and drink, check out, Botanico Bar, Castigamatti Dischi e Bar, BorderLine, or Bolazzi. Via Alessandro Paternostro is a great little bar street as well. I suggest a cocktail at Goccio – L’arte del miscelare.

That’s All For Now

I sincerely hope you found value in this article.  If you have recommendations of your own or have suggestions on what else you would like to see covered here, please write in the comments below. Additionally, if you’re planning a trip to Italy and need one-on-one support or guidance, check out my services page where you can get in touch with me.

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