If you’re seeking a city break with a difference, to bring some colour and excitement to an otherwise drab year, then Palermo might be just the place for you. The capital of Sicily is a tangle of chaos, a bundle of energy, and a place of great dichotomy, with noble, opulent buildings and rugged streets rubbing shoulders.
What’s more, it represents an incredibly accessible holiday any time of year, with warm weather all year round. They don’t call it the ‘Kingdom of the Sun’ for nothing; even the coolest month of January sits at an average temperature of 15°C and sees two thirds of its day dry. With direct flights clocking in at under 3 hours and around £50, there really is no reason not to!
After that hard sale, we can assume you’re already penning your itinerary. If so, here are some Sicilian travel tips; our 5 IDEAL things to do in Palermo.
GO ON A STREET FOOD TOUR
Here at IDEAL, most of our holidays revolve around food. The good news is that Sicily is one of the best places in the world to eat. Indeed, from the well known – but not rightly enough – pasta con le sarde, to moreish involtoni parcels which feature such delicacies as tuna wrapped in pig fat or aubergine rolled round goats cheese, we’ve had some of the best meals of our lives in this part of the world.
The capital Palermo is rightly famous for its food and here, street food snacks here are pretty much at their pinnacle. In fact, it can sometimes feel strange to see a local strolling empty handed, without a snack in hand, through the maze of central streets in the historic centre, Castellammare, particularly in and around the Ballaro and Vucciria markets.
You’ll find arancini piled high in shop windows all across the city, as well as the ubiquitous sweet treat cannoli, which we just can’t get enough of. But the connoisseur’s favourite (and ours) is fritolla; offal, off cuts, cartilage…all the good stuff essentially, fried and wrapped. Delicious.
VISIT THE MARKETS
Your street food quest will undoubtedly take you to Mercato di Ballarò, Palermo’s busiest street market. Rough and rugged around the edges with the sound of Sicilian vendors singing out to sell their wares and the smell of fish permeating the air, this is where many locals come to shop.
Get here in the early afternoon when the market is alive and a hive of activity. They sell everything and anything here, from household goods to knickers, and knock off goods to fruit and veg. In particular, it’s a great place to try all the varieties of prickly pear that Sicily grows; just listen out for someone at the market shouting out bastardoni – big bastards.
Our favourite market, and notably less touristy, is Mercato de Capo, which runs along Via Sant’Agostino in the old Arab Quarter. It feels like Palermo personified; hectic, chaotic but oh so charming and exciting, too. As an island, the sea’s bounty takes centre stage in much of the cooking and the glistening fish at this market are a sight to behold. Ask for un assaggio (a taste) of fresh produce (or if it’s fish, a sniff!) before you buy and don’t miss the fresh pomegranate juice sold here to finish.
IDEAL TIP: Stay somewhere with self catering so you can make the most of all the glorious produce. You can find your luxury villa with WishSicily, who have apartments in inner Palermo and gorgeous villas on its outskirts, too.
VISIT THE CAPPELLA PALATINA
For a taste (we told you we were food obsessed!) of something different, tourists should head to the grand and ornate Cappella Palatina, built in the 12th century and boasting gold, Byzantine mosaics and Saracen arches, all topped off (literally) with an intricate wooden ceiling rendered in Arabic honeycomb-esque carving.
This intriguing mixture of geographical and religious influences reflects the soul of historic and modern day Sicily succinctly; a must visit for any curious traveller. What’s more, during the low season (from around now and for the rest of the year) the crowds are far more manageable.
The Italians love their opera for its mixture of high drama and exquisite taste. Teatro Massimo, in Palermo’s centre, is one of Italy’s most treasured opera houses. In fact, it’s the largest theatre of its kind in the country, with 1300 seats, and attracts opera connoisseurs from across the planet, coming for its famed superb acoustics and prestigious past.
If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket to a show, grab the chance with both hands! This one isn’t to be missed, with the venue reopened since June 2020 with new COVID-safe measures in place. Alternatively, you can take a thirty minute tour of the famous Teatro Massimo, and appreciate the stunning architecture within. The view from the terrace is pretty special, too.
RENT A CAR TO EXPLORE SICILY’S VINEYARDS
While there’s plenty to do in Palermo itself, you’d be foolish to overlook its outskirts. Renting a car and taking a day trip out of the city can be hugely rewarding, with the urban centre quickly turning to gorgeous scenery within just a few miles.
The volcanic terroir of Sicily lends itself to some incredibly complex, delicious wines. The slopes of the island’s Etna brings the red grape nerello mascalese and with it some excellent, though not cheap, drops.
The Monreale vineyards are just 10km out of the city, heading south west, whilst the Camporeale and Partinico wine producing areas are just another twenty minute drive out. Here you can take a tour (preferably arranged from within Palermo, so you don’t have to drive!) and try the excellent white Grillo and red Syrah and Merlot, in particular, which are highly regarded and produced in the region.
If you’re not a fan of wine tasting, then why not take a day trip to a nearby beach? Mondello is the closest and is just a half hour’s drive away. That, or you can take the 806 bus there, but be warned that this only operates between May and October. The beach itself is gorgeous, and well worth the trip to cool off from the high octane pace of Palermo itself.