Consider eating your way through Palermo—-the capital city of Sicily. Or using delectable pastries and cappuccino as bookends to gazing at architecture both Byzantine, Baroque, and Gothic, or Greek and Latin, definitely Islamic and Arab-Norman.
Street food is fun, and so accessible, in this city with so much that’s ancient. The food’s fresh!
Sit-down restaurants where lingering and savoring can go on for hours are plentiful too all over Palermo.
The origins of all this Sicilian food and the architectural styles of the buildings are visible history of the movements of people for centuries. Study it in detail if you like, or just taste and breathe and be aware.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean so it’s possible to do lots of driving to manage all that eating.
Live Like a Sicilian
I tried a different approach: staying in one place for 10 days, a suitcase unpacked, and drivers who knew the way everywhere. Sicilian Adventures is the concept, focusing on a wide range of experiences in an easy-to-access region.
My Palermo experience was one very full day with lots of walking, and a return visit to see a different side of the city.
The island is so drop-dead gorgeous that it’s hard to only visit Palermo the whole vacation time.
Four Corners – known to locals as Quattro Canti – is a fabulous place to linger and soak up the ancient architectural styles.
Clearly, that involves looking in four directions, but also wandering down side streets too.
Two busy streets intersect here but it also felt safe and easy to wander in the pedestrians-only middle. Via Maqueda and Vittorio Emanuele are their old town names, forming a Baroque square.
1609—that’s how old.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Look at each of the four 18th-century palaces, one at a time, in this order: bottom to top; lower level again to see the fountains, representing four rivers; statue above each fountain represents the four seasons: Eolo, Venus, Ceres, and Bacchus; upper corner of each palace for an early patron saint of Palermo.
Today Santa Rosalia is considered the patron saint of Palermo.
I saw walking tours but found such abundance just looking every which way that I saved my time with a guide for the Cattedrale di Palermo, or Palermo Cathedral.
This is Arab-Norman architectural style. What might that mean? Lots of conquerors of Sicily!
The Norman archbishop erected the building in 1185 where 9th century Saracens had built a mosque. Renaissance styles show up too, as do Gothic-Catalan.
The mosaic portraying Santa Maria, the madonna, is 13th-century art.
Find the Cattedrale di Palermo on Vittorio Emanuele either before or after the Quattro Canti.
Several easily walkable blocks away find more architectural styles for awe and wonder gasping. This is the Royal Palace, also known as the Norman Palace with the Palatine Chapel.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Learning the language is daunting, but getting familiar with some words and titles of places is a very good idea. Sicilians speak Italian and have their own familiar island words too. Knowing place names as locals might write them means preparing to see 12th century Cappella Palatina—-examples of the Arab-Norman–Byzantine style in Sicily.
The Royal Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tombs and Catacombs
Maybe one of the reasons, beyond the stunning art and architecture, is the evidence of cultural cooperation. Texts in the Palatine Chapel are written in Greek, Arabic, and Latin and craftsmen from all three major religions worked side-by-side here.
The mosaics could keep you here all day.
If that’s not enough religious wonder, Palermo also preserves San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Martorana, and the tombs of Roger II, Henry VI, Constance, and Frederick II.
Underground Palermo involves the Capuchin Catacombs where the ancient art of mummification is evident. Originally a private cemetery for Friars, in 1783 this preservation after death was available to others too.
Elsewhere on the island find the Cefalu Cathedral and Monreale, a cathedral and cloister.
Fountain of Shame
Circling back to the beloved Palermo corners – Quattro Canti – changes the mood from death to debauchery. Or at least in one era, much-criticized nudity.
Piazza Pretoria in the Kalsa district of the city is just a few steps away from the Four Corners and is known locally as the fountain of shame.
Not only are the many statues naked in great detail, but the 16th-century High Renaissance fountain is filled with 50 statues of harpies, sirens, tritons, monsters, and animals.
Stay on the Streets
Follow Palermitans, as they call themselves, along the sidewalks because they know where the street food is.
Markets are bustling places with a mix of groceries to go, places to sit, and delectable flavors on a long wooden stick for easy strolling.
Mercado de Capo
Mercado de Capo was my first street food market, right after sipping painted cappuccino in a sidewalk cafe. Others to experience are Ballaro and Vucciria, each in a different city quadrant.
Piazza San Domenico is the home of Vucciria, the smallest of these three markets with a quieter neighborhood vibe.
Capo market is a maze of color and sounds in narrow streets and alleyways.
Eating like a Sicilian is so very simple in a street market where everyone is! Have a bit, walk around, have another. Names to know for food in the Capo include:
- Arancini – round or pointy balls of rice stuffed with meat and cheese
- Panelle – chickpeas ground and fried: Sicilian fritters
- Cannelloni – cream filling a horn-shaped pastry. This has Arab roots.
- Casatta – ricotta cheese as a sponge cake. Savor fresh ricotta soft, in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. Order fast, don’t turn away a chance for ricotta pizza in Sicily.
Gelato is a walk-about food to be expected in Italy, but the pistachio version might be a particular surprise. Pistachio is anything actually because they are grown on this Mediterranean island.
Pistachio French toast was served twice for breakfast in my 10 days in a villa.
Street food tours no doubt open unknown doors, but I found vendors so plentiful that it’s possible to eat more by spacing out the tasting experiences.
Do you look for courtyards when you visit Paris or Vienna or Florence? Definitely do so in Palermo. Peering around a corner or into what might seem to be a driveway or alley yields big benefits.
The trees are lush, the private residences seem to be luxurious and often there’s a gem of an artisan.
Angela Tripi was my happy discovery in a courtyard. Sicilian folk artists created in ceramic and terra cotta the signs say. Exquisite, enormous nativity scenes with every person and animal in the ancient stories—-and artisans painting in clear view.
I counted 12 mailboxes for people living in this hidden space.
The No Mafia Museum on Palermo’s Vittorio Emanuele was new in May of 2023, telling the 31-year-old story of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra mafia and the Italian government.
That’s when two crime fighters were killed in separate bombings but the effort to thwart the Mafia in Sicily was not derailed.
Free, but accepting donations, the museum is loaded with photographs and videos. It joins the No Mafia Memorial in the former Guli Palace, both with the intention of detailing anti-Mafia activities as well as crime history.
Teatro Massimo in Palermo is the third-largest opera house in Europe.
Tours come in many packages from the 40-minute standard to backstage versions and cocktail guides.
Choose the combo ticket for opera and art and go also to a seaside palace.
Butera is the name of the palace or palazzo. 1692 is the starting date, although fires and expansions figure in history.
Not only is the art collection extensive, but this is a palace whose owners want Sicily’s 3,000 years of migration to become a laboratory of ideas for Palermo, a starting point to rethink European identity.
That means sailing in from Phoenicia and Greece in ancient times to today’s immigrants.
Massimo and Francesco Valsecchi are the visionaries who bought Palazzo Butera in 2016.
Mondello Beach has a Palermo address but you need a taxi, a rented car, or the bus to get there.
Of course, those Mediterranean waters beckon mightily with their shades of blues and patterns of light. An entire road trip vacation in Sicily could be dedicated to Italian beach hopping.
Light and airy, filigree designs serve as gates to one of the ways into Palermo. The massive Porta Nuova is another.
That 16th-century arch celebrates the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He came to Sicily after capturing Tunis from the Ottoman Empire. Images of the Moors he had just defeated are carved into the four large supports.
TMOMTip: Sicily can be hot and the Porta Nuova gate gives shade. Also, one side is busy traffic, and the other, is pedestrians only.
Original and Adapted
The Church of San Cataldo is a good spot to experience the multitude of cultures and uses of buildings in Palermo.
This 12th-century squarish-ish structure is Arab looking—-and the three red domes (some call them pink) are considered a mistake made during a 19th-century restoration.
Plus, San Cataldo was even used as a city post office in 1787. For sure today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.