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A Trip To Palermo, Italy Needs To Be In Your Future

A trip to Palermo, Italy is an exciting way to experience the beautiful climate, rich history and culture of this Sicilian capital, not to mention the food.

trip to palermo italy - The Roof

The View From The Roof of The Cathedral

Palermo is the main Sicilian industrial and commercial center, which includes tourism, commerce and agriculture. The city has an international airport, a significant underground economy, is one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and Europe and is now among the top tourist destinations in both Italy and Europe.

A Trip To Palermo Shouldn’t Be Missed

Palermo is on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is surrounded by mountains. The tallest peak in the range is called La Pizzuta, but when we visited Palermo the locals referred to the range as i Pellegrini which, among other things, means Pilgrims.

The history of Palermo starts in the 8th century BC, when the Phoenicians founded the city. You will notice the cultural diversity in the city’s architecture. Even a quick walk down the streets can reveal the diversity of the architecture, including the Arabic and Gothic influences. The city is full of stunning buildings, like the Teatro Massimo, for example. It’s the biggest opera house in Italy and you may recognize it from The Godfather: Part III, which I will also mention below.

Pop Culture Of Palermo, Italy

Because of the gritty history of Palermo and Sicily, many of the cultural references that you will find are based on the topic of the Mafia, crime and punishment. Two of my three favorite movies based in Palermo are of this genre, and they are:

trip to palermo italy - Teatro Massimo

Tour of Teatro Massimo

  • The Godfather: Part III – Not my favorite of the three, but it does a good job of showing the beauty of Teatro Massimo. I took a tour of the theater and it really is amazing.

  • Cinema Paradiso  –  This was one of my early favorites of Italian language films and it still holds up. I bought this movie on VHS after having rented it at a local Blockbuster equivalent. That’s how much I love it!

  • The Mafia Only Kills In The Summer – It is difficult to make a movie that finds the humorous sides of crime in Palermo, but this film does a good job. This is a black comedy covering 20 years of history of Sicily, mocking the Mafia and celebrating the heroes of Anti-mafia as told through the voice of a young boy growing up in Palermo.

Taking A Trip To Palermo, Italy

Traveling From Rome To Palermo By Train

While I typically like to give a few options when traveling by train, in this case there is really only one way to travel from Rome to Palermo, and that is to book an overnight sleeper with Trenitalia, the national rail network of Italy. The prices have a large range, but a deluxe overnight sleeper looks to run around 100€.

trip to palermo italy - Straits of Messina

The Straits of Messina at Night

The reason this is an amazing experience is because of the transfer from train tracks to a ferry. There is no bridge connecting the mainland to the island, so the transfer, which happens very early in the morning, is a rare experience. When all the cars have been decoupled and loaded onto the ferry, you can leave your cabin and go topside to enjoy the Straits of Messina, which is something to behold. I said rare because as far as I know there is only one other train that does this and it is in northern Europe. As you might expect, there is also an espresso machine available on deck because of course there is.

Reaching The Palermo Airport

Being a smaller city, there are no direct flights to Palermo, Italy from the USA. The major carriers all have connections into the city so plan accordingly. The Airport Falcone Borsellino is refreshingly small and controlled, unlike the larger hubs across Europe and the US and you might be surprised how easy it is to get around this Airport. As an aside, if you are unfamiliar with the names Falcone and Borsellino, you should check out my post about heroes of Sicily and the Mafia villains they fought. Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone are heroes in Sicily because of their fight against the Mafia.

Is Palermo A Safe City?

First, don’t worry about the Mafia when visiting the city. It certainly exists, but they aren’t concerned about tourists as they are busy controlling politics and other large enterprises. Secondly, you should use the same precautions that you would anywhere else that you visit in Italy or Europe, including:

  • Choose a central area of the city in which to stay

  • Plan for pickpockets and manage your belongings accordingly

  • Do not make a show flashing your money around

All that being said, this was the only place in Italy where we were given safety recommendations by our Airbnb host. Nothing too extreme, but he suggested we not venture outside the city gates (Porta Nuova) after dark. We heeded his recommendations and felt safe for our entire stay.

What Are The Best Sites In Palermo?

If you are looking for a tourist-friendly city that will cater to your every need, Palermo isn’t that place. Visiting this city is still a bit of an adventure, but worth the effort. There aren’t many restaurants with menus translated into five different languages and you may have trouble communicating in English. This was our experience more than twenty years ago and not much has changed. Learn a few words in Italian and plan for a communication gap. Some parts, as well as some people, of the old town center have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war. 

These are a few of the places we have the fondest memories of, but there is so much more. Check out:

trip to palermo italy - Cathedral

The View From The Roof of The Cathedral

  • Cathedral of Palermo: The central cathedral of Palermo is characterized by different architectural styles, due to a long history of additions, alterations and restorations. Built in 1185 on the site of a previous Christian Basilica, it has also been a Mosque during the Arab occupation.
  • Teatro Massimo: This horseshoe-shaped auditorium can host up to 1,247 people in the stalls, five floors of boxes and a gallery. Opening night was on May 16, 1897 and Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff was the inaugural opera.
  • Quattro Canti: This is an octagonal square at the intersection of the two main roads in Palermo and it contains the Quattro Canti, which are the four decorative elements that delimit the space of the intersection.
  • The Pretoria Fountain (a.k.a. The Fountain of Shame): This is a huge fountain that represents the Twelve Olympians, mythological figures, animals and the rivers of Palermo. It is located in Piazza Pretoria in the center of Palermo. Because of the nude statues, the piazza became known at the Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame)
  • Duomo di Monreale: This is a Roman Catholic Church and one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture which began construction in 1182.

Are There Other Places To See On A Trip To Palermo, Italy?

There are many other places to see in Palermo but some of them are a little more gritty and might not be for everybody. There are street markets that are the largest I’ve seen in Italy. The largest being Ballarò and it is very deserving of a stroll. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, fish and I even bought some wine in a plastic bottle (vino sfuso). The second, and our favorite, is La Vucciria. During the day we enjoyed a casual lunch in the tight streets of the market, but at night it transformed into a popular gathering spot. Make sure to try the Zibibbo at Taverna Azzurra

For those of you who don’t scare easily, you might enjoy the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Other crypts we’ve visited in Italy are typically empty. Basically you go below ground only to see a bunch of empty holes where people used to be buried. Not here. This crypt is full of bodies of people in various degrees of decay. Piles of skulls and other bones line the walls. Smaller caskets with the bodies of children and other jarring sites await you. If this is your thing, you might also consider the Bone Church in Rome, Italy.

trip to palermo italy - Pani câ meusa

Yummy Spleen Sandwich – Pani câ meusa

L’Antica Focacceria San Francesco shows what can happen when you want to fight back against corruption and the Mafia. The owner openly fights against mafia and “pizzo” (bribes) and even has annual fundraisers in the piazza outside his restaurant that go to support anti-corruption initiatives. The food is good too. More on this below, but this is the place in which I ate Pane Con La Milza for the first and probably the last time.

What Is The Best Food In Palermo?

Due to the wide range of influences in Sicily over the years, the food has developed into a very different experience than the rest of Italy. Influences from all over the Mediterranean shaped the food in very unexpected ways. There is a great street food culture and the markets have their own selections, but these are some of my favorites:

  • Arancine: These delicious deep-fried rice balls are getting to be more popular, but it’s important to know that in Sicily the word is feminine (arancina/e) but everywhere else, it is masculine (arancino/i).
  • Fichi d’India: These are also known as prickly pears and are the fruit of a cactus. They are delicious once you get past the needles.
  • Pane Con La Milza: This is also known in the Palermitano dialect as Pani câ meusa, which is a spleen sandwich. Yes, I tried it once.
  • Sfincione: This is a traditional Sicilian Pizza that you can find only in Sicily. 
  • Pasta Norma: The eggplant is more popular in Sicily and it is celebrated in this traditional pasta dish.

Thoughts On A Trip To Palermo, Italy

A trip to Palermo, Italy is an experience that is worth working for. There will be a bit of a language barrier, the buildings will look like they are going to fall on top of you and eating spleen might give you pause. It is unlikely that you would leave this city hungry, bored or unimpressed and isn’t that why you travel? For more great ideas, check out these posts:

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