We took a drive right up the center of Sicily on SS624 to reach Palermo. The ride is scenic, beautiful and pretty straightforward. As you approach, you’ll be greeted with breathtaking views of the city sprawl and the bay—bellissimo!
Palermo is the largest and busiest city in Sicily and has plenty to offer the visitor looking for a bustling urban experience. We had less than two full days in Palermo and there is far more to see and do than we had time for.
Let your first stop in Palermo be a visit to Monreale Cathedral. This stunning cathedral has golden mosaics that rival, and some say surpass, those at Venice’s Basilica San Marco (St. Mark’s). This is truly a spectacular church, considered to be the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily, and should not be missed. The somewhat plain façade belies the beauty that awaits inside.
Narrow, busy streets and overcrowding make parking a challenge in Palermo and the area surrounding the cathedral is no exception. There is a well-marked, supervised pay parking garage just down the road from the cathedral. Walk carefully along the alley- like street back up to the church.
After enjoying the splendor of the cathedral, we had a terrific lunch at Bricco e Bacco Brasserie, just kitty corner from the cathedral. It was a lovely place with good, local specialties and friendly service. Since we arrived after the lunch crowd, it was also quiet. You’ll find the restaurant at Via B. D’Aquisto, 13, Monreale, Phone for a reservation +39 091 641 7773. It’s a popular spot.
Wind your way down into the city proper, navigating traffic carefully. All bets are off in Palermo and traffic can be heavy. Stop signs seem to be a mere suggestion and traffic signals are also sometimes ignored.
We really enjoyed walking all around the city to get the flavor of it and to get our bearings on our first visit. We covered a lot of ground, including the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel, which is Palermo’s “high street.” Here you’ll find upscale shops and stylish boutiques, cafes and bars. Palermo also has numerous street markets with household necessities, clothing and dry goods, fruit stands, and food stalls, including the well known Vucciria and Ballaro markets.
Hands down, our favorite cultural institution in Palermo was the Museo Internazionale delle Marrionette. Yes, it is a puppet museum and far more compelling than you might expect. Sicily has a strong tradition of puppetry used for both entertainment and political commentary dating back centuries.
Plan to spend at least a few hours enjoying the expansive collection and exhibits at the International Museum of Puppetry.
They have puppets and marionettes from around the world, from the simplest paper puppets to the most elaborate marionettes. You’ll see everything from fairy princesses and dragons to entire armies dressed in armament from throughout the ages, all with remarkable attention to detail.
There are also a variety of settings and backdrops on view. We found our visit to the marionette museum to be an absolutely enchanting experience. The museum hosts puppet shows, too, of course.
For more information and show times, please visit www.museomarionettepalermo.it The museum is at the end of Via Butera on the Piazzetta Antonio Pasqualina, 5.
Known for its medieval art collection, the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia at Palazza Abatellis is a former palatial residence dating back to the 1490s, which went on to become a convent and then a monastery. It is now a regional gallery and museum.
Here you will find sculptures, frescoes and paintings by Italian artists, as well as Flemish and other European masters, sacred art, weaponry and more.
Unfortunately the website has not been updated for some time so it is best to call the museum at +39 091 623 0011. It is located at Via Allora, 4.
To see how the upper class lived centuries ago, visit the Palazzo Mirto www.casemuseoitalia.it/en. The Palazzo Mirto is part of a network of “house museums” found throughout Italy. It was originally built for the Filangeri family in the mid 17th century and falls into the ancestry category of homes.
The palazzo is filled with beautifully appointed rooms featuring elaborate furnishings, ceramics, antique musical instruments, and art. One of the most spectacular is the Chinese Room, likely decorated in 1876 when the house was renovated.
There are also classic carriages on display along with other historic treasures that paint a picture of Sicilian life for the upper class in the days before the Risorgimento when Sicily was still a kingdom.
The museum is located at Via Merlo, 2 and telephone is +39 091 616 4751 for updated information.
If there is a performance at the Teatro Massimo, get a ticket and go. Regularly scheduled dance, opera, and classical music are all performed here. If you’re feeling flush, you, too, can rent the royal box —you just have to purchase all 27 seats in it.
If time does not permit you to attend a performance, take a guided tour, which is the only other way to see the inside of this magnificent and historic building.
The theater boasts one of the largest stages in Europe and is worth seeing. Built in 1897, it is known for its outstanding acoustics and is still the largest theater in Italy with 1,300 seats. It is appropriately located on the Piazza Verdi. +39 091 6053580 www.teatromassimo.it.
We wanted to visit the highly regarded National Archeological Museum but it was closed for renovations during our visit. Please go to www.regione.sicilia.it/beniculturali/salinas for current information.
We did not visit the Catacombe dei Cappuccine, the home of about 8,000 dead bodies, amassed over the course of several hundred years, all dressed up and on display. We find the entire enterprise rather ghoulish and having seen the Capuccine Chapel in Rome, which features skeletons of dead monks, felt no obligation to see this seemingly far more ambitious enterprise. Apparently it is a popular place on many tourist itineraries and so we mention it here.
There are lodgings at all price points and with all levels of service, as you would expect in a large city like Palermo. We stayed at Hotel Porta Felice www.hotelportafelice.it/en at Via Butera, 45. Tele. 091 6175678. This is in the old section of town near the port.
Even though the hotel is on what appears to be a small side street, it is pretty busy. We were upgraded to a nice suite, even though we’d booked through www.venere.com. The location was very convenient and we walked everywhere we wanted to go, after turning in our rental car.
We only had two nights in Palermo and wound up having dinner both evenings just down the street from our hotel at L’Ottava Nota Ristorante, via Butera 55 091 6168601 www.ristoranteottavanota.it. The restaurant was small and lovely with fantastic food and great service. The fish dishes were all spectacular. Everything was fresh, artfully prepared and delicious.
A fish in a light curry broth with vegetables was so good I still think about it, though it is no longer on the menu. We mentioned we were staying at the Porta Felice and were happily surprised to learn we’d get a 20 percent discount on our meal because we were guests there. We cannot confirm that the special pricing is still available but it never hurts to ask, should you dine here. The restaurant is just a few doors down from Porte Felice on Via Butera, 55. The telephone is +39 091 616 8601.
We had an excellent lunch at Trattoria Piccolo Napoli, www.trattoriapiccolonapoli.it. Piccolo Napoli had been recommended by an Italian friend in the wine business but apparently Anthony Bourdain had once dined here and the owner told us that lots of Americans had been showing up ever since. Our welcome was much more cordial when we told him (in Italian) that his friend Sasha had sent us! Try the panisse (chick pea fritters) to start and have any seafood you like—it is all super fresh and simply, but deliciously, prepared.
Through a small window into the kitchen, we watched the chef toss a whole octopus into a pot, plate it and serve it to a young girl who devoured every bit. We had pasta with shellfish and then I had a beautiful swordfish dish. For dessert, they brought us the ubiquitous “winter melon.” The melon is sweet and refreshing and so called winter melon because it can be picked in the summer and stored throughout the winter. We saw it on menus throughout Sicily. The restaurant is on the Piazzetta Mulino a Vento, 4. Telephone is +39 091 320431.
Our final meal in Palermo was an extremely casual, but excellent pizza lunch at the airport, which we enjoyed out on the observation deck with a view of planes coming and going, and of course, the beautiful sea!