The world was created in six days, according to legend but Palermo was created over a million lifetimes, which means any visit to Palermo – whether long or short- barely scratches the surface. I fell in love with this city from the very brioche con gelato and even if I just have 24 hours in this amazing Sicilian city, I have a check list of Must See and Do suggestions for a very perfect day in Palermo.
Walk around Libertà, Palermo’s posh eighbourhood that is the exact opposite of the busy centro storico (we’ll get there later). Liberta dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it began to develop as an elegant residential area. Palermo brought in Europe’s best architecture which means archi-lovers will enjoy walking around the neighbourhood and spotting its Art Nouveau and eclectic architectural styles- like the magnificent Villa Deliella, and then meandering the ide streets shaded by cotton trees and lined with Art Deco houses.
For a bit of local flavour in Palermo, try sfincione (“sphin-shone-ay”), a savory, deep-dish focaccia garnished with a red sauce and anchovies. You can find sfincione at breakfast time in bars across the city but my personal favourite seems to always be enjoyed in Libertà, at Panificio Graziano.
Over the years, Liberta has evolved into a thriving urban hub with Viale della Libertà as the thoroughfare. The picturesque street is lined with boutiques, quaint cafes, and delectable eateries, and you’ll find two beautiful parks – beautiful Villa Trabia and Giardino Inglese- for lush shade.
From Giardino Inglese is a short five minute walk to the Politeama (Teatro Politeama Garibaldi), one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and gateway into the centro storico (historic centre). The neoclassical Politeama is a gorgeous theatre, but not quiet as epic as the Teatro Massimo, a dramatic 19th-century opera house that became silver screen icon in the 1990 film, “The Godfather Part III.
For the good and the bad, Palermo’s centro storico is become a pedestrian walkway. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its captivating blend of diverse cultures and architectural styles, and important monuments including the Cathedral ( a crazy blend of Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical design), Palazzo dei Normanni and its incredibly mosaicked Cappella Palatina, and of course the Quattro Canti, a unique, octagonal-shaped Baroque square, its narrow, bustling streets give way to grand piazzas, while ancient churches, palaces, and markets stand alongside Arabic-Norman and Baroque monuments.
Niche neighbourhood Kalsa has become a hub for progressive arts projects and is the place to catch an art performance in a deconsecrated church or see an installation in a shelled-out 17th century rococo palazzo.
The restaurant scene has evolved from street food to great eateries. Head down to Piazza Marina for a panino di milza, a spleen sandwich. If that’s too much to handle, have panelle, deep fried chick pea fritters, at ‘Nni Franco U’Vastiddaru (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 100). I am always partial to the Vucciria, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city because it’s an open air street art gallery. Here’s where I discovered the work of Axel Void.
If it is extraordinarily hot, make your way to Mondello, the neighboring beach community to the west, for a swim and a plate of fresh sea urchin at Trattoria da Calogero. Mondello is beach time, all the time, though expect chaos at the capanne (beach huts) from June through September. In the winter, take a walk along the water, when beaches are quiet and sun is strong.
Where to Stay
I’m still waiting for great hoteliers to invest in Palermo, however, a tiny hospitality revolution seems to be percolating with the reboot of some historic five star hotels like Villa Igiea, a Palermo landmark and centurion for its architecture and history. I love Villa Igiea because I strongly feel it has everything needed to enjoy Palermo at any time of the year: great waterside address, gorgeous pool, beautiful rooms and a price tag that reflects so.
Location for me is key and my favourite is the Libertà neighbourhood for its beautiful Liberty/Belle Epoque architecture, great shops and even better restaurants and cafes. Hotels I like are Grand Hotel et Des Palmes, a “Grand Hotel”, which up until recently was a bit dusty and worn around the edges . I loved it for its history, beautiful dining room and Libertà location. The downside is that there is no pool.
For a home-away-from-home vibe, I’d suggest Palazzo Planeta, owned by famed Sicilian winery Planeta. This pied-a-terre palace has seven very stylish apartment flats. Each has living room and kitchen, letting you experience of being Palermitano, even if for a brief moment.
If I wanted to stay in the historic centre (which I never do because I don’t like the crowds), there are a few B&Bs to bookmark: the decadent Palazzo Ajutamicristo, and the modern styled Palazzo Sovrano and Palazzo Sitano. These palazzi are all within walking distance to the centro storico sites like Palazzo Massimo, the Cathedral, and the Kalsa neighbourhood.
A version of this article first appeared in Fathom in March 2014.