My mother and I were concerned that we needed more than just a day to do Palermo, Sicily. So when we were faced with the dilemma of conquering Palermo in only 3 to 4 hours, we were super nervous we wouldn’t see anything. On the contrary, we discovered that you can explore the pulsing heart of Sicily, Palermo, in just an afternoon!
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We arrived in Palermo at 6PM on a Wednesday evening in August (prime vacation time in Italy). This was the perfect time of day to see Palermo since there were barely any tourists around, just the locals. We started off by walking from the harbor to the historic center of Palermo
On our way to the city center, we walked by a few typical labyrinth like streets that led to cute restaurants nestled away at the end of an alleyway or secret markets located on the East and West end. The city has been built on centuries and centuries of history. It has been conquered and ruled by the Arabs, Normans, Byzantines, Carthaginians, Greeks, French, Spanish, Romans, and now with the recent immigration movement, Africans once again. Just look at the architecture on the monuments and palazzi and the fusion in the cuisine and you will be able to literally see and taste history.
FIRST STOP: FONTANA IN PIAZZA PRETORIA
The start of the old city begins at I Quattro Canti where in each of the four corners at this intersection lies a statue of a Saint. From there we headed to la Fontana Pretoria in front of Il Palazzo Normanno. La Fontana Pretoria was originally constructed in Florence in the 16th century, but was dismantled, brought to Palermo, and renamed the Fountain of Shame due the number of nude statues on display in a public space.
SECOND STOP: CHIESA DI SAN CATALDO
Many travel guides do not mention this Church for some reason, but I think it is one of the most beautiful and distinct churches in the city of Palermo. A pristine example of Arab-Norman architecture, the Church of San Cataldo is located right off of Piazza Pretoria in Piazza Bellini. Chiesa di San Cataldo resembles a Mosque through its 3 red domes, once again reinforcing Palermo’s multi-cultural civilization and history.
MUST-EAT: SOLO PATATE
As we made our way towards the crown jewel of Palermo, la Catedrale di Palermo, we walked by a store called Solo Patate, which literally means “Just Potatoes.” As I stuck my face up to the vitrine, all I saw was potato chips, stuffed potato, potato arancini, crispy potato, baked potato, and potato croquettes—and yes, there were gluten-free options too! My mom and I burst out into laughter as we passed by a typical Sicilian scene…
A mother, who must have been in her late 60s early 70s, and her son, who must’ve been in his mid 30s early 40s, were sitting on the bench outside of Solo Patate. The mother asks the son “Why are you not eating?! You not hungry?!” The son, who is holding a huge fried potato croquette stuffed with what seems to be cheese and prosciutto replies, “No ma…I don’t feel so well, my stomach hurts.” The Italian mother replies, “Eh eat!! The fried potato will make your stomach feel better! Come on.” As her son proceeds to bite into the huge fried croquette stuffed with cheese and mozzarella. A typical Sicilian Italian scene, if your stomach hurts and you are not hungry, keep eating food even if it’s fried, it will make you feel better…!!!
If there is one thing about Sicily that I will never get over, it’s the amount of food the people eat compared to up North for lunch, dinner, snack, and breakfast. Pastries with Nutella or cream for breakfast, big pasta dishes with sardines, eggplant, and olives for lunch, arancini or cannolo with granita for snack, and an even bigger dinner followed by gelato of course—Welcome to Sicily my dear friends, food heaven!
THIRD STOP: BANCHETTO DEL CHIOSCHETTO DELLA CATTEDRALE
In front of the Cathedral lies a traditional banchetto or Sicilian cart where the store Il Chioschetto della Cattedrale offers freshly squeezed orange juice and granita. The little gelateria and beverage store also offers vintage beverages. Neatly organized in the front of his counter are vintage bottles of gassosa, limonata, chinotto and the list goes on. The label on the top reads un antica ricetta Siciliana, an antique Sicilian recipe. The banchetto and bottles just scream Sicily! These are elements that are so hard to find around the island now a days, so we were lucky to find them smack in the center of Palermo.
FOURTH STOP: CATEDRALE DI PALERMO
I have seen a lot of cathedrals in my life, but none have left me with a lasting memory like la Catedrale di Palermo. The Palermo Cathedral is a true representation of Sicily’s diverse population created by the invasions of years past and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cathedral’s mix of Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Swabian, Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance AND Baroque design tells a story in and of itself. As we examine the building from head to toe, it ends with an intricate and elaborate cathedral and bell tower that stands tall as it catches the last glimpse of the Palermo sunset against the blue sky. This is definitely in my top 5 favorite cathedrals in the world.
Surprisingly, Palermo can be done and seen within just 3 hours. One does not need more than a day here. Most of the historic sites are condensed within a one-mile radius, so there is a lot to see, but it can be seen pretty quickly. My mother and I stopped by Primi Piatti for dinner; a small local restaurant nestled in a street off of the main road Via Vittorio Emanuele. The restaurant was very low key and frequented by locals, so we knew we were in the right spot. My mom got the Pesto alla Siciliana (which was the right choice!) and I got the Tripolini Anciova, equally as good, but I personally preferred my mother’s plate!
QUICK TIP: Outside of that 1-mile historic center of Palermo, I do not recommend that you wander at night. My mom and I found ourselves wondering literally 100 feet out of the historic center and somehow, without knowing, found ourselves on Prostitute row trying to hail a cab. It took us 30 minutes, 3 weirdly and scandalously dressed women, and 2 strange and vulgar comments to understand why we were not able to hail a cab in this area…! Haha
Get acquainted with Palermo’s street food, beautiful architectural influence, and UNESCO World Heritage Site la Cattedrale di Palermo, to delve into the heart and soul of the mosaic that is Sicily.
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