By Alaina Fugo
My family emigrated from Sicily to Ellis Island nearly 100 years ago and while I have been to Italy several times, I had never made the trek to where my great-grandparents had come from, Palermo.
I had always heard stories of the poorest parts of Palermo and how real life mobsters took over places where my family lived. As told by individual members of my family, their lives resembled the Godfather movie, and they left Sicily, as many immigrants did, in search of a better life.
Palermo is on the northwestern side of the island of Sicily. (It’s the soccer ball the boot of Italy is kicking.) It faces the Tyrrhenian Sea and has breathtaking views, surrounded by plenty of hills and mountains with lush greenery that includes palm trees. Even the bus ride from Palermo International Airport to the city center is glorious.
Airbnb is a good option for Palermo, in my case a loft in a quiet street adjacent to the Cattedrale Metropolitana Della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta (Palermo Cathedral.) My welcome included cannoli and a little Sicilian wine, along plenty of tips and suggestions on where to go and what I should do while I stayed there, such as La Cala (waterfront and dock areas), the catacombs, Palermo Cathedral and a short trip to Mondello Beach. The loft was also next to the Palermo Markets, which required a walk through the Capo street market to get pretty much anywhere.
Getting around Palermo
Palermo is a walkable city, and walking is ideal if you want to immerse yourself into life like a local.
Of course in Palermo, most people have bicycles or mopeds, and cars are necessarily small to negotiate the narrow streets and sharps turns. You’ll have to walk carefully – drivers are notorious for driving recklessly. Most sights are clustered relatively close to the city center, and walking will help with all the delicious food. The bus system, if you choose to use it, is quite simple and extensive. For example, you can take a bus to Mondello Beach from the opera house, the Teatro Politeama. Half an hour’s ride will take you the lovely town of Mondello, its seafood and lookouts, and crystal clear waters.
The roads are quite old and cobblestones uneven; some are nearly 3000 years old and have witnessed the footsteps of (chronologically) the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and eventually the Italians.
English isn’t spoken often in Palermo, so you’ll have to struggle with your Italian or a phrasebook or Google Translate. Yet there are two languages in Palermo: the first is Italian, but the second is a Sicilian dialect. Speaking a bit of Italian will go a long way towards making your trip more enjoyable.
Becoming less patriarchal
Traveling to Palermo as a solo traveler is safe and fun if you use a little common sense. While it’s unlikely you’ll look like a local, wearing conservative clothes will help you blend in.
Contrary to many other places, in Palermo men are the ones in charge of the markets – women have more responsibilities in the home, which is why you won’t see as many women owning a market stall or a local business. Speaking of markets, it is customary not to touch the produce unless you are actually buying it. Beware that as a foreigner, you may be taken advantage of when it comes to price or quantities. In fact that may happen even if you’re Italian.
So while Sicily is still a male-dominated society, in the past two decades this mindset has begun to shift, especially among the younger generation. Women are increasingly involved in politics and business, and finally, in 1996, rape became a criminal offence.
Sunset in Palermo
If you like going out in the evening, you could try the Old Town, Vecchio Centro, where people gather at night. For a quieter vibe, try La Cala, the pre-16th century waterfront, excellent for watching ships arrive and leave. It’s more local than the Old Town come in and out, plus it may be quieter than Old Town, but more locals hang out in La Cala, which also has some of the best seafood.
At night, however, it’s worth taking some precautions. There are few street lights other than on main roads, and streets can be quite deserted. That makes walking through quiet neighborhoods a bit nerve-wracking, especially since you may experience some staring
You’ll find many Sicilians stand outside and drink in the streets, which is very typical and takes place even during the colder times of year. Rather than go out dancing, Sicilians seem far more interested in conversation and the social aspect of going out.
Women should avoid walking alone at night in Palermo so if you do stay out late, make sure someone can escort you back or that you have a ride. This is particularly important in the neighborhoods of Kalsa and Cassaro, where you should never walk alone after dark. (The Cassaro, by the way, is the former name of Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II and is Palermo’s oldest street, dating back to its founding by the Phoenicians.)
During the day these two distinct districts can look a bit rough but are relatively safe. Go only during the day and just like walking through any other unknown city, use common sense and be mindful.
Palermo’s street food
Of course you’d visit Sicily for its ancient culture, beautiful architecture, alfresco evenings, friendly people and most importantly, the food. Every morning, heading through the markets, I would find a new restaurant or a man with a cart with local street food to try. Refreshing wines come with traditional Sicilian pizza, whose crust is thin and tasty and whose toppings focus on quality. Try a particularly melt-in-your-mouth meat sandwich, Pani ca’ Meusa. This delectable item is reputed to be 1000 years old, made with Jewish meat and Arab cheese. Locals have dubbed it Mariata, which means marriage, with the white cheese representing the bride and the dark meat the groom.
There’s no question Palermo is a great foodie city but here’s a suggestion: walk down a street and stop often, pick one or two small items from each place and keep going. You’ll get to try everything from charcuteries, cheeses, fried anchovies and octopus to succulent gelato. Want to know more about the foods and their history?
Why you should go to Palermo
Palermo is still very much off the tourist track and that is part of its allure. People are interested in visitors and yes, some men are perhaps more curious than they should be but don’t let that scare you away from this bright and vibrant city.
Palermo makes a clear case for its 3000 years of history by mixing and blending its culture and architecture. A church with Byzantine influence will sit right next to one with a piece of Baroque artwork, the perfect combination for visitors with a penchant for culture and curiosity.
A few Palermo tips
- Don’t forget to tip bathroom attendants. They don’t earn much and work very hard, especially when there are tourists around
- Don’t feed the stray cats, dogs or seagulls, because this brings in more strays and residents have to clean up the messes the animals leave behind.
- Consider renting a car if you want to leave the city – just don’t try to drive around the city itself, unless you’ve faced (and survived) Italian traffic before.
- Book your hotel in Palermo by comparing prices and checking out all these delightful places with booking.com.
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This is a guest post by Alaina Fugo, a freelance travel writer who has visited all 50 US states and more than 30 countries. You can find her writing at Writing by Nomad or join her on Twitter at @NomadWriting. Photos by Alaina Fugo unless otherwise noted.