Sicily has been on my bucket list for a while, as my great-grandfather was born there. I grew up in Upstate, NY (Rochester) where Italian American culture is extremely prevalent. My family refers to ourselves as Italian. For this trip, I wanted to make sure my mom was able to join us and see where her grandfather was form. She remembers growing with both sets of grandparents speaking Italian, and very little English. I wish I could go back in time, meet them, and learn from them! We take so much for granted growing up, and so many questions go unasked, and stories untold. It was amazing to be able to travel to the Italian island where my family hails from. This trip was over two years in the making – we originally booked it for April 2020, and we ALL remember how that year went!
Luckily, Spring Break 2022 went more smoothly than 2020, and we were able to make the trip to Sicily with my mom. We flew in and out of Palermo, thanks to 30 pound round trip flights from London Stansted! Palermo makes a great base for a few days in Sicily, or a good place to start your Sicilian roadtrip. Initially, we had hoped to drive the entire island, but decided to spend more time in less locations. We had two full days in Palermo; we didn’t see everything but we did make a good dent on the city. That said, there’s plenty for us to do if we decide to go back.
Palermo is the largest city on the island of Sicily, but it is mostly walkable. We didn’t have a need for a rental car until we were leaving Palermo, as we didn’t mind walking, and did not want to deal with parking. We stayed at Hotel Pontemare. The staff was friendly, and the breakfast was good. The location was easy for getting to restaurants at night, and sightseeing, without staying right in the middle of the tourist area. The only downside was the noise from street at night.
What to do in Palermo
Palermo is a beautiful city, with tons to do! Whether you’re interested in history, art, food, wine, nature- there’s something for you. We explored for two full days, and could’ve spent more time. We didn’t get to everything we wanted to see. You can easily spend a day lost in the architecture. Here’s some of what we did:
Take a Walking Tour
Lately, I’ve been booking walking tours, as it is a good way to explore the city. If you do the tour in the beginning of your trip, it gives you ideas of places you’d like to return to. I’m a big fan of the FreeTour app, which is how I booked a 2 hour tip based tour of Palermo. Our tour guide was excellent, and took through many highlights of the city, and also gave us good advice on where to find the best food. At the end of the tour, we received an email with links to all sorts of restaurants, bars, attractions, and local bakeries. This was helpful because we wanted to eat all the things! Our tour was in English, but there were Spanish and Italian tours available as well.
Visit the Markets
Hitting the local markets is one of my favorite things to do when we travel. It’s even better in Italy! There are a few bigger markets in Palermo. The one we loved the most was Ballaro Market. This market is primarily food, but there are other goods available as well. As you walk through the narrow market streets, you hear the vendors yelling in Italian, amidst a maze of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and street food. We sampled some amazing cannoli (they were making the ricotta fresh in front of us) and some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. This is also a great place to buy souvenirs such as spices, pistachio crema, vacuum sealed pouches of olives, soaps, and other gifts. Believe me when I say, the market is an experience not to miss!
Visit the Fountain of Shame
The Fountain of Shame is a beautiful spot to visit. The real name is actually Fontana Pretoria, and it’s located in Piazza Pretoria. The fountain actually arrived from Florence in the late 1500s, in pieces, and was reassembled in Palermo. In the 1800s it acquired the nickname “Fountain of Shame” because of the nude statues. The nuns and citizens of Palermo used to put clothes on the statues to cover the nudity. Now there is a gate around the fountain but you can still visit and see the sculptures.
Admire the view from the top of Santa Caterina of Alexandra
One of the best places to see the The Fountain of Shame is actually from the roof of a nearby church. Just around the corner, is the Church of Santa Caterina of Alexandra. For 7 euros, you can visit the church and climb to the top of the terrace and admire the view over Palermo. The climb is easy, and there are photo opportunities on top. On the second or third floor, there is also a bakery run by the monastery that is a must visit! (more on that below). Going to the bakery is a must do! They have so many delicious treats.
We saw the outside of the Cathedral on our walking tour. We intended to go back, but never made, and I wish we had seen the inside. The outside is beautiful, and the Cathedral is massive. The Cathedral was built by the Normans in the late 1100s. Sicily has Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman roots – being an island in the Mediterranean it was conquered many times. The city’s culture, food, and architecture reflects the diverse history it has.
The Norman Palace was high on the list of places to visit when I was researching Palermo. To be honest, for the 10 euro entrance fee, it was a bit of a let down. The State Rooms were not open, so there wasn’t much to see other than a small garden, and the Chapel. The Chapel itself is beautiful, but it doesn’t seem worth the admission when the State Rooms are closed. We also found it weird that you had to pay for the toilets after paying admission. Usually when you purchase a ticket for a museum or palace, the restrooms are free. Not a deal breaker, but kind of annoying. Hopefully when you visit, everything will be open!
Visit Nearby Towns and Villages
On our way to the airport, we drove to the nearby village of Borgo Parrini. Going here is only possible by car. I first saw this little village on instagram, and loved the beautiful homes. The word Parrini means “priests” and this tiny village was originally settled by the Jesuits in the 16th century. Recently the residents of this small town started renovating the buildings in a style similar to Gaudi, creating a tiny slice of Barcelona in Sicily. While the colorful homes are beautiful, there are only a handful of them. This town is MUCH smaller than I anticipated, but I was glad we made a quick stop. There is a parking lot in town, and we paid 2 euros to park. If you have a rental car, it is easy to stop in this town; you can honestly spend 30 minutes or less, and see everything. As cute as the buildings are, it was a bit of a let down. Some popular day trips from Palermo that we did not have time for, are Cefalu and Monreale. If we ever go back, I’d like to visit those places.
Things to eat in Palermo
Let’s talk about the important stuff! Food and wine is what comes to mind when most people think of Italy, and I’m no exception! Growing up, we had access to many Sicilian specialties – some homemade and others from local cafes. One of the most well known Sicilian desserts is the cannoli. This was my favorite growing up, and I still love them! They can be found EVERYWHERE in Sicily, especially Palermo. You will find cannolis at the markets, restaurants, and bakeries. Two of the best places to get cannolis are the Ballaro Market (we even saw them making fresh ricotta on site!) and the Santa Caterina Monastery. There can be a line at times, but it is worth the wait – everything is fantastic and you can sit out in the garden to eat.
Palermo is also known for it’s street food – the most famous of which is Arancina. In Palermo, arancina is the name for the round, deep fried rice balls. They are shaped like the oranges that grow so abundantly in the region. Arancina can be filled with meat, veggies, and/or cheese. They are so delicious – it’s a must try when visiting. They can be found everywhere, so try them all. We loved the ones at Sfrigola. They have an extensive menu; just make sure you call it arancina, not arancini. Arancini is what it’s called in Catania, where the rice balls are triangular shaped to resemble Mount Etna.
Pasta Alla Norma
It wouldn’t be Italy if you aren’t shoving your face with pasta! I mean, that’s how I do Italy. Bread, pasta, wine, dessert, repeat. In Palermo, there’s no shortage of great pasta dishes, but one of the most famous is Pasta Alla Norma. This dish is actually from Catania, but you will find it all over the island and it’s quite tasty. Put simply, it’s pasta with tomatoes, eggplant, and mozzarella – make sure to try it!
The final “must try” dish (in my humble opinion) is one I grew up eating, though my family made a different version of it. Cassata is a traditional Sicilian dessert. It’s basically a cake made with ricotta cheese, with marzipan and fruit on top. The actual origin of the dessert is Arabic, dating back to the 10th century. During this time, Sicily was under Muslim rule. Regardless, you will find many variations in Sicily, to include chocolate cassata. My mother actually makes her cassata with orange, and our family serves it on Easter. In Sicily, it is a year round treat, and one you need to try!
Restaurants We Enjoyed
We ate at Al Cancelletto after a long day of walking around Palermo, and wanted to find a place within a ten minute walk from our hotel. We found this place, and the reviews were right – it was delicious. The menu is all in Italian, and there is no English menu. This is the type of restaurant that has their cakes and desserts under a small glass dome, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The patrons seemed like a mix of tourists and locals. I am sucker for homemade gnocchi and it was excellent. My husband had the Pasta Alla Norma, which was also great. Perhaps the highlight, was their “orange cake” which tasted surprisingly like my Mom’s cassatta.
A slightly more upscale restaurant, this was a quick 5 minute walk from our hotel. The ambience was rustic and romantic, and they offer indoor and outdoor seating. The menu was more unique than your typical Italian dishes, and it was more expensive, but still a place I’d recommend. Perhaps my most interesting meal of the trip was there. I had a linguine with cod, chocolate, and candied oranges. It sounds crazy, but it was really good! This restaurant also gave us a small appetizer, truffles, and glass of champagne as part of the cover charge. (more on that later)
La Nicchia Enoteca
While this is technically not a restaurant, it is worth mentioning. This place is a wine bar, that serves Sicilian wines by the glass or bottle. You can sit outside, or inside. We stopped here for a glass of wine before dinner, and enjoyed it. You can order a meat and cheese board to go with your own as well.
Tips for Visiting Palermo (and Sicily in general)
- Restaurants have what is called Coperto, which is a cover charge per person. It’s between 2-4 euros a person. This is customary, and in Sicily it’s instead of a tip. Tipping is not common in Sicily and can even be construed as rude. With your coperto, you often get bread or a small appetizer on the house.
- Speaking of restaurants… serving tap water is not common in Sicily. If you ask for water, the next question is usually “still or gas”.
- Keep change for public toilets; often it is 50 cents.
- When driving in Southern Italy, there don’t appear to be any rules. It’s crazy and chaotic, but it works for them. Most people don’t use turn signals, so be prepared for anything. Honestly, if you’re staying in Palermo you won’t need to rent a car. You can take the train to nearby places such a Cefalu and Monreale.
- Most places close midday. We went in the off season and it was rare to find a restaurant open between 3:00pm-7:00pm. Maybe this is different during peak season.