Italy: Palermo Sicily

The Sicilian monastery in Baida, near Palermo. Raluca Maier photos.
The Sicilian monastery in Baida, near Palermo. Raluca Maier photos.

The Real Sicily: Cefalu and Castelbuono are great day trips from the city

By Raluca Maier

Situated in the northwest corner of the island of Sicily, Palermo has architectural and cultural influences from North Africa, Greece, but also Spain and Italy. Although in Europe, it makes you realize since the first moment you step on the Palermian ground, that this is not typical Europe at all and not even Italy, the way we knew or imagined it.

The Recycling donkey in Palermo, Sicily.
The Recycling donkey in Palermo, Sicily.

Palermo is a playful mix of traffic, tiny streets full of motorcycles and cars, and crowds walking up and down. There is noise, people of all colors, parties in the street, loud music, and markets where all sorts of smells mix together.

There are sellers trying to market their products by shouting out loud, like in old times, but also many hidden treasures, like: Palazzo di Normi, Santa Catarina Church, Capuchin Catacombs, Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, Capella Palatina, Massimo theatre, and many others.

It’s the kind of place where the multiculturalism becomes so obvious, that even the names of the streets are written in three different languages: Italian, Hebrew and Arabic.

The city was founded by the Phoenicians but named by the Ancient Greeks as “Panormus”, which then became “Palermo”, with the basic meaning of a place “always fit for landing in”.

This aspect becomes pretty clear once to see all the people coming from Tunis and Northern Africa, for whom Palermo represents a way to make some of their dreams come true and the Tyrrhenian Sea is their only escape to a better world.

These poor people coming from the Third World are making a living nowadays in Palermo, through selling jewelry and souvenirs or washing windows of cars in the city center – Piazza Centrale.

One of the Tunisian men selling jewelry in this Piazza was actually a very good marketer -– he told me and my friend that the jewelry were good quality, real silver, because he wouldn’t sell some material that is not good and goes off after a short while, as that would affect his reputation as a seller.

Street sign in Palermo.
Street sign in Palermo in three languages.

You, as a client, would tell someone else and he would lose a client, but “if the product was good, you would tell someone else about it, to a friend or to your family and I would get more clients”, he told us.

What to visit / What to do?

In Palermo, you can enjoy a refined trip, full of culture – while walking on the magnificent streets in the city center and visiting the most important treasures left by the ancestors, but at the same time you can have an exotic trip, full of shocking discoveries – it all depends on which side or quarter of Palermo you choose to visit or stick too.

If you want to visit the most well-known “tourist places” in the city, I would suggest you don’t miss out on Palazzo dei Normanni, one of the most beautiful Italian palaces and a notable example of Norman architecture. It also houses the famous Cappella Palatina, which you’ve probably seen in many pictures by now.

Cefalu beach
Cefalu beach

Zisa and Cuba are also great to visit – they are magnificent castles, which used to serve as hunting places for the kings of Palermo in the past.

Palermo Cathedral is the main church of the city – a blend of different, if not opposed architectural styles. The cathedral can be found on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, corner of Via Matteo Bonello.

Another place of great interest for all tourists is the Capuchin Catacombs, with many mummified corpses in varying degrees of preservation – the main attraction is a little girl, who looks as if she was really still alive.

If you want to enjoy the seaside and get tanned, I have to say that Cefalu is the best place for that. Palermo is right by the sea, as well, but there isn’t any sandy beach in the city, but only the port and heavy rocks. Cefalu is around a half an hour away from Palermo and you can get there by bus. Is has a beautiful cathedral, tasty restaurants and one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.

The narrow streets of Palermo.
The narrow streets of Palermo.

If you want to see the more exotic side of Palermo, I invite you to visit Ballaro – one of the really poor quarters of the city, with huge markets, where you can see the way sellers market their products right in the street.

Ballaro is also great during the night – it’s full of street parties, pubs extending on the street – with chairs and tables next to which the cars are driving pretty close, scaring some of the tourists off.

People of all colors and nationalities are mixing together and dancing in the middle of the streets, the smell of dope is extremely strong and no one seems to be disturbed by anything at all.

Drinks are usually sold in small plastic glasses that cost around 2 or 3 euros. A beer can be 1,50 euros, depending on the brand and you would be able to find most any brand from all over the world – some of my friends from Denmark found their favorite beer from their country and I even noticed Guinness being sold in the marketplace.

Basic precautions

You might have heard of Palermo as being a dangerous place to go to, with all the mafia going around the streets. I have to tell you that I’ve been walking all alone or with just one other girl in Ballaro, one of the most dangerous quarters in Palermo and nothing looked scary or frightening around there.

Yes, it’s true that people are loud and sometimes even rude, children use bad words and can sometimes be violent, the world they live in is quite different from ours, as the culture is pretty different, too, but as long as you don’t do anything to disturb them, everyone would simply be your friend.

The castle at Castelbuono.
The castle at Castelbuono.

Most of the Palermiam people (and those who came to Palermo and have been living there since a while now) are very easy-going and friendly and wouldn’t judge much on the appearance and language – they would simply consider you a friend from the first moment they see you, which shows quite a lot of trust, if you think about all the bad things many of them had to go through.

The only thing that I would consider as a danger in Palermo is the traffic – there are many cars, but especially many motorcycles driving around the city, even through markets, making their way in the middle of the crows or in tiny streets. Most of the time, they drive like crazy, so you would have to pay special attention to walking in the Palermiam streets.

The market in Ballaro, Palermo Sicily.
The market in Ballaro.

The traffic lights don’t matter that much either, so whenever you want to cross the street, you’d better follow the advice one Italian girl gave me.

Just make sure they notice you out there and if you’re not sure they did, just hold one hand straight, directed to the left or right, depending on where the cars are coming from. This will definitely make them stop and wait for you to cross.

Best time to go to Palermo

Palermo is usually a nice, hot place to go to, but it’s true that there is a time in the year when to weather is nicest.

Autumn tends to be the wettest time of the year, but you wouldn’t expect a lot of rain though, as Palermo doesn't experience that much rainfall compared to other parts of Europe. Temperatures usually range between 11°C / 52°F and 17°C / 63°F.

Winter is quite short – between December and February and with temperatures that don’t fall under 10°C / 50°F, which makes Palermo the perfect place for Italians living in other parts of Italy, to escape from the cold winter.

Spring in the best time of the year to visit Palermo, as temperatures range between 10°C / 50°F and 18°C / 65°F. During May and June, it's even warm enough to take a bath in the sea and get tanned on the beach.

Summer can be a bit too hot, but it all depends on your preferences – I personally enjoy high temperatures in July and August, starting at 28°C / 82°F and getting even higher. If you’re planning to visit a lot, though, it might be too hot for that – if you want to enjoy time by the sea, it’s a perfect time.

Have a great escape in Palermo!

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Raluca MaierRaluca Maier enjoys traveling the world and writing about it. Apart from this, she is a copywriter focusing on technology and IT, and she works as a freelance marketer collaborating with various companies from all over the world. Originally from Romania, Raluca lives in Germany where she is working hard to learn the language and better understand the culture.

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