There’s a new energy taking over Palermo. The capital of Sicily has long been a treasure trove of Baroque churches and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but over the past few years, it’s also reinvented itself, creating an old-meets-new mix that makes it very exciting to visit. From cool restaurants to beautiful museums, here’s all you need to know before you go.
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A first timer to Palermo shouldn’t miss the classics, of course, starting with the breath-taking Cappella Palatina on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni’s three-tiered loggia – a masterpiece of glittering gold mosaics and marble floors and the perfect example of Sicily’s cultural complexity with its mix of Arabic, Byzantine Greek and Norman styles. The richly decorated Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also known as La Martorana, should be next on the list, followed by the enchanting Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, which hides I Segreti del Chiostro (one of Palermo’s best pasticcerie) next to its magnificent cloister.
But the city isn’t just grand monuments and holy sites. Walk through the hip neighbourhood of Kalsa and you’ll find the uber cool Palazzo Butera, an 18th-century residence-turned-art museum that’s been thoughtfully renovated by collecting art couple Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi in 2016, and now hosts their private collection.
Just a 10-minute walk away from it (also in Kalsa) is GAM, Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Palermo, a civic art gallery displaying a mix of 19th-century painting and contemporary Italian art. Housed in a former convent, it’s one of Sicily’s most important spaces dedicated to contemporary artworks, and a must for any art enthusiast.
FPAC, a contemporary space a few steps away from the 17th century square of the Quattro Canti – Palermo’s civic heart – is another gem, and the island’s most well-known private contemporary gallery, both in Italy and abroad.
No trip to Palermo would be complete without a tour of its famed street markets – the best spots to taste Sicilian food at its humblest. Spend a morning in Ballarò, Vucciria or Capo, and look for stalls selling sfincione (focaccia-like bread), and panelle (savoury chickpea fritters), pesce cicireddu (fried little fish) and more earthly delights likestigghiola(grilled skewered lamb or goat innards).
Lunch is at Bisso Bistrot, a cosy, stylish eatery on bustling via Maqueda serving Sicilian classics done the contemporary way; while dinner could be at Moltivolti – a social enterprise-meets-restaurant that promotes social integration in the city by training and working with migrants. Its menu is an eclectic mix of Sicilian and African influences – think bottarga and lemon spaghetti next to dishes such as maffè (the Senegalese national dish of rice and peanut butter), and fish cous cous – while the place itself is a window into Palermo’s young, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan soul.
After something a little more elevated? Try Gagini, Palermo’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, housed in the former studio of Sicilian Renaissance sculptor Antonello Gagini. Or head to La Drogheria del Buongusto, a tiny but mighty upscale deli and an aperitivo bar with a great wine selection.
Lastly – but very important – don’t forget to get your cannoli fix at the abovementioned I Segreti del Chiostro in the Monastero di Santa Caterina. It’s a pasticceria that recreates once secret recipes from Sicilian convents, and its sweet treats alone are worth the trip to Palermo.
Via dei Cassari, 35, 90133 Palermo PA
I SEGRETI DEL CHIOSTRO: Piazza Bellini, 33, 90133 Palermo PA
LA DROGHERIA DEL BUON GUSTO: Via Nicolò Garzilli, 31, 90141 Palermo PA
A little shopping is always a great way to end (or start) your trip, and Palermo doesn’t disappoint. The city boasts a thriving craft scene, thanks, largely, to ALAB, a network of some 250 artisans and artists that have come together to inject new life into the historic centre by opening their workshops here. From ceramics to leather accessories, textiles to stationery, the showcase of contemporary Sicilian creativity is truly wide-ranging, and sure to satisfy all of your souvenir needs.
Not sure where to start? Try Insula ( jewelry and home furnishings), Trame (bags), and Vizi ri Fimmina (ceramics).
For some Vitamin D and an easy daytrip, head to Mondello, a popular beach resort most Palermitani head to for the weekend during the summer months. Offering a gorgeous sandy coastline, crystal-clear turquoise waters and a delightful array of Liberty-style houses and pier – testimony to its past as a fashionable destination for the city’s elites back in the 19th century – it’s a laidback spot to spend a day by the beach after all the sightseeing you’ll have done.