A week in Palermo, Sicily

16 July 2017

We absolutely love Sicily. We spent ten days in Syracuse on our honeymoon a few years ago and when we were choosing where to go for a little sunshine this year, the decision to return to Sicily was a very easy one. We chose Palermo this time though, on the other side of the island to Syracuse. Palermo is the capital of Sicily and is famed for its history and culture, as well as its ‘rough and ready’ nature. I was a little apprehensive, particularly at the thought of crossing the roads, but after spending a week there at the beginning of July, I didn’t want to leave!

There’s a lot to see in Palermo itself and it’s also close to quite a few other spots that are worth visiting (even more if you have a car, which we didn’t and so we were therefore relying on public transport). I’m going to talk about Palermo itself here and will do separate posts on some other places we visited outside Palermo – primarily, the island of Ustica and the Roman town of Solunto.

The Weather

Can I be a British blogger and not mention the weather?! It was hot. Bearably so though – in the high 20s when we first arrived and inching towards the mid-30s by the end of our stay. I think the further you get into July/August, the hotter it is, so we were still able to get out a do things before retreating back to the hotel for a little late afternoon snooze and a shower before heading out to dinner in the evening. That’s partly what holidays are all about though, right?

Things to do

Make sure you pack some comfortable walking shoes for your visit to Palermo because the best way to experience the city is on foot. You often find yourself wandering down a narrow side street only to find that it leads into a stunning baroque piazza, or an amazing old church. There’s an array of Arab, Norman and Byzantine architecture, all of which would be lost if you were inside a car.

Our guidebook had recommended walking tours focusing on Palermo’s ‘medieval masterpieces’ and ‘baroque beauties’, which we followed on the first two days of the holiday as this was a good way to see the city and try to get our bearings as much as possible.  You must visit the Cathedral of Palermo, an impressive Arab-Norman building, and the Norman Palace but my (slightly less crowded) must-sees are:

Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti

A short walk from the Palazzo dei Normanni, in quite an unremarkable little area, you’ll find this little Arab-Norman church, which was built on top of a mosque that was also itself built on top of an earlier chapel. It was a wonderfully peaceful church, with a pretty cloistered area surrounded by exotic plants, palm trees and orange trees. It started to get a little busier as we were leaving but for a while, it was just us and a small French group on a sketching tour.

Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita and Oratorio del Rosario in San Domenico

I’m mentioning these two together because they’re a short walk apart and you can buy a joint ticket, which works out cheaper than buying two separate tickets.

These chapels are famed for their stuccos, the work of Giacomo Serpotta, dating from the 17th century and I actually gasped aloud when we walked into the chapel in Santa Cita – the walls are covered in stunning sculpted figures with such life and expression that I just couldn’t believe that they weren’t set in place yesterday.  Photos just don’t do either of the chapels justice and I wholeheartedly recommend visiting them for yourself if you’re visiting the city. Absolutely stunning.

The chapel in San Domenico is slightly smaller but no less impressive. I’d read in our guidebook that Serpotta’s name meant ‘lizard’ or ‘small snake’ and he had a habit of including one of these reptiles in his work as a hidden signature, one of which could be found in this chapel. I didn’t rest until I spotted a small lizard crawling up one of the columns – success! I love a treasure hunt! No spoilers here, let me know if you need a hint :)

Museo Archeologico Regionale

One for you archaeology lovers, this was something we decided to visit on a whim on a Sunday morning in order to escape the sun for a few hours. This beautifully laid-out museum, which is free to visit (very few places were!), had a really impressive collection of Greek and Roman artefacts, including a series of decorative friezes from the temples at Selinunte. It also has a lovely cool courtyard, with a fountain with sun-worshipping terrapins.

The Street Markets of Palermo

There are three main street markets in Palermo, selling an array of household goods, clothes and foodstuffs – Mercato della Vucciria, Mercato di Ballarò and Mercato del Capo.

Our favourite, and we went back a second time to stock up on some herbs to bring home with us, was the Mercato di Ballarò as there were several winding streets filled with all manner of delicious foods – fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and herbs. We promised ourselves that next time we visit Italy, we’ll use Airbnb because it was so difficult to walk away from so much delicious fresh food. It wasn’t just for tourists, the market was also full of Palermitans doing their daily shop (no doubt exasperated by all the tourists peering delightedly at all the deliciousness on offer). There was also an array of tempting street food being sold at the market (I talk about this a little more below), which my husband loved and I made friends with a granite-seller – who had a huge block of ice, which he would scrape into a cup and fill with your choice of sweet sauces (strawberry and cherry for me please).

Finally, if you have a strong constitution (if only for the 30 minute walk from the centre of the city in the sun!), you should also visit the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks – Catacombe dei Cappuccini.  The catacombs are home to the mummified bodies and skeletons of several thousand of Palermo who died between the 17th and 19th centuries (the most recent is the mummified body of a little girl who died in the 1920s). Hugely macabre, the catacombs are divided into separate sections – families, men, women, professions, even a little chapel for virgins. It’s definitely worth visiting but you may need to sleep with the light on for a few nights afterwards.

Things to eat

Palermo is famous for its street food, some of which are not for the faint-hearted (what are your thoughts on spleen?) You’ll often see stalls scattered around the city, serving various hot snacks, which are meant to be eaten there and then. It’s a quick and easy lunch option, although not so easy if you’re coeliac like I am as most of the street snacks were full of gluten. My husband was in savoury heaven though and these were some of his favourite snacks, for which Palermo is famous and which you must try if you’re able to:

Pane e panelle – chickpea fritters
Crocchè – potato croquettes, flavoured with fresh mint
Panic a meusa – bread roll stuffed with sautéed beef spleen
Of the sweet treats – you can choose from brioche filled with ice cream, gelato or granite (crushed ice mixed with fresh fruit, almonds, pistachios or coffee – I had at least one of these every day!)

If you fancy trying the spleen sandwich, you should pick one up from the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, a restaurant which first opened in 1834, hosted the first Sicilian parliament and was a favourite of a notorious Mafia boss.

As a coeliac, I will always always recommend visiting Italy because you’re so well looked after in terms of gluten free food. Despite the fact that people’s awareness of what constitutes a gluten free dish is improving here in the UK, it just doesn’t come close to people’s awareness of coeliac disease and what you can and can’t have in Italy. That being said, the street food was on the whole full of gluten, unfortunately!

A lot of restaurants have gluten free pasta, some even have gluten free bread, but even if they were not available, there was an array of sea food or meat options I could choose from during our visit so I was not struggling for food options while we were there. Palermo itself is very close to the sea so we enjoyed some amazing sea food while we were there – fresh octopus, served with just a sprinkle of parsley and fresh lemon juice, mussels, sardines and sword fish, amongst various other local fish that I didn’t recognise.

If you’re looking for some restaurant recommendations, make sure you pay a visit to:

Ferro di Cavallo, Via Venezia 20
Open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, you may struggle to get a table outside and be prepared to queue to sit either outside or inside as this restaurant is fairly small but hugely popular, and for very good reason. The menu isn’t hugely extensive but so tasty, and you’re also there for the atmosphere which is noisy and rambunctious, and very Sicilian! Apparently, you can enjoy one of Palermo’s very best cannoli but until they make those gluten-free, I can’t tell you. I went for the mussel soup to start, followed by the meat course (which came with Italian sausage, pork and chicken) and a Sicilian mixed salad, all washed down with a little carafe of local wine.

Trattoria ai Cascinari, Via D’Ossuna 43/45
This was my favourite of all the restaurants we visited during our time in Palermo and was fantastic for gluten free options. It’s incredibly popular with locals and was a little walk-away from the main centre of the city, but worth venturing to. They have gluten free pasta, which was better than any of the pasta I’ve tasted here (sob!) and when they heard I was coeliac, they brought me out a plate full of the traditional mint croquettes and chickpea fritters, which I didn’t think I’d be able to experience during our visit.  I followed this up with a pasta dish and then stuffed aubergines. They’d also brought me a little bowl of gluten free bread so I rather rolled home afterwards. The only downside was the fact that we visited this restaurant on our last night, otherwise we would definitely have returned.

If you’re looking for a place to while away a few hours with some delicious wine, I’d recommend Enotequa on the Via Maqueda – a cosy little bar, with an extensive list of wine choices and staff who are really happy to help you choose something quite unusual to sample.


So those are my top tips for Palermo itself! I’ll do some separate posts (at least that’s the plan!) setting out some other must-sees nearby. Have you ever visited Palermo? Where should we visit for our next Italian holiday and is it time we experienced somewhere else?! (Surely not!)


  1. It just looks beautiful - I loved the pictures you shared on Instagram while you were away so it's nice to read more detail about Palermo.

    1. Thank you so much, it was absolutely beautiful and a joy to remember it all and talk about it again here!


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