Palermo is the capital of Sicily, an island in the south of Italy, and is one of the likely stops during your Mediterranean cruise. Today, I'm here to share with you the best plans and everything you can't miss during this stop, which I discovered during my recent Mediterranean cruise aboard Costa Smeralda.
The first thing you need to know is that Palermo is one of those ports that allows you to disembark on your own and easily walk to the city center. It will take you about 15-20 minutes and it's a very pleasant walk, especially if the weather is nice.
Sicily is an island with a lot to visit, such as the beautiful village of Cefalù (you can take a bus excursion from Palermo; I'll tell you more another day); and in other parts of the island, there are attractions like visiting Mount Etna or the city of Taormina, although these two are usually done from the ports of Messina (which also has the beautiful Strait of Messina) or Catania. I should add Sicily to my list of must things to do in Italy during your cruise so, in this post, we will focus on the city of Palermo, with a route that you can easily do on foot and on your own.
Tour: discover the heart of Palermo
Palermo is a city that pleasantly surprised me with the amount of stories hidden in its corners. I must say that I had the privilege of getting to know the city through the eyes of my good friend Valeria, born in Palermo, who acted as a guide some time ago. Thanks to her, today I bring you this little guide with the best places in the city.
We start our tour in the square of Teatro Massimo. To get there, simply leave the port and go up Via Emerico Amari street until you reach Piazza Ruggero Settimo and turn left. In a few minutes straight ahead, you will arrive at the square of this spectacular theater. It is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe. In addition to being enormous, it is very beautiful and majestic, and stands out for its neoclassical style. It was built after the demolition of a church and a monastery, and legend has it that the ghost of a nun haunts the theater. In particular, it is said that there is a passage known as "the passage of the nun" in which anyone who does not believe in the legend will trip.
Our next stop is conveniently located on the same Via Maqueda (continuing straight from where we came), and it is one of the most curious corners of the city: Quattro Canti. It is the intersection between Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emmanuele, and it is worth stopping to observe every detail.
It is a super beautiful square built in the 17th century with an octagonal design that features four identical buildings on each corner. The best part? Each one of them represents the four seasons, four kings, and the four patrons of the city. Furthermore, during my visit, there were street performers who created an ambiance with popular Sicilian music. The square is the perfect reference point for tourists and locals alike. If you stand in the center and look up to the sky, you can complete a perfect circle drawn by the four corners. You can't miss it!
PIAZZA DELLA VERGOGNA
Right next to Quattro Canti we come across a square: Piazza della Vergogna. And it has a lot of history! Did you know that there was a monastery next to it that dates back to medieval times? And there's also a story about a son who sold the fountain in the square to the city. That's why it's known by that name, which translates as "Square of Shame".
It is said that the son of a noble sold the fountain because he needed money to pay off his gambling debts, against the last will of his father before he died, which was to install it on one of the family's properties. The city, aware of the historical and artistic value of the fountain, decided to buy it and restore it. Since then, the fountain has been a focal point of the square, adding more character to this beautiful place, and has given part of its name for the shame they considered to sell their father's last will for money. As for the monastery, over the years it has been used as a place of worship, a hospital, and a prison, and also contributes to the sense of shame in the name, as the ecclesiastical staff were scandalized to have a fountain with naked bodies in front of them, and even damaged the fountain because they considered it a true shame to have it exhibited there.
Piazza della Vergogna is a place full of history and there is much to discover there. It is definitely one of the places where you should stop to take some photos!
CATTEDRALE DI PALERMO
We continue our route and stop at the Cathedral of Palermo, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It is an impressive church located in the heart of the historic center and dates back to the 12th century. The cathedral is an impressive example of Norman and Gothic architecture, with many influences such as Arab architecture. Its exterior design is truly impressive, with a fascinating and complex set of architectural styles.
In addition to the two towers that rise to almost 50m, the cathedral façade has an impressive bronze door decorated with reliefs and sculptures, representing biblical scenes and mythological figures. The sculptural details on the façade are incredibly detailed and have a great variety of styles and themes. The Cathedral of Palermo is an impressive architectural monument and a must-visit for anyone interested in the history and architecture of Sicily, which can be enjoyed just by visiting from the outside, although you can also consider going inside.
What I liked most was the atmosphere of the square, with lots of greenery and a reminder of buildings from southern Spain with that Arab influence I was telling you about.
Palermo is famous for its vibrant and colorful markets, an essential part of the city's daily life. They are visited by both tourists and locals, which makes them feel so authentic.
I visited two of them that are very central. The first one is the Mercato di Vucciria. It is known for its lively atmosphere and great selection of fresh and local foods, including seafood, meats, fruits, and vegetables. Additionally, the market is a great place to find handmade crafts and souvenirs. The other market I visited was the Mercato del Capo. This market is a great place to find local products, including Sicilian cheeses, wines, and liquors. Additionally, the market is known for its affordable prices and authentic atmosphere.
In short, Palermo's markets are a unique and must-have experience for anyone visiting the city and wanting to enjoy the local culture and cuisine, which I recommend you visit even if you have no intention of buying or trying anything. The atmosphere captures you and makes you dive into a more picturesque, local, and authentic Palermo.
Whether it's in a market or in the city center, and even if you have prepaid meals on the ship, you can't leave Palermo without tasting some of the classics of its local cuisine. During my visit, what I did was take advantage of the phenomenon of street food, which is very popular in the city and at an affordable price. There are many classics to try, such as panelle, a kind of fried chickpea flour tortilla; sfincione, a pizza with a mix of tomatoes, onions, anchovies, olives, and cheese; or pane con la milza, a sandwich made with beef liver and lungs. I chose to try two of the most delicious bites of the entire cruise: arancine and cannoli.
We started with the arancine. They are a rice ball filled with various ingredients, fried on the spot and served hot. They can be found in many stalls and shops throughout the city, and their fillings are very diverse. I tried two of the most classic ones: the meat one, filled Bolognese-style; and the one called burro, which was filled with mozzarella and sweet ham. Both were very good, and my favorite was definitely the meat one. The batter is thin but crispy, and the filling has the exact power to complement the rice perfectly.
My other gastronomic stop was to try the famous Sicilian cannolo, a cylinder with some similarity to the Andalusian pestiño that is filled with ricotta cream with powdered sugar and candied fruit. Well, this is the traditional option and it is a delight, although nowadays you can find cannoli of many flavors and you can customize it to your liking with different fillings and toppings, and something wonderful is that there are mini versions, fantastic to try more than one flavor. Keep in mind that a standard cannolo is huge! I decided to try the pistachio cream one and it was spectacular. It's hard for me to give a verdict, so my recommendation is that, without a doubt, you should try several flavors in their mini version and you will be right. Just be careful because they are deliciously addictive.
Plan your visit
The route I suggested, including its gastronomic stops, can be easily done on foot in about 3 hours at a leisurely pace, as the center of Palermo can be covered quickly. In our case, we didn't have to wake up early or give up eating on the ship, and best of all, we spent about €5 per person in total on the arancine and cannoli.
However, if you want to discover more of Palermo, there are many other interesting points both in the city center and further afield. One of the most beautiful panoramic views you can find is the Baia di Mondello, one of the most popular beaches on the island, which forms a beautiful bay with turquoise and crystal clear waters. The best way to admire it is from Mount Pellegrino, which offers panoramic views from the top. To get here, you will need transportation, although it is still in the city and you don't need to make a long journey like to visit Cefalù or other nearby towns that are also beautiful but for which I recommend reserving a specific day.
I must say that I really enjoyed my last visit to Palermo, as it is a reminder that sometimes you don't need to travel many miles in a port to discover beautiful corners. My favorites were undoubtedly Quattro Canti and the markets, as the local atmosphere envelops you, and in general, I would say that Palermo is one of those destinations that are best enjoyed if you know its history. That's why I encourage you to explore these corners and be amazed by their charm, while remembering what I've told you about them or sharing interesting facts with your companions. Lastly, don't miss the departure of the ship. It's one of the most beautiful ones, watching the island fade away and become smaller and smaller.