Palermo’s midday sun shines on balconies of apartments on the third and fourth floors. This is not a sartorial decision, but a practical one.
The heat in Sicily’s capital city can be so oppressive that it causes blinds and stifles during peak summer.
We had never seen Europe quite like our Latin American travels until we were sitting on our balcony in the Palermo sun. It was in Kalsa, a small backstreet just a few steps from the ocean. There littered the streets and simple restaurants sold the morning’s prize from the sea, which consisted of plastic plates and tables made from red plastic. Here, gentle chaos would sweep across the streets each morning, noon, and night.
One man shouting from the bottom of the lungs while selling oily fresh sfincione out of his cart. Women lowered buckets from balconies to receive food and bad news deliveries. Families shouting at each other in anger or love (often the two intertwined). A senior gentleman would place a few chairs in the corner and write handwritten signs to sell beer to his friends. An abandoned truck is shared by several chickens and wild cats.
We did not see anyone that looked like they had the chickens.
Things to Do in Palermo
Things to Do in Palermo: Along Dusty Roads
It was exactly the kind of atmosphere that we had hoped for on our month-long road trip across Sicily. We had it in Palermo in bucketloads. If you show me a movie of a lively, but friendly Italian neighborhood in New York 50s, I will tell you that it was what I experienced when I sipped on a cold Messina beer. The sounds of the area would provide the background.
The city’s gritty charms were not the only thing that we experienced in our time there, but it did offer cultural highlights.
Palermo is a popular alternative city-break destination in Europe. It has grown from the mafia-controlled 70s and 80s. Travelers are now coming in greater numbers to try some of Europe’s best street food. They also enjoy the opportunity to get lost in crumbling facades and learn how to cook and eat Palermitani-style.
We have some suggestions for the top things to do in Palermo, whether you are visiting as a quick city break or as a starting point for your own Sicily road trip.
Things to Do in Palermo: City Break Guide – Along Dusty Roads
DEVOUR THE STREET FOOD
It’s a bonus to visit any destination where you are able to get excited about its cuisine. Visiting Sicily, a foodie paradise within the undisputed Italian foodie heaven, is like winning the lottery twice in a row.
You can eat street food in Palermo every day – guilt-free! These highly-regarded dishes are very affordable because they are simple, inexpensive, and not too pretentious. They were once staples for the poor and impoverished. It is also vegetarian.
Each region and city in Sicily has its own cuisine. This is a traditional and authentic way of eating that makes it impossible to find the same dish once you move on to the south or west. You simply must try these things while you are in Palermo
A bit like focaccia, this thick slab of oily bread with a thin topping of tomatoes, onions, and cheese, is all over the place and often sold from the carts of singing men in neighborhoods. While we ate many of these whiles in Palermo, some were good and others not so good, we still long for the first one from a Ballaro bakery. God, I wish we could return there now.
Street Food Palermo
These fried chickpea fritter sandwiches are very Palermo street food (although Emily thinks they’re improved with hot sauce), and a popular breakfast street snack. I Cuochini is highly respected, but you should trust the Friggitoria Chiluzzo queues of hungry locals every day near our Airbnb.
Plump deep-fried balls of sticky, stodgy rice stuffed will all manner of tasty savory fillings, these make for a great quick snack as you explore Palermo (just wrap it in a napkin and go) or you can get a few and make a lunch out of it. You should let them cool off before you take a large bite. Due to historical rivalries and linguistic differences, arancini can be a controversial food in Sicily. This article has more.
That sounds a lot fancier than an ice-cream sandwich doesn’t it? Andrew’s sister was the first to tell us that this was a thing. We didn’t believe her. It turns out that Sicilians do indeed put a lot of their gelato in sweet brioche buns. If you don’t find that appealing, it could be because your taste buds aren’t as sharp as a 4-year-old. It. Is. AWESOME! Make a beeline to Cappadonia Gelati in the historic center. We also made a slight detour to Antica Gelateria Ilardo, based on a tip from a local!
Both of us are vegetarians, but we don’t think we would have been excited to try other street food in Palermo. We don’t believe anyone should eat baby cows, so we won’t be eating stigghiola (grilled goat or sheep intestines on sticks) or pane con le milza (bread with veal or lung).
From our experience, the standard of street food can vary wildly from stall to stall and cart to cart. If you eat your first sfincione, and it tastes divine, make sure to take note of the source. Keep small changes on hand for quick snack purchases.
TAKE A STREET FOOD TOUR
Street food can be found all around Palermo and at its bustling markets. Locals will often tell you about their favorite spots. However, a tour that focuses on street food is a great way to get an overview of Palermo’s importance and help non-Italian speakers find the best places in Palermo. You will also find a full stomach and a chance to eat well. Highly recommended, this 3-hour tour of street food is for small groups.
The Palermo Street Food Tour is a popular alternative but it costs more.
Palermo City Break
Okay, so Palermo is a place where food is the main focus. This is not a bad thing.
While we love to go to local food and flea market markets everywhere we travel, it’s not always a memorable travel experience in Europe. There, food markets are more organized, cleaner and more structured than those found in the US, making them easier to satisfy our travel cravings.
Palermo is different.
It is a true paradise for outdoor food markets. It is essential to visit at least one of Palermo’s markets during your stay. It’s a wonderful way to spend an hour, or even two, enjoying the variety of local, fresh produce.
The atmosphere immediately triggered our senses, transporting us back to South America’s souks and markets. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they are further away. However, Palermo’s Arabic roots and associations with the region – which is closer to northern Africa than north Italy – shouldn’t surprise anyone. You will find your eyes widen and your senses heightened by spending an hour exploring these stalls if you have not yet traveled outside of Europe.
There are three main markets in Palermo (we have listed them below), each with a different vibe. The markets are open daily from 7am to 8pm Monday through Saturday. They close at 1pm Wednesday. One or two markets are open for street food tours.
Markets in Palermo: Things to Do in Palermo
The most famous, oldest and largest.
Ballaro, which is spread across several streets in a neglected and poor central neighborhood, is far from being a tourist market. In fact, it has become more popular among tourists looking for authentic Sicilian culture.
There will be several stallholders shouting in a very melodic way, trying to be heard amid the sizzles and smoke. This is known as ‘abbanniate’ and it is a way for you to draw attention to your products!
Start out here (Google Maps) on 2-14 Via Dalmazio Birago, but you can also access via Piazza Casa Professa or Porta Sant’Agata.
Visit early after breakfast or before lunch for the best atmosphere. Let us know if you think it is worth visiting in the evening or late afternoon. The market becomes a flea market on Sunday mornings.
Vucciria was photogenic with its bright lemons and giant swordfish heads. However, the market was staffed only by handsome, leather-clad men. Vucciria, which means “chaos” or “noise” in Sicilian is a very compact market compared to the frenetic 33 degree walk around Ballaro. We also found it more like a bric -a-brac marketplace than we had expected.
The atmosphere changed when we returned to Piazza Cartacciolo for a sundown cocktail a few days later. It felt like a hipster citybreak hangout. There were many local students hanging out and cool little bars and street food stands with graffiti backgrounds.
It runs through the single street linking Piazza San Domenico to Piazza Caracciolo, and also to Piazza Garraffello.
Vucciria Market Palermo
MERCATO DEL CAPO
Capo is vibrant and atmospheric as it meanders through the narrow streets of the Albergheria or Capo quarters. It’s a great combination with a visit to Teatro Massimo nearby, which is one of Europe’s largest opera houses. This was also the location of Godfather III’s final scenes.
Start at Via Cappuccinelle.
Palermo’s Markets – Along Dusty Roads
Food is a huge part of Sicily and any visit to it. If you are on a city trip to Palermo, you must accept that you will eat your bodyweight as carbs. You can eat as much carbs as you like, and that’s okay. You may not have time to cook, but you can still enjoy delicious street food, fresh pasta lunches, romantic dinners in piazzas and rowdy backstreets.
A well-reviewed and affordable evening cooking class hosted by Antonio and his family at their home. Click here to learn more.
The Capo Market half-day cooking class is very expensive, but highly recommended. Learn more.
Le Cesarine also offers classes, which all take place at a local home. Click here to learn more.
WALK VITTORIO EMANUELE
This ancient street runs almost two miles along the coast and Porto Felice to Porta Nuova. It encompasses many of Palermo’s most important attractions, from Port to prayers and palaces. We explored Palermo’s old town in an aimless manner, stopping for espresso al banco and taking photos of old signs. Also, we crossed Vittoria Emanuele several times.
This is the heartbeat of the city and keeps it going.
City Break Palermo
Things to Do in Palermo
It is possible to simply walk the entire route from one point to another or to explore its side streets or offshoots if you feel like it. This will give you a great opportunity to discover Palermo on your first or second day. At some point, you will see the Quattro Cianti crossing. You will eventually reach the cathedral and palace. But perhaps you’ll also find your new favorite shop or bakery in the city. You might also find a place to eat in the evening.
It is worth noting that our hearts dropped a bit after crossing the famous Quattro Ciani. It became obvious that this was the most Palermo section of Palermo. It was not overpopulated by bus tours and cruise ships like other Italian cities. However, it was the only area of Palermo where we felt lost in the attraction. We were there as tourists and are not trying to critique it.