48 hours Palermo A gastronomic weekend in the buzzing Sicilian capital
Léa Teuscher visits a city at the crossroads of history, whose narrow medieval lanes lead to exquisite churches, bustling markets and perfect places to sample hearty Sicilian fare
Why go? It’s one of the places where east meets west and north meets south. It’s a potent combination that helped crown Palermo an entirely worthy Italian Capital of Culture 2018. Walk it and lose yourself in tiny paved streets to appreciate its splendours. Founded by the Phoenicians, it was once the cultural equal of Cairo or Córdoba: today, plain-looking churches conceal wonders of baroque marble and golden Byzantine mosaics. In the North African markets, artichokes, bloodred oranges and aubergines are piled on stalls. Despite bombs that destroyed the old harbour, and the long rule of the Mafia that froze regeneration and reconstruction, Palermo has three millennia of history behind it, delicious food and distinctive traditions all waiting to be discovered.
What to do Start with a look at the intriguing Quattro Canti, the ‘Four Corners’ crossroads decorated with fountains and bearing allegories of the four seasons. Behind it hides Piazza Pretoria and its 16th-century fountain, as well as La Martorana church. Between the city’s three main avenues (Via Roma, Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele) you’ll find little medieval lanes winding past glorious churches and ramshackle buildings. Visit the magnificent Capella Palatina in the Palazzo dei Normanni with its Arabic palm-tree mosaics and beautiful ornate wooden ceiling. Palermo Cathedral, honey-coloured and Catalan influenced, still retains a mosque pillar in its entrance. Nearby is the shop of Palermo’s last cart painter, full of multicoloured Vespas and carts. The huge, neo-classical Teatro Massimo teatromassimo.it is surrounded by shops and restaurants. At Mercato del Capo, which slinks in a colourful dazzle through the streets behind it, you’ll find the life force of the city’s cuisine as vendors peddle fresh fish, fruit, meats and cheese. Or, for a taste of ancient history, drop into the Museo Archeologico and the Catacombe dei Cappuccini catacombepalermo.it with its 8,000-odd mummies. Make a trip to the nearby town of Monreale and its magnificent cathedral, built by the Norman King William II and located atop a hill. Where to stay The 18th-century Eurostars Centrale Palace 00 39 091 8539, urostarshotels.it is right in the heart of things. It has a roof-garden restaurant, an opulent Italian Renaissance lobby and lavishly decorated guestrooms. Grand Hotel et Des Palmes 00 39 091 602 8111, grandhotel-et-des-palmes.com is a splendid art nouveau building with columns, panelled walls and great chandeliers. For a cosier feel, try the lovely 15-bedroom Massimo Plaza Hotel 00 39 091 325 657, massimoplazahotel.com opposite the opera. Where to eat and drink Head over to Antica Focacceria San Francesco 00 39 091 320 264, anticafocacceria.it on pretty Via Alessandro Paternostro. Part of the Slow Food movement, it is a local favourite. Order a pizza or try the traditional milza, a roll with ricotta, parmesan and sautéed veal spleen. For a light lunch and great cakes, head to Via Principe di Belmonte for the Antico Caffè Spinnato 00 39 091 749 5104 and try their Sicilian almond cakes and cannoli, the tube-shaped pastry filled with ricotta cheese, chocolate and candied orange. Ristorante Cin Cin 00 39 091 612 4095, ristorantecincin.com on Via Daniele Manin serves Sicilian dishes such as courgette soufflé and pistachio and cinnamon semifreddo, presented as they would have been when served to the aristocracy two centuries ago. Street food vendors selling regional snacks such as arancine – luscious balls of saffron-scented rice, fried to a crispy golden brown – are scattered all over the city, with many popular spots concentrated near the busy Vucciria, Ballarò and Capo markets. Time running out? Don’t miss a visit to the beloved-by-locals Antica Gelateria Ilardo 00 39 091 617 2118 on Foro Italico to enjoy an ice cream the Sicilian way – served on a little brioche roll – and linger for a while to people-watch and admire the sea views. Trip tip Add a pop of colour to holiday attire and grab a straw coffa bag, unique to Sicily. For men, a coppola hat in tweed or cotton has been the Sicilian gentleman’s millinery choice for generations. Pick them up at the bustling market on Via Ballarrò.
Clockwise from top left: plates of fresh octopus tempt passers-by; fishing boats bob in the harbour; ripe watermelons; sardines,fresh off the boat; a display of swordfish; you’re never far fromfresh produce in Palermo; the city’s palms and rooftops; local grapes for sale