There are many quintessential images that come to mind when Italy is mentioned. The iconic waterways of Venice, the stunning beaches of the Amalfi Coast, the decadent Vatican of Rome and the enchanting streets of Florence are just a few in an expansive list. On my previous trip to Italy, however, me and my friends found ourselves probing the map for more unearthed parts of the region as it was our mid semester break and we were desperate for an adventure. That desire lead us to one lone island off the southernmost tip of the country and to a trip we would never forget.
After overnighting in the Rome airport, frigid terminal 3 to be exact, myself, along with 3 classmates, were headed for Palermo, Sicily. In just over an hour we touched down and, in remarkable time, found the train station located in the bottom of the small airport. Train access on Sicily is limited, so the 30 minute bus ride is recommended to get to downtown but we opted for the train. Service comes about every hour and takes you right into the city but can be unreliable. Taxis are not recommended as you will likely be grossly overcharged.
The initial exploration of this infamous historical city left us a little confused and we quickly realized that this was the least Italian place we had thus visited. Its people are incredibly diverse, likely due to the islands close proximity to an array of exotic locales. The climate is reflective of a desert whereas mainland Italy’s climate is more fluctuating. Palermo’s seclusion from the mainland makes its culture starkly eclectic, and we found this especially prominent in the architecture, food and customs. People may be more familiar with Sicily’s infamous reputation in popular culture as the birthplace of the mafia. While it is rumoured to still have mafia ties, Palermo tourists are safe to revel in the city’s past with a paid “Sicilian Mafia tour” experience to learn about the regions painted history.
Our introduction into Palermo was hectic as the city is no doubt a congested one, with little sense in terms of organization. The two busiest streets in the city, Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emanuele, are placed like a giant cross overtop the downtown core so, naturally, traffic (foot and vehicle) is heavily disgruntled. While some may find it opposing, taking the big city bus tour is actually a great transportation method as you can hop on and off for most of the day and the tour avoids all the heavily congested areas regular bus routes get trapped on. These tours run in just about every city tourists visit around the world, are very easy to spot and fairly priced.
By the end of our first day we were slightly disheveled, feeling as if we hadn’t really found our footing yet. After returning to our apartment we regrouped, set off down Vittoria Emanuelle and chanced upon a lovely little restaurant that invigorated us for the remainder of the trip. Trattoria Ferro Di Cavallo is an absolute treasure and must be experienced by all visitors. It is located in a small square off of Via Roma and it is a lively social scene comprised of locals who are seemingly present for the electric ambiance rather than actual dining. We immersed ourselves immediately, laughing and chatting with strangers in poor italian. The restaurant is mainly comprised of outdoor seating but enthusiastic crowds gather everywhere while being supplied prosecco and delectable samples of deep fried sardines and calamari. Once we were seated inside, a curly haired man named Giuseppe, who was a brother of the owner, sat down next to us and proceeded to plot out our entire meal course, offering delectable samples of the menu (and only charging a fraction of the actual cost). Pasta and seafood are the restaurants specialty but be sure to leave room for a limoncello shot at the end of the meal as they will bring it, whether you want it or not. After a lengthy dinner, we spent the night drinking wine and laughing our cares away. This place is a must for a night out and if you need further recommendation on the food, search trip advisor.
By our second day we felt refreshed, adjusted and ready to explore this distinct new setting, so we took to touring some of Palermo’s more intriguing sights. Robust with markets, outdoor restaurants and horse carriages, the streets of Palermo are in constant bustle. The baroque style of architecture and abundance of sandstone inspires an inexplicable nostalgia. Personally, I felt as if I had encountered this setting before, perhaps in a dream or in distant memories of building sand castles on the beach. We started our tour with the Giardino Garibaldi, a beautiful garden that is nestled between colourful building blocks and cobblestone streets. The garden is home to Palermo’s oldest venerable tree. Just down from here is the waterfront of Forco Italico, where locals can be found gathering on sundays (or just about any other day) playing soccer, having lunch or simply admiring the marina. This area is great for lazy wanderings in the early morning or late afternoon.
One cannot visit Palermo without seeing the Cattedrale di Palermo. Entry is very cheap and, for church and architecture fanatics, you will not see another structure built with the same influences as this one. The Cattedrale is about a twenty minute walk up the Vittorio Emanuele mentioned earlier. Though I warned against these streets, walking is a much safer bet than vehicle travel. If walking, you should use these two main veins to get closer to your preferred locations, then veer off to explore the side streets.
Returning to our tour, walking along Via Roma will carry you to Via Camillo Benso Cavour. Another left here and you will be at Piazza Verdi, a large open piazza that is somewhat of a hub for transport and social gathering. At the head of the piazza is the monstrous Teatro Massimo, the opera house of Palermo. Adventuring the side streets of this area will yield tons of smaller, “off the strip” restaurants and shops that are more appropriate in pricing and quality. Don’t forget, Sicily is the birthplace of the cannoli! So be sure to stop at as many pastry cafe’s as possible and get your fill. Finally, if you take Via Ruggiero Settimo until it becomes Via Della Liberta (many italian streets change names despite no change in direction) you will find a large shopping district with wide sweeping streets great for casual window shopping in the late afternoon.
Not to shame Palermo itself but I found the best part of Sicily was our day trip out of its bustling capital. A quick 20 minute bus ride will bring you to the stunning beach town of Mondello Beach. Mondello beach is a quaint, quiet fishing village nestled between Mount Pellegrino (no kidding) and Mount Gallo. The handsomely coloured buildings and expansive beach will satisfy any weary traveller. Art and architecture buffs will notice the abundance of alluring liberty style villas that line the beach. Furthermore, the location itself is an important landmark in the history of international modernism due to its great structural representation of Art Nouveau. Whatever your motive, you will melt into carelessness listening to the bumping hauls of baby blue fishing boats, watching the sun sparkle off of decorative coca cola bottles, and relaxing on the gorgeous white sand beach.
Our trip was short as we were due back in Naples to start our journey to Pompeii. There is so much more to see and do in Sicily, I would gladly go back in a heartbeat. To wrap it up, I will offer a few suggestions: Knowing a bit of Italian will help immensely, grab a vocab book. Wandering alone at night on unfamiliar streets is never a good idea, always bring a buddy. Don’t forget, in traditional Italian custom, shops close and city wide silence ensues during rest hours. Finally, accommodation is interesting in this city, we settled on an air bnb rental but these can be dicey. Be sure to review which area of the city you are staying, sticking to the more populated, tourist areas would be wise.
While Sicily may not be on everyones wish list, I was immensely satisfied with my trip and grateful to have visited such a unique part of the world. I will always remember this trip for what it was, an unexpected, marvelous surprise and I will recount my time there for years to come.