Palermo, Sicily's vibrant, spice-infused capital, has a history. Everyone who is anyone on a historical conquering scale has made a visit to this not-so-humble port city, and left a few architectural and culinary footprints in their wake. Uninvited visitors have included the Normans, Arabs and Carthaginians and the contemporary city is now emerging from what has been a well-publicised period of neglect and controversy (this is after all the birthplace of the Mafia) to re-establish itself as a chaotic, eclectic and thoroughly thriving Italian destination.
This is not a clean city - I don't think it's even a logical city - but it is thoroughly charming, in a crumbling, semi-forgotten kind of way. A mix of monuments and churches, markets and azure beaches, Palermo requires energy, and the will to explore.
Let's take a moment to ponder the old - the monuments of Palermo. A personal favourite is the Fountain of Shame, so named because, although the fountain now stands in the heart of the Old Town, it was created for a Florentine collector, who fell short in his payments, Hence it was shipped south where the Renaissance was yet to properly arrive. Positioned next to what at the time was a convent, the naked stone figures were seen a shameful – hence the name.
The Palazzo Reale is an architectural mix too – the façade built and rebuilt many times over. It stands atop the city’s first fort and from here all of Sicily is administered, as it has always been. Open to visitors, to stand in the palace’s ornate church and gaze skywards is a delight.
Many of the buildings are in the Arab Norman style yet churches, such as the Chiesa della Martorana, tend to be more architecturally confused - Baroque overtones with plenty of gold and an array of Muslim mosaics thrown in for good measure. Their complicated past, complex design and the fact that they have served many religions in their time, means the buildings themselves are celebrations of light and geometry.
Palermo is also a city of gardens – in some green spaces you can find the oldest trees in Europe while others contain nothing but English plants or are open only to children. However, if you really want to appreciate Palermo’s natural splendor, it pays to get out of town (not that you need to travel far). Water babies will love this city, with an array of time forgotten beaches only a short drive away. Mondello seems to be everyone’s favourite, with its distinct 1950’s vibe, white sand and turquoise waters. Locals wander the length of the beach with beer, kites and fresh cut coconut and afternoons have a habit of disappearing. For something quieter there is Adora Beach, a fishing village famed for its ice cream and sunsets.
Or you could go even further out with Wine Tour in Sicily, who we joined for a day trip. Driving out of town the scenery changes dramatically – hill-hugging townships to farmland to volcanic terrain. You find yourself hatching plans to return for a month long adventure – an island of this size and beauty demands no less. Ruins dot the landscape and it’s hard to imagine that the sky could be anything but blue. Arriving at the Tasca d’Almerita winery you can’t help but feel you ‘ve encountered a haven in the desert. Walking through their expansive, flower adorned courtyard, and devouring a glass of sparkling wine you feel immediately at ease. This family run winery (they’re currently eight generations in) has made a name for itself over the years, winning an impressive collection of awards while focusing on intimacy and hospitality. From the winery’s stone villa you can savour a decadent lunch, made up of dishes that are as mixed as the language. Food here is a treat and the wine a dream. I feel indebted to Wine Tour in Sicily for introducing us – there is a lot to be said for local knowledge (and friendly, history-loving guides).
On the subject of food I can thoroughly recommend the intimate yet suitably decadent restaurant attached to Hotel Principe di Villafranca, itself the sister hotel of Hotel Plaza Opera (a chic, luxury hotel found right beside the must photographed opera – as the name would imply). It has elegant, modern interiors and a rich menu, made up of local treats and exceptionally sourced wine, will of which will leave you feeling completely satisfied. When it comes to hotel dining we must pay heed to Excelsior Palace, a decadent hotel, with suits that you can utterly unwind in and impeccable attention to detail. Their breakfasts are delightful – a real Old World luxury hotel feast - while the dinners are quintessentially Italian. The focus is on quality ingredients and traditional methods and the results are delightful. Found right by the Via Della Liberata (Palermo’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Élysées), you can’t fault the location. Oh how I wish I could make off with one of their intricate light features!
If these culinary encounters inspire you to get back in the kitchen then you’re in luck for Palermo is famed for its food markets. The Il Capa market is found in what was once the Jewish quarter, a community forced to leave when Palermo came under Catholic rule (and we all know what Ferdinand and Isabella thoughts of this particular group). What was once the synagogue is now a catholic church yet Hebrew can still be found on the street signs (next to statues of the Virgin), a subtle memorial to what was lost.
These markets are where you can glimpse Palermo at its most vibrant – three wheeled trucks make deliveries while Vespa’s dart around unfazed pedestrians. Fish, meat, honey, vegetables and marzipan fruit (a local delicacy) abound, and everything feels refreshingly authentic. Visit early for the freshest finds and to really feel like a local. Ballaro Market, found in a corner of the city that was heavily bombed during the war, is a personal favourite, possibly because it’s the loudest.
What you must know about Palermo is that the true gems are often hidden away behind closed doors. From the streets, which can feel chaotic at best, you can so easily miss the many wonders this city has to offer. Be inquisitive, ask questions and be prepared to stay somewhere unexpected - like Palazzo Conte Federico, in the heart of the Old Town, a short amble from the aforementioned market. Built above the Punic-Roman walls and incorporating the Old City tower, which was once part of the city’s fort, this family home, which is still owned by a racing-car loving Count, is one of Palermo’s oldest buildings, and pure magic. We stayed in what was once part of the 12th century Arab Norman Tower: full of beautiful tiling, objects from the old stable, dark wood and ornate furnishing, it was reimagined luxury. However the palace, which our host Nicolò Federico was more than happy to show us around, is the pièce de résistance.
This opulent setting, with painted tiles and woodwork, feels like is has changed little over the centuries. Home to one of the biggest weapon collections in city, and rich in art and family memorabilia, you can lose track of time when walking from room to room, wondering how the numerous renovations have changed the building over time. You’ll catch yourself lusting after the Murano chandeliers and wondering just how they got away with having a secret Freemasons temple in their ballroom. This is the sort of venue you don’t want to leave - a palace that reminds you that this busy, bustling city, which is not without its flaws, has the potential to be utterly resplendent. It contains some of the greatest buildings in Europe, its beaches are the epitome of tropical and behind closed doors wonders abound.