Before the Romans and Arabs were even a thing, the Greeks had already landed on the piece of island of Baroque cathedrals and arancini, the one they would later deem always fit for landing in: Palermo. Like the rest of the world by now, we are quite frankly obsessed thanks to our patron saint of superlative hosts Mario dell’Oglio, owner of his family’s fashion boutiques and the most well-connected man in Palermo.
Simply being able to amble around mesmerizing Baroque art, too-good-to-be-true Norman and Byzantine architecture and otherworldly mosaics – precious leftovers of all the darling invaders – can only make this unique pin on the map of the globe a not-to-be-missed museum au plain air. To make one’s artsy wanderings even more divine is the massive variety of fresh food and fried goods to please even the pickiest of starved bellies. Lemons the color of Van Gogh’s summer fields get together with fried rice balls with ragù, peas and mozzarella that go by the angelic name of arancini or arancine, as the Palermitan would call them, quite rightfully favoring the female version of the word over the male one more popular in other parts of Sicily (can a warming, hearty and soothing ball of goodness be anything other than female, after all?). Fresh mussels still doused with the smell of the sea are sold on the streets right next to a cannoli stall: for those in the dark, they’re heavenly pastry desserts filled with ricotta that Palermitan expats cram into their luggage to the point of triggering a terror alert at the airport anytime they come back from their motherland. Outdoor markets are the stages where such culinary enlightenments take place. The food stalls that flock the city’s streets resemble so much fireflies in pastures whose light attracts both kids and adults at night. But these Palermitan stalls, they smell by far nicer than those darling small nocturnal animals.
As if we needed more reasons to visit, Palermitans are way the most affectionate and bubbly amongst Italians. These guys are always up for an improvised aperitivo with olives and wine from a winemaker friend’s vineyard (it doesn’t take long to realize that every Palermitan you know either owns a vineyard or knows someone that owns one!) and are dressed to the nines even though the plan for the day is to spend five hours queueing at a post office (let’s not pretend it isn’t so: Italian paperwork is such good fun). For these totally good reasons our first top tip, for you dear readers, will be: date a Palermitan. Let them show you the city’s charm and only at last stuff your luggage with top-class cannoli and cassata. And should there be any room left, bring them home too.
What to see, where to hang, and most, importantly, what to eat? You’d do no better than taking our tips from this country’s best travelled and most glamorous Italophile, Emily Fitzroy (follow her on Instagram at @bellinitravel), who knows Italy’s secret hotspots so intimately she’s made a career out of it. Take it away, Emily!
Stanze al Genio – Are you a museum nut? Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too. Every room of this artsy museum that also doubles as an awesome home is adorned with exceptionally gorgeous maioliche, paintings and objet d’art that make Stanze al Genio strikingly similar to the setting of your recurring fantasy.
Address: Via Garibaldi 11, Via Magione
Bisso Bistrot – Grab a seat and make yourself at home in Palermo’s winning hole in the wall restaurant. The sign still reads the name of a former famous bookshop that it’s now home to this shrine of Palermitan tastes. The place is quite small so you will likely be sharing the table with some lovely new faces. Plus, the menu is so reasonably price you won’t believe your eyes! 4 euros for a first course and only a few euros more for a second course. Crazy, right?
Address: Via Maqueda 172A
Antico Caffe Spinnato – Straight out of a 60s film starring babe Sofia Loren. At this darling cafè dating back to 1860, Palermitans live their best life nibbling pistachio gelato at sidewalk tables and chatting the afternoon away. You’ll arrive as a a tourist and leave a Palermitan, trust us!
Address: Via Principe di Belmonte 107-05
Trattoria Piccolo Napoli – When it comes to Italy, the shortcuts to Heaven are often a little off the beaten path. Do your taste buds a massive favor by treating your touristy self to the best pasta puttanesca of your life. Chances are your mother language isn’t spoken by a soul, so let your heart and belly lead the conversation.
Address: Piazzetta Mulino a Vento 4
Zia Pina – We cried all our tears when this cute little restaurant was eventually discovered by the masses, but they also dried out pretty quickly the moment we stepped foot into Zia Pina again. The plastic chairs and tables highly contribute to the humble atmosphere, but sometimes less is clearly more. If Zia Pina doens make you a fan of Sicilian food, then nothing will.
Address: Via dei Cassari 69
Antica Focacceria San Francesco – It’s spelled focaccia, it’s read the-nicest-pit-stop-you’ll-ever-have. For the newbies to Italy and its niceties: we’re talking about a form of hot bread roll filled with spleen that is rumored being the Eighth Wonder and whose more edible cheese and onion versions were made to accommodate the faint heated, like us. The Antica Focacceria, a traditional trattoria overlooking one of Palermo’s finest Gothic churches, is the mecca of Sicilian focaccia and our favorite place for Palermitan watching.
Address: Via Paternostro Alessandro 58
Confettificio Cillari – Is someone in your circle of friends, family, gym buddies walking down the aisle soon? We hope so. This way you’ll have just the right excuse to wander in the shop and stock up on confetti and sweets of any kind for that someone’s special day.
Address: Via Merlo 15/20
Pasticceria Costa – If Hercules were born in our digital hectic times, walking into Pasticceria and leaving after no more than ten hours would have been one of the Twelve Labors for sure. The cannoli sold here are an actual gift from God.
Address: Via Gabriele D’Annunzio 15
Teatro Massimo – This one needs no introduction. The heart, soul, liver and lungs of Palermo art and heritage. Get yourself a ticket to see an opera in Europe’s largest stage.
Address: Piazza Verdi
Teatro Ditirammu – Stay cozy in one if Italy’s smallest theaters: real Sicilian theatre, puppet shows and everything good about the city.
Address: Via Torremuzza 6
FPAC – Some of the best collections of contemporary art lie behind these doors. Run by art junkie and collector Francesco Pantaleone, this exquisitely creative joint brings together some of the most avant-garde pieces of local and international modern art.
Address: Via Vittorio Emanuele 303
Palazzina Cinese – Long live the Chinese. The Palazzina was built at the end of the 18th century and was a wicked representative of the exotic aesthetic that was going strong those days. Today, it still houses delightful antiques alongside crazily colored prints and wall. Mad, quirky architecture and whimsical furniture and décor are enough to qualify this beautifully eccentric estate as the main entry on La DoubleJ’s top-of-the-top Italian list.
Address: Via Della Libertà 6
Mercato Del Capo – Eager to being spat at by mussels and dodge absurdly long noses of sword fish? – You’ve come to the right place. This is the place to come to ogle all of Palermo’s culinary treasures: stalls of fresh fish, vegetable, fruit and tons of places to sit and have a casual meal. Once you’ll have quench your thirst of fresh fish, we recommend nosing around the seething mass of colorful bustle that is Mercato del Capo.
Address: Via Cappucinelle
Dell’Oglio – These chic de la chic boutiques are run by our top boy Mario Dell’Oglio, who very successfully took the family business started by his great-grandfather from one small menswear bottega to two luxury menswear shop (one luxuriously modern and the other fabulously old school) and a women’s store stocking the best fashion mix of all Sicily.
Address: Via Ruggero Settimo 26b; Via Libertà 41; Piazza Castelnuovo 41
Antichità Athena – Are you a first-time buyer and right in the midst of furnishing your humble shelter? That’s all very well. Be prepared to take a shine to Palermo’s most insane collection of antiques, tiles, frames, sculptures and fabulous objects. Plus, there’s a whole room dedicated to coral and religious icons that will have you dream of owning a fortune just to bring these darlings home with you.
Address: Via Della Libertà 6
Parlato Tessuti – Remember the ballroom scene from The Leopard directed by Luchino Visconti? Don’t get overexcited if you do. Parlato Tessuti’s totally splendid linens and tablecloths are housed in a mind-blowing palazzo that happens to be in the same square as The Leopard’s palazzo.
Address: Piazza Croce dei Vespri 8