So you’ve already explored the tiny streets of Ortigia, had a fix of Sicilian Baroque in Noto and Ragusa and strolled around Greek temples in Agrigento.
Now you’re ready for Palermo.
There are several ways to get to Palermo from Agrigento. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the route that heads north-west via Corleone. Why Corleone? Well, if you’re into your Mafia trivia, you’ll know that Corleone has produced more Mafia bosses than anywhere else in Sicily. What is it about this obscure little town in the middle of the island that breeds such brutality?
The road itself is an experience. The higher you drive, the more dramatic the scenery (snowy peaks and lakes), and the worse the road. Proceed with caution and watch out for potholes. Corleone itself isn’t much to write home about. A non-descript town with bars playing the Godfather theme on repeat. Proceed onwards cross-country to Monreale.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking Palermo and the Tyrrhenian sea is Monreale. It’s worth a little detour to check out its astonishing Norman cathedral. Founded in 1174 it’s is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the world. Gold mosaics sparkle in high, vaulted archways depicting colourful biblical scenes. The cloister is also stunning, featuring Arabic archways and white marble columns inlaid with gold and colored tiles.
Palermo is a gloriously chaotic city, where third-world poverty rubs up against grand palazzos and the macabre sits side-by-side with the mouthwatering.
A good area to stay is the historic area around the Quattro Canti, an octagonal piazza flanked by baroque buildings. Here you’ll find the absurd Fontana Pretoria, a 16th century orgy of nude mythological figures that was originally intended for Florence but proved too much for the refined tastes of the Tuscans. Check out nearby Piazza Bellini with its eclectic collection of churches. One of which is the Church of San Cataldo, an Arabic-style Norman church built in 1154 with mosaic floors, stone vaulted ceilings, and latticed windows.
Near here you’ll also find the Kalsa district, once working-class no-go-area, now up-and-coming hipster hangout with trendy boutiques and cafés.
If you’re into the more macabre sites, you can’t do better than the Palermo Catacombs. Corridors fan out in all directions, lined with upright corpses in various states of decay. Make of it what you will, but I’m afraid the lost me at the children.
After that, you’ll be about ready for some lunch. Palermo street food is famous and often uncompromising. Here’s a sample:
You’ll find this everywhere in Sicily but of course, Palermo boasts the best. That’s open to debate but I had a good one in Touring Cafè, a nice Grand Café on Via Roma, which also serves excellent cannoli.
These simple little chickpea fritters are delicious. They’re usually served in a bun (Palermo’s answer to the chip butty) but we had some in a restaurant, freshly fried and seasoned to perfection. Definitely worth trying.
Pani cà meusa
If you’re brave enough… Spleen deep-fried in lard sprinkled with lemon juice and a lot of black pepper and served in a bun. Too much for me, but I’m assured it’s delicious.
For a sit-down dinner I recommend:
This was an AirBnB host recommendation. She promised “wonderful food at great prices in a beautiful setting” and it delivered 100%. Located slap-bang in the middle of Quatro Canti and clearly the most popular restaurant around, be prepared to wait. Grab a glass of wine join the crowd on the street and your turn will come. If they’re offering panelle, order it.
This popular pizzeria opens at 7.30 and there’s a queue by 8.00 so book in advance if you can or get there early. Choose from flat and crispy Roman-style, Neapolitan-style (with a fluffy/chewy dough), fried (!), or calzone (folded). Don’t let them seduce you with starters; the pizzas are vast, and you must have a whole one each.
You’ve nearly completed your circuit. Taormina is about a three-hour drive from Palermo, just 30-minutes north of Catania.
Perched on the side of a mountain, backed by Mount Etna with views across a sweeping bay and an impressive Greek/Roman amphitheater to boot, it’s little wonder that it’s firmly on the tourist trail. In fact, come here in summer and you probably won’t even be able to get in; cars queue up the road snaking up to its vast multistory carpark and I can’t imagine how crowded the winding narrow streets must be. If you do arrive in July/August, be sure to stay at least a couple of nights so you can enjoy it once the tour buses have left for the day.
It was founded by the Greeks in the 4th Century BC and taken over by the Romans. After this, it was forgotten until Northern Europeans discovered it in the 18th Century while on their Grand Tour. Queen Victoria exiled her niece, Lady Florence Trevelyan, to Taormina as ‘punishment’ for having an affair with her son Edward VII. While languishing in exile, she built a beautiful English-style garden overlooking the bay, married a wealthy local nobleman and I’m sure lived happily ever after.
There’s no shortage of hotels and AirBnB options in Taormina. We hit the jackpot with an AirBnB apartment with a balcony overlooking the Piazza di Duomo. So, we could smugly sit in our pyjamas with a cup of coffee and watch the tourists tramp up and down, casting occasional envious glance in our direction.
It is a small town and can be explored in a day, but there are some beautiful piazzas in which to while away a few hours with a book in the sun. Follow Corso Umberto through the centre of the old town, past the Piazza di Duomo to the lovely Piazza IX Aprile which is Taormina’s main square, lined with cafés from which to enjoy wonderful views of the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna.
On your way to the Giardini della Villa Comunale (built by our friend Lady Florence), stop off at Bam Bar. It’s an unlikely name for a lovely sunlit café in a quiet corner of Taormina, decorated with cheery yellow ties, which is something of an institution. It is famous for its granita, which is a freshly made sorbet of ice, sugar and whatever flavor you choose. The owner is a magnificent salesman who will greet you fluently in up to 12 languages and explain the menu to you with a flourish while showing off photos of his celebrity patrons – from footballers to world leaders. His advice is sound, so pay attention. We had lemon and blood orange, and coffee and almond. He was adamant we had the latter with cream, which we didn’t but we probably should have. A huge brioche is optional.
The amphitheater is billed as a Greek amphitheater but really, it’s Roman since they built on top of the Greek one leaving only a few foundation stones. But it’s impressive none-the-less, with glimpses of sparkling sea from between Roman archways.
As with most tourist traps, food in Taormina is expensive; despite being meters from the sea, the fish of the day comes at an eye-watering price per kilo. The quality is also unpredictable so do your research beforehand. We mostly opted to eat at home, but two places we did enjoy were:
Tucked down some steps away from Corso Umberto, with a pretty little candlelit patio, this restaurant offered good quality food at sensible prices, produced without too much fuss and flourish.
Unlike everywhere else in Taormina, this place was full of Italians. There are two entrances, one into what looks like a school canteen dishing up no-frills plates of home-cooked food. The other entrance leads you into a bakery which is mostly taken up by ovens. Here you will get aranchini that’s hard to beat. We got a bit over-excited and ordered 3: One with pistachio, another with ragu and another with sardines, fennel, and pine nuts, all freshly fried, crispy and filled with melted mozzarella.
If you’re in Taormina for a few days, it’s worth exploring the local area.
Looming high above Taormina is Castelmola, which proudly informs you that it’s ‘one of the most beautiful villages in Sicily’. With its crisscross of narrow medieval streets and staggering views, it certainly has a claim. In addition to the more conventional attractions, pop into Bar Turrisi, which offers the visitor a surprising accompaniment to the view.
A 30-minute drive north will take you to Savoca, a picturesque little Sicilian village perched high on a hilltop, which stars in several scenes of the Godfather. Despite its claim to fame, it remains largely unspoiled and the only evidence of its celebrity status is the Godfather theme playing in its famous Bar Vitelli, a small souvenir shop, and inflated prices. Follow the winding street that follows the spine of the hilltop and take cinematic photos to your heart’s content.
And there you have it.
10 days in Sicily and you’ll find you’ve barely scratched the surface. There are beaches to explore, islands to visit and the entire West coast to admire… But you’ll certainly have a flavour of the Island and a good reason to come back.