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Essential suggestions from a local in Palermo, Sicily

From the time the Phoenicians and Greeks fought over it in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, the capital of Sicily—dubbed the “Kingdom of the sun” by the invading Normans in the twelfth century—has been a melting pot of cultures. Palermo, which is located near to the border between Europe and Africa, is scarred by centuries of dominance, yet it also reflects its glory. It had a comparatively recent “made in Italy” identity despite having been Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and finally Italian until unifying with the mainland only in 1861. And it gloried in 2018 as the Italian Capital of Culture, bringing the esteemed Manifesta contemporary art biennale to town and contributing to the revitalization of its waterfront.

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Street food bonanza

With roots dating back to the eighth century, Palermo takes great pride in its Arabic heritage. Its three main marketplaces, Capo, Vucciria, and Ballarò, evoke the atmosphere of Arab souks. Palermo’s markets are known for its theatrical merchants, a plethora of culinary varieties, and a unique vibe. It might be intimidating to visit them; instead, sign up for Streaty’s street food tour. A passaporto del mangione, or “glutton’s passport,” which is given to those who successfully eat their way through the trip, is included in the cost. It seems that Rick Stein did it.

Piazza perfection

The ancient area, known locally as Quattro Canti, is centered around Piazza Vigliena, which is located at the intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The square is marked by four baroque corners. Grandiose Piazza Pretoria, also called Piazza della Vergogna or the square of shame, is located directly to the south and east. It is named so because of the completely nude statues of nymphs, tritons, and leaping river gods (senza veli, without veils) that adorn the magnificent circular fountain in front of the Palazzo Pretorio (City Hall). Beautiful churches from the 12th century may be seen in the surrounding streets, including the baroque Chiesa di Santa Caterina from the 16th century, the Arab-Norman Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, and Chiesa Capitolare di San Cataldo, which is known for its fading red domes.

Grab a granita and an outdoor table

Make sure to stop at a bar when you begin your journey to the city center. My favorite spot is Antico Caffe’ Spinnato 1860, where I enjoy enjoying a granita al caffe con panna (shaved coffee ice topped with whipped cream) while people-watching Palermitani from an outside table. The cannoli, which are pastry tubes filled with cream, are also rather tasty.

Lose yourself

Constructed around 1600, the Narrow Via Maqueda serves as a vital route that links the city’s north and south. It was formerly a busy, noisy area for cars, but it has lately been become pedestrian-only, so it’s now the ideal location for a passeggiata at any time of day. Spend some time strolling around the tiny side streets and getting lost. You’ll be astounded by the sheer number of secret palaces and churches nestled among the crumbling ruins of structures that were destroyed during World War II and allowed to deteriorate. There are still few occasional liberty style (Italian art nouveau) stores. Founded in 1700, Pasticceria Costa (Via Maqueda 174) serves up some excellent marzipan pastries and features frescoes by Ernesto Basile on the walls.

Seaside escape

Take the 806 bus from Piazza Politeama to Mondello, a charming old fishing hamlet 20 minutes from Palermo. Mondello is overshadowed by the 606-meter Monte Pellegrino and is well-known for its shrine dedicated to Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo. The Liberty villas on Mondello are reminiscent of the resort’s glory when local nobility frequented it for its pristine waters and sandy beach. The lavish, art nouveau Antico Stabilimento Balneare dominates the waterfront, offering sophisticated patio dining (three courses from €35) and a piano bar for drinks. Trattoria Marinara da Piero is my favorite seafood restaurant in town; be sure to try the sauté di frutti di mare. The aroma of panelle (chickpea fritters) from street vendors permeates the air if all you want is a nibble. Additionally, you must have a gelato by the water. A powerful broscia with gelato e panna (ice cream in a sweet brioche with whipped cream) from Bar Antico Chiosco (Piazza Mondello 4) is how I know I’m home. B&B Antonella is a great option located near the sea on a tree-lined street. It offers beach gear and bikes for guests to borrow, as well as a gorgeous garden for breakfast.

A day at the opera

The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the third-largest opera house in Europe after Vienna and Paris, is located at the top of Via Maqueda and is hard to miss. Using local stone and marble, Filippo and Ernesto Basile spent twenty years creating this architectural masterpiece in the classic style following the unification of Italy in 1861. Its site was chosen to represent the historical connection between the two places by designating the meeting point of the new, developing metropolis and the ancient districts. After purchasing a cool granita al limone from one of the Piazza Verdi street vendors on a moped, embark on a guided tour of the theater, which has a lavish auditorium decorated in crimson and gold, as well as seven levels of box seats that rise to an impressive ceiling painted by Rocco Lentini (about 30 minutes, adult €8, kid €5).