History, culture, and some of the tastiest street food on the continent epitomise Palermo: a port city with all the Mediterranean charm and rustic aesthetic you’d expect to find in Italy’s glorious South. In the shadow of Monte Pellegrino and at the frontier between Europe and the Arab world, the city resides on Sicily’s north-west coast.

This is Palermo, in a snapshot.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson

An ancient city with modern sensibilities

The aura of conquest abounds in Palermo: each Arabesque dome, Byzantine mosaic and frescoed cupola a relic of prosperous epochs past. Yet, while the outward appearance of the Sicilian capital is somewhat disheveled—many landmarks have fallen into disrepair—glimmers of progress are beginning to burst through the cracks.

Yes, Palermo is rough around the edges. But here, in this vibrant coastal city, a thriving live music scene and contemporary art galleries attract Sicily’s young and fashionable elite. The municipality’s 21st century persona gives rise to a lively environment of al fresco dining, late night aperitivos and the perennial hum of authentic Italian vespas.

Awash with colour, Palermo’s incessant blue skies perfectly frame Gothic mansions, while charming Giulietta balconies jut out over palazzi with yellow facades, and date palms accentuate the city’s Mediterranean allure.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Palermo is home to countless marble figures who have watched over the city for hundreds of years.

What’s more, an evolving art scene proves that Baroque and the contemporary can coexist in harmony. Quattro Canti, a historic intersection with opulent fountains and marble statues, sits just metres away from the Francesco Pantaleone Galleria, a white-walled second-story space that presents conceptual shows from burgeoning Italian stars.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – The juxtaposition between old and new is repeated time and again in the city. Cutting-edge exhibitions take place within the walls of the Palazzo Riso, a stunning late-Baroque building whose restoration after decades of neglect resulted in a home for the Museum of Sicilian Contemporary Art.
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Palermo’s striking cathedral, completed in the 18th century, just a few minutes stroll from the Palazzo Riso, is another reminder of how the timeworn seamlessly blends in with the contemporary in this urban Italian centre.
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Statues of illustrious popes appear all over Palermo cathedral; indicative not only of the city’s Roman Catholic heritage but also of the capital’s impressive architecture.

Down by the port, rundown neighbourhoods brim with colour and life, thanks to an array of striking street art—yet another indicator of the city’s modern sensibilities.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – incandescent graffiti murals are present-day Sicily’s answer to frescoes: they breathe life into an otherwise downtrodden part of town, providing a welcome splash of creativity.

Sicily: An island at the crossroads of cultures

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Called cuscusu in Sicily, this Trapanese speciality is served with fish so fresh it’s practically flapping, which induces an unrivalled flavour found nowhere else on earth.

Palermo has long been the gateway between two realms. At the intersection of civilisations for millennia, it is a place where worlds collide. This allegorical bridge between customs manifests in the uniqueness of Sicilian cuisine — nowhere else in Italy can you eat such masterfully prepared couscous.A city teetering on the precipice of Europe and at the centre of the ancient world, Sicily’s capital is home to Arabesque markets, opulent piazzas and Baroque churches. This pastiche of cultures forms an essential part of the city’s fabric.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Busiate pasta is typical of Sicily and the Trapani area, it is delicious served with fresh tuna and parsley.

The individuality of Palermo’s cuisine

Food (and street food, in particular) is what makes Palermo such an inviting destination.

Small eateries, with names like Antica Friggitoria, sell a veritable feast of street delights from arancine (deep fried risotto balls stuffed with ragù or ham), pane panelle (deep fried chickpea or polenta fritters in a fresh bun with a pinch of salt) or, for the seriously strong-stomached, pani cà meusa (the famous Palermitan fried spleen—yes spleen—sandwich).

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson Wash down a pane panelle with a lovely local lager: Peroni is much cheaper in Sicily than mainland Europe due to the fact that it is produced locally.

Gelato is a mainstay of Sicilian cuisine. The locals enjoy it inside a brioche bun for an ice-cream sandwich perfect for sultry summer days. Another important Sicilian staple is the sweet and indulgent cannolo.

Cannoli are Italian pastries originating from Sicily, the singular, ‘cannolo’, means ‘little tube’, with its etymology stemming from the Greek ‘kánna’, meaning ‘reed’. Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of pastry stuffed with creamy ricotta, which combine to make a rustic and thoroughly Italian delicacy.

 The Palermitani

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Miniaturre shrines crop up all over the city, they are a sign of Sicily’s close affiliation with Catholicism – an institution which has defined Italian culure for centuries.

While I was in Palermo, a knavish city-dweller asked me to pay €50 for a one-way ride in his car to the closest beach: a journey which cost little more than €4 by bus. So, when in Palermo, be vigilant—some locals do whatever it takes to make money from gullible visitors.Palermo’s quaint streets thrive with life, as raucous Palermitani (people from Palermo) make their way through the city. Indeed, southern Italians are, at the best of times, a cantankerous crowd. Yet, this doesn’t mean they aren’t warm and friendly, if not prone to hoodwink unsuspecting tourists.

On reflection, who could blame them? After all, Palermo, like much of south Italy, sometimes feels as though it has been left behind. While Milan enjoys large infrastructural developments and swanky high-rise buildings, cities like Palermo stagnate in the past. It’s little wonder Sicilians often feel hard done by.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Palermo’s busy streets are constantly buzzing with traffic, making crossing the road an interesting experience — the best technique is to weave in between the vehicles.
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson -Whilst I was there, the Palazzo Riso was lit up in rainbow colours in a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

Palermo’s burgeoning tolerance

Palermo is a place of stark generational contrast. On one hand, in the Piazza Indipendenza old men sit on plastic chairs and wooden stools, gambling, smoking and cursing, while their wives dutifully keep the hearth and home.

Linked to this surge of liberalism is the immediacy of the migrant challenge facing Palermo. Sicilians have had little time to adapt to, and deal with, the consequences of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
On the other, Gay Pride celebrations, symbolic of the way in which Sicily, much like Italy itself, is slowly opening up to contemporary ideas about sexual orientation and identity, propel the city into a new age of liberalism, equality and acceptance.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Mondello beach is the closest holiday resort to Palermo, where crystal clear waters complement fine, golden sand: idyllic settings like this have recently become the gateway to Europe for many Middle Eastern refugees.
Palermo is a place of stark generational contrast. On one hand, in the Piazza Indipendenza old men sit on plastic chairs and wooden stools, gambling, smoking and cursing, while their wives dutifully

The summer months in 2017 saw fresh waves of refugees and migrants from Syria, Libya and other countries who made the treacherous journey to Europe to flee persecution and tyranny.

South Italy—in particular Sicily and islands such as Lampedusa—have been confronted with the brunt of this influx and, as a result, the nation’s sense of tolerance has been severely tested.

In truth, Sicily has responded well, offering aid and assistance wherever it can. However, in a region where just a few decades ago it was uncommon to see foreign migrants, the initial reticence to embrace these newcomers is, if not understandable, at least explainable.

Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Sicily’s island geography means that it is the first port of call for many refugees— it’s stunning natural coastline has therefore turned from a blessing into a curse.
Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson – Not too far from Palermo, off the shores of Trapani, lie the Egadi islands. These are protected areas of national parkland where fashion magnate, Mario Prada, has a luxury villa.

A place where bazaar-like markets rub shoulders with renaissance-style theatres, with imposing pediments buttressed by corinthian columns, Sicily’s captivating capital possesses a certain magic. One way or another, this city is bound to have a lasting impact on those who visit it.


Cover Photo Credit: Photo courtesy: Sam Stevenson

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    From Birmingham to Buenos Aries, Milan to Valencia, Sam Stevenson's penchant for travel and world culture has defined his recent years. As a modern foreign languages graduate, he is always keen to visit and embrace new destinations. Along with writing, Sam has a strong passion for photography. He currently works as a freelance journalist and writer, contributing to various print and online publications. Find him tweeting @bySamStevenson and on Instagram @bySamStevenson

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