Palermo city guide: Top activities and accommodations in Sicily

Perhaps the most underappreciated city in Italy is Palermo. It’s definitely got swagger, but it’s not for the timid. Palermo is a seductive, quirky, and sometimes addicting city that rewards those who spend the time getting to know it. Palermo’s low-rise skyline is adorned with iconic buildings with terracotta tones, and narrow side alleys lead into decaying squares dotted with palazzi.

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Everything from cuisine to architecture to speech has been impacted by the cultures of the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The architectural strata of the conquerors—the Phoenicians, Normans, Turks, Egyptians, Arabs, and Spaniards—are easily discerned with a quick glance. This is the most ethnically diverse city in Italy; everything is here. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Best things to do

Culture of computers

Meet, Eat, Connect, or MEC, is an interesting way to spend an hour or two, and you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy it. Located across from the Arab-Norman cathedral in the 16th-century Palazzo Castrone, this museum-restaurant idea blends exquisite dining with technology. A portion of architect Giuseppe Forello’s extensive collection of Apple products, which is among the biggest in Europe, is on display at an exhibition that chronicles the history of the company. It includes a variety of original Macs, iMacs, and iPads in addition to Steve Jobs’s watch, jeans, and sneakers. Chef Carmelo Trentacosti, who was formerly of Rocco Forte’s exclusive Villa Igiea hotel, serves an innovative tasting menu with Sicilian flavors every evening except Sunday. Recently, he was awarded a Michelin star.

Food for thought

The food-based walking tours offered by Culinary Backstreets are the greatest way to experience a region authentically, eat your fill of well-known and lesser-known delicacies, and discover interesting things along the way. Their most recent tour, “Savouring Palermo: In the Markets and Beyond,” costs £107 for adults. Knowledgeable local guides take you to hidden locations where you can find panzerotti rolls stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies and panelle, which are deep-fried fritters made from chickpea flour and a superb illustration of early Arabic influence. Loosen your belt for sfincione, a thick pizza-meets-focaccia dish flavored with oregano, sweet onion, and a variety of cheeses, such as salty caciocavallo and creamy ricotta. There’s also a significant cultural component, including visits to a fifth-generation carob sweet factory and a puppet workshop where puppeteers make handcrafted puppets out of metal and wood for the daily presentations.

Street art

Multicultural murals across the city honor both past and contemporary migrants. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, La Kalsa ancient Arab district, has building blocks that pay honor to Federico II, a guy renowned for his inclusivity, and showcase the face of a stunning black lady with her head veiled and a golden halo-like pattern lighting behind her.

In the Albergheria neighborhood, close to Ballaro market, a small hummingbird does the seemingly impossible by using its wings to pick up a massive rock. The football field and residential square are protected by a looming mural of Saint Benedict the Moor, who has a dark complexion.

Ideal time to go

Palermo is a year-round destination, although the Mediterranean heat, enhanced by the sirocco breeze, is at its mildest in late spring and early fall. November through April is considered low season, with cheaper accommodation prices and fewer visitors.

Where to lodge

B&B Sant Agostino

This culturally vibrant B&B is located adjacent to Teatro Massimo, which hosts operas, on a little side street. Perched atop a 19th-century palace, B&B Sant Agostino offers a delightful assortment of individually designed rooms and suites. Some include beams, four-poster beds, and rooftop views surrounded by small windows, while others have two storeys, lounges, and couch beds. Everyone has access to the chamber with the fresco ceiling that houses the prepared breakfast and the charming balconies dotted with plants.

Grand Hotel et des Palmes

Bravo for a superb restoration of this Art Nouveau palace, originally the home of the Ingham-Whitakers wine dealers and the location of Wagner’s last opera, by the historically significant Grand Hotel et des Palmes. A spectacular location on the crowded Via Roma is created by the skillful revival and mixing of original characteristics with a new, fresh design. Honey-hued oak floors, burgundy velvet sofas, and gilt-edged mirrors blend together with hand-painted wallpapers. Savor Sicilian delicacies like cannoli at the Winter Garden, which has a glass canopy.

Villa Igiea

In stark contrast to the bustle of the city, this Belle Époque house on Palermo Bay has been transformed into the Rocco Forte resort. Fanciful towers, aromatic terraced gardens with orange, lemon, and olive trees, a curving pool, and apartments designed by Olga Polizzi featuring terraces with terracotta tiles overlooking the sea are all there. Together with the friendly service and fragrant public areas, the original paintings, ancient doors, and handcrafted tiles are just as striking as the Sicilian menus filled with regional delicacies.