Most visitors to Sicily stay near the beaches on the east coast but in doing so miss out on one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, Palermo. Here is how I would spend 48 hours in the Sicilian capital
Kick off your weekend with some excellent local food and enjoy a night out, Sicilian style. Being closer to Africa than mainland Europe, couscous and kebabs feature just as prominently on menus as pizza and pasta. Piazza Olivella has an array of restaurants – sample the kebab pizza (€8) at La Traviata (Piazza Olivella 18; 0039 091 328861) before moving down to Via dei Candelai. This narrow street is lined with buzzing bars, too small for the crowds who throng the street outside. The last bar on this strip is the best – I Candelai (Via dei Candelei 65; 0039 091 327151) - a huge bar on two floors in a former candlestick making factory.
A fun way to see the sights and to get your bearings is to hire a horse and cart driver to take you around for an hour. This may seem a cheesy, expensive thing to do in many European cities, but not here. Oh no! After haggling with our driver, Paolo, he showed us the best of Palermo in an hour for just €30. Weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds, we passed the Teatro Massimo opera house and the Quattro Canti – literally the four corners where Palermo’s two main roads intersect, each corner decorated in Baroque style with a fountain and a statue of a different Spanish king. Then we rattled along to see the Cathedral, made up of a total hotchpotch of architectural styles as you might expect in a city colonised by Arabs, Normans, Spaniards and Romans amongst others. Our daredevil driver kept us entertained along the way with his tales of mafia corruption in broken English, before dropping us back at the Teatro Massimo.
Fans of the Godfather will love Palermo, with its gangster-types walking around in three-piece suits and trilby hats. But for the authentic trip, a visit to Corleone is a must. The town, the real-life capital of the Sicilian mafia, gave its name to the family in Mario Puzo’s masterpiece. It’s a 90 minute uphill ride on the no. 157 bus through lemon groves with scenic views looking down on the Med. After spending an hour in the town’s mafia museum, you might see real life mobsters if you look closely – one thing you’ll definitely notice is the massive police presence here to keep an eye on all the baddies.
See some top class football (calcio) at the Stadio Renzo Barbera, one of the most romantic stadiums in world football, set beneath the stunning Mount Pellegrino. Palermo are flying high in Italy’s Serie A, and trying to establish themselves as a force in European football. Backed by a rich and ambitious chairman, this club is going places, and spending 90 minutes alongside passionate Palermitanos is an experience not to be missed. Don’t leave without buying a shocking-pink replica shirt and make sure you take your camera along to film the hardcore fans’(ultras') colourful pre-match choreography and pyrotechnics.
If you’re in the mood to celebrate a home victory, try La Champagneria del Massimo (via Spinuzza 59; 0039 091 335730). This popular little bar has seats outside facing the Teatro Massimo, scene of the shoot-out at the climax of the Godfather Trilogy. Sip iced limoncello as Palermo’s beautiful people parade up and down, and glammed-up opera goers arrive in their posh cars.
After an exhausting day of sightseeing and partying, what better way to chill out than to laze on a beach for a few hours? The chic resort of Mondello is just a 10-minute hop on the no.806 bus and has a superb location nestled between two rocky outcrops and overlooked by Mount Pellegrino. The water is warm and the beach sandy – perfect to while away a few hours and soak up some rays.
By now hunger will be calling and Sicilian food doesn't have a reputation as one of the finest cuisines in the world for nothing. Back in Palermo, the Vucciria district near the port has some cracking fish restaurants such as Ristorante a’Vucciria (via Chiavettieri 7) where you can sample the gorgeous local dish, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) for €12. Just remember to carry a decent map to get you in and out of the maze-like warren of streets.
How to do it
Palermo’s airport is situated 15km north-east of the city – the 30-minute train journey to the centre costs €4 each way.
The clean, central three-star Hotel Posta (via A. Gagini 77) has spacious double rooms from €60 with breakfast. It's opposite Palermo's main post office, hence the name, and is in a great location in the centre of town but on a quiet street away from the constant honking horns of irate local drivers.
The city has an excellent public transport network, AST. Prices and timetables can be found at www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it