It often turns a few eyebrows when people hear I spent the best part of a year living in Palermo, Sicily. Even more so when I tell them I honestly think it is one of the best places in the planet! From the food to the weather, the people, the beaches, the architecture, the cost of living – the list goes on! Here is what it was like for me as a single British female living in Palermo and why I believe this is one of the best cities in the world to live in!
Sicily boasts not only the warmest weather in the whole of Italy, but often the hottest temperatures in Europe! It is pretty much summer all the time here, which is great if like myself you’re not a fan on the cold!
Summers are pretty hot but equally bearable here in Palermo as it gets a sea breeze due to it’s proximity to the sea. Plus, if it does get too hot the beach is not far off!
In comparison to much of mainland Italy which has bitterly cold winters, winters in Palermo are very mild and generally sunny. Often there can be snow in Milan and Rome whilst Palermo is warm with clear sunny skies. In winter the average temperature in Palermo is 14 degrees Celcius, whereas during the summer the average temperature is around 27 degrees. This is compared to an average of 1 degree Celcius in Milan in winter and 23 degrees Celcius in the summer!
There can be a few rainy days in Palermo in winter though, and due to it’s location near North African countries such as Tunisia, Sicily is subjected to the scirocco for a few days throughout the year. This is when a hot dusty wind comes from Northern Africa, often followed by some heavy rain.
Not just Palermitani (the people of Palermo), but Sicilians on the whole are very welcoming, laid-back people who love life. I found them so much more friendly and willing to help you than Italians in Rome and the north of Italy. Typical Southern Italians, Sicilians are very easy-going and don’t stress about work. Infact, they don’t stress about anything, and personally I like that attitude! Northern Italians actually despise this quality of Southern Italians and label them as ‘lazy’. And well, Sicilians would probably laugh and agree. One of my favourite movies really which shows the differences between Northern and Southern Italians and really helped me understand this culture more is Benvenuti Al Sud – definitely worth a watch!
Sicilians are proud of their roots, claiming to be Sicilian first, and Italian second. They are proud of their island and want visitors to love it too. They love it so much that many of them rarely leave Sicily – many of them have holiday homes in different areas of the island that they retreat to on their holidays. This means that they don’t even need to leave the island to have a holiday and to see a totally different landscape, as the Sicilian landscape varies greatly.
Palermitani always try and look out for each other, my favourite time being when one lady on the bus could see a ticket inspector was about to get on, so she shouted out to everyone he was there, so literally half of the bus all got off before he got on (because, well most locals used to avoid paying for the bus!). Talk about Sicilian community spirit!
I remember during my first few days in Palermo I was at the bus stop and didn’t realise you had to buy the bus ticket inside a shop to ride the bus (and of course there wasn’t a shop nearby to purchase one). One lady could see I was panicked and gave me a spare bus ticket she had. Its small acts of kindness like this that the local people did for me that I will always remember about the people of Palermo. Or the time one old man walked me 10 minutes in the opposite direction to where he was going, just to make sure I would get to the correct bus stop.
Palermitani traditionally have a very rich cultural heritage. They sometimes even describe themselves as half-Arabs, not only due to their geographical location and the longstanding 200 year reign the Arabs had over the city but because of their mentality sometimes.
To my delight, Sicilians speak very limited English. This was just what I wanted when I moved to Palermo; I was tired of speaking to Italians in Rome in Italian and getting replies in English. But in Palermo even just a trip to the local shop required me to speak in Italian. Even replying back to the Sicilian men trying to flirt with you, you have to speak in Italian as they are far too lazy to speak in English! Personally, I loved that people here didn’t speak English as it meant my Italian improved at a rapid rate whilst I was here. Within a few months of living in Palermo I was pretty fluent in Italian!
Even though many Siciliani don’t speak English, they will do their best to try and help you out, so don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian. They’re not so impatient like northern Italians can be, and will speak slowly or use hand gestures to help you out.
Sicilians didn’t even speak Italian until little over 150 years ago. Sicilian dialects were all that was spoken until 1861, when Sicily became part of Italy under the Unification. Mussolini then ordered the whole country to speak Italian. However, many Sicilians still speak their dialect as their mother tongue, and even some of the older generation in Sicily only speak dialect and don’t even know Italian! Nowadays however the younger generation in Sicily speak standardised Italian at school and in formal situations, and often speak regional dialect at home or amongst friends.
The Sicilian language varies from the Italian language in the sense that Italian is based almost completely on the Latin language. Sicilian however comes from a combination of Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Arabic – due to Sicily’s past conquers.
One of the things that struck me the most when I first moved to Palermo was just how different the architecture was compared to the rest of Italy. It was a real mix of Arab-Norman and Baroque styles, which is due to Palermo’s unique and colourful history.
It’s strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea has earned Palermo the title of the most conquered city in the world! Greeks, Phonetians (from Carthage in modern-day Tunisia), Romans, Byzantines, Moors (Maghreb Berbers/Amazigh primarily from Morocco), Normans (descendants of Viking settlers in northern France), and Spanish to name the primary ones, until it became unified with Italy in 1861.
In Palermo there are many historic buildings: many Norman buildings and lots of beautiful unique churches that became converted into mosques when the Moors invaded. They then got later converted back into Churches again after they left. During the 200 years when the Arabs were here (827-1061) there were over 300 mosques in Palermo, and the Arabic influence greatly shaped Palermo.
Two of my favourite churches in Palermo are the Chiesa di San Cataldo and San Giovanni degli Eremiti – both have red domes, which make them look very much like mosques still to this day. They were actually built as churches then converted into mosques, then turned back into Catholic Churches after the Arabs left Sicily. This kind of architecture was different to anything I had ever seen. Even the Cathedral of Palermo has some Arabic inscriptions inside, and it was built on the site of a previous large mosque.
Looking at more modern architecture in Palermo, the theatres of Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama, both built after the Unification of Italy in 1861, are incredibly beautiful theatres. They are host to classical music concerts and world class operas and are also two of the most respected theatres in all of Europe.
Palermo has some delicious street foods that are unique to here and not found anywhere else in Italy! For example: arancina (or arancini if you come from Catania!) which is a fried rice ball filled with meat ragu – similar to the cheese supplì found in Rome. Or sfincione – a thick rectangular Sicilian pizza/foccaccia covered with onions, tomatoes, anchovies and the strong Cacio Cavallo cheese. So delicious! These kinds of foods are great to grab on the go as a cheap but filling snack or light bite. A typical Sicilian dessert is cannoli – a tube shaped friend dough shell filled with a sweet ricotta filling.
The markets of Palermo such as La Vucciria and Ballarò are excellent places to go for traditional Sicilian street food as they offer a wide range of very affordable local foods often cooked right in front of you. They also have an abundance of fresh seafood available, and all the street food here at these markets is very cheap.
Sicilians love their food and take great pride in it. The family I lived with in Palermo would often spend their weekends driving halfway across the island in search of the best baby tomatoes, or the best Olive Oil. They have such passion for their food, and as someone who comes from a culture that lacks national pride in their cuisine, it is so nice to see!
Many of the flavours and spices in Sicilian food comes from typical Arabic dishes. This is another example of how the Arab influence is still greatly present in Palermo to this day.
Sightseeing in Palermo
Despite remaining relatively off the tourist trail for visitors to Italy, there is an abundance of interesting touristic places to visit in Palermo and Sicily to learn about it’s unique history.
The city of Palermo wins the title in Italy for the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites (most of them being Churches)! This list includes the Cattedrale di Palermo, Chiesa di San Cataldo, Cappella Palatina in Palazzo Reale, Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palazzo della Zisa amongst others. Infact, Palermo is amongst one of the cities in the world with the highest amount of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I think it is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, but sadly it often gets overlooked by the more famous cities such as Florence, Venice or Rome.
Apart from churches, there are many beautiful historic things to see in Palermo such as Quattro Canti, Fontana Pretoria and Porta Nuova (the gateway to the city built in 1570). Or there are several lovely parks to relax in, such as the Giardino Inglese (English Garden) or Villa Bonanno.
Palermo is a large enough city to keep you occupied for days, but the centre is compact enough that you can easily explore everywhere on foot, thus often avoiding needing to take a bus. Many of the streets are pedestrianised in the centre of Palermo, especially on the weekends (take Via Maqueda for example). This adds to the atmosphere and makes it much easier and more pleasant to get around.
Day trips from Palermo
There are many towns and villages rich in culture and history that you can visit on a day trip from Palermo. For example, Monreale with it’s beautiful gold-mosaic Norman Cathedral and stunning views is just a 30 minute drive from Palermo. This is an easy day-trip and a must-see if you are in Palermo for a few days!
Or alternatively visit Cefalù – a lovely quaint fishing village that can be reached in an hour from Palermo.
Sicily is surrounded by beautiful beaches, many being within easy reach of Palermo. Take for example Mondello, just a 20 minute bus ride from Palermo. This is Palermo’s local beach and Palermitani love to flock to this white sand beach in the summer! There are beach huts, sunbeds and umbrellas and a beautiful pier, plus lots of cafes to relax in! Mondello can be reached by taking the bus 100 or 101 from downtown Palermo on Via Roma or Via della Libertà.
From Mondello you can walk along to the Natural Reserve of Capo Gallo and enjoy the water here, where there are significantly less people, although it is quite rocky here.
Other nearby beautiful beaches include Campofelice di Roccella and Balestrate. Isola delle Femmine is also a nice place to explore: this is where we would take our speedboat out on the weekends. There are lots of upmarket beach clubs here too.
The beaches in Sicily are packed during August, which is peak holiday season as the whole of Italy takes vacation during this time.
Road trips from Palermo
If you have a few days you can take a road trip from Palermo and visit the east of the island: Catania, Taormina, Mount Etna, Siracusa, Ragusa and the many beautiful beaches along the east coast.
Heading down south towards the Agrigento area, on the south west of Sicily you have the lovely beach town of Sciacca. The white rocky cliffs of Scala Dei Turchi (‘Stair of the Turks‘) are also an incredible place to visit.
Or visit the impressive Greek archeological site of Valle Dei Templi at Agrigento, or Selinunte – another incredible Greek archeological site. It takes about 2.5-3 hours to drive from Palermo to Agrigento, but you can also detour a little bit and stop off at The Anti Mafia Museum in Corleone – one of the most eye-opening and educational museums I have ever visited.
You can make a road trip to the Trapani area, where you have beautiful beaches such as San Vito lo Capo, Scopello, Castellamare del Golfo and Zingaro reserve. You can also visit the impressive Greek temple at Segesta, or admire the views from the town of Erice.
From Trapani you can then hop across on the boat to the Isole Egadi (Egadi Islands) such as Favignana and Marettimo with their incredible clear water.
The Aeolian Islands such as volcanic Stromboli and Lipari are a fascinating place to spend a relaxing few days. These islands can be reached by taking a Liberty Lines ferry from Milazzo (not far from Messina), or you can take the ferry during the summer months from La Cala, Palermo’s port to Lipari – click here for the timetable and to purchase tickets. These islands are honestly incredible and I would love to head back there one day!
Public transport to many of these places wasn’t always great, mind. It was possible, but it just took a while and services weren’t too frequent. So if you have a car it will make your life much easier. Whilst there are plenty of bus options within the main cities, getting from one city to another can often be painfully slow. And some of the tourist destinations don’t even have access to public transport! So always plan your route beforehand.
Cost of living
One of the first things I noticed when I moved from Rome to Palermo was the cost of living. It was so much cheaper in Palermo! Infact Palermo is one of the cheapest cities in Western Europe to live in! Not just for accommodation, where a room in a nice apartment will set you back just €200 a month on average, but for food and drink and entertainment options too.
Eating out and street food stalls are pretty cheap in Palermo. And a night on the town won’t break the bank either: down at the bustling party street La Vucciria you can get a glass of wine for 1 Euro from one of the many bars there! There’s certainly not many cities where bars charge just €1 for a big glass of wine is it?! And the atmosphere is great with everyone spilling out on to the cobbled street.
Popular touristy cities like Rome often overcharge for entertainment options. But prices in Palermo remain modest, not just because the average salary is lower here and many people are unemployed, but because it is not really a touristy destination. Prices are kept low because it is a University town, so you’ll find lots of affordable deals across the city!
Sicily. The land of the Mafia. Yet did I feel safe whilst I was there? Yes. Don’t let Cosa Nostra define what your image of Sicily is about. The mafia isn’t just confined to Sicily, it’s all over Italy and America. Contrary to many people’s opinion, Palermo is a very safe place to live.
Petty crime rates are actually higher in Milan than in Palermo. Palermo is not so crowded compared to big cities like Milan and Rome, which inevitably means pickpocketing rates are higher in these busier cities. The people in Palermo are more relaxed and will watch out for you more. I never once had any problems here as a solo female. I always felt incredibly safe here, even at night.
People also talk about the traffic being crazy in Palermo and the drivers driving like lunatics, but to be honest it is not so bad. I drove here several times and never got beeped at so I must have done something right! Places like Napoli where there are far more vehicles on the streets is much worse.
Sicily is very traditional with many Sicilians still preferring to speak Sicilian dialect as opposed to Italian. They are proud of the differences they have between mainland Italy – the food, the weather, the language amongst other things.
Palermo and Sicily on the whole, feels like it is stuck in time. In a good way of course. Horse-drawn carriages still sometimes wander the streets and unlike the big cities of Italy such as Milan and Rome, Palermo isn’t too Westernised.
The majority of Sicilians are strict Catholics and their religion is important to them. On top of Monte Pellegrino (Pilgrim’s Mountain), between Palermo and Mondello you will find the shrine to Santa Rosalia (‘La Santuzza‘ – the little Saint). Santa Rosalia is the patron Saint of Palermo and performed several miracles during her time. She then went to in this cave on top of the mountain until she died. Santa Rosalia is much loved across the city, and her bones lay inside Palermo Cathedral.
On her feast day on July 14th evening, the whole city takes to the streets in her honour and a chariot holding the statue of Rosalia is processed around the city. It is a beautiful celebration, unlike anywhere else I have ever seen before!
Cheap flights from Palermo’s Airport
Falcone-Borsellino – Palermo’s international airport, has several low cost airlines that fly here. This is great as it means flights to and from Palermo are never expensive if you book in advance. RyanAir, Easyjet and Volotea are the main low-cost carriers at Palermo Airport. They offer direct flights to a wide range of destinations within Europe (over 12 countries including England, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland) and 9 Italian cities including Rome, Milan, Venice and Pisa.
Falcone e Borsellino Airport is actually located in Punta Raisi (31 km west of downtown Palermo), and it will take you around 40 minutes to get from the airport to the centre of Palermo if coming by car (please allow for traffic!). You can get a Prestia e Comande bus for €6 to take you from Palermo Airport to Palermo’s Central Station – these buses leave every 20 minutes or so. There are several stops along the way through town, including at Teatro Politeama. The bus takes around 55 minutes from Central Station to the airport, or 40 minutes if coming from Politeama, as traffic in the centre can get quite congested.
Sadly as with the majority of Italy, job opportunities are fairly low in Palermo. Many Sicilians are out of a job and looking for employment. This makes it harder for foreigners trying to get a job here. One option that is something to consider, and it is how I was able to live in Palermo, is to become an au-pair. Families are always looking for au pairs to help improve their child’s English – click here to read my au-pair story!
The minute I saw Palermo I fell in love with it and it’s character. From the crumbling buildings to the genuinely kind people, Palermo is full of life. There is a sense of mystery and hope in the air here, but also of sadness and loss. It is clear Sicily’s not-too distant turbulent history with the mafia is forever present. But the people of Palermo want to shake this image off them and show their city to the world.
So would I recommend living in Palermo? Hell yeh. If you’ve got your eyes set on Palermo, go for it. The people are very welcoming, kind, and life here is very stress-free. Living in Palermo was honestly one of the best things I ever did. I learnt so much and had such a great time, and always dream of moving back one day!
If you would like to read more about my decision to leave London and move to Italy, click here to read my story.
If you plan to visit Rome too, check out my 24 hour guide to Rome here!
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