Palermo + Western Sicily, Italy

I had the impression that Sicily was a dangerous mafia paradise. But thanks to the internet, I quickly learned that Sicily was safe and gorgeous, so I started planning a one week trip. My first decision was choosing the western or eastern side of the island. I contemplated doing a two week trip and covering the entire island, but eventually decided that a one-week intro on the western side of the island would be sufficient. I invited a few friends to come on the trip, but the scheduling didn’t work out, so I did it alone. This turned out to be one of the best solo trips I’ve ever taken.

I was amazed by the diversity of landscapes and architecture that I covered over the week in a relatively small geographic area. I based myself in three cities for the week – Palermo, Trapani, and Sciacca. Palermo was exciting and fun with lots of beautiful architecture and interesting street art. I saw at last three different street festivals during the long weekend there. And while the second half of the week was a road trip, I never drove more than a few hours each day. The beaches in Lo Zingaro, the Egadi Islands, and Scala dei Turchi overlooked clear, turquoise water of the Mediterranean Sea. The views from the hilltops towns of Erice and Caltabellota were breathtaking. The Greek temples and ruins at Segesta, Selinunte, and Agrigento were some of the best preserved architecture I’ve seen. Last, but not least, the food was incredible. I’m looking forward to returning to Sicily to explore the eastern side of the island.

Day 0: fly overnight from NYC to Milan
Day 1: early flight from Milan to Sicily, explore Palermo, overnight in Palermo
Day 2: explore center of Palermo, overnight in Palermo
Day 3: explore center of Palermo, overnight in Palermo
Day 4: pick up rental car, drive to beaches west of Palermo, overnight in Trapani
Day 5: visit Egadi Islands off coast of Trapani, visit Erice, overnight in Trapani
Day 6: visit ruins at Segesta and Selinunte, overnight in Sciacca
Day 7: visit ruins at Agrigento, beach at Scala dei Turchi, and mountains at Caltabellota, overnight in Sciacca
Day 8: early morning drive to Palermo, fly to Rome

Day 1: Palermo

Palermo’s Airport is 45 mins outside the city. I took an airport shuttle to the center to meet up with the owner of the apartment I was renting. Quickly after settling in I started exploring the city. Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas was my only real destination for my first day in Palermo. The rest of the time was dedicated to just walking around the city. The museum is small but well designed with galleries surrounding a central courtyard.

Massimo Theatre is not far from the museum and this is where I stumbled on the most amazing find – a gelato street festival on Via Maqueda. This festival actually lasted the entire weekend I was in Palermo and I definitely gained some pounds from it.

Walking down Via Maqueda I ended up at Palazzo Di Rudinì. The former palace is a bit rundown but it has unparalleled views of Quattro Canti. Quattro Canti is the intersection of two major streets, but in the four corners there are four Baroque buildings with nearly identical facades with different fountains and statues.

Fontana Pretoria is adjacent to Quattro Canti along Via Maqueda. Fontana Pretoria is the unofficial center of Palermo. The massive round fountain contains x sculptures. The fountain was originally built for a private garden in Florence, but three years later was bought by the city of Palermo and relocated here. The fountain represents the Twelve Olympians, other mythological figures, animals, and the rivers of Palermo.

Day 2: Palermo

I spent the next two days in Palermo visiting lots of churches and markets, and exploring neighborhoods in search of street art.

Palermo Cathedral is the most imposing church in the city. The cathedral is designed with a mix of architectural style ranging from Norman to Gothic to Neoclassical due to its long construction history. I was less impressed with the interior, but exterior was stunning. There’s even access to the rooftop for better appreciation of the details of the facades, domes, and views over the historic center.

Other random shots along Cassaro or Via Vittorio Emmanuelle, the oldest street through Palermo.

The Norman Palace is the royal palace of Palermo. The palace has been the seat of power in Palermo for centuries and is still in use today. Only a limited number of rooms are open to the public. The highlight is the Cappella Paletina, the palace chapel that combines Byzantine mosaics and Arab wooden ceiling designs.

Next to the Normal Palace is Porta Nouva, the triumphal arched gateway to the city. The gate leads to Cassaro, the oldest street in the city.

Other random shots along Cassaro or Via Vittorio Emmanuelle, the oldest street through Palermo.

San Giovanni degli Eremeti is a simple church with red domes. The cloisters and gardens, added when the church was a monastery, were my favorite areas. Climbing the small bell tower offers good views of the Norman Palace and Palermo.

There are many markets in the historic center of Palermo, but Ballaro Market is the most famous. This is definitely an active market and the bustle of the market is enhanced by the narrow streets and surrounding decrepit buildings.

Chiesa del Gesu is a beautiful Baroque church with heavily ornamentation not far from the Ballaro Market area.

My apartment rental was in the Kalsa neighborhood, which made it easy to explore. Porta Felice is another monumental city gate and neighborhood landmark. Parrocchia Santa Maria della Pietà is a small Baroque church with a gorgeous painted ceiling that’s worth a visit.

Day 3: Palermo

My last day in Palermo started with a cluster of four important religious buildings near Fontana Pretoria. Chiesa di Santa Caterina was the standout of the day. Typical of Palermo’s architecture, the church mixed Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance styles – which meant the interiors were sensory overload. After spending time admiring the nave, I started venturing to the upper levels of the church. I appreciated being able to view the church interior from a different perspective. The final level is the rooftop that overlooks Fontana Pretoria.

Directly across the fountain is Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini. The simple facade hides the beautiful Baroque interior. The church’s distinct blue and yellow dome is visible throughout the historic center.

Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio or La Martorana is located in the adjacent plaza, Piazza Bellini. Chiesa di San Cataldo with its Arab-Norman design and red domes is annexed to La Martorana. The church is also well known for its Byzantine mosiacs and Baroque interior.

I stumbled upon Oratorio di San Giuseppe dei Falegnami while in the area. During my visit to Palermo, there was an open house event, where special private buildings (including the oratory) were open to the public for a nominal fee.

Mercato il Capo is the second largest market in central Palermo. This market was less busy than Ballaro and still felt very traditional. The small Church of the Immaculate Conception is entered from the market street. The side streets had some of the best street art in Palermo.

The Borgo Vecchio neighborhood was the last stop on my street art quest. This area was definitely the most rundown, but I felt completely safe walking around. I really appreciated the different styles of street art and graffiti.

Teatro Girabaldi is on the outskirts of Borgo Vecchio. The neoclassical theatre is a rotunda with a triumphal arch entryway and brightly colored facades. The theatre is home to Palermo’s orchestra.

Day 4: Palermo to Trapani via Zingaro Nature Reserve

I woke up early to catch the bus back to the airport to pick up my rental car. Then I drove west towards Trapani, my home for the next two nights. On the way I made a quick photo stop at La Tonnara de Scopello, a medieval estate that was used for tuna-fishing. Now the property is a museum with sea access and beautiful views.

At the end of the same road is Zingaro Nature Reserve. A seven kilometer path cuts through the nature reserve connecting Scopello and San Vito Lo Capo. Hiking along the trail provides access to eight remote beaches and coves. I definitely broke a sweat on the hike. Since I had to make it to Trapani later that day, I spent most of my time at Cala della Disa, one of the more beautiful coves. This could easily be a full day excursion – hiking and swimming at all the beaches.

Trapani is an important maritime hub on Sicily’s west coast. To be honest I had never heard of the city until I started researching this trip. The cute city is a convenient base for trips to the Egadi Islands, Erice, and San Vito Lo Capo. The historic center is small and walkable. Every evening I strolled down the main street, Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle, where many of the landmarks are located. The street ends at the sea, where I saw incredible sunsets.

The entire town of Erice is located on a 2,500 feet mountain overlooking Trapani and the Mediterranean Sea. I took the cable car from the base of the mountain to the town. The historic Phoenician town has two castles and lots of interesting alleyways.

Day 5: Favignana and Levanzo Islands

The Egadi Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Trapani that are easily accessed by ferry. Favignana is the largest island and where I spent the majority of time. Shortly after I arrive, I rented a bike and began exploring the countryside and coast of the eastern side of the island. The island has tons of quarries and caves of calcarenite rock or “tufo”. Many of the buildings in Tunis was built with this rock.

The main attraction on Favignana are the beaches overlooking the impossibly blue water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. With limited time, I focused on Cala Rosso and Bue Marino. Cala Rosso is one of the most beautiful “beaches” I’ve ever seen. There is no typical sandy area, but the cove has a series of tufo rocks that descend into the crystal clear sea. Bonus: there are seaside tufo caves that can be explored.

I continued biking east to Bue Marino, a shallow rocky cove with similar impossible views. I stayed here for an hour, swimming in the sea and hiking around the tufo rock caves. There’s no shade other than the caves, so even in October, it was hot in the direct sun. A perfect excuse to grab a granitas, a Sicilian slushee, from the cute lemon shaped stand.

After spending most of the morning at the beaches, I biked back to visit Tonnare di Favignana, a waterfront museum in a restored factory dedicated to the historic tuna fisheries.

I returned my bike and boarded the ferry for my next stop, Levanzo Island. This island is much smaller and the main town is concentrated in the harbor around the ferry dock. The town is absolutely beautiful with whitewashed buildings stacked along the harbor it felt like a Greek island. I had two hours to eat lunch and explore the small town.

Day 6: Segesta and Selinunte

On my sixth day in Sicily, I drove 120 kilometers from Trapani to Sciacca with two stops to visit ancient temples at Segesta and Selinunte. The well preserved Greek temple of Segesta is beautifully located among rolling green hills. The simple Doric temple stands alone at the bottom of the archeological park. A shuttle bus takes visitors up to the upper agora with even better views. This area contains mostly ruins, but the magnificent amphitheater is fully intact. I walked back down to stretch my legs a bit.

Selinunte is another ancient Greek city located on the southern coast of Sicily. The Temple of Hera is the only one of the five original temples that has been re-erected. Other partially erect temples and ruins are scattered throughout the large site. A small museum if also located on-site. The main acropolis of Selinunte is located a short drive away directly on the sea. This section of the site is much larger but also mostly in ruins.

I made good time and arrived in Sciacca early enough to explore the town before sunset. Sciacca is built on a hill and requires many steps to get from the port to the main town. The working waterfront was fun to visit and engage in my newfound passion for photographing ropes….no joke. Sciacca was a good laidback base for exploring the south-west coast of Sicily.

Day 7: Agrigento + Scala dei Turchi

I wasn’t templed out after the last day, so made my way to Agrigento the next morning. The driving here did seem a bit chaotic as I kept missing my turn and had to drive throw the center city of Agrigento at rush hour. I finally arrived at the Valley of the Temples archeological park, a bit later than intended. The line at the entrance was long, but most of the visitors were in tour groups, so I quickly walked ahead of them to enjoy the ruins in solitude.

The remains of seven Greek temples in various states of ruin are linked by a central axis over the large site. The Temple of Concordia is the best reserved temple in the park. A giant bronze statue of a fallen Icarus lies in front of the temple.

Other architecture highlights are the Temple of Hera/Juno, the Temple of “Castor and Pollux”, and the Temple of Heracles. The Olympeion field is where the Temple of Olympian Zeus was constructed. It was the largest Doric temple in the world. Unfortunately the temple is now in ruins. One of the colossal atlases that supported the upper section of the temple has been reconstructed and gives a sense of the immense scale of the temple.

Not far from Agrigento is Scala dei Turchi or”Stair of the Turks”. The rock cliffs are unique for their brilliant white color. There are two accessible sandy beaches that surround the cliffs.

On the way back to Sciacca I made a detour and start driving inland along curvy roads to Caltabellota. The historic town is atop a mountain 3,000 feet high. The best views require a short, but sweaty hike to the top of the large outcropping.

Day 8: Return to Palermo

I woke up early for the two hour drive back to Palmero Airport to catch my 9 am flight to Rome.


FLIGHTS

Alitalia (premium economy): JFK-MXP, (economy): LIN-PMO
I paid for an economy seat but placed a bid for an upgrade to premium economy. My bid was accepted the day before the flight. Premium economy offers a nicer seat, more space, better dinner, and an amenity kit. It was definitely worth it for the eight hour flight. The flight from Milan to Sicily was short and basic. Sit on the left side of the plane for great views of the Sicilian coast on approach to the Palermo’s airport.

Vueling (economy): PMO-FCO


ACCOMODATIONS

Loft Piazza Marina, Palermo – moderate – $
This apartment didn’t have any reviews but the photos looked great and the location couldn’t be beat. I took a gamble and booked it and paid for it in advance. The apartment looked just like the photos, it was newly renovated and modern, and located on Giardino Garibaldi park.
Recommend: Yes

Al 22 Apartment, Trapani – moderate – $
Good location in the center of Trapani. Parking was in a nearby public lot, but I didn’t have any issues. The apartment had high ceilings and balcony and was nicely decorated.
Recommend: Yes

Hotel Melqart, Sciacca – moderate – $
Basic and comfortable room in a good location between the port and the main square. Sciacca is built on a hill and requires many steps to get from the port to the main town.
Recommend: Yes


TRANSPORTATION

In Palermo, Trapani, and Sciacca, I walked to all of the sights. The last half of the week, I had a rental car and driving in Sicily is not so bad on the highways. In the towns, things get more chaotic, but I managed to keep the car intact, even if my nerves were shot.


HIGHLIGHTS

Norman Palace and Capella Palatine, Palermo
The Capella Palatine is the main draw here due to it’s gorgeous mosaics on the ceiling of the chapel.  The entire palace is worth a visit and even though the decoration isn’t as lavish as Versailles or other palaces, I really enjoyed exploring the few rooms that are open to public.

Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve
. In October, the water was cold but swimming was possible.  There was also a lot of marine life in the water, so snorkeling equipment is recommended.

Favignana Island
Favignana is the largest and most populated of the Egadi Islands.  I spent several hours biking around the flat part of the islands, visiting a few beaches, including the famous Cala Rossa and Blu Marino.  I didn’t make it to the third famous beach, Cala Azul.  The main town is charming and even has an interesting museum about the island’s fishing history in a former tuna factory.

Scala dei Turchi, Agrigento
This beach is surrounded by beautiful white cliffs.  The contrast in colors between the turqouise sea, golden sand, and alabaster-colored cliffs is mesmerizing.  Make sure to walk all the way to the end of the cliffs and you will have them to yourself.

Selinunte
I visited three temple ruins sites in Sicily and Selinunte was by far my favorite. Segesta is beautiful, but there is only one Doric temple (that can’t be entered) and a gorgeous amphitheatre. The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is the most famous and therefore full with tourists. Selinunte had several temples and was a calm oasis.


WHAT I MISSED

A lot of the things I missed were outside of Palermo.  I only had three days in the city and I was able to find more than enough activities to fill my days. I will definitely return to explore Palermo and Western Sicily. My next trip to Sicily will probably focus on the eastern side of the island.

Cefalu – cute seaside town with Norman cathedral
Mondello – seaside town famous for its large crescent-shaped bay and beach
Cathedral of Monreale – UNESCO church known for its beautiful mosiacs
Mozia and saltpans – great place to see sunset
San Vito del Capo – one of the most beautiful beaches in Sicily with shallow, turquoise waters surrounded by mountains

Mazaro del Vallo

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