If you want to experience the buzz of an Italian city but prefer something smaller than Rome or Milan and less intimidating than Naples, then Sicily’s Palermo is an excellent place to start your next Italian tour. To reach Palermo from Atlanta, Delta Airlines offers direct flights to Rome, and several local carriers offer inexpensive flights from Rome to Palermo. You can also take the train, but at 11 hours, it’s more time-consuming than flying, which could be aggravating at the beginning of your vacation.
The best way to see Palermo is with a local guide. If you don’t have any friends in Palermo, you may want to make one quickly, as the city has a certain small-town distrust of outsiders that you won’t find in mainland Italy. However, if you are a guest, you will be treated like family, so it’s best to embrace your natural American friendliness and accept invitations that may come your way.
It cannot be over-emphasized that driving in Palermo is a sport you’re not likely to master during the length of a vacation. Again, it helps to have a local guide, but if not, you’re probably better off sticking to taxis or your own feet than attempting to rent a car in Palermo. Have the driver drop you off at the Quattro Canti, the central intersection whose four corners are each marked with an impressive fountain.
The nearby Piazza Pretoria is one of Palermo’s most impressive squares, with the Fontana Pretoria proudly displayed in the center. This massive fountain was once known as the Fountain of Shame due to the nudity of the figures frolicking in the spray, but today it is merely an impressive wedding cake of tiered sculptures.
Across the street from the piazza is the 12th century church known as La Martorana. If you’re a fan of baroque churches, you’ll be hard pressed to leave this place — even if your tastes are a bit more reserved, it’s impossible not to be bowled over by the intense amount of ornamentation covering every surface of the interior. Apparently the Benedictine nuns who assumed the church in 1433 subscribed to the “more is more” philosophy of decorating; you’ll find yourself standing open-mouthed at the sheer spectacle of it all.
Ask your hotel or your new friend for recommendations on the newest pizzerias and trattorias — dining in Sicily is an art, and you’ll want to take the time to treasure each meal. From fresh buffala mozzarella to pastry stuffed with cream seconds before it hits your plate, the tastes of Sicily are as ornamented and fantastic as the frescoes.