Italy has been at the top of my travel bucket list for at least 8 years but, for some reason, I never had the chance or the time to actually visit the place. And for someone who’s been obsessed with Italian language (and food, oh the food!) all her life, this just didn’t seem right. So, earlier this year I decided to rectify this, and took a couple of days off work to explore the gorgeous island of Sicily.
Even though Sicily seems like just a tiny part of Italy, it’s much bigger than I thought – and is jam-packed with gorgeous hills, beaches, churches, and architectural highlights I just couldn’t miss. The plan was to make my way around the northern and eastern part of the island, starting from Palermo, through Cefalú, Taormina, and finally, making my way to Catania before flying back to the UK – all this by train, public transport and, of course, on foot.
Even though I’m not completely new to solo travel (this was my third solo trip), it was by far my most challenging – and most rewarding – adventure so far. I spent 6 days and 7 nights on the island which, unfortunately, didn’t even scratch the surface of all the things you can see and do in Sicily, but I’ve seen an awful lot.
So, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be talking about my adventures on the island – from hiking in scorching heat to getting lost, not understanding a single word anyone is saying, and everything in between – and sharing some of my favourite photos of all the places I visited during that week.
Palermo in a nutshell
Seeing Palermo wasn’t the main reason for my trip, but since flying here was a lot cheaper than Catania, I thought I might as well spend a day here and explore the city before moving on to my next destination. And it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Yes, the city is hot, loud, and chaotic, and I’m not sure I’d spend more than a day or two here (the chaos will wear you down soon enough), but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re there.
The great thing about Palermo is that most of the “touristy” places are relatively close to each other, meaning that a) you can easily visit most of them in just one day, and b) you don’t have to rely on public transport or pay for a rental car to explore the city. And after seeing the complete insanity that is Palermo’s traffic, that’s definitely good news. (Having spent most of my weekends in London I thought I’ve seen worse, but I would literally never attempt to drive there!)
My apartment was near Via Roma, one of the busiest streets in the city, literally five minutes away from the historical centre of Palermo – which definitely had its perks. The room was very noisy, even in the middle of the night, but I was so tired after my flight (and the two hour delay. Cheers, Ryanair.), I honestly didn’t mind – and the location was perfect. So, after a quick breakfast the next morning, I set off to explore the city centre.
Piazza Pretoria & Quattro Canti
My first stop was Piazza Pretoria (also known as the Square of Shame), and Quattro Canti. Piazza Pretoria is a gorgeous little square in the heart of Palermo, with gleaming white statues and a fountain. I loved the animal heads around the fountain!
Quattro Canti (Four Corners) is a Baroque square only a few steps away from Piazza Pretoria, which is considered to be the traditional centre of Palermo, the crossroad marking the heart of the city’s old historic district. Each of the four buildings that make up the Quattro Canti are covered with Baroque statues like these, and there’s a fountain on each corner.
Palermo Cathedral was by far my favourite place in the city (although the Catacombs are a close second), and the view from the top is just breathtakingly gorgeous. Entry to the cathedral itself is free, but if you want to visit the tombs and climb up to the roof, tickets are €7. The tombs were a bit of a disappointment, but the rooftop view definitely made up for it! I’m a sucker for a good viewing point, so I’m not exaggerating when I say I literally spent 40 minutes up there. (I regret nothing.)
The Capuchin Catacombs were no doubt the weirdest, creepiest, yet most fascinating places I’ve seen in my life – and were definitely one of the highlights of my trip. They are a bit further away from the city centre (about 20-30 minutes on foot) but are SO worth the extra effort. If you’re in Palermo, don’t miss it! Tickets cost €3, and the place is open every day, including holidays.
Just as a quick background info, the catacombs were originally used as a cemetery for monks in Palermo’s Capuchin monastery, where the deceased were initially buried in a mass grave. However, as the community started growing, the original pit they used for this grave became too small and they were quickly running out of space. So, they decided to extend the existing caves and create a much larger cemetery in the same place.
However, during the excavations in this old mass grave, the friars found dozens of bodies naturally mummified and well preserved, so much so that even their faces were recognisable. The Capuchins of course thought this was an act of God and from then on, instead of burying the bodies, they decided to display them as relics, hung up along the walls of the catacombs.
Needless to say, the place soon became more and more popular, and the Capuchins finally decided to allow burial to anyone requesting it. Mummification, and burying one’s loved ones in the Catacombs became sort of a status symbol, a way to preserve someone’s status even after death, and thousands of wealthy people were buried there in their finest clothes during the 17th – 19th centuries.
Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the Catacombs (I might have sneakily taken this one) so I don’t have any more photos to show you, but it’s crazy how well preserved the bodies and the clothes are. Some of them are from hundreds of years ago but you literally wouldn’t be able to tell!
Teatro Massimo is one of Italy’s most famous opera houses, and one of the biggest ones in Europe. Built in 1897, the theatre is famous for it’s great acoustics, and can hold over 3,000 people. They do 30-minute guided tours in Italian and English (a definite must-see if you’re here!) where you can explore the auditorium, the royal box, the rehearsal rooms, and all the different halls within the building. Tours run between 9.30 a.m and 6 p.m every day, and tickets cost €8.
I’m a bit gutted that I didn’t make it to Mount Pellegrino (another amazing viewing point, apparently), but all in all, it was a great first day, and a great start to my trip. My next stop is Cefalú (a gorgeous little town roughly 43 miles east of Palermo), which I’ll talk about in more detail next week. 🙂
Have you been to Palermo? What were your highlights?