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3 Days in Sicily: Palermo and Beyond

palermo sicily

 

SICILY IN 3 DAYS 

Planning a three-day trip to Sicily could prove challenging. As an explorer, you want to take full advantage of whichever side of the island you select, whether it is on the east or west coast. We chose the latter, and you will soon find out why.

 

OUR STAY: Palermo The 12th century Arab tower

For most people flying to if you travel to Sicily you will do so by flying on Alitalia.  We traveled to Sicily after our Southern Italy adventure. https://europeantravel.blog/a-1-week-southern-italy-itinerary-in-puglia/ If I were to suggest one thing for your Western Sicily trip, it would be to stay in this 12th-century Arab tower town called Palermo in the Monte di Pietà area. You’ll never forget the experience. Placed in a fine aristocratic colony, this area is located near the Palermo Cathedral. If you have looked at the map, you are correct: you are in the heart of Palermo. Though, many luxury seekers think that this is the worst nightmare ever. 

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Day 1: Palermo

Palermo is a cultural mecca and a foodie’s paradise. It is that simple, and that was all we needed. We had the entire day to explore the hidden treasures, from the Rococo chapels to the Byzantine mosaics to the Arab-Norman heritage. In between, we will stop for some tasty Sicilian appetizers. It was our plan to start at 10:15 a.m. sharp.

The Cathedral

Over the years, Palermo has been reshaped by different generations of rulers, who all left their mark on the architecture and cultural influence of Palermo. Built-in the 12th century, the cathedral represents this idea in its most elegant form. Beautifully situated in the center of the city, this Cathedral is surrounded by most of Palermo’s tourist attractions.

The cathedral looks majestic from the outside, boasting a variety of architectural styles. From the inside, it might appear differently than from the outside. Due to the fact that this was our first time visiting Sicily, the experience was somewhat unexpected. At first, I observed an unusual feeling of coldness due to the deep darkness of the underground Norman tombs. Gradually, as we explored exhibits chronicling Palermo’s tragic past, the design and lighting became more justified. Also, the cathedral had undergone multiple repairs over the centuries, concealing some of its beauty. As a lover of Gothic architecture, my favorite part of the building was the Western facade, which was a section of the building embellished with intricate interlacing ornaments and Gothic arches. For lovers of Gothic art, this is the place to go!

Cappella Palatina

Our next stop from the cathedral will be my favorite tourist spot in Sicily. It is none other than Cappella Palatina. Entering the chapel left us speechless for at least ten minutes. It was amazing to view religious iconographs and multi-colored mosaics just about everywhere until, to our delight, we spotted the charming Islamic-style vaulted ceiling. Kudos to the Norman Kings of Sicily for putting together this masterpiece!.

We had walked a lot, and our appetite was starting to wane. Palermo’s business break time is usually between 1 and 3:30 p.m. so be sure and eat before the daily siesta hits. We stopped at one of the street food stands right next to the cathedral. Firstly, let me say that the people of Palermo are obsessed with food. Not to mention, Sicilian cuisine, which is different from the Italian food on the mainland, was one of my main reasons for this entire trip. When I saw those meat-and-cheese-filled rice balls nicely coated with breadcrumbs on TV I knew I wanted to try them. And so we filled our mouths with Arancini from Palermo’s best. Palermo is the perfect destination for lovers of street food. My recommended food exercise for Sicilian travelers is to try Arancina or Sfincione, walk a bit more, sample another local specialty (such as quaglie or croche), keep walking and repeat.

After exploring a few more areas and going for a nice stroll around Maqueda and Quattrocanti, Palermo’s central Baroque square, we called it a day. Palermo was an unforgettable experience. Listening to centuries of soaring highs and crushing lows, we can only imagine what it takes to create such a complex metropolis. The capital city is filled with some of the most beautiful churches and historic palaces. Then, of course, we have the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the largest opera house in Italy. The most enriching moments we had still occurred during walking through the art-filled piazzas and being lost in the center of the Ancient world.

Day Two: Erice and Segesta

Palermo has now been completed. The best is now behind us. How could outer outskirts of a capital city ever be comparable with the city itself? 

Erice

Erice sicily

Erice is a medieval hill town dating from the 12th century situated over Trapani, the city of salt and sail. I would recommend driving up to Erice. In Sicily, a good tip is to pick up a rental car and get out of the city, there’s so much more to explore beyond the capital. 

After getting out of the car, we found ourselves lost in a maze of stone-paved streets. Walk up, walk down, left or right, it’s all the same, and it’s so archaic. Erice is unto itself. Walking through the quiet alleyways and admiring the pretty staircases and windows, you hardly realize that you have already been transported back into medieval times. I have been to places that transport you to a new world. But for a place to transport you back 1000 years and then not bring you back means something? There is something magical about this place that makes one forget that it is the 21st century. For the next three hours, food meant fire and safety meant daggers and swords.

We spent a great deal of time passing across every stone and block, getting lost in Erice’s labyrinthine grey cobblestone paths, exploring every nook and corner, and finding hidden treasures. I was living in a fantasy world, bathing in sunshine and nosing down those impossibly narrow back alleys with anticipation, wondering where the leads would take me. We walked past some baroque stone houses and an ancient stone church and finally came upon Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main street, giving us our first exposure to modern-day life. It is one of the most photogenic streets I have ever seen, lined with souvenir shops and pastry shops.

Erice is also famous for its food. If you have ever wondered what the difference between average pasta and finger-licking good pasta was, order a plate at La Prima Dea. We had a memorable lunch in Erice. I miss Italian food today, and every time I do, I think back to the unforgettable lunch we had in Erice: a plate of Couscous con Pesce and Busiate al Pesto Trapanese. Not to mention, no Erice trip is complete without trying the mouth-watering sweets from Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico, a 1950 sweet shop that became famous because of the owner’s book “Bitter Almonds”. The dream dessert here is the cassata, a delightful combination of cream, marzipan, chocolate, and candied fruit. A lovely afternoon meal in Erice, followed by a round of cassata and almond liqueur cookies was all that was needed for us to double up on happiness.

Back in the car, we traveled to Segesta, our next pitstop. So, how do I describe Segesta? Set on the edge of a deep canyon next to wild mountain ranges, this magnificent monument dates back as far as the 5th century BC.

sicily

Segesta

We walked all day, and our feet still had more to do. Captivated by the sheer size and glory of this never-completed Doric-style monument, we stood for a few moments in wonder. It looks like a modern amphitheater without the stage.

It is called the Greek Amphitheatre. There is a shuttle bus between the parking lot and the theater…take it… An amphitheater located on the hilltop of Monte Barbaro evoked memories of classical events and performances from the past. We were pleased to learn that it had been presenting shows of this type since the third century BC, hosting more than 3,000 spectators. Constructed on the hillside in the typical Greek fashion, the theatre was a striking sight.

All in all, Segesta was historic. Even though nothing of ancient Segesta exists today, the ruins of the temple and the hilltop theatre are still well preserved. We were awed. It had indeed been a good day. “La Dolce Vita”, as they said.

Day Three: Cefalu

After exploring Sicily’s cultural heritage for two days, it was time to relax. We knew we could choose any of the north-coast beach towns in Sicily and we would be set. We picked Cefalu. 

Cefalu is one of the most beautiful towns in Sicily, offering a mixture of an exquisite beach resort and a medieval town. There are many tiny picturesque houses carved out of rocky hillsides, standing close to quaint waterfronts, embellished with centuries-old churches. If you have ever seen a wallpaper of Sicily at the sea, you have likely seen Cefalu’s charming port. The images are captivating and once you have experienced them for real you will never forget this place.

Cefalu Sicily

A short train ride away

In a country that takes time to get around the train ride is quite easy, it’s rail systems are rather efficient, smooth, and above all: economical. Palermo is an ideal base for exploring Cefalu. Tickets from Palermo to Cefalu will cost you €11.20 each and train services run almost every hour. An hour-long train journey took us through the coastal edges of the Tyrrhenian coast and provided vistas of the Tyrrhenian sea.

Few places in the world can just captivate your senses as soon as you step into them. Somehow, it is hard to describe, however, they just smell good, and you know that they will be good. We left the train station feeling the soothing sea breeze carrying lavender and rosemary scents along the way. It was a delightful smell. We knew there was something we would enjoy here. Ambling past all the shops and offices near the station, it appeared like a busy town, which had likely taken a break over the holidays. On such a weekday there were few stores open and many parked cars, and there was a very low level of traffic. Fortunately for us, we still managed to sneak into the tourist information center and obtain a map of the city.

To begin, we climbed La Rocca for panoramic views of the coastline in both directions. Later, as we approached the mesmerizing waterfront, the landscape turned more and more magical. A captivating beach set in a mountain backdrop with architectural masterpieces high above the sea. Please use your own imagination for the rest. All I can say is that it was unreal, more like a magnificent Italian painting. It was as if the old town were hugging the curve of the Tyrrhenian coastline, extending its charm even further. This was exactly how I saw Italy in my dreams, and now I actually had the opportunity to experience it. An evening stroll along the seafront promenade, or passeggiata, helped us recharge our energies.

After lazing about for a little while, we started walking up to the pedestrian Old Town. There is one classic spot in every beach town that draws us in with cameras raised. In Cefalu, there are two classic spots. The Duomo Piazza and the Promenade are not to be missed. Another recommendation – while these two sites remain important, don’t ignore the Old Town. The narrow and winding streets are where you’ll find some of the most exciting activities. Even if there are no events taking place, you will always find yourself enjoying seafood or pastries in one of the vibrant restaurants and Gelato shops. If you are interested in fashion boutiques, there are many of them lining up outside the Duomo. Like most Italian towns, this Mediterranean gem is best appreciated when you break away from crowds of tourists and see where your camera or you feet takes you. I guarantee that whether the day ends by the ocean or at a table with another Aperol spritz, it will have been a memorable and fun-filled day.

cefalu sicily italy

The Duomo

Sadly, we reached the Duomo pretty late and it was closed. We were still able to find some history about the Duomo of Cefalu. In 1131, Roger II, the King of Sicily was caught in a sea storm, which ended with a terrible shipwreck. He promised that if he was spared, he would build a grand cathedral to honor the Holy Savior. He survived fortunately for the world. Sir Roger, fulfilling his vow, began the construction of this magnificent church in the same year. Unfortunately, he died in 1154, so he was not able to see the Cathedral of Cefalu completed. Even though the above account is backed by legend, many argue that constructing a church so far from Palermo was simply a strategic move to prove his power across the island. On our way back to the capital, we were charmed by many such stories from a local guide we hired.

Goodbye Cefalu, until the next time! 

Local Italians often say that you will not fully understand Italy until you’ve been to Sicily. Sicily is the microcosm of the many different cultures that make up modern-day Italy. We are very grateful to have witnessed some of this diversity. I know you’ll cherish the traditional Sicilian fare very soon.

 

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3 Days in Sicily: Palermo and Beyond
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3 Days in Sicily: Palermo and Beyond
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Palermo is a cultural mecca and a foodie’s paradise. It is that simple, and that was all we needed. We had the entire day to explore the hidden treasures, from the Rococo chapels to the Byzantine mosaics to the Arab-Norman heritage
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European Travel Blog
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