Nestled in La Conca d’Oro (the golden shell) and roughly embraced by Monte Pellegrino and Capo Zafferano, Palermo was declared “the most beautifully situated town in the world” by Oscar Wilde – rightly, in many people’s eyes. Invaded by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Spaniards, the Arabs to the Allies, Sicily’s western metropolis bears the scars of these conquerors well, even if for every baroque palace or golden mosaic there is an unreconstructed second world war ruin and parts of the historical centre are still considered slums.
Palermo may not be the natural choice for first-time visitors to Italy, yet its dark complexities have attracted artists and writers for centuries: Wagner wrote Parsifal here, and until a few years ago Jenny Saville operated from a studio in a crumbling 18th-century palazzo. Over a typically Palermitano breakfast of brioche and coffee granita, the young art dealer Francesco Pantaleone tells me: “Palermo is on a precipice; it is now time for the city and its people to rebuild their dignity and identity.” His FPAC gallery at the fabulously baroque Quattro Canti crossroads has put Palermo on the international contemporary art circuit. Pantaleone was born here; his love of art led him first to Rome and then on to Gagosian in New York, before he launched his first space in 2003 in the bombed-out, graffiti-strewn Piazza Garraffello in the heart of the old Vucciria market. Since opening, the artists he has shown include Julieta Aranda, Per Barclay and Liliana Moro, and a portrait of him by Juergen Teller hangs in the office.
Pantaleone may specialise in fine art, but as we chat we agree on one point: to really understand this intoxicating city you first need to get to grips with the food scene. Until quite recently, visitors were hard-pressed to eat as well as they would on the mainland (Sicilians still firmly believe that the best food is the food a casa, prepared by Mamma). But this is changing: smart restaurant arrivals include Gagini, housed in a former sculptor’s studio in the Vucciria, and Ristorante Ferro, with its cool, minimalist, box-like interior. Both places offer a clever, contemporary twist on classic Sicilian staples.
Ristorante Sant’Andrea, on the other hand, is a stalwart; Peter Robb wrote most of his acclaimed Midnight in Sicily at a wooden table here. Its owners, the Bisso family, were forced to close recently after Mafia intimidation; but now, still proudly anti pizzo (no bribes), they have reopened as Bisso Bistrot in the landmark bookshop Libreria Dante, across the street from the FPAC gallery. Open all day, the delicate interiors by renowned artist Salvatore Gregorietti make it an ideal pit stop for sightseeing at the nearby Martorana chapel and Duomo, or enjoying an aperitivo before an opera at the Teatro Massimo. Just a few streets away and designed by Palermo-born architect Ernesto Basile, the Massimo is one of the largest opera houses in Europe and certainly the most impressive.
Along with Paris and Vienna, Palermo was one of the shining lights of the art nouveau period. To see this style at its best, take a taxi out of town in the early evening for a negroni on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea. Like many of the grand hotels in the city, the Igiea has seen better times, but recently renovated bedrooms and improved service ensure that it is still one of the most luxe places to sleep. But for really sumptuous accommodation, those in the know book Villa Tasca, a private house surrounded by lush gardens and now available to rent exclusively or on a bed-and-breakfast basis. I enjoy a lunch of sea urchins and raw fish on the seafront with its owner, Giuseppe Tasca of the wine-making dynasty Tasca d’Almerita, who tells me: “The Palermitani are social animals and love to share. Despite their numerous setbacks over the centuries, they have an unbridled optimism and immense zest for life and knowledge.” This is perfectly showcased later the same day at Enoteca Vino Veritas, a chic café-cum‑wine shop where Palermo’s great and good congregate each evening. Located off the smart Via della Libertà, its atmosphere buzzes as friends and families gossip around the oyster bar, and owner-chef Giuseppe Liscandrello dashes in and out of the kitchen with plates of fresh taglierini and advises guests unerringly on what to drink.
Well-to-do locals tend to live in the area around Via della Libertà, just beyond the city’s second theatre, Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, home to the Sicilian Symphonic Orchestra. The neighbourhood’s long, tree-lined boulevards and designer flagships are a world away from the dark alleys of nearby Vucciria and Capo, but it too has some offbeat and original finds tucked behind the grand façades. Antichità Athena is a classic example – owner Stefano Tortorici specialises in old Sicilian maiolica and coral, and his collection includes an exquisite Trapanese nativity carved from coral and ivory. Nearby, tucked away in a small courtyard behind Via Roma, is the Rizzo shoe and vinyl emporium. Operating since 1945, the shoes – including classic 1950s driving shoes in the softest suede and smart laceless brogues – are still made to order in local workshops.
Further down is Vuedu, all polished-concrete floors and cool grey interiors. Owner Daniela Vinciguerra buys mainly from Italian designers, as well as stocking her own Margaret Howell-esque fashion line. Describing her shop as a “factory” that supports young designers from Palermo, she has opened a gallery at the back of the store to showcase artists, local photographers and, most recently, cult bicycle maker Lombardo, based in nearby Trapani.
To have a real sense of the old Palermo, a walk through the Kalsa district towards the seafront and harbour is a must. For years a more-or-less no-go area, it is finally regaining its dignity. Here, Palazzo Abatellis, recognised as one of the most impressive galleries in Europe, this year celebrates its 61st anniversary as the National Gallery of Sicily; Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to design it in 1953, and even the benches are his work. And set back from the street, through a crumbling baroque courtyard, is the enchanting Teatro Ditirammu, which offers performances of traditional songs and dances that are a joy for adults and children alike. Founders Vito Parrinello and Rosa Mistretta have also opened a tiny shop opposite Palazzo Abatellis, selling hand-painted flags, posters and icons of the city’s patron, Santa Rosalia.
“When I first moved here from Venice, the street outside our palazzo was still a bombsite and the baker operated from a hole in the wall of his house,” says Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi. She lives in Kalsa with her musicologist husband Gioacchino, more widely known as the adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose masterpiece The Leopard is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and the definitive portrait of a waning Sicilian aristocracy. Nicoletta now rents out the charming Butera28 apartments in her palazzo and runs popular culinary classes, with shopping trips to Capo market and lunch in her magnificent home. She counsels me to dine at L’Ottava Nota, opposite the entrance to the palazzo; it’s full of Claudia Cardinale lookalikes and serves a paccheri con peperoncini verdi e alici fresche so delicious that it was nominated to represent Sicily at the Expo in Milan.
Also new and appealing is the restaurant at Palazzo Branciforte, which popped up in the courtyard after the building’s restoration in 2012 by Gae Aulenti. Up until the early 1980s, the palace was famously the pawn shop for Palermitani who had reached the desperate stage of selling “non-expensive items” (jewels were pawned elsewhere). In parts, the vast interior of the now cultural centre resembles a scene from Harry Potter: scaffolding, made entirely of wood, was erected when the second and third floors collapsed during the revolts of 1848, but like so many things in Palermo, the floors were never restored and the scaffolding has remained. Today, the play of light and shadow in such a unique space is an unforgettable sight.
High above the traffic of Via Roma, the Obikà bar on the top-floor terrace of the Rinascente department store makes for a soothing escape, and is a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the variety of influences on the city’s skyline. The baroque façade of the church of San Domenico seems close enough to touch, yet only a few hundred yards away is the colossal post office, a modernist masterpiece by fascist architect Angiolo Mazzoni; in another direction, there are the medieval Moorish domes of La Martorana. Palermo’s centuries of conquest have, improbably, left it one of the most enduringly fascinating cities in Italy.