Palermo, Sicily: Italy Fortissimo

Neighborhood markets in Sicily are for more than just shopping. Stop to chat and share the local gossip.
By Rick Steves

It took me seven trips to get down past Italy's "boot." The Sicilians (along with the Irish and except for the street thieves) are the warmest and friendliest Europeans I've met.

Palermo is intense — Italy fortissimo — with lots of purse-snatchers, lousy showers, and grueling heat. It's generally rundown and chaotic, but if you want exotic, urban Italian thrills, Italy's "football" is a kick. The overnight train ride south from Rome or Naples drops you right into this rich culture, which lives in peaceful oblivion to the touristic bustle that takes such a toll on Venice, Florence, and Rome.

One reason Palermo lacks tourist crowds is that it has very few tourist sights, as such. It does have a way of life that, in its own way, offers the tourist more than any monument or museum ever could. Don't tour Palermo — live in it.

Thriving marketplaces abound in nearly every neighborhood. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be a celebrity, go on a photo safari through the urban jungles of Palermo. The warmth and excitement will give you smile wrinkles. Scores of merchants, housewives, and children compete for your attention. Cries of "Photo?" come from all corners as you venture down busy alleys.

Visit a vertical neighborhood. Small apartments stack high above the side streets. If you stop to chat, six floors of balconies will fill up, each with its own waving family. I found a wobbly stack of tenements facing one another, a faded rainbow with lots of laundry and people hanging out. One wave worked wonders. Walking around, craning my neck upward, I felt like a victorious politician among hordes of supporters. They called out for pictures and wouldn't let me go until I had filmed each window and balcony full of people: Mothers held up babies; sisters posed arm-in-arm; a wild pregnant woman stood on a fruit crate, holding her bulging stomach; and an old, wrinkled woman filled her paint-starved window frame with a toothy grin. I was showered with scraps of paper, each with an address on it. A contagious energy filled the air. It hurt to say "ciao."

Palermo has no must-see museum and nothing to compete with Pisa's tipsy tower or Big Ben. Palermo lets you become a temporary Sicilian. That's reason enough to visit.