The Mafia may — thankfully — no longer be in control, but Sicily’s seductive capital is still obsessed with death.
Whether it’s the corpses in the catacombs, or the torture cells of the Inquisition, the place is packed with reminders that, sooner or later, your number will be up.
For those who find this disturbing, there are also countless incredible churches. And beaches. And ice cream. Go now, while it’s still cheaper than almost anywhere else in Italy.
Where to stay
This warm, family-run B&B is bang in the centre of the old part of town, making it a good base for exploring. It’s a pleasingly crumbly palazzo, built around a central courtyard with laundry strung across: just the kind of place you’ll have been hoping for.
Chiara and Alessio will make you welcome and give you excellent, practical advice. Doubles from £45 (gallidoro.it).
Stanze Al Genio
This will be one of the most beautiful hotels you’ll ever stay in. From the age of 12, the owner began collecting majolica tiles to create a striking boutique museum (£8 for entrance and tour).
His B&B consists of only four rooms — all exquisitely decorated with his tiles — so book well in advance. Doubles from £76 (stanzealgeniobnb.it).
Butera 28 Apartments
These gracefully decorated apartments are in the palazzo that was home to Tomasi di Lampedusa while he was writing The Leopard. Your hosts are the present Duke and Duchess of Palma.
For an extra £135 you can join in a day-long cookery course with the ebullient duchess. It’s hardly cheap, but it’s an unforgettable experience. Apartments from £72 (butera28.it).
This former silver factory retains period details despite its gleaming modern look. It’s also conveniently located not far from the imposing Teatro Massimo.
There are only five rooms, though, so be sure to plan ahead. Doubles from £54 (olivellabb.it).
Where to eat
Palermo’s Arabic history dates back to the 8th century. You can see it in the style and substance of its three main food markets, which resemble Arab souks.
Skip breakfast and take a three-hour ‘street food’ walking tour with an experienced guide (streaty.com). It costs £35 all-included — a downright bargain for a culinary education.
This atmospheric, unpretentious trattoria is housed in a former bookshop on Quattro Canti — the crossroads that marks the centre of Palermo’s old town.
Al dente pasta dishes with a zingy fresh sauce start at around £5, while a carafe of tart house white costs the same. Go early or late: it’s pretty popular. Via Maqueda (039 328 131 4595).
This charming cafe, a stone’s throw from Piazza Marina, is one of those places where it’s hard to tell the staff from the clientele — and when you do get someone’s attention, they appear a little affronted.
But the coffee and the patisseries are excellent, and the garden — a cool corridor beside a crumbling wall — is a haven. Via IV Aprile (039 091 273 3852).
For incomprehensible reasons, the lights in this family-run osteria are glaringly bright. Go for the help-yourself antipasti and the authenticity.
On the way there, take a stroll around Piazza Pretoria — also known as the Piazza of Shame because of the nudity of the figures around the central fountain. Via Venezia (039 091 334714).
The waiters are a bit snooty in this upmarket restaurant, but the food is excellent. Once I’d negotiated the Bible-sized menu, I went for smoked piglet (£14) and didn’t regret it. A street food selection as a starter includes the Palermo speciality panelle and costs £11. Via Calascibetta (039 091 326488).
What to see and do
A friend of mine declared that Palermo’s sprawling cathedral ‘makes Westminster Abbey look like a porter’s lodge’. He had a point, but I prefer the rival cathedral at nearby Monreale.
Hire a moped from sicilymotorent.it (from £35 per day) and escape to marvel at the glowing gold mosaics, and gaze back loftily at the city.
Interrogate the Inquisition
The Palazzo Chiaramonte (entrance £11) houses two secrets. The first is the 12 cells where the Inquisition tortured heretics, who responded by painting the walls with delicate murals, using their bodily fluids as paint.
The second is Renato Guttuso’s 1974 painting La Vucciria: a fascinating market scene and a symbol of the city. Piazza Marina (039 091 2389 3788).
Look death in the eye
You need a strong stomach for this one. The Capuchin Monastery catacombs (entrance £2.70) are crammed with the corpses of monks and local luminaries, their mouths gaping as if in horror at their own mortality. So far, so Indiana Jones.
But the tiny cadavers of infants also interred there may not be to everyone’s taste. Piazza Cappuccini (039 091 652 7389).
Hit the beach
Still got that moped? Head to nearby Mondello beach for sun and sea air. The rearing wall of rock that is Monte Pellegrino provides a spectacular backdrop for your bronzing.
And on the way home, stop at Gelateria La Vela for a brioscia con gelato — essentially an ice cream sandwich. It ought to be illegal. Gelateria La Vela, Piazza Bordonaro (039 091 361860).
Lose yourself in stucco
You’ll never have seen a church like the Oratorio di Santa Cita (entrance £3.60), which was built to celebrate the naval victory at Lepanto.
A century later, its interior was covered with intricate stucco work by the sculptor Giacomo Serpotta. The effect is like walking into one of Palermo’s infamous cream patisseries — irresistible and oddly soothing. Via Valverde (039 091 785 3181).