The creative residents of Sicily’s delightfully unpolished capital have claimed their home town as a hub for art and design – and a haven for anyone looking to soak up the sun and sea.
Palermo is a place where the past remains visible – in the alcoves of palazzos containing candle-lit statues of the Virgin Mary and among farmers in horse-drawn carriages bringing their produce to market. In recent years tourist visits to the Sicilian capital have risen sharply but today, amid the sidewalk cafés, sandy beaches and piazzas, there’s a feeling that – for this season at least – Palermo belongs to the Sicilians again.
Set along a turquoise expanse of the Mediterranean, Mondello is the city’s urban beach and perhaps the most idyllic in Europe: a curving strand between the verdant sugarloaf peaks of Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino. The Antico Stabilimento Balneare, a pastel-hued art nouveau-style beach club, is suspended above the water on stilts and recalls the glamour of this metropolitan seaside playground of the 1890s. Before that the area was swampland and the city itself little more than a fishing village.
“Some things will always remain the same here – the piazza, the sun, the beach,” says Claudio Gulli, curator of the Palazzo Butera museum. “But now we’re in a critical moment that has to produce some new ideas.” The palazzo first opened to the public in 2018, a high point for Palermo: the city was that year’s Italian capital of culture and hosted Manifesta, an itinerant six-month biennial of contemporary art, which attracted more than 200,000 visitors. The once-dilapidated Butera, an 18th-century baroque palazzo overlooking a seafront park, was revitalised as a permanent exhibition space for the impressive art collection of Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi, who privately funded the project with the sale of one of their Gerard Richter paintings. The museum will reopen in September with expanded galleries and new site-specific works by David Tremlett and Anne and Patrick Poirier. “Butera’s project will change the cultural landscape of Palermo,” says Gulli. “It’s part of Palermo’s continually transforming history that every generation has to reinterpret in its own way.”
Travel to Palermo was on the up before lockdown: it rose by nearly 20 per cent between 2016 and 2019, and the number of restaurants increased by more than 50 per cent in the eight years leading to 2019. “Palermo has been experiencing an incredible acceleration in tourism, real estate and interest since 2018” says Francesco Pantaleone, who founded his newly reopened namesake gallery – a reference point for art in Italy – in 2013 and not long ago expanded with a Milan outpost. “But now we’ve had a moment to reflect and to remember that our city can’t thrive on bars and restaurants alone. Once again we’ve understood that artists ought to have a central role in guiding the culture because they are the ones who can give us a genuine sense of vision.”
Palermo is a magnet for creatives seeking the freedom provided by low-cost urban living, with the added benefits of a balmy seaside climate. “Palermo is an outdoor city,” says Emanuela Di Gaetano, who in 2012 founded architecture studio Didea along with three other newly minted architecture graduates. “We have the right weather for it, as well as centuries of this tradition of outdoor markets such as Ballarò and Vucciria, so all our projects have a dialogue between inside and outside.” The studio’s latest restaurant, Sobremesa, brings the outdoors in with a full wall of glass and a palm tree-lined courtyard. “We’re very linked to our traditions here in Sicily but finally there’s been a shift. Among the younger generation there’s a turn towards a more contemporary style.”
eat: Gelateria Al Cassaro: A rare all-female operation in Palermo, this artisanal ice-cream shop serves flavours with fresh ingredients free from thickeners and preservatives.
+ 39 38 0155 2968
eat: Bisso Bistrot: Housed in a former bookshop, Bisso Bistrot is one of a number of lively evening locales concentrated in the city centre and popular with the art crowd.
+ 39 32 8131 4595
eat: Sobremesa: Designed by Palermo-based architecture studio Didea, this minimal restaurant serves exquisitely rendered dishes inspired by local traditions and made using ingredients sourced from small farms in the area.
Piazza Cassa di Risparmio 11
drink: Castigamatti Dischi e Bar: A top line-up of DJs play to a crowd who dance in the streets until late; there’s a record shop and bar inside.
+ 39 38 9437 5366
visit: Palazzo Butera: The contemporary-art collection of Francesco and Massimo Valsecchi is displayed in this groundbreaking institution, which in turn is housed in an 18th-century waterfront palazzo. Don’t miss the sea-view restaurant and Le Cattive wine bar.
visit: Zisa Cantieri Culturali: This sprawling campus of museums, galleries, a cinema and the popular Zac bar is located on a former art nouveau-style industrial park.
Via Paolo Gili 4
visit: Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea: Francesco Pantaleone’s ambitious gallery has two sites: one in the heart of Palermo and another in the Porta Romana neighbourhood of Milan.