Travel: Bella Italia

The Sicilian city of Palermo still sizzles in the low season, and with the strong loonie this Mediterranean island capital makes an offer you can’t refuse.



From the November 2012 issue of the magazine.


With winter creeping up on us like a pantomime ghost, a dolce vita escape to southern Italy is as tempting as a Vespa ride on a sun-baked coastal road. Far from summer’s maddening crowds, Sicily—think white-sand beaches, animated street markets and the romantic grandeur of ancient palaces—is especially seductive, and not just because the euro is currently flatter than a steamrollered pizza.

But before topping up your tan on the Mediterranean’s largest island—where seasonal temperatures average 20°C—you’ll need to find flights without a Ferrari price tag. Mid-November’s Alitalia services from Toronto to Palermo (via Rome) start at $1,020 return (taxes included) on Alternatively, fly Air Canada to Rome ($1,218) for your main destination and take a weekend side jaunt to Palermo (70-minute EasyJet flights start from $58 return).

Train buffs may prefer a longer jaunt: from Rome’s Termini station, the unique 11-hour boat-train to Palermo Centrale trundles right on to the ferry before winding east though the island’s farm-studded olive groves (seat from $48 return; sleeper cabin from $123 return;

The Sicilian capital, Palermo is a portside cornucopia of antique architecture and Baroque palazzi wrapped in a bustling, traffic-crazed city. If you’re flying, avoid the rip-off $60 taxi fare from the airport to downtown and take a 40-minute Prestia e Comandè shuttle bus instead ($8 each way;

Aim for an old-town sleepover near the Quattro Canti intersection and you’ll soon be nosing around labyrinthine cobbled side streets. Budget-wise, unpack at charming Bed and Breakfast Novocento (doubles from $63) or the more contemporary B&B Serpotta ($75). Good mid-rangers include San Francesco B&B ($113) and Hotel Palazzo Sitano ($109).

Once settled in Palermo, stroll to must-see freebies like the gigantic Fontana Pretoria fountain and the jaw-dropping Arab-influenced medieval cathedral. And if you only have time for one market, hit the renowned Mercato di Ballarò. But don’t hire a car—Palermitans treat driving as a contact sport and hotels charge up to $25 for overnight parking. Just go local on the city’s vast transit system.

A $4.50 day pass (purchased from tobacconist shops) offers a surfeit of budget-friendly excursions: hop on bus 327 for the macabre Catacombe dei Cappuccini; bus 806 for medieval seaside town Mondello; or bus 157 for a scenic 90-minute trundle to Corleone. Sicily is the mafia’s historic home and while this spot gave its name to the The Godfather family, a visit to the town’s Museo Anti-Mafia is a sobering reminder of “the family’s” bloodthirsty existence.

Cheer yourself up by returning downtown. November’s Festival di Morgana is a three-week-long celebration of entrancing marionette performances (tickets from $19; While artists of a different kind—no strings attached—perform for the city’s Serie A soccer team. Avoid scalpers and dodgy websites by buying direct from Stadio Renzo Barbera’s box office a few days before the game (tickets from $25).
After all that action, join bacchanalian locals for a penny-wise street food crawl—don’t miss the near-legendary chickpea patties and deep-fried fish snacks at the sprawling Vucciria area market. Then, loosen your belt and check out the vendors at Piazza Caracciolo for grilled sausages and toasted nougat.

If you’re still hungry, it’s trattoria time. The best joints—where olive-oil-drizzled pasta and fresh seafood dishes are typically under $10—include the good-value Trattoria ai Cascinari and Trattoria Basile. For a perfect pizza alternative, belly up to art-lined Frida Pizzeria. But for a romantic candlelit affair, aim for a long table perch and a lingering late-night dinner at the brick-ceilinged Gagini Restaurant.

End the evening with a glass of sweet Marsala wine—and be sure to toast your shivering, fleece-wrapped friends back home.


Two sample budgets for two

7 days for $5,000

Return Air Canada airfare (TORONTO-ROME): $2,256; return night train cabin (Rome-Palermo): $246

Double room, 6 nights: $750 (Astro Suite Hotel)

Food & drink: $1,500

Attractions & Transport: $158 (includes airport transfers, eight one-day transit passes, two Festival di Morgana shows and two soccer tickets)

7 days for $3,500

Return Alitalia airfare (Toronto-Rome-Palermo): $2,040

double room, 6 nights: $378 (Bed and Breakfast Novocento)

Food & drink: $1,000

Transport: $70 (includes airport transfers and eight one-day transit passes)

Top value dining

Trattoria ai Cascinari

(Via D’Ossuna 43-45)

Trattoria Basile

(Via Bara all’Olivella 76)

Frida Pizzeria


Top value sleepovers

Bed and Breakfast Novocento


San Francesco B&B


B&B Serpotta


Hotel Palazzo Sitano


15 comments on “Travel: Bella Italia

  1. Thanks for a nice article! I spent Christmas in Italy about 5 years ago and although it was cold and very pricey, it was a wonderful trip. I only made it to Venice, Rome, and Florence on that trip, so this reminded me that I really must go back and see more of such a wonderful place. Thanks for the tips on finding good value. Italy is a great place, but it's challenging to stay within your budget.


  2. Thanks for sharing! Spent last summer in Milan and Rome, would like to go back to Italy, so I want to go to Sicily this summer!

    –Even T, –Travel blog


  3. What a great article. If you are planning a vacation to Italy this is exactly the information you are looking for. I like how you break down two different vacation packages at the end with prices. It is actually pretty affordable to take a trip for two. Of course it would cost me a little more here in the states but still doable.


  4. Sicily is an mazing little island we had an mazing holiday there last year. We did go to Corleone, maybe its just me there did seem to be something of a misterious air about the place. I would recomend going but be warned its not as frendly as the rest ofr the island!


  5. What a great article. If you are planning a vacation to Italy this is exactly the information you are looking for.


  6. I always like travelling! Been in so many places and I can't wait to travel to Italy. Thanks for sharing this. Next stop, Italy!


  7. I always like travelling! The overcrowding dosent bother me. The whole region has such history and Greek food is my wife favorite! You have given us some ideas on where to start planning our vacation.


  8. What a great article. If you are planning a vacation to Italy this is exactly the information you are looking for


  9. I love to travel to italy, never been to Bella italy , but will check it out


  10. I really appreciate the content you have here. It's very useful for a beginner like me. I am glad I came across it! Thaks!


  11. What can I say, Italy has it all! Culture,food,beaches,beautiful girls..

    I visit Italy at least once per year


  12. I actually stayed at the Hotel Garibaldi when I visited Palermo last year and I highly recommend it.


  13. an article, even if dated, always very useful and timely!
    I was recently in Palermo and I slept in a bed and breakfast called The Garden of Ballarò, in the historic center of the city. It ‘was a fantastic experience, I love Palermo !!


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