Second in our online series of Discovering Sicily, we bring you the perfect itinerary for exploring all the beauty hidden in Sicily’s West Coast.
Similarly to our East Coast Sicily itinerary that’s filled with unforgettable places, a trip to West Coast Sicily is one that you will also likely never forget.
Our itinerary begins in Palermo, a place that will stir up and indulge all your senses. After the buzzing city, the charming and quiet medieval town of Cèfalu is the perfect relaxing stop.
Then in search of Sicily’s most beautiful beaches, one must take the road only traveled by foot and visit Zingaro Nature Reserve, and last but not least the grand finale of Sicily’s West coast must include lots of delicious local wine and a relaxed pace, hence visiting Marsala last.
Now, let’s beging our adventure!
Palermo — Colorful and vibrant capital of Sicily
Palermo is the colorful and vibrant capital of Sicily. A city that’s been a big melting pot of cultures and nationalities over the past centuries; a place that will welcome you with colors, scents, flavors and sounds that overload your senses with a wonderous spirit.
Palermo is sometimes wild and rough around the edges, and it undeniably lives by its own rules, so your visit will feel entirely like an adventure of the most exciting kind. You’ll find that Palermo is anything but the stereotypical tourist city with manicured alleyways and expensive souvenir shops, it retains its own authentic rebellious identity – thankfully so.
Palermo’s personality is like a kaleidoscope, casting endless different and mesmerizing images and patterns for the viewer, depending from which angle you look at it.
This multi-faceted beauty stems from Palermo’s history of being conquered by dominating empires with remarkable frequency.
There was no shortage of invaders over the centuries, including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French, and the Bourbons just to name the most influential. Each making a mark with its own culture and inevitably weaving the complex fabric of Palermo’s society.
To experience Palermo, you need to adapt the Sicilian spirit of roaming freely. There is no right spot to start your journey of discovery, start walking and you’ll soon bump into treasures all around you. But to help you — here is the list of things you shouldn’t miss!
The markets of Palermo
Probably the most sensory experiences of Palermo take place at its markets. You’ll be greeted by the vivid colors or fresh fruits and vegetables, choreographed with unintended perfection on vendors’ stalls.
The aroma and perfume of ripe fruit lingers in the air, you can almost taste their sweetness just from breathing it in. All the while vendors shout in their baritone voice, competing for anyone’s but at the same time no one’s attention. It’s the symphony of the Sicilian markets.
Palermo has four main Arabic-heritage street markets, each with its own uniqueness but all carry the same influence of the Arabic souks with their narrow labyrinthine streets, the exotic array of food on display.
The Ballarò is probably the oldest of Palermo’s Arabic markets. You’ll find it abundant with vendors, amazing street food and tucked away trattorias.
The Capo market is another vibrant Arabic market that will lure you in with its colors and scents and noises. No matter which market you choose to visit, or stumble upon, you must sample its produce and try the abundant street-food it offers.One of Palermo’s specialty is panelle, delicious chickpea fritters that can be eaten on their own with some salt and lemon juice, or as a sandwich with some bread and cheese.
The adventurous food lovers should try local delicacies like pani ca’ meuza, bread with veal spleen or stigghiola, grilled skewers of onion and veal intestines. To finish the meal, one should try cassata, a rich sponge cake moistened with fruit juices & liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruits.
Quattro Canti — The heart of Palermo
Quattro Canti is a breathtaking Baroque square laid out at the converging of the two principal streets in Palermo, the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
The piazza is flanked by four, inward-facing, near-identical facades. Each facade comprising of three tiers – the first tear representing the four seasons; the second tier dedicated to the four Spanish kings of Sicily; and the third tier depicting the female patrons of Palermo.
It’s an absolutely beautiful sight and one must not miss it.
Piazza Pretoria and Fontana Pretoria
Steps away from Quattro Canti, you’ll find Piazza Pretoria, home not only to a stunning fountain, but also to several other buildings including the City Hall, the florid baroque Chiesa di Santa Caterina and the 16th century aristocratic Palazzo Bonocore.
Fontana Pretoria depicts the Twelve Olympians (including Bacchus, Mercury, Apollo, Venus and Diana), other mythological figures, animals and the rivers of Palermo. It’s a gorgeous sight, especially viewed from above – which you’re able to do from the rooftop of neighboring Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria.
Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and Chiesa del Gesù
The church itself is incredibly beautiful, a synthesis of Sicilian Baroque, Rococo and Renaissance styles and worth the awe-inspiring visit. You can also tour the rooftop which provides breathtaking views of the city and the fountain below. Another absolutely stunning piece of religious architecture is a stone-throw away — it is Chiesa del Gesù.
A voluminous Baroque masterpiece built by the Jesuits over an initial period of 14 years, between 1564 and 1578. The church served as a model for innumerable Jesuit churches all over the world, especially in the Americas.
Another sumptuous interior can be found at Palazzo Gangi. The palazzo was the ancestral home first of the Princes Valguarnera and then of the Princes Gangi. Unlike many palazzos of Palermo, Palazzo Gangi survived the neglect and bombings of 1943 and it retained its baroque architectural structure and interiors almost untouched, including the furnishings that are the finest examples of Sicilian craftsmanship.
In 1963 the palazzo, and most memorably its ballroom, were the setting for Luchino Visconti’s iconic film’ Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).
To visit Palazzo Gangi, contact us and we can organize a private tour for you.
Palermo Arab-Norman Architecture
In 2015, Palermo’s nine Arab-Norman style buildings and cathedrals were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. These stunning buildings are «an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures. This interchange gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on novel concepts of space, structure, and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region… “
One of the most stunning examples of this style is the Palermo Cathedral. You cannot miss the imposing building and its cupola that presides over the Palermo skyline. The architecture of the cathedral is the perfect example of Palermo’s long history of conquering empires – the foundation of the church began as a Byzantine basilica and was later turned into a mosque by the Saracens after their conquest of the city in the 9th century.
The bell tower was a medieval addition, and the Catalan Gothic porch records Sicily’s Spanish domination, while the cupolas bring us up to the Baroque age. The spaces around the cathedral, including the piazza in front, meanwhile, are crowded with statues, an exhaustive repertoire of saints.
Worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage title, the cathedral is worth a visit. You can sit on the piazza in front and take in the magnificent architecture while enjoying a gelato or espresso. One of our favorite recommendations is to take the rooftop tour of the cathedral. You get to marvel the cupola up-close and take in the bird’s eye view of Palermo from above.
Palazzo dei Normammi and Teatro Massimo
From the cathedral, continue up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past the splendid Piazza Vittoria (with its high-rise collection of palm trees), under the 16th century Porta Nuova (built to commemorate the visit of Charles V), and on to Piazza Indipendenza, home of the Palazzo dei Normanni – the Norman Palance. The palace has been the seat of Sicilian Kings and rulers since the Arabs built a castle there in the 9th century, and currently home to Sicily’s regional parliament
It’s hard to count how many more beautiful places you should visit while in Palermo, so we leave it up to your sight-seeing appetite. We would however encourage you to stop by Teatro Massimo.
Teatro Massimo is the third largest opera house in Europe, many of the opera world’s most famous stars performed here- including Gigli, Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Pavarotti.
The theatre is open to the public for guided tours and we recommend a visit to admire its wonderful Liberty style frescoes, its elegant salons, and, most importantly, the sumptuously decorated arena itself.
To one side of its impressive steps, under the gaze of a brass lion, is the theatre’s al fresco café, the perfect spot to enjoy a drink while watching the world go by.
We also love La Kalsa — one of Palermo’s most ancient quarters. It takes its name from the Arabic Khalisa, meaning pure, and was the main commercial center when the city was under Arab dominion. Take a stroll around and we guarantee there is no shortage of beauty to find.
Cèfalu — The energy that recharges your soul
Just one hour’s drive east of Palermo, sitting serenely between its natural bay and the towering rocky granite mass of La Rocca, is Cefalù. It’s a small town but contains an incredible amount of quiet energy that recharges your soul.
In Cèfalu, you’ll instantly take on the slower pace and romantic atmosphere of Sicily. With its sandy beaches, narrow charming Medieval streets and fantastic restaurants it’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway or a family vacation.
After a day spent sunbathing and working on your Mediterranean tan, you can grab an aperitivo at the main square in front of the Cèfalu Cathedral sitting on the cushioned stairs of Medieval buildings, watching the world go by at slow motion.
If you’re the active type making the ascent of La Rocca can present the perfect challenge (especially in the hot summer months) but is an absolute must: the views are spectacular and you can also marvel at the walls of the old Saracen stronghold and the remains of a Temple of Diana.
Directly south of Cefalù is the wonderful Madonie National Park with its charming villages and towns, such as Castelbuono, its delightful scenery, its impressive mountains and some wonderful walking. If you make it to Castelbuono, make sure to stop by the famous Fiasconaro pastry shop
and try their delicious biscuits and panettone, which are also made for Dolce & Gabbana.
Zingaro Nature Reserve — Hiking and spectacular beaches
After a relaxing few days in Cèfalu, it’s time to head west of Palermo. Here the coastline becomes rugged, rocky and, in places, spectacular. The relentless power or the sea shaped the coastline into dramatic coves and towering stacks of limestone, which will surely take your breath away.
One of our favorite and cherished places is Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve, created in 1981. Stretching along the coast — 7km of protected beaches welcome the adventurous visitor.
To enter, one can do so from two points — from the village of Scopello by the south entrance, or the village of San Vito Lo Capo by the north entrance.
These two points are connected by trails that can only be done on foot, hence if you decide to visit you must prepare to bring comfortable shoes and lots of water & food with you.
It may seem like a lot of work but we can assure you, Zingaro is worth every second of preparation. This nature reserve is undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of western Sicily and its beaches are as gorgeous as you’ll find anywhere in the Mediterranean.
Cliffs drop into the azure sea, mountainsides rise steeply up to heights of 1,000m, and coves turquoise coves dote the trails like brilliant sapphire jewels on a necklace.
Marsala — Wine and Salt experience
Last, but not least we arrive to Marsala to close our West Coast Sicily journey with some indulgence and quiet reflection.
Marsala is most famous for its wine, the sweet nectar from grapes nurtured by the warmth of Sicilian sun and spiced by the constant winds from Africa.
There is no shortage of excellent wineries to visit in this region, and perhaps ship home a few crates of the nectar of Gods.
One of our favorite wineries is Donnafugata, a testament to their excellence is the fact that Dolce & Gabbana chose them to make their D&G rosé. Another prestigious and loved winery in the region is Cantine Florio.
If you’re looking for a wine tasting with a view, visit Cantine Fina. Sipping wine on its grand balcony overlooking the Marsala landscape melting into the sea can be a special sunset activity.
Marsala is also special in our hearts because it’s home to an ancient and yet still practiced trade – salt making.
For centuries people have been harvesting the perfect conditions Marsala’s position has to offer – the hot African winds, long, sun-drenched summer days and shallow coastal waters – which are the perfect recipe for salt-making. You can witness this 3000-year-old trade yourself, by visiting the salt pans at Mozia, just outside of Marsala.
Although the windmills are no longer operational, everything else is still done by hand.
The saltwater from the sea is trapped and walled off into the salt basins, where the sun can take its effect and evaporate the water, leaving the salt crystals behind.
The process takes months and careful attention from the salt workers who rake and move the salt crystals by hand. The salt cycle begins in May and concludes through September. You can visit all year around and watch the dazzling sunsets over the pink salt pans.
As for the culinary adventures, Marsala has its own local dishes that one must try – one of our favorite Sicilian pasta, the busiate, is made here.
It’s a delightful curly pasta, most famously served with basil pesto accented by almonds and tomatoes.
Another dish typical to the west side of Sicily is fish cous-cous, which is an example of African influence on Sicily’s culture.
And to satisfy your sweet tooth, you must try cassatelle, a mouth-watering pastry filled with ricotta cheese, cinnamon and chocolate chips. Marsala wine is used in the dough of the cassatelle, making it special.
It is hard for us to stop here as there are so many more incredible places that we could add to the itinerary of Western Sicily. To name a few – Erice, Monreale, Segesta, Scopello, San Vito Lo Capo and of course the Egadi Islands and Pantelleria – all absolute gems of the western coast.
If we inspired you to visit Sicily, let us craft your Sicilian story and share the magic of this island with you on your next trip.
We’re specialized in finding the most enchanting accommodation for your stay, organizing authentic Sicilian experiences, covering your transportation needs and everything you may need so all you have to worry about is soaking the Sicilian dolce vita all in and contact us.