If you haven’t missed even one of our articles, you’ll already know that Palermo is a many-faceted city with a wealth of delicious food options and arts. But if the urge to escape the urban buzz is irresistible, then this is the article for you: keep reading if you want to plan a trip to explore the unmissable towns and villages around Palermo!
The very first place that springs to mind is Monreale, the famous town and comune just 10km outside of Palermo, overlooking the entire Conca d’Oro (golden shell) valley from 300m asl. Monreale is practically an extension of Palermo and the 389 bus will take you there from Piazza Indipendenza, or it’s just a 30-minute drive by car.
Its highlight is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova, known locally as the Duomo, a fine example of Arab-Norman architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the sites between Palermo and Cefalù.
Its wonderful architecture and its 6,000m2 of Byzantine mosaics depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, all around the perimeter of the building, are worth the trip alone, but there’s also a beautiful cloister with a garden to further embellish one of the best preserved medieval monastery complexes in the world.
Once there, you’ll find two other gems not to be missed: the view of Palermo and the Conca d’Oro plain from the breath-taking viewpoint by the Palazzo del Municipio, and tasting the legendary Monreale bread, which we are still waiting to be added to the World Heritage List!
Oh yes! You already heard about this charming coastal town, the “gateway” to the Madonie Park, when we told you about the unmissable beaches around Palermo!
You can get there by train from Palermo Central Station or by car on the E90 in around 50 minutes. Cefalù is not just about the sea and delicious seafood: to get a full picture of the Arab-Norman sites in and around Palermo, you just must visit its Duomo, which dominates a charming square with its two towers. Another fascinating place to visit is the Mandralisca Museum, which houses artworks and archaeological finds belonging to the private collection of Baron Enrico Pirajno.
If hiking is your thing, then a nice walk on the Rocca (rock) overlooking the town is a must: you’ll enjoy stunning views from there and pass the remains of the Temple of Diana, reaching the top around a couple of hours later, with the ruins of the Castle.
In my view, the two unmissable sights in Cefalù are the Medieval Wash House and Porta Pescara. Whilst the Wash House will immerse you in the everyday life of times past, Porta Pescara, with its gothic arch and views of the bay, will give you that truly instagrammable photo!
Because of its amazing reputation, anyone staying in Palermo usually plans a day trip to Cefalù at the very least. You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?
THE VILLAGES IN THE PARCO DELLE MADONIE
We’re staying within the wonderful area of the Madonie UNESCO Global Geopark, where charming villages emerge like mushrooms: from Gangi, the Most Beautiful Village in Italy in 2014, to famous Castelbuono, and on to Polizzi Generosa, Petralia Sottana and Soprana.
Here you can combine art, nature, sport and fine food. My favourite two villages are: Pollina and Geraci Siculo.
This village is often overlooked but is well worth your time, standing on a rock 750 metres high, from where you can enjoy the stunning views of the bay of Finale di Pollina and the Aeolian Islands. The network of paved streets going up and down will take you to the Torre Maurolico, surviving from the Ventimiglia Castle. In 1979, the Teatro Pietra Rosa was built at its foot, emulating Greek architecture, with amazing views of the Madonie mountains.
Lose yourself among the delightful little alleyways, until you reach the Chiesa Madre (main church) and don’t forget to pop into the Manna Museum, to find out more about a precious product (the sap from the ash tree) from this wonderful area.
Ready for a challenge? Did you know that just 30km from Pollina, in the area of San Mauro Castelverde, is a Zipline 1600m long and 300m high, which can take you to 130km/h in just two minutes? If you’re up for extreme experiences, then you really can’t miss this one!
In 2021 it just missed out on the title, taking third place in the list of Most Beautiful Villages in Italy, helped by the reputation gained from the Ventimiglia Joust, a tournament held on horseback, usually in August.
Put on your comfy shoes for a walk from the ruins of Ventimiglia Castle to the Chapel of Sant’Anna, and on to the Bevaio della SS. Trinità (an ancient drinking trough) and the Church of Santo Stefano with its colourful belltower. Also of interest is the MUSeBarch, a museum that tells the story of the Madonie region.
Be sure to visit the Salto dei Ventimiglia, a panoramic viewpoint made from glass and steel, which juts out three metres over a cliff from a wall of rock: it will give you the sensation of stepping into the void, whilst surrounded by a view stretching from the Nebrodi mountains as far as Mount Etna.
To keep the thrills going, also treat yourself to a day at the Madonie Adventure Park just 20 minutes from Geraci Siculo.
SANT’ELIA and BORGO PARRINI
Here are two gems that are now fully entitled to be considered among the most iconic places, thanks to their visibility on social media: Sant’Elia and Borgo Parrini.
Just 27km outside of Palermo, you’ll find Sant’Elia, not much more than a cluster of houses overlooking the sea.
A meander along the shore will lead you to the famous inlet and you can also reach the overhanging rock where there’s a shrine dedicated to the Madonna, known as the “Madonnina”, a stunning viewpoint overlooking the small bay. A short walk from the small centre is the charming Cape Zafferano, the fishing village of Aspra, in Bagheria, and the famous Spiaggia dei Francesi beach.
Borgo Parrini, meanwhile, is a small rural town in the area of Partinico, around 50km from Palermo.
Visitors are enchanted by a row of houses and a small church, restored to their original splendour thanks to the work of a local entrepreneur, imitating the style of Gaudí and Greek, Sicilian, Portuguese and Arab traditions, with a series of majolica tiles and murals, where blue and yellow alternate with messages of hope and love. Join the queue for a photo in front of the Frida Kahlo murals!
There are plenty of pizzerias in the village and agriturismo farms in the surrounding countryside to finish off your walk with some nice food.
TOWNS IN THE PROVINCE OF TRAPANI: ERICE
Let’s move on to the province of Trapani, reaching the top of Mount San Giuliano, to explore a medieval town with its own unique and authentic charm. It’s around 115km from Palermo and can be reached by car, perhaps combined with the panoramic funicular from Trapani.
Erice is a warren of alleyways and small squares, with an almost fairytale atmosphere, and even more so when enveloped by its characteristic fog. To finish off, you can enjoy the picture postcard view of the Aegadian Islands and Trapani from its height of 750 metres. Starting from Porta Trapani, you’ll immediately come across the charming Duomo, with its beautiful “lacework” on the ceiling, then climb the 108 steps of the Torre di Re Federico for an amazing view from the top!
Now you can truly lose yourself in the city of a hundred churches! There aren’t really a hundred, but you’ll see one on every corner as you make your way to the Castello di Venere and the Balio Gardens above. Then go down to the Piazza della Loggia and the Cordici Museum. All the time taking in the charms of the countless artisan workshops: carpets, ceramics and coral artefacts will colour your stroll with hues of red, yellow, blue and green.
But Erice is not just about places, views and wonderful medieval buildings: it’s also steeped in legend and tradition, brought to life by characters who have made, and continue to make, its history. Of all these, I can’t fail to mention Maria Grammatico, who has now become the queen of almond paste. Her patisserie on via Vittorio Emanuele is almost a place of pilgrimage for treating yourself to perfection at the end of the day, after a good couscous or some excellent ‘busiate’ (local pasta) with pesto alla trapanese!
It’s been so hard to choose and you could go on forever, but I’m now confident I’ve aroused your curiosity and made you want to explore the unmissable towns and villages around Palermo!