Let’s get one thing clear straight off the bat: Palermo is intensely beautiful, but it is also dirty, chaotic in the extreme, and seems from an American viewpoint run-down and dangerous. If you are not willing to look past crumbling buildings, dirty and dark, trash strewn alleyways, noise, and drama, Palermo is not for you. For example:
If you want lovely, bucolic peacefulness, go back to Tuscany. Palermo is Naples turned up to 11, and god knows Naples is too much for a lot of people. But for all the grime and traffic and sheer lunacy, the city feels honest and has spectacular things to show.
Thankfully, if you’re staying in the old city there’s no need to try to use public transit (generally I would say you shouldn’t even bother), because a ton of the major sights are in close walking distance to each other.
Whether that’s Fontana della Vergogna (the Fountain of Shame, aka Fontana Pretoria), Quattro Canti, the Cathedral, or the Norman Palace with the Palatine Chapel, all of these things are easy to wander around to in the space of a day. There weren’t any lines to get in at the Cathedral (when was that ever true for St Peter’s or the Florentine Duomo?) or the Norman Palace, and they were all truly stunning.
People tend to want their Italian vacations to be perfect fantasies, where all the sights are gorgeous, all the food is delicious, and all the locals are friendly. That’s not real. That does not exist. There are heat and mosquitos, scam artists and poverty, crap food and long lines, garbage and graffiti. But guess what, that’s what Italy is. In addition to the astonishing beauty, there are all the real problems that exist everywhere in the world. I genuinely love how Palermo hasn’t been scrubbed up to show off. It’s raw and beautiful and glorious.