Pandemonium in Palermo, Sicily

I had a mixed experience visiting Sicily recently, a wonderful place full of spectacular scenery, delicious wine and kind hearted people.  The rolling green hills that form the heart of the island give way to a rugged coastline, full of white sandy beaches and wave-blasted rocky inclines, lashed by turquoise blue water. However, Palermo was another story.

Sicily's Rolling Hills by Giampaolo Macorig

Sicily’s Rolling Hills by Giampaolo Macorig

The Sicilian landscape was certainly impressive and full of character. Peering over a low wall into a traditional Sicilian farm is one of my very best memories. Olive groves stretched out as far as the eye could see, next to a crumbling farmhouse immersed in a sea of poppies. A blood red tractor sat idle under the baking sun, while the silhouettes of tall palm trees manifested themselves on the horizon.

Rural Sicily was very appealing, yet I was keen to delve into the island’s urban side in order to experience its much-renowned gastronomy and rich history. Where better to start than Palermo, Sicily’s 2,700 year-old capital. Most people have heard of this city, a bustling metropolis of roughly 1.2 million people. I was even keener to visit when I read about Palermo’s inclusion in a photographic exhibition in London’s Frith Street Gallery. “A historic centre; an amalgam of ruin and renovation; working class communities and markets; alleyways and quaysides”. That description sounded alluring. Would Palermo measure up to it?

Palermo Panorama - Wikipedia

Palermo Panorama – Wikipedia

I arrived in the city’s main bus station and disembarked into the sweltering heat. Standing in the shade of a faceless concrete water tower, I quickly found myself disorientated. There was not a single sign in sight indicating the direction of the exit, let alone the city centre. I immediately had a sinking feeling.

Crazy traffic and no sidewalks in Palermo

Crazy traffic and no sidewalks in Palermo

I read somewhere that Palermo is not a place for the faint-hearted. The pace of life in Sicily’s largest city is hectic, to say the least. Thronged boulevards criss-cross the entire central district, packed full of honking cars, trucks and whining mopeds. Finally emerging from the bus station, I was greeted by a small square and roundabout, full of swirling traffic. It was not long until I was dicing with death. Italians are internationally renowned for their erratic driving and Palermo seemed to be home to the very worst of them.

I finally managed to make my way across the roundabout onto one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Via Roma. This street certainly had promise at first, with a distinct Parisian vibe. The buildings had grand facades, while elegant trees provided a welcome splash of green at various intervals along the sidewalk. Unfortunately, once more the street was choked with loud traffic.

Even though Via Roma initially seemed pleasant in some ways, it grew more decrepit by the second. Above those green trees, the facades were black with dirt, darkened by years of filthy exhaust fumes emanating from that snarling line of mopeds, Fiats and Iveco trucks. The streetscape was worsened even further by discarded rubbish items littering the paths, some of which were uncomfortably narrow. A group of tourists  rounded the corner at a particularly narrow section, forcing me to temporarily step out onto that wild street as mopeds flashed by, mere millimetres away. I started to wonder if I would even survive my day in Palermo.

Welcome to Palermo

Welcome to Palermo

The Church of San Domenico makes for an impressive sight along Via Roma, but otherwise there are few other places of interest. Turning off the cluttered street into Via Vittorio Emanuale, I hoped to discover some of the historic riches Palermo is supposedly renowned for. I quickly found myself in a Baroque square known as Quattro Canti, but officially called Piazza Vigliena.

Church of San Domenico

Church of San Domenico – Palermo

This place was constructed between 1608 and 1620 and contains four identical buildings featuring fountains with the four Spanish kings of Sicily. It would be a delight to behold if there was a semblance of calm. Unfortunately, this fine but compact square is jammed full of tourists, horse-drawn carriages and of course, cars. The narrow footpaths and towering buildings lead to a feeling of claustrophobia and a fast escape is your best survival strategy. The Piazza Vigliena absolutely begs for pedestrianisation, a concept which seems to be hopelessly lost on the gritty streets of Palermo.

Trash is everywhere

Trash is everywhere

Despite the mounting bad experiences, there are some nice places in the city where you can escape the traffic momentarily, including the nearby Piazza Pretoria with its beautiful fountain, or Palermo Cathedral, just a few minutes walk further along Via Vittorio Emanuale. The cathedral was erected in 1185 and its current neoclassical appearance can be attributed to work carried out in the 18th century. Architecturally, the entire building is stunning, featuring curving arches, sculptures and baroque cupolas. The grounds are equally pleasant, full of palm trees and benches where you can catch your breath.

Palermo Cathedral - Giovanni Dall'Orto

Palermo Cathedral – Giovanni Dall’Orto

Wandering the back streets, I noticed an unusual and irritating quirk – no sidewalks. They were narrow on the wider streets but their complete absence on smaller ones took me by surprise. The houses began to take on a distinct North African appearance and fresh laundry hung from balconies, billowing in the warm breeze. They provided the only real colour to be found in the back alleyways – those green trees had promptly disappeared. I was hoping for an espresso to provide me with some energy, but there was a complete lack of cafes. I have fond memories of relaxed pavement cafes in Rome, Verona, Trieste and other Italian cities – this, however, was woeful.

As I walked further, the litter problem grew increasingly worse. Walls were covered with graffiti, though not the appealing artistic kind. It was just plain ugly, adding more to the grit and disdain. Soon, overflowing plastic waste containers appeared on most corners. With their lids tossed open, trash rose high into the blue Mediterranean sky. White plastic bags, their sides ripped apart, were scattered everywhere. The scene was disgusting, almost ludicrous. Were these waste containers for business or the general populace? Everybody seemed to use them and nobody seemed to empty them. Most western countries are forecast to have paper and organic material as their primary waste material in the future, according to statistics. However, Palermo seemed to have an over-abundance of glass and plastic waste with no real recycling initiative in sight, highly disappointing for such a large EU city.

Trash and dumpsters lined up against decaying walls

Trash and dumpsters lined up against decaying walls

Looking at the map, I headed in the direction of Palermo’s historic Kalsa district. This Arab quarter proved difficult to find in the maze of old winding streets, primarily due to an absence of signage.

Passing by the architecturally impressive church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, I soon found myself standing in Piazzo Magione in the very heart of the Kalsa. This place was green and relatively quiet, with a much reduced level of traffic. There were also some pink cherry blossom trees on the piazza’s perimeter. Unusual items of beauty amidst the increasingly repugnant city. There were some old ruins in the very centre of the piazza, so I went over to take a look. It should come as no surprise that they were full of discarded trash. At that very moment, I decided to leave Palermo on the next bus. I walked towards the waterfront and promenade, hoping against all hope for some semblance of beauty amid the dirty, rubbish-filled streets.

Wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, diapers, bottles, you name it and it was there. The smell was pungent, intensified all the more by the hot air and petrol fumes from those damned vespas. How I needed some sea air. After passing yet more rubbish mountains, I finally emerged onto Palermo’s promenade. If I was hoping for something in the same class as the elegant Promenade des Anglais in Nice, I was sorely disappointed. For Palermo’s waterfront resembled some sick cross between Ostende in Belgium and Constanta in Romania, albeit with far more rubbish. There was a seemingly pleasant green strip of land called the Foro Italico, directly between the main street and the Mediterranean, lined with palm trees. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, this promising space was overrun with weeds and plastic debris.

Even though the sea breeze was enormously refreshing and very much necessary after the near lethal backstreet labyrinth, the promenade was just as bad. The worst of it was epitomized by a seating area overlooking the harbour decorated with light blue, white and red tiles, many of which were adorned in an ugly polka dot pattern. Far from resembling a wonderful Mediterranean promenade, the whole place was more akin to toilets in an abandoned theme park. In between the seats, people relaxed up to their ankles in discarded rubbish.

Seating on the Harbor

Seating on the Harbor

The quickest route away from the promenade and back to the bus station actually took me past one of the few positive places in Palermo – the Orto Botanica or Botanical Garden. Dating from 1779, this place is full of exotic plants, eye-catching architecture and quiet pathways. It really forms a haven far removed from the trash heaps and suicidal driving of Palermo’s streets.

Orto Botanico Palermo - Nunzio Morello

Orto Botanico Palermo – Nunzio Morello

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally came around a corner and saw that same faceless concrete water tower where I disembarked the bus. After a relatively short waiting time, my bus swung into the parking space right in front of me. Barely hesitating for a moment, I jumped onboard almost as if it was the final helicopter departing Saigon in 1975.

Unfortunately, I will not be visiting the photographic exhibition focusing on Palermo in London’s Frith Street Gallery. While some can see beauty through the pollution and pandemonium, I could only see a badly planned urban centre, choking to death on its own exhaust fumes. I think attention needs to be drawn to the fact that this city is in crucial need of financial assistance and urban redevelopment – pedestrianisation and recycling initiatives are required most urgently.

As a tourist in Sicily’s largest city, you feel unwelcome and trapped at the same time. You question why the people dump their rubbish on street corners. You wonder why they do not ditch their cars in favour of a bicycle. You just cannot understand the place – finally you give in to the thought that in Palermo, you either get killed by the insane drivers, overcome by noxious exhaust fumes or poisoned by the grotesque smells emanating from the city’s rubbish mountains. It is, without doubt, a dose of pandemonium you do not need to experience.

Written by and photos (unless noted) by Guest Contributor Seamus Murphy for 

Seamus Murphy grew up in Limerick, Ireland and has since lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. He has a background in public relations and teaching and has become an enthusiastic blogger. Seamus enjoys writing about international affairs, communication, technology and environmental issues. He is a keen fan of traditional Irish music.See more of Seamus writing on Trenditionalist.

Share on StumbleUponDigg thisShare on RedditShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on YummlyEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. Grifel says

    What kind of traveler takes scads of pictures of piled up garbage and rushes to share them with the world? I’m disappointed that the editors found this worthy of publishing.

  2. says

    I think that people need to know what they are getting into when visiting a city-the good and the bad. The writer also included some lovely photos. No place is for everyone, and the writer shared his personal opinion.

  3. Bob & Ceri Mortimer says

    My wife and I visited Palermo in February 2015 I have to concur with some of what the author Seamus Murphy had to say about Palermo
    The trash was everywhere and no sign of being cleared it was such a disappointment that spoiled our stay,we were there for a week but didn’t.restrict ourselves to Palermo.
    The island without doubt is beautiful and well worthy of a visit,what a pity that the bureaucratic administration of the Palermo council have such scant regard for their once beautiful city and lovely people who we met their,that they choose to let it fester in this appalling condition . As my wife said it’s only a matter of time before the whole city will become a sewer of disease and squaler.akin to that found in the third world countries,let us hope for the sake of the people of Palermo and those who visit, that common sense and Honesty will prevail and the local government get the job done.

  4. Marco says

    I’m sorry, of course everybody is entitled to his opinion, but this is plain cheap sensationalism.
    “It was not long until I was dicing with death” “I started to wonder if I would even survive my day in Palermo”…a lot of people visit Palermo and they all manage to go back home alive.
    It is perfectly known that Palermo has a traffic problem, and in the past four year there have been garbage problems due to economical issues with the company responsible for it. Nevertheless, is this all there is to a city, especially in one that has more stunning monuments then most? Did the author bother to go to the Palatin Chapel, Casa Professa, Santa Caterina, San Giuseppe dei Teatini, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Zisa palace, the Santa Cita oratory, the gallery of modern art, the theatre Massimo, the church of “immacolata concezione” at the “Capo” market, Steri palace, Mirto palace, Abatellis palace? ‘Cause there’s no mention of any of these.

    The fact that it’s not possible to get a coffee is just ridiculous, Palermo is filled up with bars and places to eat.

    And also the lack of side walks: a lot of those narrow streets are historical, should we change their structures just to make it comfortable to anybody?

    As I said, some things the author points out are indeed true, and hopefully things will get better. Last year the administration started with a good plan for pedestrian zones (on this I agree with the author, the whole historical centre of Palermo should be pedestrian, or at least with heavy limitations to car circulation). There is still a lot to do to fully recover the historical buildings, but it’s also true that much has been done from the 90s (the decades before this were a combination of second world war bombing and mafia empowering, quite a complicated history and definetly not easy to overcome).

    Anyway, by all means, saying “It is, without doubt, a dose of pandemonium you do not need to experience” is totally unfair for a city that has so much to offer (and being this just an opinion, “without a doubt” could be avoided). Many of the problems I wrote about are no mistery, if you can’t stand them what do you go there for? Just choose Vienna.

  5. Anna Jones says

    We are staying in Mondello now. Yesterday we went to Palermo by bus. This article is SPOT ON! …without a doubt, you do not need to experience. I found it by searching “trash in Palermo” because I wondered why it was so bad. My husband says, “it’s barely a notch above a third world country”. We will be enjoying the rest of our vacation at our clean hotel and not the trash lined streets. It’s a shame the Italians care more about their shoes than their land.
    Even after paying a rip off of 60 euros taxi ride from the airport, we will not drive here….it’s just suicidal.

  6. Diego says

    Spot on. We were in Palermo this past August, and to be honest, the bad experiences just kept piling on. From a constant sense of insecurity, to hustlers everywhere, to waiters ripping you off, trash, cranky folk, graffiti, smells. Just chaos.
    It’s so sad that Sicilians don’t guard their heritage, their history. The buildings are full of graffiti and peed over. Trash is piling up. Pickpockets and other idiots are clearly trying to make a buck out of visiting tourists. Service minded workers nowhere to be found.
    Yes we saw some churches, ate some decent food and gelato. But we left disappointed.
    I guess Palermo is a mistake you only make once.

  7. Marco says

    Well, Palermo is definitely not to everybody’s liking. Only, I’m sorry about the “absolutist” comments.
    Anyway, I was in Palermo the third week of August and the first week of Semptember, and the situation I found was much better than what described by Diego…perspectives I guess (plus, a lot of people told me they never felt unsafe in Palermo).
    And Anna Jones, “Italians care more about their shoes than their land” is almost an insult. I’m Italian, I have a shoe with a hole on it and I wear it without any problems, while a care a whole lot about my land. And I know a lot of people from Palermo just like this.
    Once again, I’m not saying that problems don’t exist, but I do say that a lot of beauty in the city does exist. I just think it’s right to have another side of the story for people who read.

  8. Carole says

    I agree totally with this, Sicily has some gorgeous sights and it is a beautiful country but they cannot seem to see the litter. Up Mount Etna fgs piles and piles of ripped open bags and plastic, Catania filthy even a prostitute showing her wares in a makeshift rubbish tip near Misterbianco. The only gem in our 2 week holiday was the lovely Taormina. Even the beaches were full of litter and dog ends, such a shame as they have a bit of heaven that would bring in many tourists a second time if they cleaned it up, I would not return.

  9. Emma says

    I’ve just returned from a weekend in Palermo (March 2016) and the situation was the same – piles of stinking rubbish in the street, right under signs saying ‘dumping is punishable’. Cars are everywhere, ruling the roost, and make walking frustrating.

    I live in Milan, and it’s a dirty city, but Palermo is another level. Without wanting it to sound like an insult, or that I want everywhere to be the same, it really is closer to a less-developed country than somewhere within the EU. You can maintain your individuality and lack of pretension, but you don’t have to dump your rubbish in the street. I am sure Sicilians are proud of their island, but it doesn’t show in Palermo.

  10. John Riley says

    Seamus, coming from Limerick, you should be used to drab, dirty and disgusting cities, right? Also, coming from a country that has endured centuries of stifling poverty and backwardness, I should think that you’d be a wee bit more sympathetic to the residents of Palermo.

  11. Simone Thomas says

    How ridiculous. I’ve now visited Palermo twice for a week on each occasion (and Sicily itself 3 times). Who just goes for the day??! We took our 2 children who were 11 and 4 the first time we visited. Guess what? We survived! We made our own travel arrangements, got there by train from North Wales and got around by train, coach and bus when we got to Sicily.
    Do we want our major historic cities turning into anodine theme parks?
    Yes the rubbish needs dealing with and less traffic would be good in some areas but as previous replies have said, it’s a city in need of help not castigation. It’s also a working city and busy port. And of course, the island has a chequered history to say the least.
    A disappointingly negative article. Yes you need to be aware of your surroundings but doesn’t travel broaden the mind?

  12. Martin says

    Visited Palermo for two days whilst in Sicily and am now just home. There were some nice parts but I’m sorry to say my girlfriend and I won’t be returning anytime soon. It’s a very dirty city as a whole and (in my opinion) unfriendly towards tourists. It’s a very fast paced city too with lots of smoke, dangerous driving/ overtaking and car horns blowing all the time. We were surprised to see rubbish in most places, stacked very high. I was surprised to say I saw no rats though, only cats everywhere, which might help explain this. I sensed great poverty here. Only for the satnav on our phone, we would have been in trouble finding our hotel and way around. There was dog filth on paths and graffiti literally everywhere, most disheartening was seeing it on some very old and beautiful buildings. This article is very, very accurate. The other parts of Sicily that we went to were great though, esp Taormina. This was a gem indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *