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FAQs & Safety
Getting Around (safely) in Palermo

There's no way around it. When you arrive in Palermo your senses are assaulted by noise and even chaos. And, especially in warmer months, some dust. Some of the historical districts of this large city, which we compare to an unpolished gem, are simply not very clean. The people seem like the Italians of Rome and Florence --almost. There's no question but that Palermo is different from most other Italian cities. Naples and Catania are the only places that even come close. Of course, no place is perfect; if all societies were identical there would be no point in travel to far-away places. Here are some practical questions, candid answers --and the occasional warning-- about our favourite city (real information, not the "tourist guide version" presented elsewhere).

What's the best time of year to visit?
Is English widely spoken in Palermo?
How do get into and around the city?
How far is the port from the historical districts?
In terms of personal safety, what should I keep in mind in Palermo?
How do I contact the police?
What's driving like?
What's it like for a woman walking around Palermo?
Where can I get internet access?
When are shops and public sights open?
How do I get a taxi?
When are meals usually served?
How much should I tip waiters, porters, drivers, guides?
How do I hire a guide?
How do you select which restaurants, hotels and other travel services to review?
Does See Palermo accept advertising?
What's the University of Palermo like?

What's the best time of year to visit?
Speaking generally, March through June and then September through November are best for most people. Beaches and other "summer" localities are crowded in July and especially August, so make reservations early for those months. December and February can be interesting times to visit, allowing you to avoid the crowds. It's never very cold in Palermo.

Is English widely spoken in Palermo?
Unfortunately, it is not. In fact, per capita far more residents of Amsterdam and Addis Ababa speak English than Palermitans. However, many of the people you'll encounter in Palermo's hotels, restaurants and better shops understand at least enough English to successfully communicate.

How do I get into and around the city?
Visit our transportation page for general information and suggestions.

How far is the port from the historical districts and how do I get into the old city?
A good question if you're arriving on a cruise ship. The transportation page mentions the sightseeing buses, which stop near the port and offer a conveient way to get around town. On foot, walking along Via Amari (which extends inland from the port's main entrance), it takes ten minutes or less to arrive at Via Roma, and another few minutes to reach Politeama (an opera house and square on Piazza Ruggero Settimo) and Via Libertà. Turning left from Politeama (along Via Ruggero Settimo ) it takes about five minutes to reach the Teatro Massimo opera house. From there, following Via Maqueda (actually a continuation of Via Libertà and Via Ruggero Settimo), it's about another five minute to the Quattro Canti.

In terms of personal safety, what should I keep in mind in Palermo?
Palermitans are generally nice, though often a bit guarded with unfamiliar people. While violent crime rates are generally low in Sicily, purse snatchings are quite common, especially from thieves riding motor scooters. To avoid these "ride-by" snatchings, walk on the side of the street facing traffic (rather than with it) with your purse on the other side of your body (toward the buildings). Carry only a small purse, never a large bag, and choose one that you can keep in a pocket or close to your body, not something with long straps.

Visitors from some countries often look like "tourists." Their white sneakers and light-coloured clothing mark them as tourists. Within reason, avoiding that look makes it less obvious to thieves that you're a visitor: shoes instead of athletic footwear, more subdued colours, long pants instead of shorts, etc. Of course, in Palermo an exceptionally tall woman with light blonde hair will stand out regardless of what she wears.

Organized crime is of little concern to visitors, but you may encounter a street protest which blocks traffic for an hour or two, particularly in the morning. The shouting and chaos can be intimidating. These "revolutions" usually have run their course by lunch time, when the "revolutionaries" return home to the comfort of a plate of pasta.

In public the crowds of Palermitans can be unruly at times. Two examples: the throngs of thousands of teenagers in the Politeama area most Saturday afternoons from 4 until around 8; the crowds at the fireworks display near Porta Felice the last evening of the Saint Rosalie Festival in the middle of July.

How do I contact the police?
By phone, dial 112 for the carabinieri (state police), 113 for the polizia (national police) or (to report a traffic accident for insurance purposes) 091 695 4111.

What's driving like?
It is often chaotic. Unless you're accustomed to this, and are a very skillful and patient driver, avoid driving in the city.

What's it like for a woman walking around Palermo?
It's generally safe during the day, bearing in mind the suggestions indicated under "personal safety" (above). If you're alone, stay on streets where there are lots of people; the Via Libertà shopping areas are certainly safer than the Kalsa and Cassaro districts (see the Palermo map on our home page) or the streets around the main railway station. At night it's best for a woman not to walk around the Kalsa or Cassaro areas alone. We reiterate that, despite appearances, violent street crime in Palermo is actually low compared to many places. But this doesn't mean that it does not exist!

Certain "social" factors come into play here too. Here in Palermo, if a (reasonably young) woman in the street or seated at an outdoor café pays any attention whatsoever to a man, he may construe her attention as an indication that she is interested in getting to know him. You'll notice that Palermitan women in their 20s and 30s walking alone usually make a studied effort to avoid the gazes of young "galletti" (roosters), and to ignore whistles and "cat-calls" (phrases such as "Hey, pupitedda!" or "Complimenti!" or "Bella!"). So if you want to be left alone, don't encourage this kind of thing. English-speaking women living in Palermo have even coined a phrase for the seaside version of these aspiring Casanovas: "Mondello cowboys" (for the local beach).

Another phenomenon (almost a stereotype) worth mentioning is typically Sicilian, and while it doesn't concern safety per se you should bear it in mind. If you're a woman under 40, don't be surprised if a man tries to meet you who looks old enough to be your father. "Age-gap" relationships are not at all unusual in Sicily. As this mentality is acquired early, it's quite possible for your pretty 16 year-old daughter to attract the attentions of a 22 year-old man.

While one should be wary of unflattering generalities, it seems that many young Palermitan men are fairly obsessed with light blondes, of which there are rather few among Sicilians. More than a few seem to believe that successfully initiating a short-term romance with an English or American woman makes for an easier "conquest" than pursuing a Sicilian woman already familiar with their limited arsenal of seduction tactics. Whatever you think of this, it at least makes matters interesting.

Where can I get internet access?
There's a list of internet points, with some observations about mobile services, on our Palermo internet page.

When are shops and public sights open?
In general, stores open around 9, close for lunch around 1, then re-open around 4. Many shops then close for the day around 8 in the evening. The afternoon closures can be frustrating, but it's best to take the opportunity to rest or to enjoy a long lunch. Interestingly, many internet points remain open throughout the afternoon, perhaps because so many of these are operated by Arabs or Indians who prefer their own schedules to "Italian" ones. In the main shopping areas, such as Via Libertà and the streets around it, most stores are closed Monday mornings and (except during the Christmas season) usually closed on Sundays as well. Some larger supermarkets are open all day (from 9 AM until 8 PM), but this is still the exception rather than the rule. The week of 15 August (Ferragosto) finds many shops and other businesses (even some restaurants) closed for 7 to 10 days.

How do I get a bus or taxi?
Our transportation page covers details. Taxis stand near certain larger hotels or specific areas (near Politeama or the Teatro Massimo); they won't normally stop for you elsewhere (this differs from London and New York). The orange local buses stop at designated bus stops only upon your request; otherwise they'll continue right past you. It seems ironic that in Palermo you hail a bus the way you'd hail a taxi elsewhere, but that's part of the city's charm.

However, another aspect of travel within the city is a little less charming. Be warned that most taxi drivers (and horse carriage drivers) engage in price gouging of foreigners. They may charge you a ridiculously inflated fare for a ride. The most practical way to avoid this is to establish a price based on your itinerary before boarding the taxi or carriage. That way, if the fare is too high you can simply refuse the ride.

When are meals usually served?
Lunch is usually at 1 or in any event not earlier than 12:30. Dinner is usually around 8, which is when most restaurants open.

How much should I tip waiters, porters, drivers and guides?
In restaurants, from 10% to 15%, but never less than a euro (if the total check is under 10 euros). At a coffee bar (without seating) you might leave 50 cents for a check that includes two or more coffees or other drinks. For poterage in hotels, 50 cents per bag. If you hire a car (not a taxi), it's customary to tip the driver, at least 20 euros for a full-day service. Depending on the circumstances, you might tip a tour guide (hired by you or your group) based on the length of the service and size of the group.

How do I hire a guide?
In Italy a licensed tour guide is a professional who has taken qualifying examinations following training comparable to that of a history teacher, but with fluency in at least two languages, and some guides are truly exceptional. Don't confuse these licensed tour guides who can accompany you and your group around Palermo with those who work only "on site" in the Palatine Chapel (Norman Palace), Monreale Abbey, Zisa castle or other local sites, or those who are actually tour escorts. Guide services are indicated on our home and links pages, or try a Google or Yahoo search with the search phrase "Palermo tour guide."

How do you select restaurants, hotels and other travel services to review?
While advertising is present on this website, we do not have a direct financial interest (as owners) in any hotel or restaurant, and we would never accept advertising from what seemed to us a generally poor choice. Unlike some larger travel advice sites, we choose not to publish overtly negative reviews of commercial businesses, though we are often critical of institutions operated at public expense. Rather than say something negative about a particular hotel or restaurant, we would simply avoid mentioning it at all. Yet the absence of the name of any specific business from these pages does not in any way imply disapproval. This editorial policy is similar to that of newspapers and travel magazines.

Does See Palermo accept advertising?
Yes, and several sponsored links are present on our home page. We do, however, reserve the right to refuse advertising which does not meet specific editorial standards.

What's the University of Palermo like?
In a nation of remarkably undistinguished universities (according to The Economist, not one is presently ranked among the world's hundred best, not even Bologna, Normale-Pisa, Sapienza-Rome or Milan's Bocconi), the University of Palermo stands out as an enduring exemplar of unabashed mediocrity! Professors, who view their tenured positions as mere sinecures, are rarely available to meet with students during office hours, student services are almost inexistent, exam sessions and classes are often crowded to the point of chaos, bureaucracy and bureaucratic delays crippling, degree programmes poorly formulated, the main "campus" and other buildings lacking in capacity (with lectures sometimes held in local movie theatres) and inadequately maintained. Cronyism and corruption are the norm; almost everybody in the administration and among the tenured faculty is a political appointee, with members of the numerous political parties (and even Opus Dei) competing for positions and perks.

How pervasive are these problems? Great universities pride themselves on their diversity, but at the University of Palermo you hardly ever encounter a tenured professor from outside northwestern Sicily. So influential (and political) are they that students refer to the professors and department heads as the "baroni" (barons), because the entire institution is viewed as the province of a few overpaid people who regard higher education as little more than an excuse to bilk the Italian state of as much money as possible. In stark contrast to lavish funding for administration, little has been invested in tangible resources such as the university's libraries (in each department as there is no central one), which have few volumes and permit only limited consultation or borrowing, making students' research difficult.

Certain degree programmes (archaeology, literature, Italian art history) are satisfactory; others are not even worth mentioning. This is not to suggest that there are not exceptional professors and students, but the environment isn't very conducive to serious study. As a result of these conditions and others, the vast majority of students are "fuori corso" (i.e. it takes them longer than the normal three or four years to complete course work for an undergraduate degree). Anybody contemplating study at the University of Palermo should consider his or her goals very carefully (and visit the university) before reaching a decision about studying there.

University study in Italy is a topic too broad to be dealt with at length on this page, but it should be mentioned that most of the foreign students who study at Italian universities do so through the Socrates (Erasmus) programme or through special exchange programmes (including courses for foreigners) which don't require proficiency in Italian.

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© 2008 Best of Sicily Travel Guide. Used by permission.

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