The ancient city of Palermo today still boasts four storied street markets which are Capo, Ballarò, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio.
Ciao. I’m old Don Tano, your unofficial host and guide to the Palermo the guide books usually don’t know about.
Our four ancient markets are Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria (that’s near where I was born many years ago!), and Borgo Vecchio.
In Palermo, our Sicilian outdoor markets open an authentic doorway into the past. Here, the oldest traditions of the Sicilian people continue uninterrupted by modern conveniences such as the Internet and overhead, gigantic aircraft brimming with visitors.
And to add to the feeling that you’ve taken a step into the past, you’ll see that these markets lie at the very heart of neglected neighborhoods.
The crumbling buildings beneath their faded façades hide the silent memories of loves and deaths, wars, invasions, occupations by foreigners — the list can be endless. Yet throughout all these changes over the years, the markets continue to stay alive. Today they represent a true Sicilian tradition.
Now I’m gonna show them to you, one by one.
Palermo’s four ancient outdoor markets
Here we go. These are the most famous and renowned markets in Palermo. A careful reading of this article will help you to save time when you arrive. I’m gonna keep you up to date so you can avoid often outdated information and nonsense on the Internet.
Unfortunately, Vucciria is no longer the market it used to be. Especially during the morning hours. What was formerly an incredible confusion of voices, smells and general noises is today only a sad version of the market it was when I was a child.
In those bygone days, and even earlier — during the Arab rule, Vucciria was a favorite place to do business. The market bustled with the voices and languages of Asians, Pisans, Genovese, Venetian and Amalfi merchants as well. This thanks to the proximity of the Cala harbor.
In those days, as you elbowed your way through the dense and twisted alleys of the Vucciria market, you could allow yourself a stand inside the crowd in one of the squares where shoppers found every ingredient one might desire for some real Sicilian cuisine: fish, fruit, vegetables, spices and of course, meat of every kind.
Today, however, apart from some stinking fish and limp veggies lying forlornly on the stalls, there’s really nothing to make it worth your time to wake up early to visit this market.
But wait! As they say on TV, there’s more: When the sun goes down, Vucciria Market transforms itself into one of Palermo’s most lively and entertaining venues for nightlife and certainly deserves a visit by everyone (except for monks and nuns).
At night, this normally gaunt and apparently dying marketplace fills with some really alternative types. You’ll see Goths and punks as well as some more-or-less normal unpretentious people dancing and drinking alongside a young criminal element.
They’re all here to enjoy the nightlife beneath a starry sky in the midst of these ancient and crumbling buildings of Garraffello Square. You can learn more about Vucciria nightlife.
Young travelers with a heart for long nights of partying are encouraged to find accommodations around the Vucciria market.
Ballarò is nothing like the Vucciria market. This is definitely a must-see market.
A word of caution: Don’t glam up. Leave your jewelry in the hotel safe and just bring along enough well protected cash for your minor expenses.
Before going there’s another bit of information I’m gonna give you. It’s gonna make your visit more interesting. Right after breakfast, as you start out for the day, you should set your mind in history-mode.
Of all the street markets, Ballarò is the largest, the oldest and funniest of all. It stands up against any sort of social evolution or modern hygiene standards.
Once inside you’ll feel as if you’ve just entered a noisy medieval marketplace. Here you’ll find the most picturesque, colorful, and yes, unhygienic and loud markets in existence anywhere.
Inside the Ballarò Market, you’ll find everything you can imagine. This market features not only vegetables and fruits, as well as the obligatory stinky fish and meat but also includes every sort of odds and ends. Something of a flea market. And in flea markets, you never know what you may find.
Hundreds of people of every race and color haunt this marketplace livening it up as in olden days. The ear-splitting cries of vendors who — in their colorful local dialect — vie with one another to attract the passersby create an off-key musical that’s entertaining in itself.
Of course, I want to assure you that Ballarò Market doesn’t represent the stereotype of elegance or cleanliness. You’ve won’t see any upscale shops around Ballarò. But on the other hand, it is a genuine part of life in Palermo, and this is a place where the less affluent come to search for bargains.
According to an Arab traveler who wrote about the market in the tenth century, “Forget about the bacteria. Just prepare yourself to live an unrepeatable experience”. (Plus ça change…)
You’ll have your nose filled with scents as you become immersed in the bowels of the city itself. The scents of soiled roots, tomatoes and celery blended with the acrid smell of fish that somehow gives you a rather pleasant feeling of disgust.
I gotta tell you: In Palermo, the Sicilian regional Capital, our history, culture and traditions simply do not smell like D&G perfumes.
One bright and welcome scent comes from the bakeries that bring an irresistible breath of fresh and delicious croissants, bread, brioches and biscuits. All of these will make your nostrils dilate as your stomach begins to grumble like a starving old bear.
And believe me, each smell goes hand-in-hand with so many picturesque images so that all the fresh wet roots and veggies take on the shapes of the stalls. The vegetables turn the stalls into a harmony of green, red, orange and yellows.
And at the same time the bread fresh from old ovens form neat rows on shelves that shout “Eat me!”
Added to all this color and orchestra of smells there’s another orchestra playing as well. Just close your eyes and listen to the musical din of the wooden crates slamming as merchants howl peculiar shouts alongside the continuous sound of water being poured on the fish stocks.
This dizzying amalgam of sound and smell and crowds of chattering visitors takes you back a thousand years.
One important caveat, however: When I say close your eyes, I’m just saying it as figure of speech. Actually, you should keep your eyes wide open and be constantly on guard against the loss of your camera or wallet. Ballarò seems to be a training camp for tomorrow’s professional criminals.
They start their careers with pickpocketing, so never put your camera, purse or anything else down for one moment or it’s likely to be gone before you even know it happened.
Capo too, along with Ballarò is a famous and lively street market. Capo dates back to the age when the Arabs ruled Palermo and at the time, served primarily as a haven for the Schiavoni (pirates and slave merchants).
The same warning accompanies a description of Capo. When you visit this boisterous outdoor market, you should never carry a lot of cash or other valuables. You can be cleaned out so quickly and efficiently that you may not even know it until you get back to your hotel.
The entry to Capo is through the Porta Carini — just 500 meters from the Teatro Massimo — the Porta Carini is a neoclassical style doorway without a lot of decoration. It’s the main entry into the market. This doorway was erected in 1310 on what was at the time a road leading to village of Carini (some 10 km from Palermo). In 1782, the doorway was completely rebuilt.
Much like the Ballarò market, Capo is a major trading place for agri-food. This lively and distinctive food market with all its color, screams of the vendors combined with its folklore form an essential part of the character of Palermo.
Capo has always been popular among the poor. The Sicilian nobility and other wealthy persons have never experienced this colorful noisy and cheerful marketplace. Once this marketplace, indeed the entire neighborhood, called itself home to bands of pirates, mercenaries and slave traders.
Today Capo puts those memories behind it and it is now a popular market for bargain hunters.
Some visitors say Capo is a real circus, but without the lion tamers and elephants. Otherwise they feel everything is here. Children on scooters and without licenses or helmets shoot about frightening crowds of shoppers.
High mountains of wooden crates defy the law of gravity teeter alongside swordfish heads, heads that seem to greet the passerby from their stalls. And alongside all this you’ll hear the singsong voices of vendors (no threat to Céline!)and food peddlers as they offer their street food to the passersby.
Another colorful addition to this market is the sight of illegal raffle sellers. Trying to sell tickets, they stroll about displaying the trophy to be won: a shopping cart with a basket of fish or meat. Many of the shop owners participate in this wacky raffle as a way to create additional interest…and business.
In keeping with the Arabs who originally established this marketplace, Capo still manages to maintain its intricate labyrinth appearance making visitors feel they’re in a real souk. Capo at once exudes an atmosphere of opulence and grandeur intermixed with decay, decline, and lawlessness.
I would like to suggest that when you come to Capo, you buy some of the local bread and then visit a cheese vendor to make a tasty sandwich. As an alternative, you may pick up some delightful food at a salumeria (a deli). You can even enjoy a lunch with a pre-dinner apéritif.
Yes, Capo offers just about everything, including the opportunity to take an ambulance ride to the hospital after a fall on the slippery floors (especially around the fish stalls), so watch your step!
4. Borgo vecchio
During the past few years, this outdoor marketplace has become a quick change artist. From outdoor market by day to an open-air tavern for the local vampires who flock to this fun location beneath the stars thirsting not for blood, but for alcohol and the road to perdition.
Once the sun goes down, the market really comes to life as huge crowds of people gather in the market’s main square where they drink until four a.m.
Today, there is almost no visible trace of the wonderful and historic market that formerly enticed the neighborhood with its color and perfumes. Not as depressing as the Vucciria market, Borgo Vecchio remains a very good shopping mall for locals who come to buy vegetables and fruits at modest prices.
I have to give Borgo Vecchio a recommendation to foreigners who visit Palermo because of its authentic Sicilian flavor as well as its history.
Today I’ve given you a list the most famous street markets in Palermo. But don’t forget, the entire city is interwoven with other, if smaller markets. One of these worth mentioning is the Lattarini Market.
My final takeaway is that if you want to visit a real street market, go to Ballarò or Capo. These two are among the most ancient and representative of real Sicilian open-air markets.
If you plan to visit Borgo Vecchio (old village) or Vucciria, put on your dancing shoes and prepare to spend a wild night beneath the starry night sky.
And remember, if you have any questions or comments, just drop me a line here and old Don Tano will answer just as soon as he gets back from his local tavern.