Balanced on the toe of Italy's boot, Sicily is a study in contrasts, and its range is on full display in the regional capital of Palermo, a city where the ancient and the modern come together at every corner. Keeping the mosaic firmly glued together is the food, a vibrant mix of fresh fish, red sauces, and cream-filled desserts that are more than up to the task of fueling your three-day itinerary.
Ice cream lovers rejoice: Sicily is one place where you can begin your day with gelato, often tucked into a pocket of brioche. Palermo is teeming with cafés serving fresh pastries daily. A good place to try is Antico Caffé Spinnato on Via Principe del Belmonte. Next, immerse yourself in the city with a walking tour. You can simply wander or book a guide; Raffaella Niccolini does an excellent job of explaining the city's historical background and the influence of the Carthaginians, Moors, Normans, and others.
Be sure to check out the Quattro Canti (Four Corners, also known as Piazza Vigliena), built at the intersection of two principal streets, Via Maqueda and the Via Vittorio Emanuele. This is an impressive example of early urban planning, anchored by four Baroque buildings with facades representing the seasons.
If you're in the mood for something a little offbeat, try the Capuchin Catacombs in Piazza Cappuccini, where thousands of mummified corpses are on display. For something livelier, visit Teatro Massimo, the third-largest opera house in Europe. You can catch a performance during opera season or take guided tours any time of year. You're never far away from a plate of fresh fish here, so wrap up the day with a dinner of the day's catch. Try Cucina Papoff (32 Via Isidoro La Lumia) for its Sicilian specialties, like slow-simmered fish stew.
If you have a rental car, you might consider making the 90-minute drive to Selinunte, site of ancient Greek ruins that predate the Parthenon in Athens. There are five temples here, although only one, the Temple of Hera, has been reconstructed. Set on the coast, the grounds are strewn with wildflowers and make for a pleasant ramble. Comfortable shoes are a must, although you can ride golf cart-style shuttles to get to the key spots.
For a shorter trip, hop on city bus No. 806 or take a taxi to Mondello, originally a small fishing village and now a borough of Palermo with a beautiful, curving beach lined with snack bars, restaurants, and hotels. Eat a satisfying lunch of frutti di mare (fresh shellfish) at Trattoria da Calogero, or try the upscale Bye Bye Blues, a Michelin-starred restaurant. Don't forget to sample the local wines, which have been experiencing a renaissance in recent years. Varieties to look for include Nero D'Avola, a red, and Grillo, a white. Also keep an eye out for Cantadoro from Stemmari wines, which blends Nero D'Avola with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Morning is a good time to visit churches, and one of Palermo's standouts is the Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, known as La Martorana, which overlooks the Piazza Bellini. The church has a Baroque exterior, but it's the inside that wows with its gold décor and 12th-century mosaics. After satisfying your spiritual side, fortify the flesh by stopping at a convenient café for an aperitivo of Aperol or Cynar, Italian bitters that are surprisingly refreshing. For lunch consider trying arancini, crispy fried balls of rice stuffed with vegetables, fish, cheese, or meat.
Give the rest of the day over to window—or real—shopping. Visit La Vucciria, which means “loud voices” in the Sicilian dialect. The market, boasting mountains of food, can be found along the side streets of Piazza San Domenico and is open from dawn until about 2 p.m. Monday–Saturday. For more upscale shopping, try Via Principe di Belmonte, a pedestrian-only street lined with cafes and boutiques. Wrap things up with dinner at Osteria Ballarò, a hidden gem set amid the soaring stone walls of a converted stable that features elevated takes on traditional cuisine.