Palermo is like a grand shopping bazaar. You'll find a little bit of everything here, including boutiques of high fashion. Many shoppers seek out the expert artisans known for their skill in producing any number of goods, especially beautiful coral jewelry. Along the streets and alleyways of La Kalsa you'll still find ironworkers and other craftsmen who continue centuries-old traditions. Embroidered fabrics are another specialty item. Some visitors come to Palermo just to purchase ceramics and antiques.
Palermo markets are the most colorful in southern Italy. At these markets, all the bounty of Sicily -- fruits, vegetables, fish -- is elegantly displayed. Since it is unlikely you will be staying in accommodations with kitchen facilities, the markets are mainly for sightseeing, although they do offer an array of clothing and crafts as well.
For the best shopping, head for Via Ruggero Settimo and Via della Libertà, north of the city's medieval core, within a 19th-century residential neighborhood of town houses and mid-20th-century apartment buildings that evoke some of the more upscale residential sections of Barcelona. Within this same neighborhood, Via Principe di Belmonte is an all-pedestrian thoroughfare with many hip and elegant shops, as well as fashionable cafes. The two other principal shopping streets in the Old Town are Via Roma and Via Maqueda.
Monday morning is the worst time to shop, as nearly all stores are closed. Otherwise, general shopping hours are Tuesday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 4 to 7 or 7:30pm, Saturday 4 to 8pm. Some department stores are open on Mondays, and some shops in the city center are open at lunchtime and generally on the first Sunday of the month. Outdoor markets such as the Capo are closed on Wednesday afternoon.
The Muslims were active traders, and Palermo's markets, which spill over into narrow alleys shaded by colorful awnings, still have an Arab feel. Nothing else connects you with local life more than a visit to a bustling Palermo market.
The most fabled market in Palermo is La Vucciria. In Sicilian dialect, vucciria means the "place of loud voices," and that's what you'll hear here; some maintain that the word is a corruption of the French "boucherie," (butcher). The market spills onto the narrow side streets of Piazza San Domenico, off Via Roma between Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the Cala. This is one of Europe's great Kasbah-like markets, with mountains of food ranging from fresh swordfish steaks to all sorts of meat and recently harvested produce, reflecting the bounty of the Sicilian countryside. Sadly, it's no longer as vibrant and bustling as it once was, as supermarkets have come to fill the needs of shoppers. This market trades Monday through Saturday until 2pm. Try to go before 10am, when it's at its most frenetic and colorful. The markets described below keep roughly the same hours.
If you're seized with market fever, you can also visit Mercato di Capo, the largest of the street markets that captures some of the spirit of the city's Saracen past. This market sprawls around the area of Chiesa di Sant'Agostino. Clothing stalls flank the streets of Via S. Agostino and Via Bandiera; the items here tend to be cheap and poorly made. More interesting is the food section off Via Volturno, which spreads along Via Beati Paoli and Via Porta Carini. The most colorful part of this market converges around Piazza Beati Paoli. The stalls wind toward the old gate, Porta Carini, which used to be a part of the city wall surrounding Palermo. At the Capo, make sure to visit the spiceman, the polyglot Antonello, at his well-stocked bodega at Via Porta Carini 45.
The third great market of Palermo is Ballarò, in the Albergheria district, roughly between Piazza Carmine leading to Piazza Casa Professa and Piazza S. Chiara. This is mainly a food market, with mountains of fruits and vegetables along with fishmongers and hawkers of discount clothing.
One Person's Junk is Another Person's Treasure -- Steps away from the cathedral on a tree-lined street that looks like a row of abandoned bodegas, the Mercato delle Pulci (Flea Market) is a treasure-trove for everything from tacky trinkets to fine pieces of period furniture; even entire ceramic floorings have been uplifted from abandoned palaces and are sold in some makeshift storefronts. Of course, I can't guarantee the authenticity of what you're buying, and you'll need a trained eye to distinguish genuine antiques from fakes. But know this: Some years ago, a university student was seeking some cheap furniture. He purchased a coffee table, paying literally peanuts for it. When he re-sold it, much to his delightful shock, he found out that the table was an Art Nouveau original, meaning he got the equivalent of 2,000€ for it!
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