Palermo is an anchovy of a city: a strongly flavored place that most travelers either love or loathe. Its setting on a mountain-backed bay is magnificent; it has some superb architecture and museums, plus a thriving food scene. But the roads are chaotic and the atmosphere can be overpowering. To accentuate the positive: In a world where the streets of most great cities are now lined with the same brand names to be found at home, Palermo rewards curious travelers with a rich, charming and idiosyncratic local culture. (If you do nothing else, visit the open-air Ballarò street market, which provides one of the gastronomic spectacles of the Mediterranean.)
The other problem with Palermo is that its two foremost hotels — the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes, where Wagner finished his opera “Parsifal,” and the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea — are off their games these days. The Des Palmes lacks the grandeur and impeccable service I enjoyed many years ago, while the Villa Igiea has had several owners of late and needs some updating, plus better-trained staff.
However, for anyone in the mood for an intimate, historic and rather offbeat experience, I can suggest the 11 apartments at Butera 28. This handsome 18th-century palazzo overlooking the sea in the Kalsa district was once the home of Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi di Lampedusa, the prince who was the model for the main character in “The Leopard,” the novel written by his great-grandson, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Today, it is run by the author’s adoptive grandson and his Venetian wife, and they have succeeded in creating a place of great charm and considerable comfort.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Charming hosts; comfortable quarters; excellent location.
DISLIKE: Very little, but it is important to appreciate that this is not a conventional five-star property; no hotel services are provided.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Duchess of Palma is an excellent Sicilian cook and offers cooking lessons.
Butera 28 89 Apartment (with kitchen), $240. Via Butera 28, 90133 Palermo. Tel. (39) 333-316-5432.
For those who prefer a more conventional hotel, the 32-room Hotel Principe di Villafranca, in a leafy residential neighborhood, is a pleasant place to spend a night, provided you book a Junior Suite. Its personality comes from a collection of contemporary Sicilian art. Whether these pieces are to your taste or not, the parquet-floored accommodations are spacious, quiet and comfortable, and the staff are attentive and well-informed.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The spacious, comfortable, well-decorated rooms; the Sicilian-made Ortigia amenities in the bath.
DISLIKE: The mediocre breakfast buffet.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel’s guided walking tour of Palermo is excellent.
Hotel Principe di Villafranca 88 Junior Suite, from $310. Via Liberta 39, 90139 Palermo. Tel. (39) 091-611-8523.