I have read articles in the UK travel press by journalists who, overwhelmed by their own intrepidity, actually visited Sicily and came back alive! They described their holidays as if they had toured Palestine with an Israeli flag draped over their backpack. You are 27 times more likely to get murdered in America than in Sicily, so I think they are being rather ridiculous.
Meanwhile, all the self-serving websites that sell holidays tell you “Sicily is one of the safest holiday destinations in the world,” which may be a slight exaggeration. Its cities are among the safest in Europe, but you still don’t want to walk around being a total dummy.
What is Palermo really like for tourists? I’ve lived here 10 years and they still think I’m a tourist, so here it is from the horse’s mouth.
1. Managing money
DO always check your change. Many Sicilians will rip you off. Don’t take it personally – they do it to each other, too, even in supermarkets. Look at the digital till display instead of trusting what the cashier asks for.
DO take travellers’ cheques as a plan B. When travelling abroad, I usually use ATMs to avoid carrying large sums of cash. Yet on many occasions, all Sicilian cash points refused to give me money from my UK bank account for several days. Sometimes they imposed a tiny daily limit. When I phoned my UK bank, they said it was out of their control.
DO ask your hotel receptionist to keep spare cash in the hotel safe (put it in a sealed envelope) and only take out what you need each day.
2. Do many people in Sicily speak English?
I’ve been teaching them for ten years. I’ve tried, really I have.
But sorry, NO, you’ll be very lucky to find a Sicilian who speaks anything resembling good English. Bring a phrase book and practise sign language, because they’re great at that.
3. When is the best time of year to come?
DON’T come in August. Italy is closed in August. Hotels, restaurants, clinics and even hospital departments will be replaced by a “closed for August” sign.
Do come in May-June or September-October to enjoy sweat-free sightseeing and cancer-free sunbathing. Avoid the last week of May which is school outing season, unless you enjoy being surrounded by marauding hooligans armed with ice lollies.
You may get some fab winter sun, enjoying pavement cafes in December, but check the weather forecasts because some years it’s rainy and miserable.
4. Are there Public Toilets?
Nearly all Sicilian bars will let you use their toilet even if you are not a customer. All they require is that you ask politely for the key (behind the bar) and that you leave the place clean.
5. How dangerous is it to walk to walk the streets by day?
I can’t promise nobody will pick your pocket, but it is far less likely than in many European or American cities. (I am going on UN stats here.) Some poorer neighbourhoods in Palermo look like Aleppo after heavy bombing yet I have wandered about them alone many times – looking radiantly white and foreign in my flowery skirts – and always been fine.
There’s a neighbourhood in Palermo called Lo Zen (close to a touristy beach resort called Mondello) and you must not go there. You would suffer a fate far worse than getting your pocket picked.
DO Take the same precautions you would take in other European cities. If you usually carry your valuables in a handbag on your shoulder at home, do the same in Sicily because you’re more likely to protect it instinctively when distracted. If you specially buy a money belt or sew secret cash pockets inside your underpants, you’ll get yourself in a muddle, and thieves will notice.
DO Keep a photocopy of your passport somewhere separate from the real thing, just in case the worst should happen. [I’ve been told by a helpful commentator that it has to be a colour photocopy.]
DON’T use the word “Mafia” in public in Sicily. As a foreigner you are in NO DANGER WHATSOEVER from organised crime and you have no reason to talk about it. The M-word is something Sicilians won’t appreciate you saying.
6. Can you walk around at night?
Sicilian women would not walk around Palermo or other big Sicilian cities alone at night. They go out with their husband or boyfriend. For couples, or men, it’s as safe as any other town in Europe.
I think the main reason Sicilian women do not go out alone is because of the family oriented culture, rather than because it is unsafe. The rate of sex crimes in Italy is one quarter of the rate in the USA, for example. Is that anything to do with the fact serious sex crimes carry a mandatory life sentence in Italy?
7. How can I avoid looking like a tourist?
You can’t. Some websites advise tourists to avoid flapping their street maps around. I’ve also read a “top tip” that you should buy a Sicilian newspaper, to look like a local.
Sicilians can tell you’re foreign no matter what you do, no matter how you dress, and no matter how far away you are. How they do it is a complete mystery to me. But it doesn’t matter. If you stand around gazing at a map and looking perplexed, some passer by will offer to accompany you to your destination, as an excuse to practise their English.
8. Do the men harass women?
In general, less than the men in other parts of Italy. We probably have the reputation of Sicilian fathers to thank for this! They are still Italians though – refer to my top tips on handling Italian men for specialist advice!
When Italian men pester you, it is almost always just that – irritation, not danger.
9. Any advice on clothing?
DO bring flat or clumpy wedge-heeled shoes. Sicilian towns are full of cobbled streets. I once got my heel jammed between a pair of cobbles while crossing the road, and had to unbuckle the ankle strap and run to the pavement barefoot while a line of cars shot towards me at terminal velocity.
Only bring natural fibres in summer. It’s humid as well as hot. If the label says anything other than cotton or viscose, don’t pack it. It does NOT cool down at night, so you won’t wear warmer things in the evening.
If you come in winter, you DO need jumpers and a coat. It’s not the tropics.
10. Skin protection
DO bring sun block from home. Sun screen in Italy is unbelievably expensive and often expired stock from abroad that doesn’t actually work.
DO buy insect repellent locally. They sell very effective organic repellent made from essential oils.
Do protect yourself from ticks. If you plan to go hiking in the undergrowth, you should be aware that Sicily, like every other green leafy place in the world, has ticks which carry Lyme disease, Mediterranean spotted fever and a few other nasties. Smother yourself in every toxic insecticide available. I have chronic Lyme disease and I know nine Sicilians who also have it. Lyme disease is fairly hard to catch but, believe me, it is even harder to cure.
Do bring antihistamine cream and painkillers. If you want to know how much they would cost you here, add a zero onto the price you would pay at home.
11. Car rental
Many areas in most cities in Sicily have “parking assistants” who will ask you for a euro when you park your car in a public street. This will be your only opportunity, as a tourist, to interact with the Mafia! If you refuse to pay this protection money, you may return to find your car has been broken into. If you find one area strangely free of parking attendants, beware. It will be designated a free-for-all zone where any petty criminal may steal anything he wants.
Some Mafia parking attendants ask for your car key, like valet parking, so they can shuffle cars around and let people out. Mua ha haaa! I’ve never left my car keys with a stranger in the street.
If the whole town is Mafia-free, though, with no illegal “posteggiatori” at all, you are safe to leave the car anywhere.
EDIT: In this post I originally recommended paying one euro to be safe, but a Palermo local shamed me, and said we should stand up to them. He photographs them instead. DO go and see his pictures of these scammers.
I have some German friends who pretend to be daft tourists who do not understand requests for money, and take a photo of the Mafia parking attendant so they can show the police if anything does happen to their car.
DON’T leave valuables in your car. Certainly not visible and preferably not in the boot either, unless you know you’re in a posh neighbourhood.
12. So what is dangerous in Sicily?
The drivers, of course. Look both ways each time you cross the road. Always expect the unexpected, whether you are on foot or driving a car. They sometimes go up the pavement you know.
If you are planning a trip to Sicily and have specific questions, write them in the comments box, and I promise to answer you.