Mediterranean Ports: Palermo Versus Cagliari

Contributor Hans Hirschi

Likely Destinations On Your Western Mediterranean Cruise

Take a cruise in the Western Mediterranean and you’re likely to end up at one of these two cities. They are the capitals of the two largest islands in the Mediterranean and both these Italian islands boast millennia of history. Sardinia and Sicily also enjoy a fair bit of self-determination within the Italian Republic. The two cities (and the islands they govern) are vastly different in culture and appearance. Here’s a short look at what you might expect:

The islands of Elba (left) and Sicily (right) Credit: Wikimedia

Cagliari: Polished Capital of Sardinia

Sardinia, the smallest island of the two, has been a recent discovery. We spent a few days last year in the northernmost part of Sardinia. Costa Smeralda in the north of the island is one of those destinations where the 1% spend their vacations. During the height of summer, you can almost walk across the emerald-colored bay just by jumping from yacht to yacht. There are countless villas and cottages and the landscape is stunningly beautiful. And expensive.

Cagliari Old Town on the Island of Elba, Italy

This year we were fortunate to have a stop-over in Cagliari, situated in the very south of the island. Trains and a highway traverse the island from south to the north into Olbia and the Costa Smeralda, but given the size of the island, it’s not something you do in a single day. So we were looking forward to our visit to Cagliari.

This is a beautiful city, nestled in a bay with a small hill in the middle, on top of which you’ll find the local citadel or “casteddu” (castle) as it’s called in local Sardinian, a limestone building in ship-shape (no pun.) Since cruise vessels dock close to the city, it’s an easy walk. In the summer, it’s a good idea to bring a bottle of water, as it can get really hot.

A Rich Island

Not just Cagliari, but all of Sardinia is comparatively wealthy. That becomes very obvious when you contrast this autonomous region to other parts of southern Italy, particularly if you’ve been to Sicily (more about that later.) Cagliari is a very clean city and public services seem to work well. Prices are higher than in many other parts of the country.

Chiesa San Michaele, Cagliari

Sardinia isn’t just rich in monetary terms: inhabited since at least 12,000 BC, the island has seen many empires come and go: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Sicilians, etc. Through history, the locals have developed their own distinct culture, with a language that differs significantly from Italian, and an amazing cuisine. Have a look at my previous article on Sardinia for more details. 

When your cruise ship docks in Cagliari, don’t expect to see much of the island. It’s simply too big. Most excursions will take you to nearby beaches or sights.

Gay Sardinia

Being LGBT in Italy is still a bit of a “thing”, even more so in the south. I recall talking to a young gay man in Naples a couple of years ago and his heart-breaking story. In this very Catholic country, being open wasn’t a given, despite civil unions being available since 2016. There are still pockets in society when a young man or woman coming out might not just lead to being ostracized by their family, but could potentially lead to an honor killing. Sardinia may not be Naples, and as a tourist, you needn’t fear anything, but I’d suggest displaying any PDAs discreetly. There are a couple of gay bars and a night club in Cagliari. As these venues change names and addresses unexpectedly, I suggest you look them up as you prepare for your trip.

Food And Drink

The south of Italy boasts some of the best wines in Italy, with the abundant sun and the rich earth providing perfect conditions for grapes exploding with flavor. About an hour’s drive west of Cagliari, you’ll find the town of Santadi and the local winery Cantina Santadi. They produce some of the country’s best wines. The grapes used include big names such as Sangiovese, Carignano or Cabernet, but also local varieties such as Nuragus and Nasco.

Dining in Italy is easy. I’ve yet to eat a bad meal. However, some of the most amazing dining experiences I’ve had were on farms, outside cities and towns, in what is known as “agriturismo”. There are a great many such farms in the area, but if you don’t have time to leave the city, try Sa‘ide & S’ollia to be found in the old town. It is based on the same principle with a set menu. A general recommendation is to stay away from “menu turistico” places and look where locals eat. Then again, where is that not true?

Sicily, Rugged With A touch Of Africa

If you sail to Sicily, chances are you’ll dock in Palermo, Sicily’s capital city. But you might also arrive in Catania or Messina. We recently got to spend a day in Palermo, and the contrast to Cagliari is striking. There is less money in Sicily (about two-thousand Euros less in GDP per capita), but I dare to say that there is also a fair share of cultural differences.

Approaching Palermo, Sicily

Approaching Palermo, Sicily

Leave the main streets and you’ll see trash on the streets in ways you don’t see in Sardinia or the northern parts of Italy. Try to not let that ruin your day as Palermo is a very interesting city. Unlike Cagliari, it is not nestled against and around a hill but is surrounded by mountains. The approach in the morning is spectacular.

Your cruise vessel will dock smack downtown and you’ll reach the historic center within minutes. Like Sardinia, Sicily is a southern island and it does get hot. You can expect summer temperatures to reach 40C (100+ F), so bring a bottle of water. We were pleasantly surprised by the big avenues, beautifully lined with trees and the pedestrian area in the old town, as well as some impressive historic buildings. This was the seat of kings, you can tell.

Palermo, Ripe With History

If you’re interested in European history, Palermo has quite some stories to tell. Did you know that there are two family factions still embroiled in who’s the legitimate heir to the defunct throne of Palermo (and Sicily?) There’s an interesting article on Wikipedia on the topic. The current “royal family” can date its origins back to French king Louis XIV. The Royal Castle is in the old town and open to visitors.

Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, the Opera House in Palermo.

Yet Sicily’s history is older than the Sun King’s and has many parallels to that of Sardinia because many of the rulers were the same: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, etc. Traces of humans date back to 8,000 BC. And like Sardinia, you can’t take in the entire island in one day. Given its size, you’d need weeks. 

Two things I need to at least mention about Sicily: volcanoes and the mafia. Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe and always a threat to the people of Catania. As we were approaching Sicily, the volcano on the island of Stromboli was erupting, so it’s a very active volcanic region. The same can be said about the Cosa Nostra or mafia. For visitors from the US, the American mob often has direct family ties to Sicily. Given the poverty of the island in the nineteenth century, many Sicilian families found themselves forced to emigrate to the land of promise out west, not unlike today’s migration waves.

While the mafia has been somewhat curtailed by law enforcement in recent years, it continues to play a role in Sicilian society, but as a tourist, you will most likely not encounter it, or so I hope… But it makes for interesting reading if so inclined, particularly as similar phenomena plague most of our societies today. We just call them by different names.

Piazza e Fontana Pretoria Palermo

Piazza e Fontana Pretoria, Palermo, Sicily

Wine And Dine in Sicily

Let me just name drop a couple of wines: Marsala and Nero d’Avola. Nuff said. Sicily IS wine country and you if you like wine, there’s plenty to discover here.

The local cuisine has been shaped by the many cultures that have ruled the island over the eons, Greek, Arab, French and Italian. Pasta is said to have originated in Sicily, so there you have it, with Pasta alla Norma with eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta, and macaroni most likely the most famous local dish. But you should also try caponata, a starter made from eggplant. Why not finish your meal with granita, the local ice cream, often a bit coarser than your typical Italian sorbetto. And if ice cream isn’t your thing, don’t walk away from a Cassata, the famous sponge cake with candied fruit, another Sicilian specialty among many.

Gay Palermo

There is a gay sauna in the city (not visited, so I can’t tell you what it’s like) and there is a venue for the LGBT community to meet, called EXIT. We had arrived in Palermo the week after Pride and were surprised by the many rainbow stickers and flyers still everywhere. But don’t let that fool you. Palermo and Sicily, more than Sardinia, are very conservative and ripe with a culture oozing machismo. Keep that in mind. Our little gay family attracted zero attention, as usual when we travel, but on the other hand, we don’t hold hands in public, regardless of where we are. Not worth the risk.

Palermo Versus Cagliari: Final Verdict

I’ll be honest: I love Cagliari. As a Swiss, the cleanliness of the city, the fact that churches and palaces are meticulously maintained, appealed to me. But I would not go so far and say that I disliked Palermo. It is a city of great beauty and charm, you just have to dig a little deeper, see past the trashy streets and the derelict palaces. Palermo, and by extension Sicily, are cheaper than Cagliari and Sardinia, so if you’re staying a bit longer, that might be worth your consideration.

One of the great risks as a cruise guest is that you only ever get to graze a destination, there is no time to get to know a city in any great detail. Cagliari offers you loads of easy on the eye sights while I suspect that Palermo wants you to linger, to stay, to get to know it and its people and culture in-depth, over time.

One thing I’m entirely certain of: both places deserve a second visit, preferably with ample time to venture beyond the cobblestones of the old towns.

About the author:

Hans M Hirschi loves cruising, always with his husband and their son Sascha. Hirschi is the author of contemporary LGBT fiction and a Stonewall Award nominee. His most recent novel, The Golden One–Reckoning, is the final book in a series with a new take on the fantasy genre. His travel and cruise experiences tend to find their way into his writing. He’s also working as a tour guide in his beloved Gothenburg. He lives with his family on a small island off the Swedish West coast.

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Author photo by Alina Oswald, New York.