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36 Hours in Palermo, Sicily

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CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times

Palermo is a city marked by past con­querors, each Baroque church and Norman-Romanesque facade a reminder of prosperous eras past. But while many of the Sicilian capital’s architectural landmarks could best be described as crumbling, amid the cracks are hints of progress: like a budding contemporary art scene and forward-thinking restaurants energizing rundown neighborhoods.

Now, during the holiday season, the rough-edged port city is at its liveliest, with festive lights brightening labyrinthine alleys, Christmas markets bringing cheer to even the most pugnacious Palermitani, and family-run restaurants serving traditional Sicilian feasts. And here the celebration extends well into the new year, continuing until Epiphany on Jan. 6.

  1. Photo

    A band performs at Kursaal Kalhesa. CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times
    Friday

    1.ART MOVEMENT, 4 P.M.

    An evolving art scene is proving that Baroque and contemporary can coexist side by side. Exhibit A is at Quattro Canti, a historic intersection with ornate fountains and marble statues. There, mere steps from the Baroque flourishes is the Francesco Pantaleone Gallery, a white-walled second-story space that presents conceptual shows from rising Italian art stars like Giuseppe Lana (free). The juxtaposition continues with the cutting-edge exhibitions at Palazzo Riso, a beautiful late-Baroque building whose restoration after decades of neglect resulted in a home for the Museum of Contemporary Sicilian Art (admission, 6 euros). But the age difference between the works and the walls is most pronounced at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, or GAM, which moved into a complex of interconnected structures including a former Franciscan convent dating to the 15th century (admission, 7 euros).

    2.WINE TIME, 7 P.M.

    Sicilian wines have become sommeliers’ darlings in recent years, so use thepre-dinner window to see what the buzz has been about. One worthy spot is the unassuming Enoteca Vinoveritas, a tiny neighborhood wine shop that doubles as a low-key local hangout during aperitivo. Glasses of idiosyncratic Sicilian varietals like grillo and nero d’Avola are poured at the short wooden bar and accompanied by a generous variety of snacks.

    image for Taste of SicilyA platter of crisp sarde allinguate from PerciaSacchi. CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times

    3.TASTE OF SICILY, 9 P.M.

    Venture into the winding alleys of the Capo district for a rewarding taste of the territory at PerciaSacchi, a pioneering restaurant opened in 2012 by two young women. Named after an ancient Sicilian grain, the intimate restaurant is devoted to the local-focused kilometer-zero philosophy and serves seasonal menus inspired by traditional recipes. Recently, that included a platter of crisp sarde allinguate, a Palermitano specialty of marinated and fried sardines (14 euros). There was also a creative riff on sfincione, which reimagined the simple street food as a sourdough pizza topped with ricotta from nearby Gangi, tuma cheese, fresh breadcrumbs and a generous shaving of bottarga (14 euros). To drink, try a biodynamic wine from the Sicilian producer Arianna Occhipinti, or an artisanal ale from the local Trimmutura brewery.

    4.WALL-TO-WALL PARTY, 11:30 P.M.

    Behind the green expanse of Foro Italico, the city’s nearly 10-acre front lawn that overlooks the sea, massive stone sea walls conceal an unusual night life locale. Kursaal Kalhesa is a rambling complex housed in a spectacular palazzo with cavernous stone halls that host regular music and cultural events. Depending on the night, you may find yourself ensconced in a romantic jazz bar listening to a live band, or dancing in a packed discoteca with a D.J. spinning beneath ancient vaulted stone ceilings.

    Explore street view, find things to do in Palermo and sign in to your Google account to save your map.

    Saturday

    5.MARKET FIND, 10 A.M.

    The chaos of the Capo street market singsong calls of vendors hawking goods to the jostling crowd, bloody sides of beef strung up for sale, scooters weaving through the packed lanes will wake you up faster than any espresso can. After getting an eyeful, slip past the ramshackle stalls and into the Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione al Capo, an easily missed trove of Baroque workmanship (admission, 1 euro). The plain exterior of this 17th-century church gives no hint of the magnificence waiting inside: beautiful bas-reliefs, dazzling frescoes, marble statues and intricately inlaid walls that are more amazing given the market disarray right outside.

    6.LUNCH WITH LOCALS, NOON

    For four decades, the Corona family has presided over Vini del Paradiso, a lunch-only osteria frequented by multigenerational families and groups of well-groomed men who resemble extras from a Mafioso movie. Arrive early to secure one of the few tables inside the charmingly spartan space decorated with yellowed photos of former popes. There are no menus, so the proprietor will suggest specials, the best of which feature seafood, like roasted calamari, swordfish-studded caponata, and spaghetti with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs. Lunch for two, about 30 euros (cash only).

    7.GOLDEN OLDIES, 2 P.M.

    Whether it’s your first trip or your tenth, a visit to Palermo isn’t complete without a stop at Palazzo dei Normanni, the royal palace. The refurbished palm-tree-shaded gardens of the neighboring Villa Bonanno now make the walk there more pleasant, as would a route past the city’s grandiose cathedral in all its Norman-Moorish-Gothic-neo-Classical glory. First-timers should proceed directly to the Cappella Palatina, the gilded chapel of the Norman Kings, to marvel at the golden Byzantine mosaics (admission, 10 euros). Others may prefer to check out a temporary exhibition on the first floor, which recently hosted a blockbuster crucifixion-themed show by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

    8.LET THEM EAT TORTA, 4:30 P.M.

    For proof that the canon of Sicilian desserts extends far beyond the sweet-ricotta-filled cannolo and cassata, visit Pasticceria Cappello, a pastry shop on a run-down street behind the palace. Don’t miss the torta setteveli, a cake native to the city featuring seven chocolately, hazelnutty layers. Or ifyou prefer frozen sweets, head to Al Gelatone. This colorful gelato shop scoops dozens of artisanal variations, like watermelon granita, lemon-basil sorbetto, and toasted-almond and pistachio gelato offered Sicilian-style, in a sweet brioche bun.

    image for Sicilian TheatricsTeatro Massimo. CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times

    9.SICILIAN THEATRICS, 8 P.M.

    The grand ocher sandstone facade of Teatro Massimo, flanked by palms, will be familiar to cinephiles: The final scenes of “The Godfather Part III” played out on the theater’s steps. But now, after decades marred by budget problems and corruption charges, Italy’s largest opera house is building a reputation for the performances staged inside. The new year will usher in a new season of ballets, concerts and, of course, operas, including Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” and Verdi’s “Attila.” Tickets from 12 euros.

    10.STREET EATS, 10 P.M.

    Palermo’s diverse street food from arancine (fried rice balls) to stigghiola (barbecued intestines) is legendary. For variety and a modicum of comfort, head to Nni Franco u’ Vastiddaru, a street-food restaurant with plastic tables and chairs on an adjacent piazza. The specialty is panelle, rectangular fritters of chickpea flour, served on a seeded bun. Pair that with the fritti misti, a mix of arancine and croquettes, or the pani ca’ meusa, a cheesy spleen sandwich. Dinner for two, about 20 euros.

    11.UNITED WE DRINK, 11:30 P.M.

    The craft-beer-and-creative-cocktail trend has yet to land on Sicily’s shores, but Bar Garibaldi proves that’s not needed for a fun late-night drink. Named after a central figure in the unification of what was then the Kingdom of Italy, the divey hangout brings together an eclectic crowd everyone from students to hard-drinking communists. Order a Negroni at the bar, find a seat in the back amid propaganda posters and shelves of left-leaning literature, and enjoy the music and sociable atmosphere.

  2. Photo

    A market in Palermo. CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times
    Sunday

    12.CROSSROADS OF CULTURE, 10:30 A.M.

    A five-year restoration of Palazzo Branciforte, which reopened in 2012, transformed the disused landmark into a stunning cultural center (admission, 7 euros). The Italian architect Gae Aulenti designed a modern museum within the 17th-century palazzo, where exhibits include collections of Sicilian artifacts and coins dating back to the 13th-century Aragonese. Most impressive is the Monte di Santa Rosalia, a former wooden storage space with a maze of shelves, ladders, staircases and platforms that today hosts temporary art exhibitions.

    13.ALFRESCO ARANCINE, 1 P.M.

    A full meal can be made of a single softball-size arancina at Antico Caffè Spinnato, a historic cafe on a pedestrian thoroughfare. The traditional order is a crisp golden ball of rice stuffed with ragù, but the better choice here is the rich arancina con burro, with butter (1.80 euros). Sit at one of the cafe’s sidewalk tables to watch the city promenade past in its Sunday finest. Afterward, order a few delicious desserts to go. And don’t forget the cannoli.

The world’s most luxurious train journeys

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– By John Malathronas, for CNN

Canada - Rocky with TrainThere once was a time when train travel was an adventure.

For many travelers, the constant change of scenery was preferable to the monotony of a lengthy boat passage.

After World War II, cheap flights replaced long-haul train journeys.

Many routes disappeared and the ones that remained were the domains of the hardy backpacker: uncomfortable, inconvenient and rough.

But in recent decades rail travel has come full circle and luxury trains have returned with a vengeance.

Never have there been so many contenders promising to pamper you through landscapes remote and exotic.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: London to Venice

No other train journey evokes romance and adventure quite like the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, setting of notorious Agatha Christie mystery “Murder on the Orient Express.”

The train still rolls by some of Europe’s most captivating scenery through cities that have become legends in themselves: London, Paris, Innsbruck, Verona and Venice.

Its Art Deco glamor has persevered through the decades while the train’s elegant suites recall an older, more stylish age.

Most guests board the train in London for the one-night journey to Venice. But passengers traveling from Italy might notice a set of unusual crates being delivered personally to the head chef on the Paris platform.

They are filled with freshly caught lobsters to be served during a delicious brunch before the train reaches the French port of Calais — only available on the westward route.

Price: From $3,342 per person

Golden Eagle: Moscow to Vladivostok

The Golden Eagle lets travelers experience Russia in style.

Hardcore travelers say you haven’t really experienced train travel until you’ve rode the Trans-Siberian Express, with its intimidating itinerary that spans a whopping eight time zones.

The Golden Eagle is a luxury version of the Trans-Siberian, featuring en-suite bathrooms, air-con in the summer, full heat in the winter, laundry services, TVs, a resident pianist and an English-speaking doctor.

The two-week passage feels more like a cruise than a train ride as it stops for daily excursions along the way.

It rides along Lake Baikal, hauled by a Soviet Era steam locomotive, and makes a detour to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.

To help passengers acclimatize in extravagance, five-star accommodations in Moscow and Vladivostok are provided.

From US$15,895 per person (Silver Class)

Blue Train: Pretoria to Cape Town

The Blue Train’s 27-hour, 1,600 kilometer journey crosses South Africa diagonally, stopping at the diamond mines of Kimberley on the way south and at the eccentrically colonial outpost of Matjiesfontein on the way north.

Luxurious surroundings apart, the image that lingers afterward is of the friendly and helpful staff.

Many of the butlers have worked on the train for years and are on call 24/7 for a drink, a snack or even to iron clothes.

Some of the luxury double suites have full size bathtubs — there’s nothing quite like lying in a sea of bubbles, glass of champagne in hand as the savannah rolls by.

Past passengers include Nelson Mandela, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Mia Farrow, Margaret Thatcher and Kylie Minogue.

Celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2016, the Blue Train is now offering special journeys from Pretoria to Hoedspruit, in the Kruger Park area.

From $976 per person

The Ghan: Adelaide to Darwin

The Ghan is a three-night, 2,979-kilometer tour from Darwin to Adelaide that allows travelers to cross the Australian continent while peering into the endless uniformity of the red-earthed antipodean bush.

The Platinum service offers more cabin and ensuite space, chauffeured transfers, access to an exclusive dining carriage, breakfast in bed and five-course meals.

The menu highlights Australia’s exotic local fare, like saltwater barramundi fish and grilled kangaroo fillet.

The Ghan offers scheduled excursions in Katherine and Alice Springs, while special stops provide an opportunity to experience either an outback sunrise in Marla going north, or a nightcap under the Milky Way in Manguri going south.

From $2,637 per person

Rovos Rail: Southern and eastern Africa

Rovos Rail passengers get to take in Africa's spectacular scenary -- big beasts included.

Rovos Rail is a slower, chiller version of the Blue Train, featuring an extended network of far-flung destinations in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania.

Luxurious and lavish cabin surroundings mean the Rovos ride is not an end in itself, but an essential part of a long journey with several overnights.

Because the train never travels more than 60 kilometers per hour (37 m.p.h.) passengers can open windows for fresh air or to photograph the landscapes.

In fact, the staff provide sets of goggles so that, should the urge arise to stick heads out of windows, dust in eyes won’t be a problem.

Popular journeys fill up quickly: the leisurely ramble from Pretoria to Dar es Salaam, the Namibia safari and golfing trips have sold out well into 2017.

The 4-day Pretoria to Victoria Falls journey in the Pullman suite costs $1,504 per person

The Rocky Mountaineer: Banff to Vancouver

The train's viewing carriages offer stunning views of the Canadian Rockies.

The Gold Leaf Service of the Rocky Mountaineer offers one of few five-star rail experiences in North America.

There are several routes into the Rockies, but it’s the classic Banff to Vancouver ride that still captures the imagination.

This was the last, arduous leg of the great rail expansion westwards that united Canada in the late 1880s.

Although most tourists prefer the summer season, September to mid-October is possibly the most romantic time to travel, when the leaves turn to a vibrant mix of reds, oranges and yellows and fresh snow accumulates on the mountaintops.

To ramp up the romance, couples traveling together can rotate their seats so they face each other during the journey.

From $1,309 per person

Belmond Royal Scotsman: Scottish Highlands.

A journey aboard the Belmond Royal Scotsman is a unique way to see the magnificent Scottish countryside in a Downton Abbey atmosphere.

Travelers can choose from several round trips from Edinburgh lasting between two and seven days, but the classic voyage is the four-night passage to the Scottish Highlands.

It includes visits to distilleries and sightseeing excursions to castles.

The UK’s only luxury sleeper train, it has a bar stocked with more than 50 kinds of whisky.

Fall is perhaps the best time of year to travel, when the purples of wild heather color the Scottish meadows.

From $3,917 per person (two nights)

The Canadian: Toronto to Vancouver

VIA Rail’s four-day The Canadian journey takes travelers through 4,466 kilometers of beautiful scenery, linking two of the country’s most exciting cities, Toronto and Vancouver.

For a year now, the rail company has been quietly adding deluxe sleepers and gourmet meals to its standard routes.

Its new Prestige class now offers seven swanky bedrooms, but these will increase to 13 in summer 2016.

Each comes with its own ensuite shower, a washroom and minibar with alcohol included in the ticket price.

At night, when the Canadian wilderness lies invisible, an in-carriage flat-screen TV will keep passengers entertained with preloaded content on a USB stick.

Worth noting: this is the only regular scheduled passenger train in North America to offer double beds instead of upper and lower bunks or just singles.

From $2,891 per person

Why small tour groups are better

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Why small tour groups are better

Large groups only benefit the tour operator or travel agent who make more money. Of course there are rare instances where traveling in a large group is necessary but more often a small group is a far better value for your dollar.

Group3The large group must travel in a large bus which limits the roads and areas the group can visit. Due to the group size larger hotels are required and their restaurants used for group meals. A lot of time is wasted waiting for group members to assemble for a days activity, loading the bus etc.

With a small group tour we often travel in a regular van, we can take back roads to out of the way places, eat at small local cafes, mingle with the people.

A smaller group can stay in quaint, family-run guest houses and local hotels. We can walk around town putting us in closer touch with the history and culture. Instead of being insulated on a bus you can experience and participate in the regions you are visiting.Smaller groups also have less impact on areas we visit Imagine in your own city if you traveled only by freeway and major highways how much of your beloved city would you miss?

For travel in Asia, South America or Africa there is no better way than with a small group and an experienced tour operator like Trip Connoisseurs.

Tips for Travel Internationally

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 Tips Before Traveling Internationally

If this is your first time traveling abroad, or maybe you just need a refresher here’s a list of 20 tips you should do or bring before your trip.

Security & Health

  1. Check-in with your doctor and insurance carrier.Double check and make sure that you have all of the proper vaccinations and that you have renewed all essential prescriptions. Also, ask you medical insurance provider if your policy applies overseas for emergencies. If it doesn’t, and you want to add extra coverage, consider supplemental insurance.
  1. Bring copies of your passport.If your passport gets stolen or lost you want to be sure that you can still get back into the country, or be able to prove your citizenship. 
  1. Leave a copy of your passport.For extra backup, leave a copy of your passport at home or with someone you trust. Consider making an electronic copy you can store in your email account as well. 
  1. Register with your embassy.If there’s a problem in the country, this will make it easier for your government to contact you and get you to safety.

 

Money

  1. Look up the monetary conversion before you go.Finding out that one Danish Krone is equal to just 19 cents … bad surprise. Make sure you do your math before you travel to get a sense of where the conversion rate is at.
  1. Make sure your credit card will work in the country you’re visiting.European banks have switched almost completely to the more secure chip-and-PIN technology, and fewer businesses abroad are accepting the outdated magnetic-strip cards. 
  1. Go to a bank or ATM in the country you’re visiting.The conversion centers in the airport or around the city tend to be huge rip-offs. You won’t get charged as many fees at the ATM or the bank, and the conversion will be exact. 
  1. Always have local cash.Not every place takes credit cards. Especially important places like trains or buses. 
  1. Call your bank or credit card provider.Sometimes banks think that fraud maybe occurring if transactions are suddenly happening in Bali when you’re from Jersey, and they will turn off your card as a security measure. 
  1. Check the country’s entrance/exit fees. Some countries require travelers to pay in order to enter or leave the country. These fees are not included in the price of your airline ticket, and can range from $25 to $200.

 

Local Research

  1. Buy tickets now for places you know you want to visit or see.By buying in advance you’ll be able to skip more lines, and find more deals targeted toward you. 
  1. Get guidebooks.Guidebooks usually include maps, key words or phrases, and give you enough detail on certain sites that you won’t need to purchase the pamphlet at the venue. And download apps before you travel. Avoid downloading charges from your wireless carrier and get your apps before you leave. 
  1. Research events going on while you’re there. This will help you make sure that you’re not missing be events going on in the city. Fun things like festivals, ceremonies and natural events. Also be sure to research as a few national dishes to try. You don’t want to leave the country without experiencing what its known for.

 

Electronics

  1. Bring a charger adapter.Countries have different size plugs and voltage. So if you want to use your iPod, make sure you can charge it. 
  1. Check the voltage of your electronics.From my own experience I know that nothing is worse than having an adapter and still not being able to use a blow-dryer or a straightener because the voltage isn’t high enough for that country. 
  1. Activate your phone’s global capabilities.There’s usually a charge we doing this, but it is much less than the roaming charges you’ll get if you don’t. 
  1. Download a Travel Planning app. The Tripcase, Tripit, TripAdvisor can help you organize your travel plans like a digital companion to help you plan track your itinerary, make sure your tickets and connections are all lined up.

 

Luggage & packing

  1. Pack an extra set of clothes in your carry-on bag. Don’t be one of those travelers decked out in J’adore Paris apparel because the airline lost your luggage and you have nothing else to wear. 
  1. To check a bag or not to check bag. Each airline has its own set of guidelines as to how many bags can be checked or carried on for free. Make sure to look up what your airline’s rules are to avoid any incremental fees. 
  1. Bring snacks.Traveling abroad is fun, but eating in a foreign country can sometimes become a task. Bring small snacks that will tide you over until you find that perfect restaurant or food cart.

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