Palermo is one of those destinations where anyone’s instinctive reaction to the question of car hire is going to lean heavily towards not getting one, mainly due to safety fears – real or not!
First-time visitors to the rugged and sparsely populated island of Sicily could be forgiven for thinking that this is a destination where there are no railways, and where no distance would be that great, so it would still be easy enough to get around just using local buses. However, neither of these two presumptions could be further from the truth!
Not only is Sicily deceptively large – there are several different loops around the island which would each take a day of driving to complete without stops – but apart from the motorways which had west towards Palermo and south through and beyond Catania from the port of Messina, most of the roads on Sicily are also very winding.
Reasons why you should hire a car in Palermo
General Palermo car hire advice notes
Apart from the natural warning about the safety of driving in Sicily, always beware that the island of Sicily is deceptively large. Allow at least a full day for any driving loops around the island – better to break it up into sections over several days, either staying in different places or returning back to Palermo each day.
Visiting Palermo without a car
From Palermo to the mainland?
Trains from Palermo (and in Sicily in general)
If you want to head east from Palermo towards Catania, you can also take a rail trip around Mount Etna using the famous Circumetnea railway, whereas the fiery hot volcanic island of Stromboli needs to be visited by boat trip from Milazzo For any of islands situated off Sicily, a car can actually be a nuisance as you will have to pay for parking at the port. None of these small islands is big enough to drive on.
Visitors landing at Palermo’s airport can also continue directly onwards into the city centre, from where other connections are available throughout the island. Sicily might not be the sort of place where visitors expect to be whizzed around on ultramodern high-speed trains, but some rail maps of Europe show the entire coastal route all the way to Messina and then onwards down the eastern coast past Catania and then right through Siracusa and on to the town of Noto as all being exceptionally scenic.
Furthermore, heading west from Palermo to Trapani, this coastal rail route is rated as highly scenic all the way to the western point of Marsala. From here, a loop can be continued via Mazara and on through another scenic inland route through to Balestrate, where the line rejoins the Palermo to Trapani coastal route.
Should I hire a car in Palermo and drop it off somewhere else?
The main problem with one-way rentals between Sicily and the Italian mainland is that car hire companies won’t be so keen on lending you a car that they might then have to bring back by ferry at their own expense.
Make sure you have a very clear indication of the small print if this is your plan. Even if you plan just to take a day trip by ferry and return the way you came, make sure you have insurance for the ferry included in your contract – otherwise you are not covered for any damage that may occur during the crossing (and the ferry company won’t be liable either).
Is it worth renting a car for part of my trip?
I’m not so sure that Sicily is really the sort of place to do a partial rental, probably because my gut feeling says that if you can see enough without getting a hire car, then it doesn’t really make that much sense just to get in a car, say for a day or two, at the end of the your trip.
I think if I had to drive in Sicily, it would take me a few days to get used to the driving conditions, so the last thing I would want to do after that would be to hand the car straight back!
The nature of public transport options is such that you might want to do a bit of touring over several days rather than make day trips that bring you back into Palermo each evening. Of course there are some circuits you can do in a day, but it’s often a bit of a push. Combining travelling around by train with picking up a rental car doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.
Should I hire a car in Palermo for a “road trip”?
Sicily is just big enough that you may prefer to stay in a few different places as you move around the island. However, I wouldn’t define this as a “road trip” in the sense of driving very long distances each day. For that, you’d need to take your car across into the mainland, and I think there are better ways of doing that.
So if you do have an Italian road trip in mind, then I would suggest either getting around Sicily by public transport first, or hiring a car maybe for a long day if you need to. Then once you are done, pop on the ferry across into Calabria, and look at car rental options from there. A road trip circuit around the coast of Italy, and then across the top of the country between Turin and Venice would be the natural choice, but there’s not much point in starting that here, and certainly not if you’d have to take out ferry insurance for the whole duration of your rental. The best places to start a road trip in Italy are the cities with a good range of flights from across Europe and elsewhere, and also the airports which have a competitive selection of hire car options. You are most likely to find this in places such as Pisa, Milan, and of course Venice!
Do I need to hire a car in Palermo to get to the Aeolian Islands?
The Aeolian Islands are a group of volcanic islands which sit to the north of Sicily, and which can be reached be ferry (hydrofoil or conventional) in between around 1 and 6 hours from the port of Milazzo.
Milazzo is 3-4 hours by train, or around a 2 1/2 hour drive from Palermo. This port town can also be reached from Catania in a little less time.
Wherever you are staying in Sicily, if you do fancy a trip to these incredibly diverse islands, you’ll get to the port a little bit quicker by car, but then you will almost certainly just end up parking it there in the port and paying upwards of €10 per day for the privilege. However, you may also be able to arrange to do a one way rental and either pick up or drop off a car here – but be prepared to pay through the nose for that. There are a number of major and local brands of car hire company in the town.
Car ferry insurance warning
You should also be aware that if you take your rental car on a ferry without informing your hire company, you may well void the insurance. This applies to all kinds of ferries, including domestic routes.
Parking – http://www.parcheggiomilazzo.it/garage.html
James says - a few trip notes:
I visited Sicily in March 2006. Having booked the flights a few weeks previously and then having done some research much closer to departure, we decided to head to Catania and spend a Saturday night there, travelling by train right the way through the interior of Sicily, changing once at Caltanissetta Xirbi. Now this is another superb route that really goes right through the heart of Sicily’s mountainous inland, yet this one isn’t even rated on European rail maps as being especially scenic!
We then travelled around Catania on the Circumetnea route, but by then it was getting dark, so we wanted to come back the next day and see Etna properly. This is something we ended up doing in an organised private four-wheel-drive tour, and that’s something that’s been covered in more detail in our Catania car hire advice page.
For returning back to Palermo, we looked at the option of going back the same way by train, or of taking the train via Messina, but we weren’t comfortable with either option in terms of connections and reliability. Instead we took a direct bus from Catania to Palermo, and even though this was an express service with very limited stops, it still gave us another great glimpse of the island within.
Traffic lights optional
At this point we have to bring up the question of those legendary Sicilian drivers, and the phrase used by our own tour guide, who told us that in Sicily “the traffic laws are optional”.
It has also been suggested that driving standards in Italy start reasonably well around Milan, and then deteriorate slowly the further south anyone goes. For many people picking up a hire car in Palermo and then doing any sort of self drive road trip really isn’t going to be an option, whereas the idea of taking a private guided tour is slightly better, because you are at least leaving the driving to a trusted local.
If you are happy rolling the roulette wheel and taking a punt on Palermo’s roads, then it still fair enough to say that picking up a hire car is going to be useful for all the reasons that it is elsewhere, and we are under no illusions that if you do want to try and travel around Sicily by train, you are still limited by very infrequent schedules, hence there’s always the risk that the dice will roll against you here, and you end up with a late running service that means you missed that last train of the day back to where you are staying, and have to hurriedly work out some other emergency plan B for the night.
All I’ll say personally is that you should hire a car in Palermo if you are happy being the one doing the driving! The roads are amazingly engineered in places, and even when they just cling to the hillsides, you are still in for a fascinating ride. You can only go so far into Sicily’s deep interior if you rely on buses and trains. I wouldn’t particularly fancing walking along any of these roads either. If I have given you even the slightest concern about safety here, (and I can make no apology for that, the driving I experienced here was by far the worst I have ever seen in Europe), then I hope you can still get to enjoy this amazing island without the worry of needing to hire a car!
Get a car because:
- You will have the same flexibility as anywhere else – if you are comfortable driving here!
- You can drive deep into the Sicilian interior – fantastic hilltop villages and stunning driving roads.
- Rail services are slow, unreliable and infrequent.
- It’s generally good value if you are travelling as a small group.
- Drive east to the Mount Etna park and get direct access to the slopes, when compared with trying to get there by train.
Don’t get a car because:
- This is Sicily – drive at your own risk!
- Direct train services are available from Palermo International airport right into the city centre.
- Thjere’s one main station in Palermo with onward connections throughout the island.
- Many train routes around Sicily rated as extremely scenic, especially Palermo to Catania via Messina.
- Visit the stunning Circumetnea Scenic railway line around Mount Etna (see Catania page for more details).
- Numerous options available for boat trips, including visiting Stromboli National Park.
- Parking can be a problem anywhere on the island, not just in Palermo. Historic towns and villages often lack decent parking spaces.
- Local buses available in towns, and between major towns, including express coach services, for example, between Palermo and Catania.
- You can visit other islands by ferry – car ferry services are limited.
- You can continue onwards into mainland Italy by ferry – no one way rental or ferry insurance surcharges to worry about.
Should you rent a car in Palermo? When the opportunity to get around by train is combined with the various different boat trips which can be taken from Sicily, including the trip to Stromboli, then this all adds up to a very strong recommendation that Sicily in general and Palermo in particular is a solid destination where a hire car just isn’t needed.