Off the Beaten Path in Sicily: Palermo’s Qanats

The qanat (pronounced ka-naht) is an Arab-designed underground canal/irrigation system that directs water from a high-elevation aquifer water source to a town or agricultural area along a perfectly-calculated and very slight downward grade (see illustration). Invented by the Persians in 1000 BCE and functioning as a “below-ground aqueduct,” it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates, such as Sicily.

Visiting a qanat in Palermo

A vestige of Sicily’s Islamic period, Palermo’s qanats make for a fascinating visit. SottoSopra is a local nonprofit that guides small groups into a still-functioning qanat. You can contact them online or by telephone (+39 091/580433). If you don’t speak Italian, it might be best to have your hotel call and set up the appointment for you and to get explicit directions. It’s important to be aware that the water is cool and you get into it up to your chest, so come prepared with clothing that you can get wet (they will provide boots).

Qanat Underground Aqueduct Diagram by Approach Guides

How a qanat delivers water from a high-elevation water source to a lower irrigation area.

Where to eat in Palermo

Here are some of our favorite places to enjoy a bite to eat after a day spent touring the city:

  • Osteria Paradiso. Via Serradifalco, 23 (close to the Zisa). Only open for lunch, this is a very good place for super-fresh seafood and pastas. The owner speaks only Italian (and there are no written menus) but you can just ask them to bring out any of the pastas mentioned and you will be very happy. Closed Sundays.
  • Antica Gelateria Lucchese. Located on the south side of Piazza S. Domenico, 11, this is one of our favorite gelaterie in Palermo. Go with a granita here — the mandorla (almond) is the most traditional and delicious. Locals order their gelato in a brioche.
  • Mi Manda Picone. Via Paternostro 69 at Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi. Excellent wine bar that has a very extensive list of Sicilian wines by the glass. The bar also has a restaurant attached, so you can get food, if you wish.