PALERMO, Italy -- The taxi driver wove through the traffic of modern Palermo, then along the waterfront and through the oldest part of the Sicilian city, all the way listing the top sites: the Palazzo dei Normanni, with its beautiful mosaics; the cathedral, once an Arab mosque; and the Teatro Massimo, the city's grand opera house.

But as we sped to my hotel, I was more intrigued by an area of narrow streets full of people, thousands of little dancing lights and red-orange canopies.

Palermo colorful, crowded street food markets, such as the popular Vucciria, above, are considered among the best in Europe. "Il Mercato della Vucciria," the driver said.

The next morning, I decided to leave the must-sees of Palermo for later and make the Vucciria street market my first stop.

From the Hotel Villa Archirafi, a clean, attractive two-star property, it was a 10-minute walk to the old Arab quarter of Palermo, where Vucciria covers about a half-mile of winding alleys near Piazza San Domenico.

The open-air market, open Tuesday through Saturday until 2 p.m., was in full gear at 10 a.m., with smells of fish and spices and the sounds of fishmongers hawking their catch.

Stall after stall sold mountains of shiny eggplants, long-stemmed artichokes, slabs of swordfish, cheeses such as caciocavallo and ricotta, spices, blood oranges and other fruit.

Other stalls offered preserved vegetables, dried fruit and regional specialties such as panelle (chickpea fritters) to nibble on.

Smoke rose from grills lined with octopus and squid, which were slapped on warm fresh bread for take-away snacks.

The frenetic atmosphere was more reminiscent of the casbahs of Morocco and Cairo than of modern-day Italy.

In fact, the quarter is a relic of Sicily's Arab past, built by 10th century Muslim rulers as their administrative and military seat; it later attracted fishermen and sailors because of its proximity to the port.

Vucciria is Palermo's most famous street market, but there are others, such as Ballaro and Capo. Both are 10-minute walks from Vucciria and are just as colorful and delightful.

Dawn Bosco, president of Amelia International, a Sicily specialist in Hicksville, N.Y., said many U.S. travelers are fascinated by Palermo's markets, "considered the best food markets in Europe."

Amelia International, which handles travel for the Culinary Institute of America, offers guided tours of Vucciria, Ballaro and Capo as part of independent programs.

"We can include tours of the markets with a guide who knows the history and knows the food of Sicily well," Bosco said.

Bosco recommends travelers visit the markets early in the morning for the most lively atmosphere -- when fishmongers and butchers start their sing-song chants to entice customers.

For more information, contact Amelia International at (800) 742-4591 or visit

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