Palermo

25 Best Things To See and Do In Palermo

Palermo is the place where I was born and grew up, I lived there until the age of 25 before I moved to England. Palermo offers a blend of different cultures and traditions where you will be able to admire beautiful architecture, stunning monuments, Neoclassical Theatres, Baroque churches, Historic markets, Norman palazzi and more.
I have decided to put together a list of the 25 best places to see in Palermo for those who are visiting for a short or longer period of time there will be plenty of things see and do.

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

The mother of all the churches in Palermo is the Cathedral, the most distinctive buildings of the city. Built in 1184 at the request of Archbishop Gualtiero Offamilio. Over time, however, it has undergone several renovations, modifications and additions, all carried out at different times in the past, which today contribute to the extraordinary beauty of this monument.

The entrance to the Cathedral is free but you have to buy a ticket if you want to visit the royal tombs, the treasure and the rooftop where you can admire the wonderful view of the city.

The 4 Canti

Quattro Canti (25680835008)

After visiting the Cathedral, continuing down Corso Vittorio Emanuele you will arrive at the so-called Quattro Canti, located in Piazza Villena, which represent the center of Palermo.

Its structure, perfectly octagonal, is a crossroad of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda.

The baroque facades that form the square, during the hours of the day, are always illuminated by the sun at least on one side, and this is why they are also known as the “Theater of the Sun”.

Pretoria Fountain

Piazza Pretoria-Palermo

This place is my favourite, known also as the shameful square is located only a few meters from the Quattro Canti. This grand square is one of the symbolic places of the city of Palermo, rich in history and a magnificent example of urban decorative art. This square featuring naked statues was nicknamed “square of the shame” by nuns who lived in the adjacent convent.

See also: Best places to see in Catania

Santa Maria Dell’ Ammiraglio

Santa Maria dell' Ammiraglio

Better known as the “Martorana” this church is of an extraordinary beauty due to the fusion of different artistic styles: Arab, Norman, Byzantine and Baroque. The outside of the building is very simple but once inside you will be shocked by the rich interior with numerous arches, walls and ceilings adorned with frescos, mosaics and marble.

In 2015 was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Palermo, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, chiostro (02)

The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is characterized by the Norman era style; it is a Christian structure but built according to Islamic architectural styles. On the roof has five red domes including one on the Gothic bell tower. The interior of the church is quite simple and the lovely cloister is worth a visit.

Palazzo dei Normanni

Palermo Palazzo dei Normanni (40733447644)

The Palazzo dei Normanni historically was the Royal Palace and the seat of the Norman King Roger II, today houses the sicilian region parliament. Inside you can visit the rooms of King Roger, the rooms of Hercules and the Palatine chapel which I will tell you about it next.

Palatina Chapel

Cappella palatina palermo 2012

Ordered to be built by Roger II as a church of the royal family.

The interiors are decorated with wonderful byzantine mosaics representing various biblical scenes. 

I definitely recommend a tour of the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Palatina Chapel.

Palazzo Abatellis

Arcades - Palazzo Abatellis - Palermo - Italy 2015 (2)

Palazzo Abatellis is the Regional Gallery of Sicily one of the most prestigious museums in Italy where you can admire precious work 

of immense value such as the “Annunziata” by Antonello da Messina or the wall affresco “Triumph of Death” thought to be commissioned by the Aragonese Kings of Naples to a catalan unknown painter. The Palazzo Abatellis is located in the Kalsa district.

Historic Food Markets 

Mercato del Capo

The markets of Palermo represent the ideal place for an authentic jump into the past and in the most ancient traditions of the people of Palermo.

There are four main historic markets: Capo, Vucciria, Ballaro’ and Borgo Vecchio where you will find plenty of local fresh products.

Check out this street food and market tour (sponsored link)

Street food in Palermo

Sfincione palermitano

The Street Food in Palermo is part of the cultural heritage, an ancient tradition that is still alive. It is not in fact a case that this city is one of the Street Food world capitals.

Insider tip: The best inexpensive street food is to be found in the historic markets that I have mentioned above where you will find outdoor tables that serve the best street food in the city.

Santa Maria dello Spasimo 

Santa Maria Dello Spasimo

In the Kalsa district, one of the oldest in Palermo, is the unfinished catholic church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo. The peculiarity of this Gothic style building is the lack of the roof, which makes it an open-air church. Today this venue hosts musicals, theatrical and cultural events and the Palermo Jazz School.

Santa Cita

Santa Cita

Built in the early 17th century in an area annexed to the church of Santa Cita, it houses a sumptuous Baroque decorative masterpiece by Giacomo Serpotta (from around 1685 to 1690). A breathtaking baroque stucco work. This place was kept secret for many years, but is now open to the public.

Teatro Massimo

Palermo, Teatro Massimo - panoramio

This theater is the biggest in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after the Opera house of Paris and the Staatsoper of Vienna. After a long period of closure from 1974 to 1997 due to refurbishment the Teatro Massimo resumed its place as one of the great Opera houses in Europe.

You can book a guided tour here (sponsored link)

The Qanat 

Qanat of Palermo

The Qanat are narrow underground tunnels dug by the Arabs in the 9th century. The Arabs were masters of water, they dug these tunnels with simple hoes because the subsoil of the Palermo plain is made up mostly of limestone, a very friable and easy rock to work; these tunnels intercepted the underground water and through gravity and a slight slope carried the water to the surface. You can take a tour which lasts about an hour.

Mondello Beach

Mondello , Palermo, Sicily

Mondello beach is a real favourite location for the people of Palermo, including myself. Situated only 7 miles from Palermo city center Mondello is very easy to get to by car or public transport.

The golden sandy beach, the crystal clear and shallow waters make it an ideal holiday destination especially for families with small children. In the town centre you will find plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from.

Insider Tip: Avoid Mondello between June to the end of August as it gets very busy especially if you are driving. The best time to go is April-May and September-October when it is not too hot and much quieter. 

Monte Pellegrino Sanctuary

Monte Pellegrino Sanctuary

At 430 mt above sea level on Monte Pellegrino you will find the Sanctuary with the shrine of Saint Rosalia the patron Saint of Palermo.

From the top from different viewpoints you can admire wonderful views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Palermo and the gulf of Mondello. It is a bit cooler at the top and is also a nice place to relax. You can visit the Grotto of Santa Rosalia and the cave where her remains were found. You can get to the top by car, bus or if you like you can hike all the way to the top which takes about 1.5 hour.

Capuchin Catacombs 

This place is the home of about 2000 mummified bodies, the biggest collection in Europe. The Capuchin monks between the 16 and 20th century used to preserve and display the remains of their dead by embalming the body. The cost of a ticket is about 3 Euros and it will take about 30 mins to walk around. If you like this sort of spooky experience will be worth a visit, they are open in the morning until 1pm.

The Sicilian Patisserie

Cannoli siciliani

The desserts in Sicily are some of the best in Italy, in my opinion.

The most famous are the Cannoli: deep fried pastry tubes filled with sweet and creamy ricotta candied fruit or and chocolate chips.

Another famous one is the Cassata, another Arab legacy made with ricotta, sponge cake, marzipan and decorated with candied fruit. You can buy these two desserts and many others in pastry shops called “Pasticcerie” where you can choose to eat them on the spot or take away. Many pasticcerie also serve coffee and drinks.

Insider tip: Two well renowned pastry shops I would like to recommend are: “Pasticceria Cappello” located in Via Nicolò Garzilli 19 and the other one is the “Antico Caffe Spinnato” in Via Principe di Belmonte 111.  

Monreale

Monreale-bjs-3

Monreale is a town set in the hills 5 miles from Palermo and overlooking the Conca d’Oro (Golden Valley). Here you can go and admire the wonderful Norman Cathedral founded in 1174 by William II. The Cathedral contains the world’s second largest mosaics. A visit to the cloister is also worth it to admire the lovely garden and its 228 twin columns and fountain decorated with mosaics.

Chiesa del Gesù

Casa Professa PA 09 10 2017 06

Also known as Casa Professa is a wonderful example of art Baroque. The exterior of this church is quite minimalistic but once inside anyone will be amazed by the stunning stucco and sculptures decorations. It was rebuilt after the bombing of 1943. Tucked away in a quiet street near the Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio (the 4th attraction I mentioned above) this place is not mentioned in many tourist guides but is definitely worth a visit.

Day trips from Palermo

The next five places are actually day trips outside Palermo for those who would like to explore further afield.

Cefalu’

Cefalu' town near Palermo

Cefalù is a daily excursion not to be missed for anyone staying in Palermo, from which it is only an hour away. Although it is famous for its beaches, the town also offers plenty of history and architecture, clearly visible for example in the Norman Cathedral. 

Insider tip: If you are driving make sure you bring some coins with you to pay for the Motorway on the way back, only about 1 euro.

The car journey will take approximately an hour.

The train will take about 1 hour and 15 mins.

Castellammare del Golfo

Castellammare del Golfo (1036431919)

This is a beautiful seaside village between Palermo and Trapani. The landscape is dominated by a headland where the Arabs built a castle overlooking the sea. Castellammare in fact means “castle by the sea”. Here you can enjoy the excellent sicilian cuisine with a good fish dish and couscous typical of the area. 

Insider tip: Don’t miss the view at the belvedere from where you can see the coast for miles. To get there just continue driving on the SS187 towards Trapani and the viewpoint will be on your right just outside Castellammare.

Segesta

Segesta Temple in Sicily

Only a 20 minutes drive from Castellammare del Golfo you will find Segesta.

Famous for the magnificent Doric Temple and an open air theatre standing high on a hill and immersed in the sicilian countryside.

In the summer the theatre hosts a series of concerts and classical plays.

There is a tour guide app you can download for the iPhone or android for only 1euro called “Segesta Green Tour”.  (I am not affiliated with this App). 

Ticket cost: 6 Euro per adult, 3 Euro for 18 to 25 and is free for under 18 years old.

Insider Tip: The theatre is about 15 mins walk uphill from the ticket office, in the summer as it gets very hot there is a minibus service available.

Zingaro Nature Reserve

Zingaro-Nature-Reserve

If you love wild nature, breathtaking scenery, blue sea and pristine sand then the Zingaro Nature Reserve is where you want to be. The beaches and coves that characterize the Reserve are jewels set among natural caves, an oasis of peace. I wrote a dedicated article about this place with plenty of images too so you can get an idea of how nice this place is, go and check it here is the link: “Zingaro Reserve Natural Paradise of Sicily”.

Solunto Ancient Ruins

Solunto Ruins

At about 20 km east of Palermo you will find the Solunto Archeological Site. Solunto is one of the Punic cities of Sicily. The city, inhabited by the Carthaginians already in the seventh century BC. was destroyed by Dionysius of Syracuse, rebuilt by the Greeks and conquered by the Romans in the third century. Today you can visit the ruins of this ancient Greek city. 

Opening times: 9.30am to 6.30pm, Sunday closes at 1pm.

Entrance 4 euro.

Activities to do in Palermo

There is plenty to do in Palermo. From walking tours to day trips to private guided tours, check out full list and availability.

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