If you’re looking for an amazing Italian vacation spot that is off the beaten path, consider Palermo, Sicily. This historic city is home to beautiful architecture, delicious food and plenty of activities to keep you busy. Forget the movies; they don’t do justice to all the amazing things to do in Palermo. It’s a different Italy than most are used to and one worth exploring.
While lacking the polish of Florence or Rome‘s spotlight, Palermo has its own type of charm. Under the grime lies the beauty of a time gone by when different cultures dominated and left their mark on the city. We expected Palermo to be along the same lines as what we’ve already seen in the rest of the country. Instead, it took us by surprise with an unexpected mix of history, architecture and cultures. We expected to see predominately Roman influence and remnants. It turned out to be that and so much more.
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What you need to know Before visiting Palermo
Various cultures have dominated Palermo for centuries. From the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. Many left their mark on the city. What fascinates me is that every new set of architects often incorporated previous styles rather than destroying and replacing them with their own. For that, I am very grateful.
As a key port, Palermo played an important role in the ancient world. According to my DK travel book, “the town prospered under the Roman, but its golden age was under Arab domination when it rivaled Cordoba and Cairo in beauty.” How amazing would it be to travel back in time to see that splendour?
You can see the stark contrast between the many crumbling buildings, once glorious and proud, and the newly renovated ones. Under the mafia’s control, Palermo suffered neglect and started to crumble. Over the years, the government has been taking steps to revitalize and renovate different neighbourhoods, but they still have a long way to go.
How to get to Palermo?
As Italy’s largest island, Sicily is well connected to the rest of the country and major European cities. You can fly directly to the Palermo International Airport (PMO) which is about 32 km west of the city or the Trapani Airport with a bus transfer to Palermo.
You can reach Palermo by train, coming from Rome or Naples, via the train ferry across the Strait of Messina.
Things to do in Palermo
With so much history, Palermo has something to offer for everyone. As an all-year destination, you don’t have to worry about lacking choices or the best times for visiting. Take full advantage of your time in Palermo with this handy list of places to visit. There are also many free things to do in Palermo, so it won’t break your budget.
Explore Palermo’s Churches
As with any other European city, there are plenty of places of worship. What makes them unique in Palermo is their style. Most buildings, including churches, are a blend of styles so that you might see unexpected elements of different religions. You don’t have to be religious to explore them. The fascinating blend of cultures makes the churches here very different from those found in the rest of the country.
Many of the churches owe their glory to the Baroque period that was all the rage during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, many of these structures incorporate older styles and different cultures, which creates a very interesting blend. Even if you’re not a religious person you can still admire the techniques and mastery that went into building them.
- Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel): Located inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina dates back to the early 12th century. Commissioned by Roger II, it is a blend of Arab and Norman mastery. Intricately carved wooden ceilings speak to the mastery of the old Arab technique, while the precious stones, gold, mosaics and marble details are the work of Byzantine Greek artisans.
- Cattedrale di Palermo (Palermo Cathedral): By the time the Anglo-Norman archbishop Walter Ophamil (or Walter of the Mill,) erected the church in 1185, it has already been a Byzantine-basilica-turned-mosque becoming a church once again. It is an extraordinary blend of cultures, religions and styles. Here you’ll find Norman structures, Gothic porticoes, Baroque cupolas, majolica tiles and Arab inscriptions. If you are an architecture lover, this is a must on your things to do in Palermo list.
- Chiesa Capitolare di San Cataldo (Church of San Cataldo): Located in Piazza Bellini, the Church of San Cataldo, with its three red bijou domes, is not something you’d expect to see in Italy. Dating back to 1154, this solid square building is a notable example of Arab-Norman architecture. The inside is quite austere, and you can admire the stone and brickwork elements in arches and floors. It also is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Chiesa del Gesù (Church of the Gesù): Built during the peak of Baroque art in Palermo by the Jesuits, it became a model for all Jesuit churches in Italy and Europe. The church suffered major damage during the bombing during WWII and has undergone extensive restorations since then.
- Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt): Located in the Piazza Bellini, the Church of St. Catherine is one of the richest and most decorated in Palermo. Built in the Sicilian Baroque style, the church is an intricately designed place of worship. After extensive restorations, it opened to the public in 2016.
- La Martorana Santa Maria Ammiraglio (Co-Cathedral of St. Mary of the Admiral): La Martorana is a 12th-century church that started as a mosque. Located on the south side of Piazza Bellini, today this is the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. The liturgies are officiated according to Byzantine rites, performed even today in ancient Greek. Make sure to check out the magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
- San Giovanni degli Eremiti: With its five red domes, this church is another example of Arab-Norman architecture. While it’s no longer exhibiting the glory of the 12th century, when Roger II had it built, there is a quiet beauty to it, including the garden filled with citrus fruit trees. For a small fee, you can climb the tower and enjoy spectacular views of Palermo.
Visit Palermo’s Landmarks
Don’t worry. Palermo is more than just churches. There are many interesting and worthwhile places to explore when visiting Palermo. After all, the city has a long and colourful history. There is no shortage of amazing things to do in Palermo. Part of the fun is discovering them.
- Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden): Used as a botanical garden and a research and educational institution of the Department of Botany of the University of Palermo, the gardens date back to the late 18th century. There are different species of trees, flowers and plants as well as water features and greenhouses. It’s a nice stop to your list of things to do in Palermo, especially during sweltering days.
- Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele: Italy’s largest opera house and third-largest in Europe, should be on your list of things to do in Palermo. Built in a neoclassical style with stone and marble, it took over 20 years to complete. Today you can take a guided tour of the building and the rooftop terrace or see a performance. Fun fact, the closing scene of The Godfather: Part III was filmed here.
- Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace of Palermo): Although built originally by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Normans turned the Palazzo dei Normanni into a multifunctional complex for King Roger II’s court. Today it’s the home of Sicily’s regional parliament. In addition to the Cappella Palatina, magnificent mosaics decorate the royal apartments. These rooms are off-limits between Tuesday and Thursday.
Explore the Piazzas and fountains
Visiting Palermo would not be complete without enjoying the sites and sounds of the many wonderful piazzas and fountains. Like many other Italian cities, Palermo has its share of stunning fountains and richly decorated buildings.
You can spend hours wandering around the city, enjoying the different flavours of the past. You can always relax at one of the many restaurants and bars while enjoying people watching. It’s a great way to see the city.
- Piazza Bellini: Considered one of Palermo’s most beautiful squares, the Piazza Bellini is where the east meets the west. Home to three churches – La Martorana, San Cataldo and Santa Caterina – it is a visual feast for anyone. Here you’ll also find the lovely Teatro Bellini (Bellini Theatre).
- Piazza Marina: It might be hard to believe today, but Piazza Marina used to be a swamp during the Middle Ages. It connected to the ancient port of Palermo until it was cleared during the 14th century. The Garibaldi Garden, with the biggest Ficus macrophylla in Europe, is a centerpiece of the piazza and dates back to 1863.
- Piazza Pretoria or Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame): Named after the naked statues adorning the circular fountain, the Fontana Pretoria, this is a great place to stop and admire the old grandeur. The fountain, originally designed in the mid-16th century for a Florentine villa by the sculptor Francesco Camilliani, later found its place in Piazza Pretoria.
- Piazza della Vittoria: Not far from the Palermo Cathedral is the Piazza della Vittoria. As Palermo’s military, political and administrative centre, it was a venue for public festivities for centuries. Sometime during the early 1900s, it became a massive public garden. Surrounded by Palermo’s many monuments, it’s a great spot for relaxing and people-watching.
- Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena): The fashionable Quattro Canti is a Baroque style piazza at the cross-section of Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. What is most striking are the four Baroque buildings with near-identical facades. Each has the statues of four seasons, the four kings of Sicily and its patrons.
Check out Palermo’s Museums
Museums are a great way to see history and there are many of them to choose from when you plan your list of things to do in Palermo. There is no shortage of places to discover. All the cultures that made Sicily home left behind a lot of art and artifacts. Palermo’s museums are a wonderful blend of the ancient, modern and everything in between.
- Galleria Regionale della Sicilia: Regarded as one of Palermo’s best museums, this one is housed in a 15th century Palazzo Abatellis. It’s home to works by Sicilian artists going back to the Middle Ages all the way up to the 18th century.
- Museo Archeologico Regionale: Located in what was once a Renaissance monastery, the museum is home to Sicily’s best Greek and Roman artifacts, including original friezes from the temples at Selinunte, Etruscan mirrors and the world’s largest collection of ancient anchors.
- Museo dell’Inquisizione (Museum of the Holy Inquisition): For a taste of a darker side of human nature, check out the Museum of Inquisition located in Piazza Marina. You can see graffiti and artwork in many restored cells where prisoners were tortured in the name of faith. Declared heretics met their fate here between 1601 and 1782. Visits include guided tours in English and Italian.
- Museo delle Maioliche (Museum of Tiles): Extensive collection of approximately 5,000 hand-painted tiles from Sicily and Naples. The tiles from this private collection span from the 15th to 20th centuries and are on display in a restored 16th century Palazzo Torre-Piraino.
Enjoy reading about things to do in Palermo? You might enjoy learning about Genoa!
- Museum Pasqualino (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette): Home to over 3,500 marionettes, various types of puppets and shadow figures from Italy and abroad, this is a place for culture and knowledge. Founded by the Association for the Conservation of Folk Traditions, it’s a quirky place for all ages with occasional puppet shows.
Is Palermo worth visiting?
Like anywhere else in Italy, Palermo has an abundance of great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. We definitely contributed to the local economy by partaking in these delights. It’s a great place for anyone who loves culture, architecture and great food. There are many great restaurants, markets and bars to enjoy and the city has a lot to offer during the day and at night.
One of the interesting things I noticed while visiting Palermo was that the majority of Italian were Italian. Most visitors to Italy head to the main sights, exploring the coastal gems and the popular towns. Sicily is still not as widely visited as the rest of the country. There are so many things to explore in Palermo and even more on the rest of the island. It’s definitely worth visiting.