While lacking the polish of Florence or the spotlight of Rome, Palermo has its own type of charm. Under the grime lies beauty of a time gone by, when different cultures dominated and left their mark on the city. 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.
Although we didn’t spend as much time in Palermo as we would like, it turned out to be one of our fave trips. We expected Palermo and the rest of Sicily to be along the same lines as what we’ve already seen. Instead, the city really took us by surprise with an unexpected mix of history, architecture and cultures. We expected predominately-Roman influence and remnants. It turned out to be that and so much more.
Various cultures have dominated Palermo for centuries. From the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, there were many that left their mark on the city. What fascinates me is the fact 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.
Arriving in Palermo
We landed in Palermo after midnight. Having just left a very busy, crowded and stifling hot airport in Santorini, the emptiness of this unexpectedly modern, air-conditioned place was a welcome change. As it was the middle of the night and transportation choices were slim, we proceeded, along with everyone else who just got off the plane, to the deserted taxi stand.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to Italy and I’ve forgotten how the Italian minds operate. There is no coherent order of lining up and waiting for taxis. In Italy, you can be in a line up, but when it comes to boarding (be that plane, train, ferry or any other mode of transportation), the Italians approach it in an en masse formation and with great urgency. It’s like a sport to them.
It only took seconds before the competitive instinct kicked in and we pushed our way to the front of the line as if it was our job. After an appropriate amount of outrage at the prices (20 Euro a person!) we were on our way.
Our driver, wearing a t-shirt with a plunging neckline, coiffed hair and cigarette in his mouth (who says you can’t be styling in the middle of the night while driving a cab), stuffed us in the back of his vehicle with two other couples. As we started driving, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour. It was a great start to our trip.
The driver got lost after dropping off the first couple. The four of us watched in amazement as he stopped the car at the lights and got out to talk to someone in the cab in front of us. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I was just hoping our Airbnb hosts would still be up to let us in.
At this point, it was close to 2 a.m. and we stopped at a corner of what I would best describe as a small, sketchy alley and a smaller, narrower and possibly more questionable one. As it was our street, the driver left us with our luggage, on the corner in the pissing rain. Despite my apprehension, we found our destination quickly and with no issues. Our host dressed to the nines and looking more as if he was off to a party rather than his bed, happily handed us the key and left us alone.
How to make the best of your time in Palermo
With this much history, there are many things to do in Palermo. As it’s an all year destination, you don’t have to worry about lacking for choices. Take full advantage of your time in Palermo, with this handy list of places to visit.
Things to do in Palermo: Churches
As with any other European city, there are plenty of places of worship. What make them unique in Palermo is their style. Most buildings including churches are a blend of styles, so you might see unexpected elements of different religions.
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 buidling them.
Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel)
Located inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina dates back to 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.
It is probably one of my favourite buildings in Palermo. No amount of information and pictures can prepare you for this place. Architecturally, it draws you in like a flame to a moth. Make sure to check out the views from the top and get a closer look at the details of the building.
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 definitely 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 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 bombing during WWII and has undergone extensively 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 out 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
For another example of Arab-Norman architecture, head over to the San Giovanni degli Eremiti with five red domes. The church, like the rest of the neighbourhood, seems neglected. 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.
Things to do in Palermo: Landmarks
Don’t worry, Palermo is more than just churches. There are many interesting and worthwhile places to see during your time in Palermo.
After all, the city has a long and colourful history. There is no shortage of amazing things you can discover here.
Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden)
Used as botanical gardens and a research and educational institution of the Department of Botany of the University of Palermo, the gardens date back to late 18th century. There are different species of trees, flowers and plants as well as water features and greenhouses.
Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele
Teatro Massimo, 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 roof top terrace or see a performance. Fun fact, the closing scene of The Godfather: Part III were filmed here.
Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace of Palermo)
Although built originally by the Arabs in 9th century, the Normans turned the Palazzo dei Normanni into a multifunctional complex for the court of King Roger II. 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.
Things to do in Palermo: Piazzas and fountains
A trip to Palermo would not be complete without enjoying the sites and sounds of the many wonderful piazzas and fountains.
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 enjoy people watching. It’s a great way to enjoy your time in Palermo.
Considered one of Palermo’s most beautiful squares, the Piazza Bellini is a place where east meets 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).
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 of Europe is a centrepiece 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 definitely a great place to stop and admire the old grandeur. The fountain, originally designed in 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 in a 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.
Things to do in Palermo: Museums
Museums are a great way to see the history and while you enjoy your time in Palermo, Italy. There is no shortage of places to see.
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, to modern and everything in between.
Galleria Regionale della Sicilia
Regarded as one of Palermo’s best museum, 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 some of Sicily’s best Greek and Roman artefacts including original friezes from the temples at Selinunte, Etruscan mirrors and 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 a number of 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 spans from 15th to 20th centuries and are on display in a restored 16th century Palazzo Torre-Piraino.
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.
Our time in Palermo
Our apartment had an incredible three-level patio and we made a good use of it. At night, you could hear music, the laughter and clinking of cutlery in the distance. It was amazing. I go back to that moment every now and then, and the memory of that place gets me every time.
Palermo, as anywhere else in Italy, has an abundance of great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. We definitely contributed to the local economy by partaking in these delights.
One of the interesting things I noticed about Palermo was that there were many Italian tourists, but not many others. Most of 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 do in Palermo and even more on the rest of the island. It’s definitely worth visiting.
I have a feeling we will be back in Palermo. It definitely felt like home. Who knows what the future holds?