What to do in Palermo, capital of Sicily and one of the oldest cities of the European continent?
Visiting Palermo means discovering new facets of the city at every street corner. Sumptuous palaces stand alongside ruined monuments, large sunny squares lead to a maze of narrow and dark streets.
The city has gone through the ages as a target and a prized jewel. Today, it blends many cultures, the island having been successively ruled by the Phoenicians, Rome, Byzantines, Arabs, Norman, Teutons, Vienna, and Spain. Come and discover the many places of interest in Palermo, a city with a strong character. The city is very walkable and there are new things to see everywhere. You could also get a bus tour to go between places a bit faster, especially in the summer where it can get blisteringly hot despite the ocean breeze.
Read also : The best areas to stay in Palermo
1. Palazzo dei Normanni and its Cappella Palatina – the oldest royal residence in Europe
Palazzo dei Normanni – the Norman Palace – is like Palermo, a great mixture of influences. In turn a Punic then Roman fortress, later the residence of the Muslim emirs and finally palace of the Norman kings, it currently houses the regional Parliament of Sicily. A great place to visit, especially for history and political buffs. The Palazzo is also the oldest royal residence in Europe still standing. During one of its numerous renovations, one major addition was made : the Cappella Palatina. A real jewel, the Chapel is covered with medieval gilding and mosaics, the marble floors and the gold gilding make it a breathtaking spectacle.
2. Quattro Canti and Piazza Pretoria
You can’t visit Palermo without stopping in its squares. The best known of all, rather a crossroads, is the Quattro Canti. A busy crossroads of two boulevards : Vittorio Emanuel and Via Maqueda; it is named the “four corners” as there are 4 nearly identical Baroque buildings housing the statues of the four Spanish governors of Palermo.
The square is right next to the Piazza Pretoria, another elegant and timeless square with a monumental 16th century fountain.
3. Teatro Massimo
Teatro Massimo, the “largest theater” is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe with more than 1600 seats and the possibility of welcoming up to 700 actors on stage! Built in the 19th century, it was restored and reopened in 1997 after a period of neglect. Only the Opéra Garnier in Paris and the Staatsoper in Vienna offer larger venues than this one. Take a look at it, you won’t be disappointed. With its elegant design and wide seating capacity, it is one of the most crowded places in Palermo at times when there are performances.
4. Mercato di Ballaro
The street markets of Palermo are an opportunity to immerse yourself in the flavors of Sicily, and in the heart of Palermo life. Sicilian cuisine is rich, and you will find all the elements that make it so on market stalls set up in narrow streets between ruined buildings, such as the markets of Ballaro and Vucciria. Street-food is very popular in Palermo and the city is usually ranked among the best cities in the worlds for it. We personally recommend you search for “Rocky”, a local celebrity, and try his Pane con la Milza (based on veal lung and spleen), taste sea urchin pasta and fried bean fritters (panelle) sprinkled with a spremuta of arancia (orange juice). You can also try going on a street food tour!
Opening hours for La Vucciria: Mon-Fri 10am-1pm, on Via Coltellieri
Opening hours for Ballaro: Mon-Sat 7:30am-8pm, closes at 1pm on Sundays, on Via Ballaro
5. Cattedrale di Palermo
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a medieval monument dating from the 12th century, a Romanesque church with a strong Arab influence. It was built on the site of what was then the mosque of the Arab city and before that a Roman temple. You can admire the highly detailed exterior facades that contrast with the very sober Baroque style on the inside.
6. The churches of Palermo
The streets of Palermo are simply riddled with churches. The city center by itself has over 80 churches. From La Martorana, a 12th-century Byzantine church with an absolutely spectacular interior to San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a 16th century Norman church with four red domes of Arabic influence to the Church of the Gesù home of the Jesuit Order and simply the epitome of Sicilian Baroque you will get your fix of beautiful churches. All unique in their own way, lavish and ostentatious or simple and even austere, the city of Palermo can not be visited fully without exploring at least some of its many churches.
7. Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are not located in the city center, but to the west of it. They are a Capuchin monastery with extensive catacombs, where you may gaze upon 8,000 seated or lying mummified bodies of monks and other citizens of Palermo and its areas.
Walking among them is a morbid but unique experience. Some bodies have become skeletons while others are still very well preserved.
8. Museo Archeologico Regionale
Museo Archeologico Regionale is the biggest museum of the city and is renowned for its large collection of Etruscan, Carthaginian, Roman and Greek archaeological finds and treasures. Among the most interesting of these are remnants and artifacts of the Greek temples of Segesta and Selinunte.
9. Porta Nuova and Porta Felice
Porta Nuova and Porta Felice are two massive 16th century gates, built on two ends of the central Via Vittorio Emanuele. Imposing and hard to miss, these two landmarks will be your guides to know when you are exiting the Old city it surrounds.
10. Park in Villa Bonanno and Giardino Garibaldi
Palermo has several parks and places for relax and one of the most beautiful of them is definitely Villa Bonanno. Located right between Palermo Cathedral and Palazzo dei Normanni, don’t miss this clean and well kept park and maybe enjoy a break in between two visits.
At the other extremity of the city center, but still on via Vittorio Emanuele, near the sea, you will find another amazing park that is full of old Ficus trees. It is called Giardino Garibaldi or Villa Garibaldi.
Finally, a little South of Garibaldi Park, in Sant’Erasmo neighborhood, sits Villa Giulia, a vast square park next to the University’s botanical gardens. A real breath of fresh air, surrounded by museums, you’ll enjoy the serenity and quiet.
11. Museo dell’Inquisizione in Palazzo Chiaromonte Steri
The city of Palermo has recently renovated the Museo dell’Inquisizione and made it into a museum and conference center. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and certainly not hundreds of miles away and across the sea from Spain, and yet Palermo was home to the local headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition, back when Sicily was ruled by Spain. A palace made into a prison, before being renovated in the 19th century,Palazzo Chiaromote-Steri is now a conference center and hosts a museum dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition. It is a rather small museum but it will give you a unique glimpse into this feared organization.
12. Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita
The Oratory of the Santa Cita Rosary is a small chapel adjacent to Chiesa di San Mamiliano. While its exterior isn’t particularly striking, don’t let that prevent you from entering and discovering an astonishing array of Stucco sculptures. The Oratory is covered from floor to ceiling in small intricate sculptures, both historical and religious and it is a truly iconic place to visit in Palermo, a city that has no dearth of elaborately decorated churches.
13. Santuario di Santa Rosalia
Santuario di Santa Rosalia is situated between the neighborhood of Mondello and Borgo Vecchio. Located not only on a steep hill but also within the hill itself, the Sanctuary is still occupied today, in addition to being a major tourist attraction. Walking to it is pleasant and will also give nice views of Palermo and of the sea.
14. The outskirts of Palermo
Now that you know what to do in Palermo, don’t hesitate to take a look at this list to discover its surroundings. Sicily is a region worth a visit!
- Take a boat tour and explore the gorgeous Tyrrhenian Coast
- Monreale and its cathedral
- The city of Cefalù, between relaxation and culture
- The valley of the temples of Agrigento, 2 hours by train from Palermo
- On the other side of the Island, but such an a impressive site that it makes it worth the trip, Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in italy, twice as big as Mount Vesuvius. With eruptions in 2017 and 2018, we recommend you ere on the side of caution and book a tour of Mount Etna
How to get to Palermo ?
Falcone-Borsellino airport is Palermo’s main airport and you will find many direct flights, especially with low cost companies. It will be easy to find regular flights from London (both Luton and Stansted), Bristol or Liverpool. Prices for tickets to Palermo vary greatly: tickets are cheaper from November to March and more expensive from June to September. To find a cheap flight to Palermo, you can compare flights and find what best suits you on the website of our partner Skyscanner.
The airport is connected to the city by public transport, a train services departs regularly and frequently and you can also chose from several private bus companies as well. Finally, something we recommend if you are interested in wandering around outside Palermo or even just if you wish to stay in a more remote neighborhood or Palermo, you can rent a car directly at the airport.
Where to stay in Palermo ?
We recommend that you find a hotel or apartment in the center of Palermo, mainly in the streets near Via Roma and Via Maqueda. This will mean you are close to everything and can make the most out of your trip, but it will also entail a usually higher cost than some neighborhoods further out. The ideal way to visit the surroundings and the rest of Sicily would be to stay not far from the Palermo Central station to benefit from the good selection of trains available. In any case, looking in advance will help quite a bit and we recommend you book a hotel on an online booking platform.
For more details, simply check out: The best areas to stay in Palermo
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