Our guide to Palermo Italy | Top 10 things to see and do

Palermo is on the North Western tip of Sicily nestled in the Bay of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea and is the capital of the island of Sicily.  Most Sicilians don’t think of them as Italian but Sicilian and the history of the island is long and turbulent.  Over the centuries the island has been taken over by various cultures from the, Romans and Greeks to the Germans, Spanish, French and finally Guiseppe Garibaldi took over the island and the following year joined to form the united Italy.  With all this influence throughout the ages the culture still reflects some of the ancient settlements and this can be found mainly in the architecture and the food. 

Mondello Beach Palermo
Mondello Beach Palermo

How do you get to Palermo?

By Air

This would probably be the most popular route and there are several budget airlines who fly from the UK and other European destinations directly into Palermo.  If you are coming from further afield then a connection via Naples, Rome or Milan may be your best route.  We’ve flown a couple of times from the UK direct into Palermo and the flight was only a couple of hours which is no time at all really.  

By Ferry

We’ve also arrived by Ferry from both Naples and Rome.  The ferry is an overnight ferry leaving mainland Italy around 8pm in the evening and arriving in Palermo early morning the next day.  Its a wonderful way to travel to Sicily and costs similar to a nights accomodation so its good value for money and gets you from one are of Italy to another fairly quickly.   Check out this post for a few of our ferry tips.

Our Top 10 favourite things to do & see in Palermo 

Santa Mario dell’Ammiraglio  

Santa Mario dell’ Ammiragio or The church of the Martorana is an astonishing well-preserved example of a Medieval church.  Its got quite a plain exterior but totally astonishing when you venture inside.   Its more mosaics but this time in a dazzling quantity the Byzantine style of the interior of this church is mesmerising.  It is rich in artwork and mosaics, gold is everywhere!  Located on Piazza Bellini its really central and only a couple of € to get in.  Its a must see. 

Piazza Marina

Piazza Marina is a square a few streets away from the centre of Palermo in the more historic area. The square is dominated by the great Garibaldi Garden.  The gardens themselves are pretty unassuming until you come across the Moreton Bay Fig which is the biggest Ficus macrophyla in Palermo and indeed Europe. This tree was planted in the year 1863 and is humungous. Definitely worth checking it out. 

Monumental tree in Palermo
Monumental tree in Palermo
Norman Palace

The Palazzo dei Normanni or Royal Palace of Palermo is a beautiful palace. It was the seat of the Kings of Sicily with the Hauteville dynasty and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Since 1946 it has been the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.  Like many other important buildings in Palermo the gold covered mosaics of the Palatine Chapel need no explanation.  The chapel is a mix of Byzantine art with Norman/Arab influences in the build and ceilings and walls covered in gold mosaics.  There is an entrance fee but you can pay at the door and the Palazzo is located on Piazza Independenza in Palermo.

Cattedrale di Palermo

Palermo Cathedral is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Palermo.  It is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Cathedral of Palermo is one of the most important architectural monuments in Sicily. It was built in 1184 by the Normans as a re-converted Christian church on the site of a Muslim Mosque that was previously built over a Christian basilica. This Cathedral is a must see when visiting Palermo!

Massimo Theatre 

The Theatre or Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele is an opera house which can be found on the Piazza Verdi  in Palermo. It was dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II and is the biggest Opera house in Italy, and one of the largest of Europe and well renowned for its perfect acoustics.  For the real opera buffs you can go on an organised tour of the theatre and learn of its history and see the vastness of its interior or even better you can book some tickets for an upcoming performance of whichever opera is on at the time you’re there.   Remember to check the dress code as some performances are more formal than others. 

Theatre Massimo Palermo
Theatre Massimo Palermo
Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs

To be fair most ancient Italian cities have some sort of catacomb exhibition/museum and these are really worth the visit if you get a chance to go.  Albeit a little macabre, these catacombs are a fantastic glimpses into the past and the guides usually have some really interesting stories to tell.  Palermo’s catacombs were managed by the Capuchin Monks who buried people in their clothes using a variety of embalming methods.  The vastness of Palermo’s catacombs makes it a little unique as there are approximately 8000 bodies within the complex.  The abbey and catacombs are located on Piazza Cappuccini and it only costs a few € for the tour. 

Lido Finanza -Mondello

If you want to get out of the city for a day then a day at the beach is easy to do.  We caught the bus from the main bus station in Palermo to Mondello and it was a short walk to the beach.   The bus ride took no more than 20 mins and only cost a few €.  The beach had all the usual amenities such as sun loungers you could rent for the day or half day or just down from the paid beach was the local beach where you could just pop your towels/mats down and enjoy the sand and sea.  The sea was superb for swimming in and as clean as any of the other Sicilian beaches and it really was a lovely day out.  

Fontana della Vergogna

This wonderfully shameful Fountain is a monumental fountain located in Piazza Pretoria in the historic center of Palermo. The fountain dominates the piazza on the west flank of the church of Santa Caterina, and is one block south of the intersection of the Quattro Canti.  Its said to convey the corrupt history of Palermo and is sometimes called the Fountain of Shame and when you get up close you can see why.  Its a beautiful, grand and over the top piece of art and well worth a visit. 

Fontana della Vergogna
Fontana della Vergogna
Quatro Canti

Quattro Canti (four corners) officially known as Piazza Vigliena, is a Baroque square in Palermo’s historic centre. This area is situated at the intersection of two of the most prominent streets in Palermo, Via Maqueda, and Via Vittorio Emanuele. The four facades in the square represent the ancient districts of Albergheria, Capo, Kalso and Vucciria which all converged at Villena Square. The fountain represents one of the ancient rivers that flowed through Palermo and as your eye moves up you’ll see a figure on each corner which represents the 4 seasons and further up is a representation of the 4 different Spanish sovereigns and then finally even higher you will see an image of the 4 patron saints of Palermo.  These facades are said to record the ascension to heaven.   Its a really busy intersection and always bustling with locals and tourists.

The Market 

Last but not least is the market.  I don’t think there’s a town that we’ve visited where we’ve not spent some time in the market area.  We love the sights and sounds of the vendors and their wares, the freshest of fruit and the catch of the day.  One thing also that we like to do is visit a market cafe.  Quite often markets have little cafe’s dotted about serving local delicacies and street food and Palermo market is no exception.   Its a wonderful and vibrant market and goes on for streets and streets and streets with produce at the heart of it but spreading out to include clothing, housewares, antiques and all sorts of bric-a-brac.  Take a lazy afternoon stroll through the myriad of streets and enjoy all the market has to offer. 

Palermo Market
Palermo Market

Food & Drink in Palermo

We found the food on sicily to be spectacular and so varied.  One of the delicacies we first discovered on our first visit to sicily was the arancini.  Little rice balls stuffed with all sorts of delicious fillings and deep fried.  On our last visit to Palermo we were given a recommendation of an arancini take away place just outside the city centre that was worth a visit and that’s what we did.   Sfrigola was the name of the restaurant and after about a 20 – 30 min walk from the main centre of town we found it.  Inside you could watch the workers making the arancini and all were made to order. The were served in a little wooden box and they were delicous.  

Palermo has so much more to offer though than arancini and here are some of the highlights:

Pasta alla Norma or Pasta con le Melanzane is truly a Sicilian dish made with layers of pasta, tomato, eggplant and ricotta and it tastes delicious so look out for it on the menu and be sure to try it.  Its typically from Catania but can be found throughout sicily. 

Cannoli is for the sweet toothed amongst us an are delicious tube shaped shells of fried pastry dough filled with all sorts of delicious cream usually containing ricotta cheese.  In Mainland Italy these pastries are known as Cannoli Sicilliani.

Cassata or cassata siciliana is a traditional cake from  the region.  It is made from a round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit and can be found on most dessert menus in Sicily.  

Sicily really is a foodies paradise with oodles of great little bistro’s serving local food.  Being a port the seafood is also tremendous and so fresh so don’t forget the wonderful pasta dishes with octopus, prawns and other surprises from the sea.

Arancini in Palermo
Arancini in Palermo

Palermo | The Gateway to Sicily

Finally Palermo is a fantastic gateway to the rest of Sicily.  The first time we visited Palermo we arrived by ferry from Rome and immediately made our way, by train, to the Aeolian islands which was fantastic.  We’ve also flown into Palermo and Catania and travelled round Sicily in a car. Palermo is a great starting point for any Sicilian adventure and the roads and rail network are pretty good.   Some other places in Sicily not to miss are Agrigento, Ragusa, Syracuse, The Aeolian Islands and San Vito lo Capo all of which can be found in our Sicily blog pages.  

Temple Agrigento Italy
Temple Agrigento Italy

Our View of Palermo 

We love Sicily, we’ve been many times and haven’t yet touched the surface of places we’d like to explore.  The history of the island coupled with the food and the people make this a fantastic destination for a holiday or even a long weekend in Palermo or Catania.   If you do get there then let us know what your favorite sights were. 

Booking resources for your trip to Palermo

Flights

You can compare cheap flights on the Expedia platform or here on the Aviasales website.  Both will give you a good idea of how much its going to cost you to get to your chosen destination.

Accommodation

We have always tended to use Booking.com having said that if your on a tight budget another good site to try as a comparison is Hostelworld, If your looking to compare different sites you can do that on Hotellook, we tend to look on here first to make sure we are getting the best deal.

Tours & Tickets

You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site.  Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.

For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.

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