If you are ever in Sicily, don’t skip Palermo. There is so much to see here! So many things to do in Palermo! Despite the many negatives you might have heard about it, the Sicilian capital needs to be experienced to be understood. Palermo is a city of contrasts and many flavors. Eclectic, noisy and chaotic, yet exotic and exhilarating. Surrounded by gorgeous scenery and filled with stunning architecture. Palermo oozes charm from every corner. After decades of social and economic problems and mafia ravages, you would expect Palermo to be in shambles. But Italy’s problem child remains a pleasant surprise. Yes, Palermo may be a little rough around the edges, but its amazingly rich history, energy and style are likely to steal your heart away.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Brief History of Palermo
- 2 What to See and Do in Palermo
- 2.1 Visit Palermo Cathedral
- 2.2 Marvel at the Norman Palace and its Palatine Chapel
- 2.3 Take Pictures at the Fontana Pretoria
- 2.4 Discover Palermo’s Best Kept Secret: Chiesa di Santa Caterina
- 2.5 Admire the Baroque Extravaganza at Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini
- 2.6 Get Spooked at the Capuchin Catacombs
- 2.7 Take a Tour (or See a Performance) at Teatro Massimo
- 2.8 Meditate in the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
- 2.9 Admire Palermo’s Most Famous Religious Mosaic at the Monreale Cathedral
- 2.10 Browse Through Palermo’s Markets
- 3 Day Trips From Palermo
A Brief History of Palermo
Palermo was one of the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean. During its troubled history, Palermo has been invaded and inhabited by many conquerers. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Arabs, Byzantines, Romans, Normans and Spaniards, they all left their mark on Palermo. The city’s rich cultural heritage is very obvious in its Norman vestiges, Byzantine and Baroque churches, Spanish palaces and neoclassical theaters.
What to See and Do in Palermo
Palermo is one of Italy’s most visited cities that makes a great addition to any European itinerary, but adding it to your list requires a little planning. It’s important to decide where to go and what to do in Palermo before you come here. Don’t assume that you can improvise or figure it out as you go. The city has lots of attractions, but many of its jewels lay hidden so you won’t just stumble upon them. If you want to make your trip memorable, read my suggestions below for the best attractions in Palermo.
Visit Palermo Cathedral
Palermo Cathedral, also know as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is perhaps the most astounding building in Sicily. It’s also one Italy’s most striking cathedrals. The construction began in the 12th century under the Norman archbishop Walter Ophamil. The initial building was raised on top of a Byzantine church which later became a mosque.
What will strike you right away when visiting the Cattedrale di Palermo is the combination of architectural styles of the building. They are the result of the many additions and alterations the cathedral suffered over the centuries. It’s hard not to be impressed by the size of this cathedral with its outstretching turrets and a wide portico! You can spend hours staring at it and walking through the the pretty garden, decorated with statues.
The entrance to the church is free, but you want to see the treasury, the crypt and the roof terrace you have to pay extra. A ticket for the terrace costs €5. You can also buy a combination ticket for all three sights inside this cathedral for €7/person.
Marvel at the Norman Palace and its Palatine Chapel
Palazzo dei Normanni (the Norman Palace) was built in 1130 on the site of an Arab castle. The palace’s most impressive feature is the flamboyant Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), created by Norman monarch Roger II.
I remember staring in awe at the overly ornate ceiling with woodcarvings, mosaics and Arabesque arches. There is so much beauty in this chapel, such craftsmanship! It will absolutely amaze you. Definitely a must-see in Palermo! Today the palace is home to Sicily’s parliament.
Take Pictures at the Fontana Pretoria
If there is one place in Palermo that you’ll want to photograph from all angles is the gorgeous Fontana Pretoria (Pretorian Fountain), located right in the heart of Piazza Pretoria. The fountain displays ornamental staircases and elaborated statues depicting Greek gods, nymphs, grotesque animal heads and other mythological figures.
Interestingly enough, this marvel was originally made for a private villa in Florence and only later transferred to Palermo. But few expected the public outrage at the unveiling of the fountain. The prude Palermitans considered the fountain a total disgrace and were very offended by the nude statues. In time, they learned to live with the fountain, but they always referred to it as the Fountain of Shame.
But as impressive as Fontana Pretoria is during the day, it is an even more enchanting at night. This place is one of the best things to see in Palermo at night, so make sure to drop by to see it after dark.
Discover Palermo’s Best Kept Secret: Chiesa di Santa Caterina
The north end of the Piazza Pretoria is occupied by the huge wing of the Church of Santa Caterina, a former Dominican monastery. This stunning masterpiece of 16th century Sicilian Baroque is an absolute must-see in Palermo! Visiting just this one church would justify your entire trip to Palermo. But don’t judge the church from the outside! The real gem is its magnificent interior. Many people miss it because of the plain and simple exterior. We entered the church mainly because we wanted to go up to the rooftop terrace to photograph Fontana Pretoria, but didn’t expect it to be so beautiful.
There are lots of fine detailed patterns, marble inlays, stucco work and frescoes. But the most amazing part of the church is the altar area and the ceiling above it.
On the way down from the rooftop terrace, don’t miss the former convent, which is also very interesting. Once you see the nuns’ modest quarters will understand their outrage at the sight of the the naked statues around the fountain in front of their church and convent.
Admire the Baroque Extravaganza at Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini
Another jewel in Palermo that is easily missed is the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini, right across from Fontana Pretoria. The church entrance is quite obscure: a large door with twin columns on either side and a bas relief above. At first glance you may not even realize this building is actually a church. Other buildings in the city have similar entrances. It was only from across the road that you can notice the large gleaming dome above it.
When you step through the door however, you find yourself in a monumental church nave with two isles and huge marble columns. The décor is quite extravagant, with frescoes, carvings and many ornaments that showcase the upper columns and arches.
Along with the Cathedral of Monreale, Chiesa di San Giiuseppe is one of Palermo’s best attractions. Truly breath-taking! We stayed there for a while and just couldn’t leave.
Get Spooked at the Capuchin Catacombs
Mummified bodies of men, women, children, and even new-born babies line up the marble paved corridors of the Capuchin Catacombs. An odd and disturbing image, yet many people find this quite a fascinating place to visit. I have to admit that it’s one of the most unusual and macabre sites in Palermo though, which may not be for everybody. They say the catacombs are home to 8,000 embalmed bodies, but the number is probably much lower. But what’s the meaning of all these bodies? How did they end up here?
In the 16th century when the old cemetery overseen by the Capuchin monks was full, the monks decided to mummify the bodies of their brothers who died instead of expending the cemetery grounds. Over the years, they perfected the preservation methods using a combination of drying rooms and the natural atmosphere of the catacombs. The bodies were then bathed in a vinegar solution and stuffed with hay.
The practice of embalming attracted not only pilgrims visiting the area, but also locals who wanted to be preserved in the same manner. You can see bodies of the high aristocracy alongside commoners, soldiers, house-wives, and even the son of a king inside.
Take a Tour (or See a Performance) at Teatro Massimo
Teatro Mossimo is the third largest opera house in Europe and one of Italy’s most cherished opera venues. The theater is as impressive inside as it is on the outside, so if you have 30 minutes to spare don’t hesitate to take the behind-the-scene tour. You will find out a lot about its history and even be escorted to the stage and the royal box. You will also get up to the roof terrace from where you can enjoy beautiful views of the city.
Tours start from €8 (£7.20) and performances start as low as €16.50. Quite a deal!
Meditate in the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Located near the royal palace and famous for its brilliant red dome, the Church of San Giovanni is one of my favorite spots in Palermo. I loved spending a little time in its beautiful garden! It’s an oasis of tranquility in the frenetic Palermo.
The church’s origins go back to the 6th century. Over its history, Chiesa di San Giovanni went from a Christian church to a mosque and then returned to the Christians. But despite that, the church exudes and air of Orientalism, with strong Muslim influences.
Admire Palermo’s Most Famous Religious Mosaic at the Monreale Cathedral
Another must see attraction in Palermo is the beautiful Monreale Cathedral, just a short distance away from the city on the slopes of Monte Caputo. The Cathedral is a great example of Norman architecture. Few people do not gasp in awe when they enter the Duomo of Monreale. This cathedral is much more than “just another church.”
The interior of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin cross with three naves, divided by marble columns. The walls are adorned with mosaic depicting stories from the Old and New Testament. But the most astonishing part of the cathedral is the wall behind the altar that depicts a half-figure Christ. Christ Pantocrator (Christ All-powerful), as it is known, surpasses by far all the other mosaics around.
Browse Through Palermo’s Markets
One of the most exciting things to do in Palermo is strolling through the city’s vibrant markets that bustle with shoppers and sellers. The four historic quarters of Palermo each have their own market. But when it comes to charm and popularity, Ballarò, Vucciria, and Capo are the most prominent ones. Nowhere is Palermo’s chaotic vibe more obvious than in these open-air markets. Locals shouting at each other and praising their merchandise to everyone that passes by. Stacks of exotic foods artfully displayed on every stall and at every street corner. Everywhere you look you see a cornucopia of fresh produce and meats.
Palermo’s street markets are not the cleanest., nor are the the place where the upper-class Italians shop, but that doesn’t make them any less attractive. No wonder they are considered one of the highlights of Palermo, drawing hundreds oftourists every day.
Day Trips From Palermo
There is plenty to see and do in Palermo, but if you have a little time to spare, there are quite a few interesting sites to visit around Palermo.
Day Trip to Cefalú
One of the most popular day trips from Palermo is to Cefalú, some 70 km east of the city. Dominated by its Norman Cathedral, Cefalú has many interesting historic sites, narrow medieval streets, and small squares. Like many other Sicilian towns, Cefalú bears witness to the various cultures that passed through it over the centuries.
One of the most fascinating attractions in Cefalú is the Lavatoio Medievale, a historical place where women came to wash their clothes, back in medieval times. Here you can see how the water used to fill up the small pools and where it flowed through a small channel, out to the sea.
Another of Cefalú’s prime attractions is the sandy beach that stretches alongside the town. Tourists flock here almost year round, but especially in summer and fall, when the water is warm.
Day Trip to Segesta
The Greek Temple at Segesta is one of few in the world with all its columns in place. And just as wondrous as the Temple is the beautiful countryside setting around it. You can admire it from below the temple, as you drive up, or even better from the Greek Theater above it which enjoys an even more beautiful vies. The temple itself is very atmospheric. The pathways around the temple are well maintained and have plenty of excellent vantage points to exercise the shutter of your camera.
Even if archeology is not your passion, the beautiful drive to Segesta alone and the view from up there make this trip worth the effort. Although the ruins are not as extensive as the ones at Agrigento or Siracusa, they are well worth a look. Take the little bus ride up to the Greek theatre, especially on a hot day, although many people will choose to climb. This is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. With so much to do and see in Palermo, it can sometimes be nice to take a day off and simply relax.
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