If you are ever in Sicily, don’t skip Palermo. Despite the many negatives you might have heard about it, the Sicilian capital is an exhilarating city that needs to be experienced to be understood. Sure, it may seem a little rough around the edges, but there are so many of fun things to do in Palermo, that you’ll soon forget all the negatives.
Palermo is eclectic, noisy and shabby in some places, yet it’s exotic and intoxicating. A city of contrasts and many flavors, surrounded by gorgeous scenery and filled with stunning architecture. It 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 chaotic, But its amazing history, energy and style are likely to steal your heart away.
UNMISSABLE THINGS TO DO IN PALERMO
Next to Catania, Palermo is one of Italy’s most visited cities that makes a great addition to any European itinerary. The citY is big and difficult to discover on your own, unless you know where you are going. Don’t assume that you can improvise or figure it out as you go.
Palermo has lots of attractions, but many of its jewels lay hidden so you won’t just stumble upon them. So after spending a week here, ere are my suggestions for the best things to do in Palermo.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Discover Chiesa di Santa Caterina – Palermo’s Best Kept Secret
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.
5. 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.
6. 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 this is one of the most unusual and macabre sites in Palermo, which may not be for everybody.
So how did all these bodies 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.
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.
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7. Take a Tour (or See a Performance) at Teatro Massimo
Teatro Mossimo 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. It’s the largest opera house in Europe!
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!
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
Palermo’s street markets are not the cleanest., nor are they the place where the upper-class Italians shop, but that doesn’t make them any less attractive.
THINGS TO DO AROUND 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 places to visit around the Sicilian capital.
11. 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.
12. 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.
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.
I can’t wait to visit Palermo after reading your post. I am sold on the architectures. This has to be the one Destination which is Photographer’s delight. I can’t even pick my favorite building or architecture, coz everything is so eye-arresting. Thank you so much for introducing it to me.
Hope you’ll get to visit Palermo soon, Parnashree.
I’ve always wanted to go to Sicily and see Palermo. It looks like I will need include all these attractions in my plan. The architecture there definitely is eye-opening!!! Love a good local market visit too.
I have to admit, when I hear Palermo, the first thing I think of is the Godfather. So nice to see a more interesting and beautiful part of Palermo. The architecture is gorgeous and I can see it is a place with such a rich history and culture. Fountain of Shame – ha ha ha!!!
I have not visited southern Italy but it would be always great to visit some cultural and historical town on southern Italy. I was knowing that Palermo was one of the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean but not knew about its troubled history. As Palermo has been invaded and inhabited by many conquerers, it would be good to see all influence in Palermo. Palermo cathedral looks stunning.
I feel bad for missing Palermo. I am guilty that we did not bother including it on our itinerary due to some reviews. However, after reading your post. A visit to Chiesa di Santa Caterina will definitely make the trip worth it.
Anyway, will make sure to visit Palermo if we have a chance again. Thank you for sharing this.
You should definitely visit Palermo if you have another chance.
I found your blog because we are heading to Sicily in March of next year for the TBEX….and we wanted to learn more about the region. Your blog is pretty much going to be our itinerary when we are in Palermo. And we absolutely love church interiors (for the archictecture, hahahaha).
Glad to hear that you’ll be at TBEX too. Hope to see you there, Mike.
All of these places are gorgeous! I think my favorite would walking through the markets at Palermo.
As I always say, is there 1 place in whole of Italy, that isn’t beautiful? Palermo too is no exception. Good to know the city has really come out of its turbulent past and has a very welcoming feel to it!
Thanks for the tip about making a proper itinerary before going. I will keep that in mind when I plan my trip.
Palermo catherdral looks stunning. My fav place in all historic catherdrals is the crypt where you get to see the origins of the architecture! The fountain is called ‘shameful’? Coming from the country of ‘David’ and ‘Venus’, its amusing….
I’m glad you enjoyed my post, Bushavali. Thanks for your comment.
Excellent visuals… did not have any idea about Palermo before seeing this!
Love the frames in the street scenes and the one taken from above!
I have heard of Palermo , but never as a place to visit as a traveler. However after seeing your photos of Fontana Pretoria, Capuchin Catacmb and Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini, I think I have changed my mind .
Palermo surely looks beautiful and it has lots of history with beautiful architecture. The Cathedral is quite striking and the ornamental staircase in Fontana Pretoria is just so beautiful. We would actually love to photgraph it from all angles. Chiesa di San Giiuseppe seems like another awesome find. We would love walking down the markets here too.
Wow, I learned so much about Palermo from this post! I’ve been once, and even did a day trip to Cefalu. But I didn’t visit any of the things on this list aside from one of the markets. I should have at least went and seen the top of the Palermo Cathedral. I don’t think I would even do the catacombs though. Although that’s a truly interesting and unique find!
I’ve always wanted to visit Palermo! I was at a dinner which was showcasing the famous street food of Palermo last year which makes me want to visit the markets. The details on the Monreale Cathedral are just amazing. Hopefully I can visit one day and follow your wonderful guide!
Wow, I’m in the process of actually writing out my bucket list and just put Palermo on it! I honestly didn’t know about all of the beautiful places to visit. The Cathedral is stunning. And the Fontana Pretoria? Seriously, I’d love to see the private villa that it was originally built for. It’s got to be insane!
Wow that detail at Chiesa di Santa Caterina is unbelievable! I really marvel at those and wonder how that art is possible with limited technology. I must agree that it could be deceiving just staying outside of this church. I’m a big fan of markets and I’m glad you mention it! I could stay there for hours and just hunt for the best cheese. The recent fire in Notre Dame got me thinking how valuable it is preserve heritage. Looks like Palermo is doing a great job in this department.
OMG, this is my kind of place. I am spoiled for choice …don’t know where to begin. Maybe with the secret of Chiesa di Santa Caterina which looks exotic. Or the catacombs. Spooky but interesting. I am adding this to my list of places to visit in Italy. Thanks for this.
The catacombs are indeed spooky, I agree.
Honestly, I think there’s a lot of history and charm in every single city in Italy. I was there for two weeks, and probably didn’t even begin to see all the incredible things there are to see there. But I do love exploring, and in Palermo, I would be checking out the cathedrals, the architecture, the plazas, and food, and everything else. Oh, and have a gelato or two as well!
Definitely worth visiting, Tami. Also, a very different atmosphere from the other cities in Italy.
Wow, the architecture of the Palermo Cathedral is wonderful! I like that you can go in and look around for free. Was that enough or would you recommend the ticket for the terrace?
What a fascinating and detailed account of what to do in Palermo. I have friends going to Sicily in a couple of months and I’m sharing this them, as they had not mentioned Palermo in their travel plans. The architecture is simply stunning. So much to do and explore. Thanks for this timely article.
Thanks, Rosemary. Hope you’ll get to visit Sicily also someday.
I lived in Naples when I was younger, but never got any further south. Sicily has always been on my wish-list because it seemed like it wasn’t as touristy as other parts of Italy. I’d love to see the Capuchin Catacombs – what a fascinating place! The combination of architectures is appealing too.
I’ve just finished watching the John Paul Getty series on Netflix and it got me interested in Palermo. After reading this guide, it sounds like Palermo is a fabulous place to explore for a few days.
It surely is, Christina. If you are ever in Sicily you should go see it.
Never heard about Palermo but looking at your photos, it is as interesting as Rome in terms of architecture and history as well. Definitely gonna check this out when I find my way in Italy 🙂
I wouldn’t say that Palermo is as interesting as Rome, but it’s a very beautiful city just the same and totally worth visiting if you are in Sicily.
I have been hearing more and more about Sicily lately. I’m hoping to go there in September. The cathedral is just stunning as is all of the buildings there. Saving this to use as my itinerary!
Linda (LD Holland)
We have Sicily on our travel wish list. Not booked yet, but high on the list. We definitely will want to spend some time in Palermo. Thanks for the tip that you need to plan you visit and not just wander around to find the jewels. We would definitely want to visit the churches. And the beautiful Fontana Pretoria. Interesting to read that it was actually transferred to Palermo and not built for there. A behind the scenes tour of the Teatro does sound kind of interesting. I am not sure I could drag hubby to an actual performance in Italian. Thanks for the list of day trips as we do plan to use Palermo as a base to explore from.
Teatro Massimo is an opera house. They don’t perform theatrical plays but opera. So I guess your hubby could enjoy some music, even if it’s in Italian, Linda.
Palermo is in my bucket list now after I read your post. It’s not just beautiful, but the history behind each churches and palaces are intriguing. I was surprised to find out there are 8 different conquerors influences the city. So interesting!
The Chiesa di Santa Caterina looks incredibly ornate. The years of occupations have left a legacy of architectural masterpieces that I would love to see. I hope to get to Sicily one day to see Palermo as well as Ragusa.
Palermo looked much quieter than most typical Italian cities. I also love the fountain that you photographed — it’s so beautiful and looked as if you had the whole place to yourself! I definitely was captivated by the cathedrals and architecture of the city. It’s so regal and definitely transports you to a different place and time. I have been to either of the places you recommended for day trips either so also adding those onto my Italy bucket list!
What beautiful places to see in Palermo. I like that all the churches have something different to offer in terms of architecture or background history. And that fountain looks fabulous at naught, even if they still think of it as a shame.,
I would love to travel to Palermo one day. I especially would like to see the Palermo Cathedral. The architecture is amazing. I would definitely like to see the the treasury, the crypt and the roof terrace there.
Palermo looks absolutely breathtaking! I would love to visit. The architecture in your photos really caught my eye. The palaces and chapels would definitely be something I’d love to seek out.
I’ve been seeing more and more about Palermo in the travel-sphere. Despite being of Sicilian heritage, I never had a desire to go, (probably because as you called it, which I LOVE, it has a tendency of being Italy’s “problem child.”) But, this post and others I’ve seen are really pushing it further and further to the top of my bucket list. I’d love to visit the markets where everyone is shouting at each other and claiming to have the best of everything! The chiesa de Santa Caterina looks UNREAL. I love the juxtaposition of Palermo having so much chaos and grittiness, but being side by side with such unimaginable beauty. You’ve truly captured this in your post!
Thank you, Stephanie. You definitely should go visit Sicily. Especially since you are of Sicilian descent. I’m sure you’ll fell very at home there.
Your photos are beautiful and I’m sure I’d love visiting Palermo – and all of Sicily for that matter. I hope to visit there, someday!
Loved this article on Palermo and your photos Anda. I am glad that you have included day trips as well. Prices seem reasonable here, more so than in Europe. 7 Euros to visit the Treasury, Crypt and Roof Terrace at the Cathedral is a good price. Euros 16.50 for a performance at the Theatre also is very reasonable. I have always wanted to visit Sicily.
Even though I have been to Italy, large parts of it still remain unexplored. Palermo is one of them, and I have read a little about it from a friend of mine. The city comes across as a really quaint destination with lots of art and culture running through its streets. The Capuchin Catacombs especially look scary, but fascinating enough to perk up my interest. Thanks for the tips.
Palermo is on my bucket list! Everything looks so beautiful! The churches and architecture are stunning. Isn’t it funny how we love markets- even if they aren’t the most sanitary?
Yep, you are so right, Chloe!