things to do in palermo podcast episode

Top 5 Things to Do in Palermo: A Feast for the Senses

If you’re looking for an unforgettable Italian vacation spot, consider Palermo, Sicily. This historic city is home to beautiful architecture, delicious food and plenty of activities to keep you busy. Forget the movies. They don’t do justice to all the amazing things to do in Palermo. In this episode, we share our thoughts and everything we love about the Sicilian capital.

It’s a different Italy than most are used to and one worth exploring. While not as polished as Florence or Rome, Palermo exudes a charm that is uniquely its own. Beneath the surface grime, you’ll uncover the beauty of a bygone era when diverse cultures held sway and left their indelible imprints on the city. We expected Palermo to reflect our previous experiences in Italy.

However, it took us by surprise with its unexpected fusion of history, architectural styles and cultures. We were prepared for a predominantly Roman influence, but Palermo had so much more to offer, sparking a sense of excitement and wonder.

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Brief history of Palermo

Various cultures have dominated Palermo for centuries, each leaving its mark on the city. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, Palermo’s history is a rich tapestry woven from the threads of its many conquerors. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish all claimed this city as their own at different times, each contributing to its unique character.

a view of Palermo with a marina and mountains in the background

The city’s intricate architecture and lush gardens reflect Arab influence. The Norman influences left behind are also evident in the grand cathedrals and palaces that still stand today. What fascinates me is 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.

a large building with a dome and a statue in front of it with Palermo Cathedral in the background

Palermo was a key port in the ancient world. According to my DK travel book, “the town prospered under the Romans, but its golden age was under Arab domination when it rivalled 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.

Palermo must-see attractions and activities

With so much history, Palermo has something to offer for everyone. As an all-year destination, you don’t have to worry about lacking choices or the best times for visiting. Take full advantage of your time in Palermo with this handy list of places to visit. There are also many free things to do in Palermo, so it won’t break your budget.

Explore Palermo’s churches

As with any other European city, there are plenty of places of worship. What makes them unique in Palermo is their style. Most buildings, including churches, are a blend of styles so that you might see unexpected elements of different religions. You don’t have to be religious to explore them. The fascinating blend of cultures makes the churches here very different from those found in the rest of the country.

Many churches owe their glory to the Baroque period, which 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 fascinating blend. Even if you’re not religious, you can still admire the techniques and mastery that went into building them.

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 had 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. If you are an architecture lover, this is a must on your list of things to do in Palermo.

Palermo Cathedral with a dome and arches

Monreale Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale): Though technically located in Monreale, a town bordering Palermo, this cathedral is a must-visit for anyone interested in Byzantine art and architecture. Built in the 12th century, the cathedral’s interior is adorned with breathtaking mosaics depicting biblical scenes and saints.

Palermo Cathedral with a stone wall

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 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 UNESCO World Heritage site.

San Cataldo, Palermo with red domes and a bell tower

San Giovanni degli Eremiti: With its five red domes, the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is another example of Arab-Norman architecture. While it no longer possesses the glory of the 12th century when Roger II had it built, it has a quiet beauty, including a garden filled with citrus fruit trees. For a small fee, you can climb the tower and enjoy spectacular views of Palermo.

a high angle view of a city
  • Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel): Located inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina dates back to the 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 details of the precious stones, gold, mosaics, and marble are the work of Byzantine Greek artisans.
  • Chiesa del Gesù (Church of the Gesù): Built by the Jesuits during the peak of Baroque art in Palermo, it became a model for all Jesuit churches in Italy and Europe. The church suffered major damage during the WWII bombing and has undergone extensive restorations since then. 
  • Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt): Located in Piazza Bellini, the Church of St. Catherine is one of Palermo’s richest and most decorated. Built in the Sicilian Baroque style, it 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 as a mosque. Located on the south side of Piazza Bellini today, it is an Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. The liturgies are officiated according to Byzantine rites, which were performed even in ancient Greece. Make sure to check out the magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

Visit Palermo’s landmarks

Don’t worry. Palermo is more than just churches. There are many interesting and worthwhile places to explore when visiting Palermo. After all, the city has a long and colourful history. There is no shortage of amazing things to do in Palermo. Part of the fun is discovering them. 

Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden): Used as a botanical garden and a research and educational institution of the Department of Botany of the University of Palermo, this beautiful garden dates back to the late 18th century. There are different species of trees, flowers and plants, as well as water features and greenhouses. It’s a nice stop to your list of things to do in Palermo, especially during sweltering days.

a cactus in front of a building

Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele: 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 rooftop terrace or see a performance. Fun fact, the closing scene of The Godfather: Part III was filmed here.

a building with columns and a domed roof
  • Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace of Palermo): Although built originally by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Normans turned the Palazzo dei Normanni into a multifunctional complex for King Roger II’s court. Today, this Norman palace is home to 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.
  • Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Catacombs): This macabre yet fascinating attraction is not for the faint of heart. The catacombs house the naturally mummified remains of thousands of Palermitans, displayed in various states of dress and pose. While it may seem unsettling, the catacombs offer a unique glimpse into Palermo’s funerary practices and social history.

Explore the piazzas and fountains

Visiting Palermo wouldn’t be complete without enjoying the sites and sounds of the many beautiful piazzas and fountains. Like many other Italian cities, Palermo has its share of stunning fountains and richly decorated buildings. 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 enjoying people-watching. It’s a great way to see the city.

Piazza Pretoria or Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame): Named after the naked mythological figures adorning the circular fountain, the Fontana Pretoria is a great place to stop and admire the old grandeur. This magnificent fountain, originally designed in the mid-16th century for a Florentine villa by the sculptor Francesco Camilliani, later found its place in Piazza Pretoria. 

a stone staircase with statues in front of a building

Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena): The fashionable Quattro Canti is a Baroque-style piazza at the 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.

a street light in front of a building
  • Piazza Bellini: Considered one of Palermo’s most beautiful squares, the Piazza Bellini is where the East meets the West. Home to three churches – La Martorana, San Cataldo and Santa Caterina – it is a visual feast for anyone. You’ll also find the lovely Teatro Bellini (Bellini Theatre) here.
  • Piazza Marina: 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 in Europe, is a centrepiece of the piazza and dates back to 1863.
  • 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.

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Check out Palermo’s museums

Museums are a great way to see history, and there are many of them to choose from when you plan your list of things to do in Palermo. There is no shortage of places to discover. 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, modern and everything in between. 

  • Galleria Regionale della Sicilia: This museum, housed in a 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis, is considered one of Palermo’s best. It houses works by Sicilian artists from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.
  • Museo Archeologico Regionale: Located in what was once a Renaissance monastery, the museum is home to Sicily’s best Greek and Roman artifacts, including original friezes from the temples at Selinunte, Etruscan mirrors and the world’s most extensive collection of ancient anchors.
  • Museo dell’Inquisizione (Museum of the Holy Inquisition): For a taste of the darker side of human nature, check out the Museum of Inquisition located in Piazza Marina. You can see graffiti and artwork in many 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 span from the 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, this quirky museum is a perfect destination for all ages, with occasional puppet shows.

Sample local cuisine

One of the top things to do in Palermo is to indulge in the city’s incredible culinary scene. Sicilian cuisine is a melting pot of flavours, blending Italian and North African influences. For an authentic taste of Sicily, try arancini, fried balls of rice stuffed with ragu or cheese, or panelle, chickpea fritters usually served in a sandwich.

Other must-try dishes include caponata, a sweet and sour eggplant dish, and pasta alla norma, made with tomatoes, fried eggplant, and ricotta salata. You must try the cannoli, crispy pastry tubes filled with sweet ricotta cream for dessert or the cassata. With its bold flavours and fresh ingredients, Palermo’s cuisine will surely delight your taste buds.

Explore Palermo’s markets

Palermo has several interesting street markets where you can sample local food, from fresh seafood to sweet treats. If you’re looking for an authentic Sicilian experience, here are some must-visits.

  • Ballaro Market: This is Palermo’s largest and arguably most famous market. It’s a maze of narrow streets overflowing with fresh produce, local crafts, clothing, and household goods. Ballarò is a feast for the senses, with the sights of colourful stalls, the sounds of vendors calling out their wares, and the intoxicating smells of sizzling sausages, spices, and freshly baked bread.
  • Mercato del Capo: This market is a haven for foodies, with vendors specializing in fresh fish, local cheeses, cured meats, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s a great place to sample some Sicilian delicacies like arancini (fried rice balls) and cannoli (pastry shells filled with ricotta cream). Mercato del Capo is slightly smaller and more relaxed than Ballarò.
  • La Vucciria: Once the heart of Palermo’s fish market, La Vucciria has become a more trendy spot in recent years. While you can still find fresh seafood here, stalls also sell local street food, souvenirs, and clothing. La Vucciria comes alive at night, with many bars and restaurants spilling onto the street.

Why you should visit Palermo

Like elsewhere in Italy, Palermo has many great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. We definitely contributed to the local economy by partaking in these delights. It’s an excellent place for anyone who loves culture, architecture and great food. There are many great restaurants, markets, and bars to enjoy, and the city has a lot to offer during the day and at night.

One of the interesting things we noticed while visiting Palermo was that the majority of the tourists were Italian or other Europeans. Most 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 explore in Palermo and even more on the rest of the island. It’s definitely worth visiting.

How to get to Palermo?

As Italy’s largest island, Sicily is well connected to the rest of the country and major European cities. You can fly directly to the Palermo International Airport (PMO), which is about 32 km west of the city or the Trapani Airport with a bus transfer to Palermo.

By car: We love a good road trip, and if you’re looking for an epic adventure, a Sicily road trip should be on your list. You can rent a car and either start or end your trip in Palermo.

By ferry:
The Port of Palermo is connected by ferry to major Italian ports, including Genoa, Civitàvecchia, Naples, Valletta (Malta) and Cagliari (Sardinia).

By train:
You can reach Palermo by train, coming from Rome or Naples, via the train ferry across the Strait of Messina.

Check out options for getting to Palermo from the airport. 

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