Best things to do in Palermo Italy

The Sicilian capital of Palermo may overwhelm many tourists – it’s hectic, gritty, and a bit chaotic – but skipping a visit to Palermo during your trip to Sicily is a mistake. Yes, the city can be overwhelming as scooters buzz past you on pedestrian streets, but spend a day in Palermo in Italy and you’ll be enchanted by the city’s many charms. 

As you begin to explore this chaotic world you’ll be amazed by the sheer number of things to do in Palermo Italy. You will be drawn in by the beautiful architecture, captivated by the vibrant markets, and astounded by the complexity of the city’s history. If you’re wondering where to go and what to see in Palermo, then you’ve come to the right place.

Discover the best things to do in Palmero Italy
Discover the best things to do in Palmero Italy

Below I’ll outline some of the many attractions in Palermo, from gilded churches to spooky crypts. Palermo will delight the adventurous traveler with its mix of cultures, vibrant markets, and complex history. In addition to places that are must see in Palermo, I will be sharing useful tips on to plan a visit to this Italian – rather Sicilian city.


Where is Palermo in Italy located?

Palermo is located on the northern coast of the island of Sicily, which is part of Italy. It is the capital city of the autonomous region of Sicily and is one of the largest cities in Italy.

History of Palermo Sicily

Over centuries, Palermo has seen many different rulers. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BCE, the city became a Carthaginian settlement before falling under Roman rule in the 3rd century BCE. During the Roman period, the once prominent city saw a marked decline. It wasn’t until the 9th century CE when, under Arab rule, Palermo began to prosper again. When the  Normans conquered in the 1100s, they maintained Palermo as the Sicilian capital – which it remains to this day. 

During the Middle Ages, Palermo was a thriving center of trade and commerce, and it played an important role in the Mediterranean economy. In the 19th century, Palermo Sicily became an important center of the Italian Risorgimento, which was a political and cultural movement that aimed to unify Italy. During World War II, Palermo was heavily bombed by the Allied forces, and the city suffered extensive damage. However, it was rebuilt after the war and has since become a popular tourist destination in Italy known for its beautiful beaches, ancient monuments, and delicious cuisine.

Top Things to do in Palermo Italy

Palermo is quite unlike the other cities of Italy like Florence, Rome, Venice or even small towns like Pisa. For one, you will find it quite chaotic and when it comes to the places to visit in Palermo, you will find that the heritage architecture of the place is a blend of various styles ranging from Arab to Norman and Roman.

Palermo in Italy is a vibrant and multicultural city that is proud of its rich history and cultural heritage. It is quite different The many Palermo top sights include the Norman Palace, the Palermo Cathedral, the Teatro Massimo, and the famous street markets such as the Vucciria and the Ballarò market. You can opt for a Hop-On-Hop -Off Bus to see all of them or take one of the many walking tours available in Palermo.

Now let’s dive into the complete list of what to see in Palermo.

1. Spend some time in Piazza Bellini: Palermo’s trio of churches

Piazza Bellini is a historic square in the heart of Palermo, Sicily, Italy. The square is home to three must-see churches, all situated within the same square, Piazza Bellini. Each was founded by a different religious order, and the interiors are just as varied. You can opt for this walking tour through this historic center in Palermo.

The Church of Santa Caterina

Cathedral of Santa Maria in Palermo
Cathedral of Santa Maria in Palermo PC: Image by Manfred Zajac from Pixabay

The Church of Santa Caterina is a Baroque church dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria and was built between the 16th and 18th centuries. The church will impress you will its ornate Baroque facade, which features a central portal and two bell towers. You will be equally captivated by its ornate interiors that have beautiful frescoes, sculptures, and paintings across the walls and ceilings.

Attached to this Church of Santa Caterina is a monastery that once housed a community of cloistered nuns. While the nuns are all gone (the last nun left in 2014), their tradition of baked goods continues. Head to the onsite bakery for some delicious traditional Sicilian desserts, such as marzipan

La Martorana – one of the key attractions in Palermo

The beautiful mosaics inside La Martorana church - one of Palermo's must see sights
The beautiful mosaics inside La Martorana church – one of Palermo’s must-see sights PC: Image by Cristina from Pixabay

Adjacent to the Church of Santa Caterina is Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, or La Martorana. This small domed church is famous for its gilded Byzantine mosaics and has been tagged a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was initially dedicated to Saint Mary, but later came to be known as La Martorana after the founding abbess nun, Eloisa Martorana.

The church was commissioned by George of Antioch who was the Grand Admiral of King Roger’s navy. He is said to have brought in Byzantine craftsmen who created unique mosaics that are a blend of Islamic and Christian styles. These intricate mosaics depict biblical scenes, saints, and angels.

Church of San Cataldo          

Church of San Cataldo  - one of the key attractions of Palermo, Siciily
Church of San Cataldo – one of the key attractions of Palermo, Siciily

Last but not least, is the Church of San Cataldo – yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Simple on the inside with austere stone columns, this Arabic-style Norman church is best known for its exterior with three distinctive orange domes.

Piazza Bellini is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, and it is a great place to take a stroll, sit and enjoy a coffee or gelato, or simply take in the beautiful architecture and historic landmarks. The square is also home to several restaurants, cafes, and bars, making it a popular spot for dining and nightlife.

2. Take a tour of the Teatro Massimo

Take a tour of Teatro Massimo - one of the must-do activities in Palermo
Take a tour of Teatro Massimo – one of the must-do activities in Palermo

This 19th-century theater and opera house is the largest in Italy and the third largest in Europe. One of the top things to do in Palermo in Sicily is to take one of the many tours of this epic theatre – or better still catch a performance.

Inside Massimo theatre
Inside Massimo theatre

30-minute guided tours are offered on a daily basis, taking you through the grand theater with its 7 tiers of balconies and into the royal box where the best seats are located. The Teatro Massimo has a seating capacity of 1,400 and features a beautiful neoclassical design with ornate decorations and a grand entrance staircase. The tour ends in the Pompeiian room, a large domed room modeled after the city of Pompeii. Touring Teatro Massimo is a good way to learn the history of the theater and anecdotes about famous theater patrons and Palermo locals.

~Click to book your tickets to this Palmero Opera Theater tour ~

3. Admire one of the top Palermo tourist attractions – Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary or simply the Palermo Duomois . This is a Roman Catholic cathedral and is the seat of the Archbishop of Palermo. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited Palermo attractions and naturally, there is no way you can miss it.

The gorgeous fusion of architectural styles that is visible on the Palermo cathedral - one of the Palermo top sights
The gorgeous fusion of architectural styles that is visible on the Palermo cathedral – one of the Palermo top sights PC: Image by Talpa from Pixabay

The construction of the cathedral began in 1184 under the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and was completed in the 18th century. The cathedral’s architecture reflects the various influences of the different cultures that have ruled over Palermo throughout its history, including Norman, Arabic, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

What you will love is the mixture of styles on the external façade of the Palermo church. You will see a Norman portal, Gothic arcades, and Baroque cupolas. Once you get inside, you will find yourself bewitched by the stunning mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures.

~Book a walking tour that takes you through the Palmero Cathedral ~

It is best to take a combination ticket that includes a visit to the crypt in the cathedral – especially since they include the Royal Tombs of the Kings of Sicily. The other sights that are included in the combination ticket are a Treasury which houses a collection of precious objects and access to the terrace from where you can enjoy the view of Palermo city.

4. Explore the Palatine Chapel and Norman Palace – Palermo top sights

The Norman palace - one of the places to visit in Palermo, Sicily
The Norman palace – one of the places to visit in Palermo, Sicily

The Norman Palace or the Palazzo dei Normanni was the historic home to Sicilian rulers from the 11th century on. What makes it unique is the fact that it was built on top of a 9th-century Arab castle – so expect to see an eclectic fusion of styles. While today it houses government staterooms, the main draw of the Norman Palace is its Palatine Chapel. Enter the chapel for a chance to see colorful Byzantine mosaics up close. In this intimate space, you’ll be face-to-face with mosaics dating back to the 1100s.

I recommend that you plan your visit between Friday and Monday as you’ll also be able to tour the staterooms. While these rooms may seem dull after the glittering Palatine Chapel, they are worth a quick visit and house a few gilded mosaics of their own. And when you see it for yourself, you will realize why it is recommended as one of the many sights that are must see in Palermo. You can opt for this tour of Norman Palace and the Palantine Chapel.

5. Get a look at the Inquisition Cells at Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri

Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri, also known as Palazzo Steri, is a medieval palace located in Palermo, Italy. It was originally built in the 14th century by the powerful Chiaramonte family, who were one of the most influential families in Sicily at the time.

During the Spanish Inquisition of the 1600s, the cells at Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri housed prisoners of the state. You can visit the sight via a guided tour, where you’ll see the original prison cells. Many prisoners adorned their enclosures with artwork and graffiti to pass the time. Since art supplies were limited, they painted using a mix of bodily fluids and dirt. This interesting tour covers the history of the inquisition in Sicily, which unfortunately drove out the many minority groups living on the island.

The drawings inside the Palazzo Steri
The drawings inside the Palazzo Steri PC: Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t miss the museum at the Palazzo Steri. It features a range of exhibits, including torture devices, instruments of punishment, and documents related to the trials and punishments of those accused of heresy or witchcraft. In addition to the Museum of the Inquisition, visitors to Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri can explore the palace’s impressive interior, which includes ornate rooms and halls decorated with frescoes, tapestries, and antique furnishings. The palace also boasts a beautiful courtyard, which is surrounded by a colonnade and features a central fountain.

Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri is a must-visit destination in Palermo for those interested in the history of Sicily and the darker side of its past.

6. Capuchin Crypt – one of the most eerie places to visit in Palermo

The Capuchin crypt is not for the faint of heart. Enter this monastery crypt and you’ll be walking amongst the dead, literally. The Capuchin order of the Franciscans, known for their preoccupation with death and mortality, mummified and displayed the bodies of dead monks and parishioners. The crypt contains around 4,000 bodies.

Inside the Catacombs of Palermo
Inside the Catacombs of Palermo PC: Gmihail at Serbian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The mummies are arranged in different rooms, each with its own theme, such as the “Women’s Corridor,” which features the mummified remains of women and children, or the “Monks’ Corridor,” which displays the mummified bodies of Capuchin friars dressed in their habits.

On your visit you’ll walk amongst them in a tight, cavernous space, taking in the eerie scene. There are no pictures allowed inside the catacombs. I recommend you take a guided tour of this Palermo attraction and learn about the history and significance of the Capuchin friars and their unique burial practices.

Remember that the crypt may not be suitable for all due to its macabre nature, it is a fascinating and unforgettable destination for those with an interest in history, religion, and the macabre.

7. Explore the Palermo markets

Browse through the Palermo markets
Browse through the Palermo markets

Palermo is home to three of the most famous street markets in Sicily: Il Ballarò, La Vucciria and Il Capo. Wandering through these markets is a quintessential Palermo experience. Take in the smells, sights, and sounds. You’ll pass produce stands, fishmongers, and butchers, all jumbled together in this crowded area. Vendors call out in sing-songy voices, announcing their wares to potential customers. Palermo’s markets are a great place to grab some delicious street food – grilled octopus, spleen sandwiches, arancini – or to pick up some cheese, olives, and bread for an impromptu picnic.

Keep an eye out for those Sicilian souvenirs – a lot of which are available in La Vucciria. Walking through these markets is definitely one of the best Palermo activities that you can do.

8. Spend time at the Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena)

Don't miss the Quattro Canti
Don’t miss the Quattro Canti

Quattro Canti, also known as Piazza Vigliena, meaning four corners, is the beating heart of Palermo. This square marks the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele. The Baroque architecture on the four buildings at the corners of the square depicts the four seasons. If you look closely, you’ll notice the building facades are concave, creating the illusion of a circle and symbolizing the cyclical passage of the seasons.

Quattro Canti is bustling at all times of day but is a joy to explore at night when locals perform the la passeggiata (leisurely stroll) and musicians busk in the square – one of Palermo’s most iconic landmarks.

9. Catch a Sicilian puppet show at the Teatro dei Pupi

For a truly unique Sicilian experience, head to Palermo’s Teatro dei Pupi. April through October, this theater puts on live puppet shows in the Sicilian style. Unlike marionettes, which are pulled on strings, Sicilian puppets are maneuvered using rods. The theater uses humor and farce to reenact historic episodes from Sicily’s Norman history.

10. Pose by the “Fountain of Shame” in the Piazza Pretoria

The fountain of shame in Palermo in Italy
The fountain of shame in Palermo in Italy

The central multi-tiered fountain depicts ancient gods and goddesses carved out of Carrera marble. The fountain was brought to Sicily from Florence during the Renaissance period (circa 1500). 

The nickname “Fountain of Shame” comes from the many nude statues. While nudity was commonplace in Italian Renaissance art, the nude sculpture was a rarity in Sicily. Further complicating the situation, the fountain was installed adjacent to a Dominican convent. One night, the nuns crept out of the convent and did a bit of remodeling with their chisels. The evidence of this can be seen through certain missing body parts on the fountain’s statues.

11. Enjoy Sicilian food with a food tour

Palermo is famous for its street food, and a guided street food tour is one of the most recommended Palermo activities here. Pick a tour that takes you through the city’s markets and streets, where you can taste traditional dishes like arancini (fried rice balls), panelle (chickpea fritters), and sfincione (a type of pizza).

You can also, try a wine and food tour to sample some of the renowned Sicilian wines. Some of these tours take you to a local winery, where you can taste different types of wine paired with local cheeses, olives, and other snacks.

I would not say no to trying a cooking class that usually takes place in a local home or restaurant and teaches you how to make dishes like pasta alla norma (pasta with eggplant and tomato sauce), caponata (a sweet and sour vegetable dish), and cannoli (a sweet pastry filled with ricotta cheese).

12. Take one of these day trips from Palermo Italy

While these sights are not within the Palermo city limits, they are easy day trips from Palermo and are worth adding to your Palermo itinerary.

Mondello Beach

On the other side of Monte Pellegrino, sits Mondello with its turquoise clear waters and white sand beaches. This popular summer resort spot is a favorite for families and those looking to relax away from the chaos of the city.

Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Cathedral - one of the sights to see on a day trip from Palermo
Monreale Cathedral – one of the sights to see on a day trip from Palermo

This awe-inspiring cathedral is one of Sicily’s most important sights and a must-see when visiting Palermo. The cathedral interior is most notable for its golden Byzantine mosaics. These mosaics are done on a grand scale: the hand of Jesus in the Christ Pantocrator Mosaic above the apse measures 6 feet!

While visiting Monreale Cathedral, be sure to stop in the cloisters for a peaceful stroll. You can also hike up to the roof terraces for grand views of Palermo. There are many day tours from Palermo or you can even opt for the shuttle buses from the city

Monte Pellegrino and the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia

The Shrine of Santa Rosalia
The Shrine of Santa Rosalia

Described by the German writer Goethe as, “the most beautiful promontory in the world,” Monte Pellegrino offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Gulf of Palermo and the surrounding mountains. 

Carved into the mountaintop is the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, a shrine to Palermo’s patron saint. Inside the cave-like shrine, watch as the faithful come to pray to this revered saint to heal their physical ailments. Every September, pilgrims walk barefoot from the center of Palermo all the way up to the shrine to pay their respects to the city’s patron saint.  Check this tour from Palermo to this town.

Final Thoughts on what to see in Palermo

Palermo is a unique and unforgettable city with a fascinating blend of cultures and influences.You can explore the city’s rich history by touring the impressive churches and palaces, while also experiencing the more modern side of Palermo by heading to the street markets and beaches. Whether you’re a history buff, a food lover, or simply looking to soak up the Mediterranean sun, Palermo has something to offer every traveler. With its vibrant atmosphere and many opportunities for exploration, Palermo is a destination that should not be missed.

To help you plan the trip to Palermo, I have put together these tips in the form of FAQs. Be sure to check them out.

Common FAQs on Palermo in Sicily, Italy

What is the best way to get to Palermo in Italy?

Here are some common ways to reach Palermo:
By Air: Palermo has its own airport with flights to many top European cities. Flights to Palermo run year-round, however, some airlines may reduce flight numbers in the winter months.

By Train: Palermo is well-connected to other cities in Italy by train, and there are frequent services from major cities such as Rome, Florence, and Naples. Trains in Italy are generally comfortable and reliable, and the journey from Rome to Palermo takes around 10-11 hours.
By Road: If you’re planning on driving in Sicily, the island’s second city of Catania is 3 hours away by car. There are also many bus services that connect Palermo to other cities in Italy and other parts of Europe. Bus travel is generally more affordable than trains, but the journey times can be longer

Where to stay in Palermo?

It’s important to pick the right hotel when staying in Palermo. The city is lively and hectic, so while you’ll want to stay central to all the top tourist attractions in Palmero, you probably don’t want all the city noise. I recommend the Hotel del Centro, a comfortable, clean hotel within a short walk of the city center. It is a good mid priced hotel.

How many days do you need in Palermo?

To fully experience the city and its surroundings, I recommend spending at least 2 days in Palermo.
With 2 days, you can explore Palermo’s historic center, visit its many museums and galleries, and take day trips to nearby attractions such as the stunning Cathedral of Monreale and the beautiful beaches of Mondello.

Is Sicily cheaper than Italy?

Sicily can be cheaper than some other parts of Italy. In general, accommodation in Sicily is more affordable than in other parts of Italy, especially in smaller towns and villages. Public transportation in Sicily, such as buses and trains, can be relatively cheap compared to other parts of Italy

What is the best month to visit Palermo?

The best time to visit Palermo is from April to June or from September to November. During these months, the weather is generally mild and comfortable, with fewer crowds and lower prices than in the peak summer season.
April to June is considered the shoulder season in Palermo, and it’s a great time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy pleasant weather. The average temperatures during these months range from 18°C to 26°C and there is less rainfall than in the winter months.
September to November is also a great time to visit Palermo, as the summer crowds have thinned out and the weather is still warm and sunny. The average temperatures during these months range from 19°C to 25°C.
The summer months of July and August can be hot and crowded, with temperatures reaching up to 30°C and higher, and prices for accommodation and activities can be higher. However, if you don’t mind the heat and crowds, summer can be a great time to enjoy the beaches and outdoor activities in and around Palermo.

Does it snow in Palermo, Sicily?

It is very rare for it to snow in Palermo. Palermo is located on the northwestern coast of Sicily, and its climate is classified as Mediterranean, which means that winters are generally mild and rainy, while summers are hot and dry.

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This post has been contributed by my guest author – Tamar. Tamar is the travel blogger behind World by Weekend, a family travel blog focused on exploring Europe with kids. She hopes to help and inspire busy parents to travel more with their children, even if just one weekend at a time, by providing detailed, family-friendly travel itineraries. You can also find Tamar on Instagram at @worldbyweekend

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