Palermo is a city on the island of Sicily in Italy. You know, the island that it looks like the Italian “boot” is kicking. Naturally, there are plenty of things to see in Palermo, mainly including the Italian classics; great food, even better wine (in my opinion), lots of beautiful, historic buildings, and picturesque streets (including laundry hanging out to dry: the Italian movie staple).
I visited Palermo, Sicily (or Palermo, Italy – both are used interchangeably, I’ve learned) with Costa Cruise Lines, and you can read all about my West Mediterranean Cruise experience here. Additionally, if you are going on a cruise for the first time, head this way for some of my best tips for first-time cruisers. Now, let’s cover some of my favourite things to do in Palermo, Italy!
As mentioned, this is a city with many classic Italian offerings (find the shortlist in the introduction above), but you’ll also find that there are some pretty unique Palermo things to do, that are specific to the island of Sicily. This is mainly food-related (and wine-related), but also comes as a result of the incredibly interesting history of the island. I’m not a historian, but I’ll give you a brief history lesson (or you can simply skip down to the list of
things to do in Palermo, or alternatively use the table of contents above).
Sicily is a very interesting island, and not just for the mafia and wine (all though those two do bring some extra flair to it). What is especially fascinating is that through the ages, the island has seen several different rules, with very distinct cultures. They have gone from being a part of the Roman Empire to having a Germanic rule, to an Arab period and eventually to the Normans.
This has resulted in an island rich in history and very different historic influences, and Palermo is a city where this becomes clear. Out of all the fun things to do in Palermo, you’ll find that many of them are a direct result of the various rules and influences of the city. For example, did you know that Palermo is home to the oldest street markets in Italy, dating back to the Arab rule of the island in the years 800-1000?
Did you know that you can travel to the Aeolian Islands from Palermo? Here’s a guide and Aeolian Islands itinerary if you do!
Without further ado (did you see how I tricked the history lesson in there?), here are some of the best things to see and do in Palermo, Sicily.
The Piazza Marina is a beautiful square, not too far from the port of Palermo. Thus, arriving on a cruise ship, it is quite easy to visit, and within walking distance. In the middle of this square, you will find the beautiful Garibaldi gardens.
The Ficus Macrophylla is definitely one of the things you should see in Palermo, Sicilia!
#2 Get the lay of the land on a bus or walking tour
Whenever I visit a new city for the first time, and I am a little short on time, I love joining a tour to get an overview of the sights and the walking distance. In Palermo, I jumped on one of the hop-on-hop-off buses, so that I could quickly (within an hour) get an idea of where to find all the great Palermo sightseeing in the city.
There are two bus companies; a red bus tour (which can be booked in advance here), and a yellow bus. The yellow buses are a local company, Open ArTour Palermo. The two companies cover the same routes, but the yellow buses are €5 cheaper (at least it was when I visited in November 2019), all though it cannot be booked in advance.
The round trip takes around 1 hour and is a great way to get an overview of the city before you go off and explore on your own. An added bonus is that your ticket is valid for 24 or 48 hours, so basically you have your transport sorted for your visit! Once I had done the loop and gotten an overview of the city, I used the bus as my transportation for the rest of the day.
This is the biggest church in the city, and worth seeing for the beautiful details on the exterior alone. The beautiful facade dates back to 1726, but the church itself to 1640. Several notable people from Sicily have been buried here, and the church is therefore nicknamed the “Pantheon of Illustrious Sicilians”.
#4 Get lost in the beautiful streets of the city
There is nothing like getting lost in a city like Palermo, with beautiful cobbled streets, wry stairways and charming alleys where clothes hang out to dry across the buildings. I could have spent an entire day simply walking around in the streets of Palermo, getting completely lost in the beauty of the city (and trying to learn Italian on the way).
Piazza Giulio Cesare (Julius Cæsar) is the busy square in front of the central station of Palermo. In the middle, you’ll find a small garden, and a statue of Vittorio Emanuele, dating back to 1886. The square itself was built in the same year. Vittorio Emanuele (Victor Emanuel II) is a figure that I noticed often as I walked around Palermo, and I quickly learned that he was the first king of Italy (from 1861 to 1878). Just for fun, I’m going to share with you his full name; Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso di Savoia.
Now you know. #6 Visit one of the street markets in the city (Ballarò)
As mentioned above, Palermo and Sicilia have a long history of different rules, and each rule has left behind unique pieces of culture and history for us to enjoy. One of the remnants of the Arab rule of Sicily are the street markets in Palermo, and I strongly recommend you visit at least one of these during your time in Palermo. The street markets in Palermo are some of the oldest in Italy, and there are several different ones to visit:
This is one of the main squares in Palermo. It is where you will find the Porta Nuova (#11 below), and you’ll be within walking distance to several of the main things to do in Palermo by knowing where the Piazza is. I recommend pinning it on a map, so you always find your way around.
Out of all the things to see in Palermo, the catacombs are high on everyone’s list. And with good reason. The Capuchin Catacombs date back to the 16th century, when the original cemetery of the monastery of Capuchin ran out of space. The monks began digging using the space below ground and even mummified some of the people buried there.
The last burial in the catacombs is from the 1920s, and tourists have been visiting ever since. Amongst the 8000 corpses and over 1200 mummies found in the catacombs, I want to highlight the body of a 2-year-old girl from 1920. She has been preserved so well that she almost looks alive, and has given her the nickname “Sleeping Beauty”.
You know there is no way I would visit a city without hitting up the castle, right? So naturally, once I had done some light Palermo sightseeing, it was time to head to the local palace.
The “Norman Palace” of Palermo is not only a beautiful building in itself but also enriched with history and traces of the Arab, Norman and Byzantine rule of the island of Sicily. I strongly recommend spending an hour or two exploring it, and there is also an exhibition covering the vast history of the place. It is also called the Palazzo Reale.
The Cappella Palatina (“the Palatine Chapel”) is actually found inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, but it is worth its own section on my list of what to do in Palermo. The Chapel was built in the 1100s and is decorated with beautiful mosaics all around. My only tip for your visit to the Cappella Palatina is to take your time and
Porta Nuova means “new gate”, but I dare say it isn’t new anymore. The Porta Nuova is a beautiful monumental gate dating back to 1535. It was built to celebrate Charles the 5th, the Holy Roman Emperor, after his victory in Tunis when he visited Palermo after (and entered through the gate). It is decorated with 4 large statues of imprisoned Moors.
Another gate, and quite an interesting one at that! The Porta Sant Agata is the oldest gate in the city of Palermo. It is named so because of the nearby church. The gate is located just a few metres from the Ballarò street market, so if you are dropping by there, make sure to walk the extra minute to see the gate. It is unsure how old the gate actually is, but we know it existed in 1071, as it has been mentioned in retellings and letters dating back to that year.
It’s not possible to visit Palermo (or Sicily in general) without trying the local Cannoli! This yummy sweet is made with sweet ricotta cheese, and whatever flavour you choose. It is a little pipe (“canna” is actually Latin and means “small pipe”), and the cheese and other condiments is used to fill the pipe. Visiting Sicily without trying this local treat just wouldn’t be right, so do make sure you get your hands on a Cannoli (or five) while you are in Palermo!
Since we are on the topic of food, of course, this had to be on the list. Sicily has some great wine to offer visitors, in great thanks to the volcanic land the vines are grown on. This makes for some truly unique wines, and it is worth spending a few hours at a wine tasting on the island (like this one, paired with a hike) or just spending them at a wine bar in Palermo.
The Cathedral of Palermo is a truly marvellous building. It is absolutely massive (so big that I wasn’t able to fit the whole building into my photo). As with the palace, you can find several different styles and influences both inside the Cathedral and on its exterior, due to several alterations and additions through the years. The original church dates back to 1185, and it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Entrance is free, and I do recommend heading inside to explore.
Fun fact: The main facade of the original church is not actually the “front” that is seen in the photo (facing the piazza), but the side you see on the left, with two arcades connecting it to the Archbishop’s Palace.
As mentioned, the Palace is the building you see on the left of the photo above, and it is connected to the Cathedral by two arcades. The Palace is today the Museo Diocesano; the Diocesan Museum and has been since 1927. A visit to the museum will not only give you an impression of what the Palace was like in the glory days of the Archbishops of Sicily, but also share a bit of local religious history, through artefacts, paintings and more. Entry to the museum costs €4,50.
In the oldest part of the city, just in front of the Palazzo dei Normanni, you’ll find Villa Bonanno. These are some beautiful gardens, with tall palm trees, perfectly manicured bushes, and winding pathways. Grabbing a coffee (or a cannoli) and having a stroll here comes highly recommended when you are visiting Palermo. In the garden, you will also find an encryption cellar, complete with a see-through ceiling so you can gaze down into it.
The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele is the third-largest opera house in Europe, following the opera of Paris and Vienna. The inspiration is clearly classical, and on the facade, you will find a beautiful inscription that translates to “Art renews the people and reviews their lives”.
Creepy fun fact: The opera is build in the place of two churches, that were torn down in order to build it. It is said that the ghost of a nun from one of the churches haunts the building. Apparently, those that do not believe in the story always trip over a step in the church called “ il passo della suora” (the nun’s step).
Named in English “The Fountain of Shame” (from the local nickname “Fontana della Vergogna”), and by some called the most interesting sight in Palermo, this fountain sure is a detailed piece of architecture. It is riddled with over 50 statues of monsters, humans, and mythological creatures. Some call the statues grotesque, and it is said that Goethe himself was appaled when he saw the fountain during a visit to Sicilia in 1787.
Did you know that Palermo has a growing community of artisans and artists? Around the city, you will find markets, craft stores and pop-up shops focusing on unique and handmade products. Head this way to learn more and find out where to find some of these unique places. I found the sign below in Via Maqueda, pointing towards a market square of handmade products.
During my day in Palermo with Costa Cruises, I spent some time simply strolling along the waterfront, and I really enjoyed it. So, this had to make it to the list of things to do in Palermo. Simply taking in the charming, Italian buildings along the waterfront, and oogling the sailboats and yachts parked there was a great way to spend an hour, and also super relaxing. Even in the rain, it was quite a beautiful experience. The marina isn’t far from the Piazza Marina (and the oldest tree in Italy), so both can easily be done at the same time.
Here’s another stroll for you, but this one is a little less relaxing than walking along the marina (seriously, I think I clocked over 20’000 steps during my trip to Palermo). Via Maqueda is a pedestrian street (and a bit of a main street) in Palermo, where car traffic simply has been blocked off by massive barriers. If you need something to do during your visit to the city, simply head here (or to the similarly pedestrianised via Vittorio Emanuele). There are shops, cafes, restaurants and hole-in-the-wall style bakeries selling cannoli for you to enjoy. Find the street here.
There are several ways to deep-dive into Sicilian food, such as joining a cooking class in Palermo, or having lunch or dinner at a local chef’s house! Regardless of which one you choose, if you are a foodie, this should be on your list of what to do in Palermo, Italy!
This one may seem a little odd, but did you know that the Sicilian puppet theatre; in Italian “Opera Del Pupi Siciliani” is actually listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List? Well, it is, and it’s considered a cultural treasure of Sicily. Head to the Cuticchio Theater to catch one of these shows, and to marvel at the incredible details in the hand-painted puppets used. This one is fun for the whole family, and definitely something to consider if you are travelling to Palermo with kids!
#25 Marvel at the many churches in the city
As with many Italian cities, Palermo has a rich religious history, and this becomes clear as you walk through the streets. I felt as though a church or religious building popped up whenever I turned a corner and loved looking at all the details of the buildings themselves, and reading about their history. Some are older than others, and you can often tell by looking at the walls and colours of the stone, proving that time truly has left its mark.
The church pictured below, for example, is the church of Santa Maria Della Catena. It dates back to the turn of the 16th century, and it is believed that the building of it started in 1490! Can you imagine the events these walls have seen through the years?
The Museo RISO, or the
Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia, is the contemporary art museum of Sicily. Contemporary artists from the whole region have their pieces displayed in the museum, and it is considered one of the most important museums in Sicily. Any art fan should set aside time for a visit.
If you, unlike me, have more than just a day or two to spend in Palermo, why not explore some more of the island outside of the city? There are plenty of great day tours from Palermo that I would have loved to try if I had more time. Whether you want to visit a vineyard for a wine tasting or hike Mount Etna, there is a day trip for you!
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you should have a pretty clear idea of all the things you can do in Palermo. The city surprised me in so many ways (not that my expectations weren’t high), and I loved strolling through the streets, eating my cannoli and taking in the sights of the city. Palermo truly has something for everyone, whether you are a foodie, an art geek or a history lover.
From the architecture of the city and churches to the incredibly interesting history with traces of Arab and Norman rule everywhere, you won’t be bored during your trip to Sicily and Palermo!