Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, is a fantastic mix of baroque beauty, exotic street markets and luscious food. Although still a little ignored by international travellers, this is a truly intriguing place that enchants visitors with its impressive history, distinctive culture and buzzing atmosphere.
Sicily in general and Palermo more specifically are like nowhere else in Italy. Just about 300km from Tunis, this Sicilian gem is a vibrant city with a fascinating melting pot of styles and cultures. It can be noisy and intimidating, I know, but scratch the surface and you’ll be amazed by what you will find!
Here’s my list of the absolute top things to see, plus a free guide at the bottom of the article with a 48-hour itinerary and some suggestions about great places to sample the local cuisine and enjoy some drinks!
#1 The Royal Palace and the Palatine Chapel
This palace stands on the highest point of the old city centre and is the symbol of the political and cultural power of the Norman kingdom. It provides a glimpse into the life of Sicilian nobility, although I didn’t find it really impressive (unless you are really into kings and royal furniture). The key attraction is the magnificent Palatine Chapel, that the French writer Guy de Maupassant once described as the “the most stupendous religious jewel cherished by human thought and executed by a master hand”. This was the royal chapel of the Norman kings and features a fascinating combination of Byzantine, Norman and Islamic styles. The sumptuous mosaics and the spectacular wooden ceiling will literally make you stand in awe.
#2 The Cathedral
Palermo’s cathedral is a magnificent complex with an exceptional mix of architectural styles: from Norman towers to the Catalan-style porch and the muslim influences, this church is really unique. I must say that the cold interiors contrast strongly with its beautiful facade and can be a little disappointing. However, there are some pretty interesting things to see here, including precious sacred objects, tombs of emperors and royal figures, and fantastic views from the rooftop.
#3 Street markets
One of the coolest things to do in Palermo is venturing through its bustling street markets. It’s here that you’ll get a real feel for the city and its fantastic people. Not to mention that these are a true street-eater’s paradise, with tens of food stalls selling popular local snacks like arancine, panelle and sfincione. The biggest markets are Ballarò, Vucciria and Capo. Whatever you decide to visit, be prepared to hear a lot of yelling!
#4 Teatro Massimo
If you are a fan of the Godfather trilogy like me, you’ll probably remember this place from the final scenes of the third movie! Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third in Europe, renowned for its amazing acoustic qualities. The exteriors resemble a Greek temple, with Corinthian columns and a grand staircase overlooked by two big bronze lions, while the lavishly decorated interiors are simply spectacular. The theatre dominates Piazza Verdi, the backdrop of strolling crowds on weekends.
#5 La Martorana
The church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as La Martorana, is a key site in Palermo. It was built in the XII century by the Grand Admiral of the Kingdom of Sicily to thank the Virgin Mary for her protection during his long activity. Despite the sober facades, the interiors are richly decorated with exceptional Byzantine mosaics. The name Martorana derives from Eloisa Martorana, the founder of the Benedictine convent that was granted the church in the XV century.
#6 Church of San Cataldo
This little church stands next to La Martorana and is often overlooked by rushing travelers. Crowned with three red domes, San Cataldo is another great example of Arab-Norman architecture and is characterized by austere yet beautiful interiors, with unadorned stone walls and mosaic floors. It also has a fascinating history, including being used as a post office under the Bourbons and becoming the seat of the religious seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem more recently.
#7 Church of S. Giovanni degli Eremiti
Built on the ruins of a mosque, this church reminds of San Cataldo with its five red domes dominating Palermo’s skyline. Its interiors are quite simple, with only a few frescos and religious artwork, while at the back of it there’s a little cloister surrounded by a lush garden.
#8 San Nicolò all’Albergheria
This is a small XIII-century tower located besides the church of San Nicolò and was once used as a watchtower. Today it is possible to climb to the top of it and enjoy some pretty amazing views over Palermo.
#9 Church of Gesù
This is the most important Baroque church in Palermo. The pretty plain facade doesn’t really do justice to its incredible interiors, where every inch is covered in frescoes and intricately carved marbles. Another unmissable place!
#10 San Lorenzo Oratory
Tucked away in a side street of Palermo’s historic centre, this tiny oratory is another great Baroque gem of the city. The inside is a triumph of stucco decorations realized by Sicilian artist Giacomo Serpotta. The altar was home to Caravaggio’s masterpiece Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, which was stolen in 1969 and never recovered.
#11 Capuchin Catacombs
This is surely one of the most unusual places you’ll ever seen, but those who are easily frightened might want to stay away! These catacombs were created in the XVI century when the local Capuchin monks discovered a special preservative in the underground of their monastery that was able to mummify dead corpses. Today this place is home to over 8,000 mummified bodies dating back from the XVI to the XX century. Dressed in their original clothing, the bodies either lie in coffins or are hung on the walls, and many still have some teeth and hair.
#12 Pretoria fountain
This fountain is one of the symbols of the city, although not exactly Palermitan (or even Sicilian!). It was created in 1554 by a Florentine sculptor for the villa of Cosimo I De Medici’s father in law. However, he couldn’t really afford that piece of art and ended up selling it to the Senate of Palermo in 1574. Here, the fountain was enriched with details associated with Sicilian traditions, including quite a few nude statues – one of the reasons why it was later nicknamed “fountain of shame”.
#13 Quattro Canti
Officially known as Piazza Vigliena, Quattro Canti (literally ‘four corners’) is a fascinating Baroque square lying at the crossroad between via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo’s most important streets. Its peculiarity lies in the perfect symmetry of the palaces dotting its four corners, with nearly-identical, semi-circular facades decorated with statues of the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily and the four patronesses of Palermo. A fantastic architectural feast!
#14 La Cala
Once the main port of Palermo, today La Cala is a preferred hangout for a stroll or an aperitivo by the sea and a great spot for yacht watching. Here stands the tiny Church of St. Mary of the Chain, so called because of a chain anchored to one of its walls that was used to close the port. Also not to be missed is the giant mural dedicated to Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the two Italian magistrates who fought against mafia and were murdered in separate bombings in 1992. You’ll find it on the facade of the nautical institute.
A must-see place about 10km from Palermo city center is Monreale, a pretty town perched on the slopes of mount Caputo. The key attraction here is the XII century Dome featuring the widest mosaic decoration in the Mediterranean – 6,000 square meters of magnificent golden mosaics depicting biblical tales! Next to the Dome is the cloister of the ancient Benedectine monastery, featuring beautifully carved columns and richly decorated capitals.
- Palermo is best enjoyed in spring and autumn, when temperatures are mild. It also makes for a perfect winter gateway, thanks to its fantastic coastal climate
- I stayed in a couple of bed and breakfasts that I can highly recommend: B&B Casa Grant in a buzzing area near the Politeama theatre and B&B Ai Tre Compari close to the Vucciria market
**FREE GUIDE **
This includes a 48-hour itinerary plus addresses of some of the best places to sample local food and enjoy an aperitivo!
Until next time,