The capital and largest city of Sicily, Palermo is set on the island’s northwest coastline, overlooking the glittering waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, with the mainland of Italy lying far off in the distance. Due to its strategic location at the heart of the Mediterranean, it has long acted as a crossroads, with numerous cultures, civilisations, and cuisines having left their mark.
Founded more than 2,700 years ago by the Phoenicians, Palermo’s tourist attractions now include lots of beautiful Byzantine mosaics and arresting Arab architecture, as well as countless centuries-old churches, palaces and monuments. Littered with impressive historical and cultural landmarks, this list of best things to do in Palermo should help you explore this fascinating city.
Surrounded by a peaceful garden full of cacti, citrus trees, and palm trees, San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a lovely little church that lies in the centre of Palermo. Built in the sixth century, it exhibits a delightful mix of Arab and Norman architectural styles and is most noted for its distinctive red domes. Rebuilt and restored numerous times over the centuries, the small church also has a wonderful cloister for visitors to wander around, as well as some fine brickwork, frescoes and artworks inside.
Located just a short distance from Palermo’s scenic seafront is Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, once the residence of the powerful and wealthy Lord Manfredi III. Sometimes referred to as Steri Castle, it boasts some exquisite architecture, and its Hall of the Barons’ wooden ceiling is coated in magnificent murals. While the palace certainly looks attractive and unassuming, countless people were imprisoned and tortured within its walls when it was later used as the headquarters for the Holy Inquisition. Nowadays a museum, its informative panels, artworks, and torture devices offer up a fascinating if at times dark look at the palace’s seven hundred years of history.
Colorful and chaotic in equal measure, Mercato di Ballaro’s heavily laden stands and stalls snake their way through the city for several blocks and can be found just to the southeast of Palazzo dei Normanni. The lively yet laidback street market is loads of fun to peruse; vendors sell everything from fruit and vegetables to fresh fish, tasty hams, and cheap clothes. In addition, you can sample some of Sicily’s fine local produce at some of the stands, or stop off for a meal at one of the restaurants lining the market route.
Set in the heart of Palermo’s historic center, Santa Caterina is a beautiful church featuring a magnificent mix of Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance architectural styles. Built to be a hospice in the 14th century, it was later converted into a Dominican convent before finally being turned into a church. While its fabulous facade already looks a treat, its charming cloister and lofty dome are just as impressive, and its rooftop terrace offers sumptuous views over the city. The star attraction, however, is its breathtaking Baroque interior, coated in fantastic frescoes and paintings with astounding artworks, altars, and sculptures on show.
Despite being surrounded by pretty palaces and overlooked by Santa Caterina’s imposing dome, Fontana Pretoria dominates and defines the piazza of the same name with its pleasing presence. Now one of Palermo’s most popular and photographed landmarks, the fetching fountain was first created for a Tuscan villa before being placed in its present position in 1573. Designed by Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani, Fontana Pretoria sports many spectacular sculptures and statues, with nude nymphs and mythical animals lying next to the Twelve Olympians. With such beautiful backdrops behind them, the finely sculpted figures of Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo certainly make for some fantastic photos.
Set right in the heart of the historic center, Palazzo Conte Federico is one of the oldest buildings in the whole of Palermo. Built atop and out of the ancient Punic city walls, the prestigious palace dates to the 12th century, with Arab and Norman architectural influences on show. Home to richly decorated halls and galleries, it boasts lots of divine artworks, sculptures, and frescoes that date to various epochs, as well as marble staircases and incredible stone carvings. Rebuilt and remodeled numerous times over the centuries, the well-preserved palace is now a popular tourist attraction in Palermo and is still the residence of the current count and countess Federico.
As captivating as they are creepy, the Capuchin Catacombs are a subterranean series of tunnels and passageways lined by the embalmed bodies of more than 8,000 former Palermitans. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Capuchin friars of the monastery above would preserve the bodies and place them in the cold catacombs below. Over the years, this form of burial acquired prestige, so corridors are now grouped by power, gender, status, and religion. As they are still clothed in their original garments, wandering between the macabre mummies is a very unsettling experience, with skeletons looking down upon you from their final resting place.
Set on the south side of Piazza Bellini, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is a lovely cathedral boasting arresting art and architecture. More commonly known as La Martorana, it was built in the 12th century and originally conceived to be a mosque. As such, pretty pillars and elegant arches are on show beneath a delightful domed cupola, while Baroque, Islamic, and Romanesque flourishes can be seen here and there. The highlight is its glittering golden interior coated in breathtaking Byzantine mosaics. These sublime frescoes depict important biblical scenes and figures as well as Roger II, the former king of Sicily.
Rising dramatically in the distance, Monte Pellegrino lies to the north of the city overlooking Palermo Harbour. Described by Goethe as the ‘most beautiful promontory in the world’, the hulking mount towers 606 meters in height and offers plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. It is very popular with locals and tourists, who come to enjoy its stunning scenery and peaceful hiking trails. From its summit, visitors can bask in phenomenal views out over Palermo and the Mediterranean, with more of Sicily’s mountains to be spied nearby.
Built between 1564 and 1633, Chiesa del Gesu is one of the most important and impressive of Palermo’s Baroque churches. While it suffered considerable damage during the Second World War, the church has since been painstakingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory. Beneath its lofty dome, you can now find sturdy marble columns, colorful stained-glass windows, and a fantastic façade, as well as attractive cloisters and chapels. Also known as Casa Professa, it showcases some superb carvings, mosaics, and awe-inspiring artworks and frescoes by Pietro Novelli.
Officially known as Piazza Vigliena, Quattro Canti is a beautiful Baroque square in the center of Palermo, at the intersection where Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emmanuele meet. Built in 1608, it is lined by four fetching facades that are semi-circular and almost symmetrical in design. Each of these sports its own fountain and marble columns, as well as a statue of one of the four Spanish kings of Sicily and a sculpture of one of the patronesses of Palermo. Each facade represents one of the four seasons, and over the course of the day, the sun lights up each in turn. This has earnt the picturesque piazza the nickname ‘il teatro del sole’ – the theater of the sun.
Lying just 15 minutes to the north of Palermo’s center is the idyllic white sand beach of Mondello, set in a scenic spot between the craggy cliffs of Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino. Once a small fishing village, Mondello became a popular tourist destination in the 19th century, with lovely art nouveau villas springing up along its sandy shores. This makes its seafront promenade a delight to amble along, with beautiful views to be enjoyed from its pier of the surrounding mounts and soothing Mediterranean Sea. Ideal for sunbathing and swimming, Spiaggia di Mondello attracts just as many local families as it does sightseers and tourists.
The largest opera house in Italy, Teatro Massimo dominates its surroundings with its sheer size, scale and splendour. Opened in 1897, it showcases an intriguing mix of ancient and classical Sicilian architectural styles, with colossal columns lining its neoclassical facade. While its elegant and opulent exterior certainly looks a treat, inside is just as impressive: beautiful balconies and prettily painted ceilings overlook its awe-inspiring auditorium. To take in all its fine features and rich ornamentation, visitors can either take a guided tour of Teatro Massimo or watch a ballet, opera, or classical concert in its cavernous and classy confines.
Currently home to Sicily’s regional parliament, Palermo’s Norman Palace is one of the oldest royal residences in Europe. Known as the Palazzo dei Normanni in Italian, it was built back in the ninth century for the Emir of Palermo. After the Normans conquered Sicily, the Arabian palace was transformed, with the incredible Cappella Palatina and its beautiful Byzantine mosaics added by King Roger II. Exhibiting a magnificent mix of artistic and architectural styles, as well as lots of ancient artefacts, the Norman Palace is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about Palermo and Sicily’s rich history, culture and heritage.
The most famous and photographed building in the city, Palermo Cathedral is a feast for the eyes, with fabulous features and astounding architecture wherever you look. Built atop an earlier Byzantine basilica, the sand-colored cathedral dates to 1185, with various alterations and additions having been made over the centuries. While its elegant arches and geometric designs look very Moorish in style, a gorgeous Gothic portal and rearing Renaissance clock tower can also be found alongside numerous cupolas and an imposing dome. Its interior is just as impressive – mosaics, sculptures and artworks coat its walls, which look down on monumental tombs of Sicilian monarchs. On top of this, the cathedral’s treasury holds loads of glittering jewels and golden artefacts.