If you’re looking for an underappreciated gem in Italy, Palermo should be at the top of your list.
Palermo is an exotic blend of cultures and ancient monuments that will leave you in awe. Despite its rich history, Palermo is a laid-back and sunny destination with a fantastic food scene and stunning architecture.
With eight UNESCO sites within its borders and a wealth of nearby destinations to explore, Palermo is a true treasure trove for travelers. Whether you’re interested in beaches, medieval towns, or ruins, this city has something for everyone.
To help you make the most of your visit, this Palermo travel guide covers all the top attractions and best things to do in the city.
Top Attractions & Best Things To Do In Palermo
1. Palatine Chapel
The Norman Palace is Palermo’s top attraction. Built by King Roger II in 1130, it once served as the seat of the kings of Sicily.
Today, it houses the Sicilian Royal Assembly and visitors can explore the Palatine Chapel, royal apartments, Norman towers, and courtyards.
The highlight is the UNESCO-listed Palatine Chapel. It’s decorated with breathtaking 12th century mosaics commissioned by Roger II, William I, and William II and executed by Byzantine artists.
The central apse features the iconic image of the “all powerful” Pantocrator Christ with blond and brown hair, holding a book and making the blessing sign.
Scenes from the Old and New Testaments and the life of Christ are also depicted.
An imposing staircase leads to the Royal Apartments on the second floor. You can see splendid rooms such as the Sala Pompeiana with Pompeian-style frescos, and the Sala de Ruggeiro with golden tesserae mosaics depicting exotic animals.
Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office in front of the palace. But you should expect long lines and a wait under the hot sun.
As a result, I strongly suggest booking a skip the line ticket in advance on the palace website. You may want to book a guided tour because there’s almost no signage and no audio guide. You can also book a private tour.
Here’s my complete guide to the Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel.
2. Palermo Cathedral
Founded in 592, Palermo Cathedral is the next top attraction in Palermo. Palermo does churches well and you’ll be reading about a lot of them.
The cathedral a stunning blend of architectural styles reflecting the city’s diverse history, with features of Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, and Swabian influences.
Its exterior resembles a castle, complete with a grand south portal and a square filled with statuary.
The interior is mostly Neo-Classical and less impressive than the exterior. But visitors can explore two chapels in the right aisle containing the tombs of six kings of Palermo, including Frederick II and Roger II. The cathedral also houses a lavish silver chapel dedicated to Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo.
For a fee of 15 euros, visitors can access the cathedral’s tombs, treasury, crypts, rooftop terrace, and the Diocesan Museum. I bought the full ticket, but I think only the rooftop ticket is really essential. I was underwhelmed by the interior.
The rooftop terrace offers breathtaking 360 degree views of Palermo. The climb is a bit tough, up a dimly lit spiral staircase onto the narrow pathway. But it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Palermo just for the splendid views!
3. La Martorana
La Martorana is also known as the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio. It’s a stunning medieval church that seamlessly blends Arab, Byzantine, and Norman Islamic influences.
Restored in the 19th century by architect Patricolo, it features a dazzling cycle of mosaics crafted by Greek artists in the 12th century. Some of them are even older than those found in the Palatine Chapel.
The mosaics depict both religious and political themes, including the crowning of King Roger II by Christ, a nativity scene, and Christ Pantocrator, making it a must-see attraction in Palermo.
4. Church of San Cataldo
The Church of San Cataldo is a magnificent example of Norman architecture. It was built in the 12th century and has three striking red domes on its roof.
The church was originally a mosque during Arab rule. It was later converted into a church by the Normans. The exterior is simple and plain.
But the interior is decorated with intricate Byzantine-style mosaics, marble columns, and ornate arches.
5. Church of Santa Catarina d’Alessandria
Santa Caterina is an exuberant Baroque church that offers an extravagant visual experience. It’s one of the top attractions in Palermo.
Adorned with statuary crafted by the legendary stucco decorator, Giacomo Serpotta, the church features a unique plastering technique that lends a shiny, marble-like finish to its surfaces.
For a supplementary fee, you can also climb to the rooftop terrace and revel in the stunning panoramic views of Palermo. I can never resist a rooftop view, so did this and felt it was worthwhile.
In the past, the church had a convent renowned for producing delicious Sicilian sweets. Although the cloisters are currently closed for renovations, visitors can still enjoy the charming courtyard, which is filled with statuary.
Plus, there’s a bakery onsite. It’s busy and you’ll have to take a number to get your desired treats.
6. Palermo Markets
Palermo is well known for its three markets — Ballaro, Capo, Vucciria. You should dive right in get a taste of the local food and culture. You can shop, get food to go from a stand, or plop down at one of the cafes.
Be adventurous! You’ll find squid and octopus (in many iterations) at most places. You can try out local specialties like panelle (chick pea fritters), arancina (deep fried rice balls stuffed with meat or peas), or timbale di anelletti (pasta rings in a ragu sauce with prosciutto and cheese).
If you only have time for one market, make it Ballaro. It’s the liveliest market and feels similar to an Arab souk. Expect noise and chaos, with theatrical vendors hawking an abundance of food, spices, dried herbs, and other goods.
Vucciria isn’t so much a food market anymore. It’s more like a nighttime hangout place. This is where you can enjoy an apertivo to get your evening started.
7. Street Food Tour
Don’t want to brave the markets by yourself? No problem, a classic thing to do in Palermo is go on a street food tour.
Personally, I would opt for the afternoon tour because that takes you to Ballaro and Capo markets. The evening tour is more about the lively night life of Palermo and the markets are closed then.
You’ll try all the snacks I mentioned above. But, then, you’ll have the option of tasting a spleen sandwich.
This “delicacy” is made of boiled cow spleen fried in lard and served on a bread roll with a squeeze of lemon juice and some grated cheese. I didn’t find the sandwich particularly tasty myself, but it’s part of the city’s ethos.
8. Gesu Church
The Gesu Church is not only one of Palermo’s most beautiful churches, but also one of the largest, coming in at third place. Erected between 1610-80, it stands out as the only surviving example of early Baroque architecture in Sicily.
Gesu’s elaborate design showcases the Baroque period’s aversion to leaving empty spaces.
The church is adorned with intricately carved columns, dramatic groupings of statues, twisted columns, and frescoes that decorate the vaulted dome and chapels, attributed to Pietro Novelli.
The talented painter’s daughter, Rosalia Novelli, also has a piece in the church, adding to its already impressive collection of art.
9. Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore Savior
The Church of the Holy Savior on Via Vittorio Emanuele was a delightful discovery, as there wasn’t another person in sight during my visit.
The interior of the Baroque church is simply lovely, with a round design that resembles a concert hall more than a place of worship. The walls are adorned with polychrome marble, stucco, and frescoes, adding to the beauty of the space.
However, what I enjoyed most was ascending to the summit of the dome, which can be accessed via a separate entrance. (Take the first right after exiting.) Though the climb can be dark and winding at times, it culminates in breathtaking views.
10. Oratory Of San Lorenzo
In addition to its churches, Palermo has some small oratories with works of art. The Oratorio di San Lorenzo is a hidden gem that should not be missed. As a service organization focused on social work, the building was both the members’ headquarters and a place of worship.
The famous Caravaggio painting, the Nativity Altarpiece, was once owned by the Oratorio. But it was stolen by mafia thieves in 1969 and has yet to be recovered. However, visitors will still find plenty to admire inside.
The oratorio is adorned with captivating sculptures by the stucco master Giuseppe Serpotta. His dynamic and playful designs resemble swirls of vanilla frosting, and are sure to leave a lasting impression.
While you may enter the Oratorio thinking about Caravaggio, you’ll leave thinking about Serpotta.
11. Mondello Beach
Nestled at the base of Monte Pellegrino lies the charming fishing village of Mondello. With its mile long stretch of beach boasting pristine sand and crystalline waters, it’s considered one of the top beaches in Sicily.
Mondello Beach is a popular spot for swimming and sunbathing. But you can also go windsurfing, paddle-boarding, and kayaking. When hunger strikes, the local fish restaurants and food stalls are ready to satisfy your cravings.
Getting to Mondello is a breeze. Just hop on the public bus line 806 from Palermo’s historic center for a 20-30 minute ride. Alternatively, you can opt for a taxi or take a drive there, which will also take roughly the same amount of time.
While the adventurous can take a stroll, be warned that the path is not particularly scenic. Expect crowds in the summer because the Palermitans love their beaches.
12. Monte Pellegrino
Looking for a nature escape? Monte Pellegrino offers breathtaking views of the city and a chance to immerse yourself in the stunning natural surroundings.
The mount boasts steep slopes and diverse vegetation, including pines, cassias, and eucalyptus trees. Additionally, the Adder Caves, which date back to the Paleolithic era, are of archaeological significance.
Legend has it that Saint Rosalia retired to one of these caves following the example of hermits. In 1624, her calcified bones were discovered. A sanctuary was built in her honor in 1625, complete with a gold statue of the saint. Since them, it’s attracted thousands of pilgrims.
As for hiking, there are several options available, ranging from easy to challenging. The most popular one starts from the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia and takes about 2-3 hours round trip. You can reach the sanctuary by taxi or bus.
13. Capuchin Catacombs
The captivating Capuchin Catacombs have become a macabre attraction in Palermo for tourists. Having previously visited catacombs, I was unprepared for the distinct experience that awaited me here.
In contrast to the Paris Catacombs, where bones are piled haphazardly, the Palermo Catacombs house a haunting display of over 1,800 corpses.
They are fully dressed and arranged in double-decker fashion along multiple aisles. Even infants rest in cradles, a symbol of elevated status in their former lives.
As a grim reminder of the circle of life, visitors are greeted with a cautionary message: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will become.”
Beyond their macabre appeal, the catacombs provide valuable insights into the practice of mummification and are considered a significant historical site. Click here to book a 1 hour guided tour.
14. Church of San Giovanni deli Eremeti
This church is another of Palermo’s UNESCO-listed Arab-Norman attractions. It’s not far from the Palatine Chapel and you can combine them on a visit to this area.
The church has eye catching red domes, like San Cataldo, and the ruins of a bell tower. Inside, the church is simple but elegant, with beautiful stone arches and columns.
The church also contains several important works of art, including a 15th century wooden crucifix and a 16th century painting of the Madonna and Child.
But the best part is the lovely cloister. It’s surrounded by columns and arches, and decorated with beautiful mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible and everyday life. The cloister’s lush greenery make it seem like a secret garden in the city.
15. Church of San Francesco D’Assisi
This church is in the Piazza San Francesco just off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The church was built between 1266-77 by the Franciscan order.
The church has been restored and altered many times over the centuries. But the facade, with its exquisite Gothic portal, remains the same.
The interior was decorated by famed Palermo artists. The frescos are by Renato Guttuso Novelli and stucco work and sculptures by Serpotta. Keep your eye out for Novelli’s Vision of St. Francis.
Another highlight of the church is the adjoining monastery, which now serves as a cultural center. It has a beautiful cloister with a central fountain and is surrounded by verdant gardens.
16. La Zisa
The “Zisa” is a palace located in the western part of Palermo that’s included in the city’s UNESCO designation. The Norman king, William I, built the palace in 1165-80. He used it as a summer residence and royal hunting retreat.
The palace is another fine example of Arab-Norman architecture. The name “Zisa” is thought to come from the Arabic word “al-Azīz” meaning “dear” or “beloved.”
The Zisa is renowned for its intricate mosaics, carvings, and elaborate stonework.
Today, the Zisa Palace is open to the public as a museum. Visitors can explore the palace and its gardens, and learn about the history of this magnificent attraction in Palermo.
I think the most beautiful room is the Iwan Room, with beautiful gold mosaics.
The Zisa is 1.8 miles from the city center. You can get to the Zisa by taxi, bus number 103 from Piazza Indipendenza, or walking (30-40 minutes).
William II built another palace similar to the Zisa called the “Cuba.”
The well-preserved palace was built during the 12th century as a hunting lodge for the Norman kings. Based on its diminutive size, however, some historians speculate that it was the residence of the royal mistresses.
The palace features intricate decorations, including mosaics, frescoes, and stucco muqarna work, which are a testament to the skill of the craftsmen who created them.
Visitors to the Cuba Palace can explore its many rooms, including the impressive domed hall and the royal apartments. The palace also has a beautiful garden, which is a great place to relax and take in the surroundings.
The Cuba is near the Zisa Palace and the Capuchin Catacombs, making them convenient to combine on a single visit.
18. Palazzo Chiaramonte (Steri)
Palazzo Chiaramonte is one of Palermo’s grand palace, situated a bit off center in Piazza Marina. It was built in the 14th century by the powerful Chiaramonte family, who were among the most influential nobles on the island at the time.
The palace is a magnificent example of Gothic-Catalan architecture and was designed by some of the finest architects of the era.
It boasts a striking and severe facade with intricate details and carvings, as well as a majestic courtyard with a central fountain.
Over the years, the Palazzo Chiaramonte has served a variety of functions. During the Spanish Inquisition, it was used as a prison.
Later, it became the headquarters of the University of Palermo. Today, it is a museum that houses a variety of exhibits related to the history and culture of Palermo and Sicily.
One of the most interesting features of the Palazzo Steri is the so-called “Room of the Stuccoes.” It’s a grand chamber decorated with intricate stucco work depicting scenes from the Bible and classical mythology.
You can also see rooms that were used to hold prisoners during the Spanish Inquisition. You can still see the graffiti they scratched into the walls of their tiny cells.
19. Piazza Pretoria Fountain
Piazza Pretoria boasts an impressive fountain, located between Piazza Bellini and Quattro Canti. Designed by Francesco Camilliani in the 16th century, it is one of the few examples of Renaissance art in Sicily.
The fountain features sculptures of the 12 Olympic gods. At the top, you’ll find the statue of the goddess Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon, and childbirth.
The nudity of the sculptures caused the Sicilians to nickname it the “Fountain of Shame,” as they disapproved of public nudity.
The Palermo official who won the fountain in a card game left it in 664 pieces. But it was later reassembled at great cost by the Palermitan Senate.
20. Quattro Conti
The heart of Palermo’s pedestrian zone is the Baroque plaza called “Quattro Canti”. It’s an octagonal plaza at the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele that divides the city into four districts.
Each corner of the plaza has a three-story concave Baroque building adorned with statuary.
There are allegorical statues of the four seasons and four kings. The figure of the trinacria, an ancient symbol on the Sicilian flag, is at the base of the lampposts.
The plaza is also known as the “Theater of the Sun” because the sun illuminates the different “seasons” throughout the day.
21. Church of San Domenico
Located in a grand piazza, the Church of San Domenico stands as Palermo’s second largest church, having been erected in 1640. The striking 18th century facade boasts a classic Sicilian Baroque style that is sure to capture your attention.
Dubbed the “Pantheon of Palermo,” akin to the Pantheon in Paris, the church interior features aisles adorned with the tombs of notable Sicilians and a stunning Baroque marble altarpiece.
One of the highlights is a sculpture by the celebrated Neo-Classical artist Antonio Canova. It’s displayed in the funerary monument of A. Turrisi Colonna.
However, the most renowned tomb is that of Giovanni Falcone, a brave judge who led the fight against the Sicilian mafia. Falcone spearheaded innovative methods to counteract mafia influence, playing a key role in reestablishing law and order.
Unfortunately, the mafia exacted their revenge in 1992, taking Falcone’s life in a bombing that shook the city and mobilized residents against organized crime.
22. Teatro Massimo
The Massimo is a massive theater located at the top of Via Maqueda. It’s one of Palermo’s most popular attractions, boasting over 7,700 square meters of space.
As the largest theater in Italy and the third largest in Europe, Massimo was inaugurated in 1897 with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff.
The theater’s Neo-Classical exterior features a grand staircase famously used in the climactic final scene of the Godfather trilogy, resembling a Greek temple.
The interior boasts a stunning Art Nouveau design, with intricate gold and red ornamentation. Known for having the best acoustics in Europe, you can take a 30 minute guided tour. They are available every half hour in English, Italian, French, and Spanish.
During the tour, you will explore the grand foyer, theater auditorium, royal box, and the echo room adorned with Pompeiian style frescos. If you’re a theater enthusiast, Massimo is a must-see attraction in Palermo.
23. Palazzo Conte Federico
The Palazzo Conte Frederico is the only noble palace in Palermo owned by the descendants of Frederick II. The palace is open to the public since the perks of nobility no longer exist.
The Conte Federico is an elegant mansion built around a courtyard in the Arab fashion, incorporating a Norman tower on the top floor.
The rooms filled with terra cotta floors, Italian tiles, frescos, and the Norman tower (with recently discovered Renaissance frescos). You can take the 45-minute tour for 10 euros, or book a 1 hour guided tour.
The bubbly Countess herself gave me a tour, which was lucky. It’s a rare opportunity to glimpse into the aristocratic lifestyle and experience the many layers of Palermo’s history.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting Palazzo Conte Federico.
24. Teatro Politeama Garibaldi
Teatro Politeama Garibaldi stands in the square of the same name, surrounded by statuary. It was built in the 19th century and named after the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The theater is renowned for its beautiful architecture, with an impressive Neo-Classical facade and elegant interior design. The entrance looks like a triumphal arch. It’s topped with a quadric designed by Mario Rutelli.
inside, the stage is decorated with intricate carvings and paintings, and the arenais adorned with beautiful frescoes.
Over the years, the Teatro Garibaldi has been used for operas, plays, and concerts. It has hosted many famous artists and performers, such as Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, and Arturo Toscanini. It’s still an active theater.
As with the Massimo, you can take a guided tour of the theater to learn about its history and architecture. The tour includes a visit to the stage area, the backstage area, and the dressing rooms. You’ll have a behind-the-scenes look at this historic theater.
25. Salinas Archaeological Museum
For history enthusiasts, the Salinas Archaeological Museum is a top attraction in Palermo.
Reopened in 2017 after a 10 year renovation, this museum is regarded as one of Europe’s leading archaeological museums and gives you a fascinating glimpse into Palermo’s past.
The extensive collection features Greek, Roman, and Phoenician artifacts, as well as items from the ancient temples of Selinunte on Sicily’s south coast.
Make sure to check out the top highlights, including the Bronze Ram, the Torso of Stagnone, and the Selinute metopes.
Additionally, you can admire the impressive Fountain of Triton in the entrance courtyard and view the renowned Palermo Stone in the small cloister, which helped establish the chronology of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.
26. Diocesan Museum
If you are a fan of religious art, the Diocesan Museum is one of the best things to do in Palermo. The museum is housed within the Archbishop’s Palace and included in her full priced ticket to Palermo Cathedral.
Visitors can explore the museum’s impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and religious objects dating back to the Middle Ages.
Some of the museum’s most notable works include the 15th-century painting The Nativity by Antonello da Messina and the 17th-century sculpture Saint Rosalia by Giacomo Serpotta.
In addition to its permanent collection, the museum also hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year, featuring works from both local and international artists.
27. Puppet Theater
Palermo’s Puppet Theater, owned and operated by the Cuticchio family, is a UNESCO-listed masterpiece of “oral and intangible heritage.”
Puppetry is an age-old art form in Sicily, where costumed puppets are controlled by rods rather than strings like marionettes.
At the theater, skilled puppeteers bring to life medieval and chivalrous tales featuring characters such as villains, heroes, princesses, and dragons. It’s a unique and fascinating experience that offers a glimpse into Sicilian history and culture.
28. Monreale Cathedral
It should come as no surprise that one of the best things to do in Palermo is make a visit to nearby Monreale Cathedral. Founded in the 12th century, the UNESCO-listed cathedral is the world’s most famous Arab-Norman cathedral.
The fortress-like facade has two square corner towers and a great marble portal, and you can even see the Moorish decorations at the back.
Inside, there’s an astonishing 68,000 feet of Byzantine mosaics and 2 tons of gold leaf. The intricate mosaics depict scenes and characters from Genesis.
The highlight is the largest mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in Europe, showing a long-haired Christ raising his hand in a Byzantine-style blessing. You’ll also be amazed by the Byzantine-style floors, Corinthian columns, and intricate carved wood ceiling.
Don’t miss the beautiful cloisters. They’re the best preserved in Sicily, with a fountain that looks straight out of Granada’s Alhambra. The 228 Moorish columns made of Carrera marble are inlaid with mosaics and feature storytelling capitals depicting famous scenes.
You can even hike up to the top of the church for breathtaking views of the abbey, town, and surrounding area from the circular terrace.
The traffic in Monreale seemed even worse than Palermo to me. So, unless you have nerves of steel, the best way to visit the cathedral is via a half day guided tour from Palermo or, even better, a private tour that incudes the Capuchin Catacombs.
Cefalu is a must visit when you are in Palermo. Just 40 minutes east of the city, Cefalu boasts one of Italy’s most beautiful crescent-shaped beaches. With its tranquil atmosphere and lack of crowds, it’s the perfect destination for anyone looking to unwind and relax.
The medieval town is simply breathtaking. Its honey-colored buildings, charming piazzas, and stunning churches are straight out of a postcard. The town’s port is dotted with fishing boats, and the seafront promenade is the perfect place for an evening stroll.
At the heart of the town lies the Piazza del Duomo, home to Cefalu Cathedral, a masterpiece of 12th century Arab-Norman architecture. The cathedral’s apse is adorned with stunning Byzantine mosaics, while the cloisters boast gracefully arched walkways and intricately carved capitals.
For those who are up for a challenge, consider taking the 30-45 minute hike up La Rocca, Cefalu’s mountain. Though the climb is steep, the path is well signposted and the 360 degree views of the coastline from the summit are well worth the effort.
Erice is a captivating medieval village atop Monte San Giuliano. About a 1.5 hour drive from Palermo, it’s an irresistible maze of cobbled lanes and hydrangea bushes that’s worth a few hours.
The town’s top site is the Temple or Castle of Venus. It was once the finest temple in the Mediterranean, but now lies in ruins with just a couple of craggy towers. Nonetheless, it boasts a breathtaking location on a sheer cliff overlooking the sea.
You’ll also want to visit Erice Cathedral, also known as “Mother Church.” It has a craggy exterior that dates from the 13th century and an interior built in a fanciful Neo-Gothic and Neo-Arab style. If Erice isn’t covered in fog or mist, you can hike up the church’s 100 foot bell tower for views.
When hunger strikes, head to Paticceria Maria Grammatico. It’s an Erice institution owned by Maria, a famous local pastry chef and the queen of Sicilian pastry.
Her goodies are made from 400 year old recipes and include such treats as “nuns’ boobies,” “beautiful uglies,” and cannoli made with fresh sheep milk ricotta.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the top attractions and best things to do in Palermo. For more information and tips for visiting the city, you can check out my 1 day in Palermo itinerary or 2 days in Palermo itinerary.
You may also enjoy these other Sicily travel guides and resources:
- 5 one week itineraries for Sicily
- 2 weeks in Sicily itinerary
- 2 days in Syracuse itinerary
- 2 days in Trapani itinerary
- 1 day in Catania itinerary
- 1 day in Taormina itinerary
- Guide to the Valley of the Temples
- Guide to Villa Romana del Casale
- Guide To Syracuse Archaeological Park
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