Planning a visit to Palermo Cathedral? The cathedral is a prime example of Sicily’s Arab-Norman architecture and part of Palermo’s UNESCO designation.
Like Palermo itself, it’s a mix of architectural styles with Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, and Swabian features. It was expanded and altered with each change of power. Now, it’s an imposing hulk synthesizing 700 years of history.
History of Palermo Cathedral
The official name of the cathedral is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It’s the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Palermo.
Building began in 1170 on the site of the former mosque and the cathedral was consecrated in 1185.
The cathedral was built roughly the same time as neighboring Monreale Cathedral. The Cathedral was commissioned by the Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Palermo, Walter Ophamil, while Monreale was built by King William II.
The archbishop and the king were arch rivals, vying for power and an alliance with the Vatican. Each wanted to outdo the other and the cathedrals became a sort of competition.
Palermo Cathedral has an exuberant exterior. With the benefit of the royal purse, Monreale was given a breathtaking mosaic-encrusted interior. Legend holds that each man had a heart attack when they looked on each other’s creation.
The cathedral was where the Norman kings were crowned. It still has a treasury filled with jewelry and precious church artifacts.
The present Neo-Classical appearance (and rather clumsy dome) date from 1781 to 1801 and were supervised by Ferdinando Fuga. To me, this was an unfortunate change that altered the medieval aspect of the cathedral. But it did give the structure a more vertical appearance.
In 1840, to attempt to rescue the medieval look, a complex of bell towers were built on the western end in the Gothic Revival style. Since then, there have plans to “hide” or eliminate the large dome, but none have come to fruition.
The church is connected, through two pointed arches to the Archbishop’s palace, making the church look a bit like a castle.
What To See At Palermo Cathedral
On a visit to Palermo Cathedral, you can see the facade, the interior, the royal tombs, the crypt, the treasury, and climb up to the rooftop viewing terrace.
There’s a beautiful rectangular square in front of the cathedral. It’s surrounded with a marble balustrade and statues of saints and bishops of Palermo standing in contraposto.
The square was built in the 15th century to replace the cathedral cemetery. It was once the center of activity in the city, home to public trials and festivals.
The wild wedding cake facade is a bit of an architecture mural mash up. But it’s nonetheless very eye catching.
It’s covered with geometric patterns, crenellations, cupolas, and blind Arab style arches. At the corners, there’s a large western tower and four graduated towers at the eastern end.
Designed by Antonio Gambara, the 15th century marble portico dates from Spanish rule. It took 200 years to complete and is a masterpiece of Catalan Gothic architecture. This is where you enter the cathedral.
On the far left column of the portal is an Arab inscription of a verse from the Koran. The column was most likely recycled from the previous mosque.
Above the arches is an intricate 13th century frieze and pediment with Islamic style decorations. In the middle is a relief of God, raising his hand in blessing. To his side are the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Above are two flying angels playing musical instruments.
The figures are topped with spiraling Gothic tracery. Below is a frieze of enthroned Christian saints.
The intricate entrance portal has two Corinthian columns on each side and twisting arches above. At the top is a Byzantine style mosaic enclosed by a marble frame. The precious wooden doors are made of walnut, with 28 panels of finely carved decorations.
Be sure to head around to the back of the cathedral to see the facade of the apses. It’s a reminder that Arabs once ruled Sicily and one of the most beautiful parts of the cathedral, with the least amount of architectural tampering.
You can see a profusion of Moorish decorations in the apse — repeating ogival arches, rounded parapet crenellations, and geometric medallions made with black lava and limestone.
Compared to the wild exterior, the interior of Palermo Cathedral isn’t very impressive, except in scale. It’s mostly a white Neo-Classical shell.
In fact, the interior is surpassed by many churches in Palermo — La Martorano, Santa Caterina, the Gesu, etc. It has a Latin cross floor plan with two aisles divided by pilasters with statues mounted on corbels.
You’ll find a loaded-with-silver chapel dedicated to Rosalia, Palermo’s beloved patron saint who performed miracles and “ended” the plague. Above the altar is the painting The Coronation of Rosalia.
There are some other sober Baroque chapels. There is also an important altar celebrating one of Palermo most famous citizens, Father Giuseppe Puglisi.
He spoke out against the mafia, was assassinated for his efforts, and then became a martyr. In 1015, he was beatified, the first step toward canonization.
If you buy the full ticket, you can inspect the royal tombs, in a chapel to the left as you enter. There are six tombs of the kings of Palermo.
The most important are those of Roger II and Frederick II. Roger founded the Kingdom of Sicily, while Frederick was the Holy Roman Emperor called super mundi or wonder of the world.
You’ll see two monumental red porphyry sarcophagi. They were commissioned by Roger II and, based on the use of expensive Egyptian porphyry, reveal his imperial ambitions.
Palermo Cathedral didn’t get all the royal tombs. William I and William II are buried in Monreale Cathedral.
The treasury is to the left of the Chapel of Saint Rosalia. It houses some Norman era jewels and religious relics.
The most famous piece is the 13th century crown of Constance of Aragon, who was the wife of Frederick II. It’s a cap in gold studded with pearls and precious stones. A grislier relic is the tooth and ashes of Saint Rosalia.
The cathedral’s Romanesque crypt dates from the 6th century. In the damp subterranean, two naves rest on 14 columns made of Egyptian granite.
The crypt contains carved sarcophagi of various bishops and ecclesiasts of Palermo, including the cathedral’s founder.
One sarcophagus shows a team of hunters attacking a boar. There’s a beautiful Roman tomb made for a poet and another with a matrimonial scene.
The Diocesan Museum is across the street in the Archbishop’s Palace. It’s fairly unremarkable, though, with a collection of mostly anonymous religious paintings.
There are some works by Pietro Novelli, Sicily’s most famous painter of the 17th century.
In general, it’s not really for the casual fan. You need to be a student of medieval religious art.
Palermo Cathedral Rooftop
The best part is hiking up to the cathedral rooftop. You’ll have 360 views of Palermo.
It’s not for the faint of heart or those scared of heights. You ride an elevator part way and then climb a spiral staircase that’s dimly lit, though there is a handrail.
Once at the top, you’ll walk along a narrow catwalk that runs the length of the roof. It’s secure with railings. But still, your pulse may race a bit.
But the views are fantastic. You can see the cathedral architecture up close and have lovely city views.
Tips For Visiting Palermo Cathedral
Tickets & Tours
Entry to the cathedral nave itself is free. But there are several variations of tickets, depending on what you want to see.
For 15 euros, you can see everything including the tombs, treasury, crypts, rooftop terrace, and the Diocesan Museum. Here’s the price breakdown from the website.
Click here to book a skip the line ticket for the cathedral. You can also visit the cathedral on a guided art and architecture tour.
Check the website because the different parts of the cathedral have different hours.
Be sure to wear something appropriate. Women cannot wear shorts, miniskirts, or sleeveless tops inside.
Is Palermo Cathedral Worth Visiting?
Is the cathedral worth visiting? It’s definitely worthwhile to come to admire the magnificent exterior from the front and back.
Is it worth going inside? The interior had no wow factor for me.
But it’s perfectly free to wander inside, so I would take a quick spin … if it’s not full of cruise ship crowds.
The cathedral is also currently under renovation, so parts of the central nave are closed off.
For me, I thought the best part of my cathedral visit was climbing up to the rooftop for the views. I was underwhelmed by the entirely skippable crypt, tombs, and museum.
On balance, I would recommend just getting a ticket for the roof and not the complete ticket. You save a few euros that way.
There are plenty of other churches in Palermo with much more beautiful interiors. For example, La Martorana is a golden treasure with a continuous cycle of jewel-like mosaics created by Greek artists in the 12th century.
The Gesu is an incredibly ornate church and Palermo’s third largest. It exemplifies the Baroque period’s “fear of empty spaces.” You’ll find elaborately carved columns, dramatic statuary groupings, twisty columns, and ceiling frescos.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Palermo Cathedral. You may enjoy these other Sicily travel guides and resources:
- 2 days in Palermo 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 Monreale Cathedral
- Guide to the Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel
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