Palermo is the bustling capital of the island of Sicily, one of the most spectacular destinations in all of Italy. For millennia, the region of Palermo has been at the crossroads of various civilizations, creating a melting pot of architecture and cultural heritage. On this basis, here are the best things to do in Palermo, Italy.
Welcome to Palermo: the Diverse Capital of Sicily
The city has a remarkably diverse past, with many different kingdoms and empires leaving their mark on Palermo.
Founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th century BC, Palermo became part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD. It took, however, until the Byzantine conquest in the 6th century AD that the city blossomed. After 200 years of Byzantine rule, the Arabs took over Sicily, and the island became a junction for trade with Africa.
The city was under Arabic rule until 1072 – when the Norman era started. The Norman kings rebuilt most of the city’s core, and many historians see this period (11th to late 12th century) as Palermo’s “Golden Age.” The area flourished as a trade hub and united Arabs, Catholics, Jews, and Greeks in one giant melting pot.
After the Norman rule, many kingdoms ruled over Sicily before the island became a region of the new Italian nation-state in 1860. In 1943, Allied troops bombed the city before occupying it during the Italian campaign.
Today, Palermo’s diverse heritage is visible all over the city, with Arabesque, Norman, and Roman architecture influencing the cityscape.
With around 700k inhabitants, Palermo is the fifth-largest city in Italy and one of southern Italy’s economic lifelines.
Many people think about crime and the mafia when they hear the word “Sicily,” but most of these stories are overblown. Organized crime does exist in Sicily, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see or hear any of that. The government dismantled most of the “Cosa Nostra” in the 1990s, reducing the clout of a once-mighty organization. In the 21st-century, the Calabrian “Ndrangheta” is a lot more active, especially in the drug trading world.
Mafia stories aside, Palermo is a fascinating place to visit, and for the most part, as safe as any other Italian city. There are a lot of fun things to do in Palermo, thanks to its diverse history.
Things to do in Palermo, Italy
Most of the city’s tourist attractions are historical sites, and you’ll find many in the city’s old core. Here are the top attractions and activities in Palermo, Italy.
The best things to do in Palermo undoubtedly include the city’s UNESCO World Heritage cathedral.
The monumental structure is an excellent example of Palermo’s diverse heritage as its architecture reflects different styles. First completed in 1185, many extensions and reconversions followed throughout the centuries. As such, it today features Arabesque elements, Renaissance towers, and a 19th-century neoclassical facade.
After admiring the interior, you can head to the roof by purchasing an extra ticket to get some of the best panoramic views over the Sicilian capital.
Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni)
Just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, the next unmissable sight in Palermo is the Norman Palace.
The first building stood here during the Arab rule in the 9th century, and it became the seat of the kings of Sicily for many centuries. As such, it is one of the oldest royal palaces in Europe.
Akin to the Cathedral, the architecture is eclectic, with Moorish and Norman influences visible all over the complex.
Other Stunning Churches: Capella Palatina and La Martorana
The Capella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) sits adjacent to the Norman Palace and is one of the most stunning churches in the city. Buil in 1132, the chapel displays intricate mosaics with incredibly well-preserved colors and details.
Another church that is well worth a stop on your Palermo itinerary is La Martorana (Church of St. Mary of the Admiral). Like many other buildings in the Sicilian capital, the Martorana Church showcases Palermo’s diverse heritage through its mixture of architectural styles.
When it comes to authentic things to do in Palermo, the city’s vast range of food markets should be high on your list.
In this context, Ballaro, Vucciria, and Capo are three central markets where street vendors shout in typical southern-Italian fashion. All three are within walking distance to the main attractions – making it easy to stop here for some fresh fish or other Italian delicacies.
Palermo Archaeological Museum
History buffs shouldn’t miss the city’s fascinating archaeological museum.
The museum exhibits artifacts from numerous civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans.
Located in downtown Palermo, the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum is one of the best places to learn about Sicily’s multifaceted past.
Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs
When it comes to unusual places to visit in Palermo, the Catacombs are undoubtedly among the favorites.
The Capuchin Abbey leads down to a place “where the living meet the dead.” The building itself isn’t impressive, but the underground tunnels with their skeletons are a spectacle to behold. The Catacombs aren’t for the fainthearted, but they are among the most unique activities in Palermo.
Many people know the Scala in Milan, but Palermo’s Teatro Massimo is actually the largest opera house in Italy.
Opened in 1897, the Massimo Theater is one of the grandest structures in the city and a monument to 19th-century opulence.
For cinema buffs, the theater was one of the filming locations of The Godfather Part III.
Many people wonder about Palermo beaches when heading to Sicily.
There are many world-class beaches near Palermo, but unfortunately, public transport connections are unsatisfactory. As such, it’s recommendable to have a car. It’s also essential to know that there are public and cover-charge beaches, and the free ones are insanely crowded during the summer months.
Here are some of the best beaches in Palermo:
- Mondello is one of the most popular Palermo beaches. It has a direct bus connection to the city center and lots of bars. It’s one of the top sand beaches in Palermo, but the crowds can get chaotic.
- Capo Gallo is a quiet rocky beach inside a nature reserve and excellent for scuba diving.
- Addaura is another rocky beach with lots of beach clubs and diving opportunities but no public transportation options.
- Cinisi is a great choice for families. The sand beach also has lots of food and drink options. The main downside here is the ever-growing popularity, creating massive crowds on any summer day.
- Terrasini is a village with stunning coves that cater perfectly to snorkelers. You’ll find some delicious seafood restaurants here. Again, it’s not the quietest place.
Finally, the best places to visit in Palermo also include the Quattro Cuanti, or “Four Corners.” Officially known as Piazza Vigliena, the square is among the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in southern Italy.
The octagonal square dates from the early 17th century and houses four distinct buildings, the other four sides being streets. Each of the four Baroque structures displays statues of the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Palermo, and the patronesses of Palermo.
Where to Stay in Palermo, Italy
Palermo is the fifth largest city in Italy, so it’s essential to stay in a central area – especially since public transportation options are limited.
If you’re wondering where to stay in Palermo for a short visit, here are three recommendable areas:
- The city center (Libertá/Politeama): you’ll be close to most of the city’s attractions, and there are numerous food and nightlife options. Downtown is the best choice if you want to be close to the old town without staying inside the maze of narrow alleyways.
- The old town (Centro Storico): the historical heart is home to many of the best things to do in Palermo and lots of authentic markets. Food and nightlife options are endless, but the dimly-lit narrow streets can feel sketchy, especially at night.
- Mondello Beach: The third area that’s recommendable is the seaside town of Mondello. There are two reasons to stay here: the beach and the active nightlife during the summer months. As it’s located outside of the city’s core, you’ll need a car to get around.
Things to do in Palermo – Know Before You Go
- Palermo isn’t renowned for its public transit system. In truth, getting around Palermo is a challenge as there are only buses, and they aren’t the most efficient. Uber doesn’t exist, and taxis aren’t always reliable. The best way to get around the center of Palermo is by walking, so be sure to stay in a central neighborhood.
- Many people have doubts about safety in Palermo. Palermo is today like any other Italian metropolis. Use common sense and watch your belongings, and your visit will be trouble-free.
- Palermo has an international airport with lots of connections to other parts of Italy and Europe. The city is also well-connected to the rest of Sicily and southern Italy (via the Messina ferry) by train.
- Be sure to learn a few Italian phrases as you won’t find too many English speakers in Palermo.