If we had to describe Palermo, the Sicilian capital city in one word, it would be VIBRANT! Being the most conquered city in the world, Palermo is a captivating blend of history, culture, art, music, architecture, and gastronomy. It serves as a cultural melting pot with an abundance of activities, sights, and culinary delights to explore. The city’s lively streets guarantee that you will frequently stumble upon something new.
In this blog post, I present 23 fabulous things to do if you’re considering a vacation in Palermo, Sicily’s ever-sizzling capital.
23 Fabulous Things to Do in Palermo, Italy: Sicily’s Sizzling Capital
Ranging from taking a nice trip to the monuments, taking a dip in the crystal seas, binging on some excellent cuisine and street food, enjoying the nightlife and the aperitif options, and taking some tours and trips to neighbour villages, the following are things you can do or explore while holidaying in Palermo:
1. Pay a visit to the Iconic Palermo Cathedral
Palermo Cathedral also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is perhaps the most astounding building in Sicily. It’s also one of Italy’s most striking Cathedrals. The construction began in the 12th century under the Norman Archbishop Walter Oppamo. The initial building was raised on top of a Byzantine Church which later became a mosque.
What will strike you right away, when visiting the Catedral de Palermo is the combination of architectural styles of the building that result from the cathedral’s many additions and alterations over the centuries. Inside the Cathedral, there are several royal tombs and crips, including the tomb of King Roger II, members of the medieval Sicilian royal families, and the treasury of the cathedral.
In 2015, this Cathedral was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s hard not to be impressed by the size of this Cathedral with its outstretching turrets and wide Portico. On the rooftop of the Cathedral, you have a 360-degree view of Palermo.
You see the water, the whole square and the piazza from the top, and you get an up-close look at all of the towers and columns of the Cathedral. It is absolutely breathtaking!
2. Visit the Quattro Canti Square
Quattro Canti, also known as ‘Four Corners’ is considered to be the centre of the historic quarters of the city and the heart of Palermo. This is the point where two main streets in Palermo intersect. The four ancient districts all converge here.
The four corners are known for their perfectly symmetrical façades. Each of them has three levels: the first level is the season, the second level is the king, and the third level is the saint. At each of the four corners of Quattro Canti, a three-story façade is decorated with fountains at the bottom, celebrating the four seasons. In any season, at least one of the four districts is lit by the sunlight due to its shape.
3. Partake in Aperitivo
Aperitivo is a great way to experience local culture, unwind after a long day of sightseeing and work up an appetite for dinner! For those new to the city, indulging in Aperitivo is definitely one of the iconic activities to partake in while in Palermo. Celebrate and embrace these cherished traditions, as Italians truly adore their Aperitivo!
4. Pay a Visit to the Massimo Theatre
This 3200-seat theatre is designed to impress visitors at every opportunity, starting with its physical appearance. Opened in 1897, it lies at the heart of Palermo’s cultural scene. The five-story-high building is the largest opera house in Italy and the third-largest opera house in Europe with a capacity for almost 1,400 visitors.
This theatre has hosted some of the most prolific singers and performers that the world has ever seen, including Pavarotti. The theatre has a special movable ceiling made up of large frescoed wooden panels which are controlled by a mechanism and each can be separately opened to allow hot air to vent out.
The royal box, the most sought-after seat of the entire theatre, has a total of 27 seats and a private foyer, known as the royal sitting room. Once the box of valiant kings, they are now reserved for the members of the regional parliament and the mayor of Palermo. One of the scenes in Godfather 3 was filmed right there in the royal box. It’s also reported that during World War 2, pilots and bombardiers were ordered not to target the Cathedral or Teatro Massimo.
5. Take a tour to Capuchin Catacombs
Capuchin Abbey known for its catacombs is by far Palermo’s most bizarre attraction, but one of its most popular. These underground passages were hewn in the volcanic rock after 1599 and used as burial places right up to 1881. Inside the Catacomb dei Cappuccini, you’ll be greeted by the macabre scene of about 8000 mummified corpses arranged by sex and status lying in the passageways or hanging from the walls.
6. Visit the Praetorian Fountain
If there is one place in Palermo that you’ll want to photograph from all angles, it is the gorgeous Fontana Pretoria. Located right in the heart of Piazza Pretoria, the fountain displays ornamental staircases and elaborated states depicting Greek gods, nymphs, grotesque animal heads and other mythological figures.
Remarkably, this Marvel was originally made for a private villa in Florence and was only later transferred to Palermo in 1574 in incredible 644 pieces. The vastly decorated statues depict Palermo’s rivers and ancient Greek gods alongside nymphs, animals, and other mythological figures. Due to several nude statues, it was once known as ‘Piazza della Vergogna’ which means the Square of Shame.
7. Binge on Cuisines like Arancini, Caponata, Pasta alla Norma, Gambero Rosso di Mazara
It’s hard to go wrong when eating in Sicily, but there are some bites that stand out. You can never go wrong with Arancini, especially for a quick nibble. This orange-shaped, fried rice dish with a variety of fillings like ragu or spinach with mozzarella, is a perfect traditional bite, famous all around Sicily, that you should not leave uneaten.
You might think you know pasta, but travelling in Sicily, you will learn so many different shapes and sauces you still need to try. Thinking of the perfect dinner in Palermo, treat yourself with a glass of local wine and Pasta alla Norma, or start it off with Caponata. The richness of aubergines in both dishes is amazing. If you crave something other than pasta, order a fish dish and don’t be surprised, as the traditional ones are either raw or fried fish specialities.
8. Visit the Mondello Beach
One of the most popular beaches in Palermo, Mondello Beach is a must-visit destination that encapsulates the beauty and charm of Palermo’s coastal allure. Situated just a short distance from the city centre, this coastal gem offers a serene escape from the bustling urban environment. With its crystal-clear turquoise waters, fine white sand, and picturesque surroundings, Mondello Beach is a true paradise for beach lovers.
Visitors can bask in the sun, take refreshing dips in the Mediterranean Sea, or indulge in various water sports activities. The beach is also lined with vibrant cafes, restaurants, and shops, providing a perfect blend of relaxation and entertainment.
9. Do a day trip to Agrigento
From Palermo, you can take a two-hour train in the morning to Agrigento and go see the valley of the temples. Embarking on a day trip to Agrigento from Palermo is a truly magnificent experience that should not be missed.
Agrigento, located on the southern coast of Sicily, is renowned for its awe-inspiring Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Exploring this ancient archaeological park allows tourists to immerse themselves in the rich history and architectural wonders of the Greek civilization.
Strolling along the well-preserved ruins, including the iconic Temple of Concordia and Temple of Juno, transports you back in time and offers a glimpse into the past grandeur of this magnificent city. Additionally, the panoramic views from the hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea are simply breathtaking. A visit to Agrigento promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of Sicily’s past and serves as a testament to the island’s remarkable cultural heritage.
10. Explore La Martorana
Just behind Palazzo Pretorio, you’ll find this majestic 12th-century relic of the era when Palermo was the richest port in Western Europe. More commonly known as La Martorana, its official name, The Church of St. Mary of the Admiral is a tribute to its patron, the Syrian-Greek adventurer George of Antioch, from whom we’ve also inherited the term admiral – a title derived from the Arabic ’emir al-bar,’ roughly translating to “commander of the sea.”
Martorana is also connected to a popular Sicilian pastry called Frutta Martorana – fashioned and shaped marzipan, that resembles real pieces of fruit. Legend has it, the emperor, archbishop or even pope, depending on the legend, was to visit the rumoured beauty of the convent’s garden, but it was not yet the season, so the nuns created lifelike marzipan oranges to spruce up the place.
Today, they can be seen in the windows of pastry shops all over Sicily. Next to Martorana is The church of San Cataldo, an example of the wonderful Arabian-Norman architecture, with its characteristic red domes, that curiously served as a post office for a better part of the 19th century.
11. The Marina, Mural and Porta Felice
Venturing into the water will bring you to the marina of Palermo. Here you can get a pleasant break from the bustling city centre. You can admire the tranquil boats and take a peaceful stroll along the seaside. In this same area, you will find the mural of Sicilian anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were murdered by the Sicilian mafia in separate bombings in 1992.
Hailed as heroes of Sicily, their maxi trial of 1986 and 1987 against the Sicilian mafia was something unprecedented and can be credited as the ones who damaged the mafia the most in the course of history. Close to the mural, you’ll find Porto Felice. Porta Felice is the monumental former city gate.
A walk through the ancient gate and up Via Vittorio Emanuele brings you to Via Maqueda and Quattro Canti.
12. Explore Via Maqueda
This has become the favourite street of most Tourists. Whether it’s day or night, this street is pumping. It is full of restaurants and bars and shops and there’s just such a lively atmosphere here that it just feels like you’re really in the heart of Palermo. Another reason this street is great is because there are so many restaurants that all seem to have really great prices probably to win your business, so you can get Aperol Spritz for three euros, delicious pasta for five euros and in a city like this prices can get pretty high. So it’s really nice to get food for such a great deal that tastes delicious.
13. Walk through Porta Nuova
The entrance from the western side of the city, next to the royal palace Palazzo dei Normanni, is one of the most representative examples of triumphal architecture in Palermo, the Porta Nuova – The New Gate. It was completed around 1583 and rebuilt to its current form a century later after a gunpowder explosion inside the building had destroyed the original gate. On the city side, the façade has four parts containing marble busts representing Peace, Justice, Truth, and Abundance.
14. Party at La Vucciria
A visit to the Vucciria market offers a unique view of the city’s alternative side. It transformed from a traditional food market to an open-air street food restaurant during the day, and aperitivo/open-air club during the night. Aperitivo is a great way to experience local culture, unwind after a long day of sightseeing and work up an appetite for that 9 pm dinner! This vibrant, history-rich city will not leave you indifferent. It is also a perfect starting point to further explore the intriguing charms of Sicily.
15. Wander through Palermo’s Markets
One of the more exciting things to do in Palermo is wander through the city’s lively markets, bustling with shoppers and sellers. Ballarò is one of the oldest in Palermo and surely picturesque of Sicily.
Prepare to have your senses assaulted with the authentic explosion of colours, enchanting smells of delicious fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and pastries, and the noise from the locals shouting at each other and praising their goods.
Nowhere is Palermo’s chaotic Vibe more obvious than in these open-air markets where locals shout at each other and praise their merchandise to everyone who passes by. The market is also the perfect opportunity to taste some of the delicious Sicilian street food such as stuffed sardines ‘sarde a beccafico‘, a variety of artichokes, panelled or arancini, and an unforgettable assortment of flavours! Palermo’s Street Markets are not the cleanest nor are they the place where upper-class Italian Shop but that doesn’t make them any less attractive.
16. Take a trip to Cefalù
One of the most popular day trips from Palermo is to Cefalù. This picturesque gem combines breathtaking natural beauty with a rich historical and cultural heritage. The highlight of Cefalù is its magnificent sandy beach, where azure waters meet golden shores, inviting visitors to relax and soak up the sun.
The town itself is a delight to explore, with its narrow streets lined with colourful buildings and quaint shops. The iconic Cefalù Cathedral stands proudly in the town centre, showcasing stunning Norman architecture and intricate mosaics.
For those seeking adventure, a hike up La Rocca, a towering cliff overlooking the town, offers panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding landscapes. One of the most fascinating attractions in Cefalù is the Lavatoio Medievale, a historical place where women came to wash their clothes back in medieval times. Here, water fills up the small pools and flows through a small channel out to the sea.
17. Take a Trip to Segesta
The Greek temple at Segesta is one of few in the world with all its columns in place. Just as wondrous as the temple, is the beautiful countryside setting around it. You could admire it from below the temple as you drive up or even better from the Greek Theater above it, which enjoys an even more beautiful view.
The temple itself is very atmospheric. Even if Archeology is not your passion, the beautiful drive to Segesta alone and the view from up there make this trip worth the effort.
All of the ruins are not as extensive as the ones at Agrigento or Syracusa. They are well worth a look. Climbing up to the Greek Theater, especially on a hot day is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. With so much to do and see in Palermo, it can sometimes be nice to take a day off and simply relax.
18. Be amazed by the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
The Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel in Palermo are two extraordinary sites that should be at the top of any visitor’s list. The Royal Palace, also known as the Palazzo dei Normanni, is a magnificent example of Norman architecture. Stepping inside, you are greeted by opulent halls adorned with ornate decorations and exquisite frescoes, transporting you back to a bygone era of grandeur and power.
One of the palace’s true gems is the Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece of Byzantine art. Its shimmering gold mosaics, intricate marble inlays, and intricately carved wooden ceilings create an atmosphere of sheer awe and beauty. The chapel is a testament to the rich cultural fusion that defined Sicily’s history.
The Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel are a captivating journey into the island’s past, offering visitors a glimpse into the opulence and cultural heritage of Palermo’s royal legacy.
19. Antonino Salinas Regional Archaelogical Museum
The Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum is an absolute treasure trove for history enthusiasts visiting Palermo. Housed within a beautiful neoclassical building, the museum showcases a vast collection of archaeological artefacts that span from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era.
As you explore the museum’s various exhibition halls, you’ll encounter captivating displays of ancient pottery, statues, jewellery, and intricate mosaics. One of the highlights is the impressive numismatic collection, featuring ancient coins that provide a fascinating glimpse into the economic and political landscapes of Sicily throughout history.
The museum’s crowning jewel is the celebrated Gorgoneion, a stunning terracotta relief of the Gorgon Medusa. This masterpiece captures the imagination and artistic prowess of ancient Sicilian craftsmen.
The Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum is a captivating journey through time, allowing visitors to delve deep into the island’s rich cultural heritage and gain a greater appreciation for the ancient civilizations that once thrived in Sicily.
20. Climb up to Santuario di Santa Rosalia
One of the notable attractions to visit in Palermo is the Santuario di Santa Rosalia. This sanctuary holds great significance as it is dedicated to Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of the city. Nestled atop Mount Pellegrino, the Santuario di Santa Rosalia offers breathtaking panoramic views of Palermo and the surrounding coastline.
The sanctuary itself is a stunning architectural masterpiece, adorned with intricate sculptures and beautiful frescoes. Visitors can immerse themselves in a serene and spiritual atmosphere as they explore the sanctuary’s interior, which houses relics and artefacts related to Saint Rosalia.
Additionally, the site provides a peaceful retreat with well-maintained gardens and peaceful pathways, allowing visitors to enjoy a moment of tranquillity amidst the natural beauty. Whether for its religious importance, historical significance, or picturesque setting, the Santuario di Santa Rosalia is a captivating place to visit for those seeking a deeper connection with Palermo’s cultural and spiritual heritage.
21. See Animals at Bioparco di Sicilia
A remarkable attraction to visit in Palermo is the Bioparco di Sicilia, a captivating wildlife park that offers an immersive experience with nature and wildlife. Located on the outskirts of the city, this expansive park is home to a diverse range of animal species from around the world. As you wander through the park, you’ll have the opportunity to observe and learn about fascinating creatures, including majestic lions, playful lemurs, graceful giraffes, and colourful tropical birds.
The Bioparco di Sicilia places a strong emphasis on conservation and education, providing visitors with insights into the importance of protecting and preserving wildlife. In addition to the animal exhibits, the park features well-maintained pathways, lush greenery, and picnic areas, making it an ideal place for a family outing or a peaceful escape from the bustling city. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast or simply looking for an enjoyable day out, the Bioparco di Sicilia promises an unforgettable experience where you can connect with the wonders of the animal kingdom in the heart of Palermo.
22. Hike at Capo Gallo Nature Reserve
A must-visit destination in Palermo, the Capo Gallo Nature Reserve offers a breathtaking natural escape for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. As you explore the reserve, you’ll be mesmerized by its rugged cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and secluded beaches. Hiking trails wind through the Mediterranean scrub, leading you to panoramic viewpoints that showcase the stunning vistas of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Capo Gallo Nature Reserve is also a paradise for snorkelers and divers, with its rich marine life and underwater caves waiting to be discovered. The reserve’s tranquil atmosphere and pristine surroundings provide a serene retreat where you can connect with nature and marvel at its wonders. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or a chance to immerse yourself in the natural splendour of Palermo, a visit to the Capo Gallo Nature Reserve is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.
23. Unwind at the English Garden
An enchanting oasis nestled in the heart of Palermo, The English Garden is a delightful place to visit for those seeking tranquillity and natural beauty. This picturesque park, also known as Giardino Inglese, offers a serene escape from the bustling city streets. As you enter the garden, you’ll be greeted by lush greenery, colourful flower beds, and meticulously manicured lawns.
Strolling along its winding pathways, you’ll discover charming bridges, quaint gazebos, and tranquil ponds, creating a serene ambience that invites relaxation. The English Garden is an ideal spot for picnics, leisurely walks, or simply finding a peaceful bench to read a book or soak in the idyllic surroundings.
With its well-maintained landscape and a wide variety of plant species, including exotic trees and fragrant blooms, the garden provides a feast for the senses. Whether you’re seeking a serene retreat, a romantic setting, or a place to connect with nature, The English Garden is a hidden gem in Palermo that promises to enchant visitors with its timeless charm.
Why is Palermo so Cheap?
There are several reasons why Palermo may be considered relatively affordable or inexpensive compared to other destinations:
1. Cost of Living
Palermo’s cost of living is generally lower compared to many other European cities and this can be attributed to factors such as lower rents, reasonable food prices, and affordable transportation options.
2. Tourism Market
Palermo may cater to a wide range of travellers, including budget-conscious tourists. As a result, there are numerous accommodations, restaurants, and services available at various price points to meet the demand.
3. Local Economy
The local economy in Palermo may have an impact on pricing. Lower average incomes in the region can influence the pricing of goods and services, making them more affordable for residents and visitors alike.
Palermo’s tourism industry is quite competitive, with numerous hotels, restaurants, and attractions vying for visitors’ attention. This competition can lead to reasonable pricing as businesses strive to attract customers.
It’s important to note that while Palermo may offer affordability, prices can still vary depending on factors such as the time of year, location, and level of service. It’s always a good idea to research and compare prices to make informed decisions based on your preferences and budget.
Palermo Pizza which was named after the vibrant city in Italy is a mouthwatering delight that has gained worldwide acclaim. Known for its distinct characteristics, Palermo Pizza offers a unique culinary experience. The pizza is characterized by a thin and crispy crust that provides the perfect balance between chewiness and crispiness. Topped generously with a rich tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a variety of traditional and creative ingredients, each bite is bursting with flavours. Palermo Pizza embodies the essence of Italian cuisine, showcasing the region’s dedication to quality ingredients and expert craftsmanship. Whether you choose a classic Margherita or explore the vast array of toppings, Palermo Pizza is sure to satisfy even the most discerning pizza connoisseurs, offering a tantalizing taste of Italy’s culinary heritage.
Palermo Airport, also known as Falcone-Borsellino Airport (PMO), is the main gateway to the vibrant city of Palermo, located on the beautiful island of Sicily, Italy. Named in honour of the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the airport serves as a bustling hub for domestic and international flights. It is situated approximately 35 kilometres northwest of Palermo’s city centre, making it easily accessible for travellers.
Palermo Airport boasts modern facilities and amenities to accommodate the needs of its passengers. The terminal buildings provide a comfortable and efficient travel experience, with a range of services including information desks, currency exchange offices, shops, restaurants, and car rental agencies. Wi-Fi access is available throughout the airport, ensuring connectivity for travellers.
As one of the busiest airports in southern Italy, Palermo Airport offers a wide selection of flight routes to various domestic and international destinations. It serves as a vital link for both leisure and business travellers, connecting Palermo to major cities across Europe and beyond.
Palermo Airport plays a significant role in promoting tourism and facilitating travel to the captivating city of Palermo and the enchanting island of Sicily. With its efficient operations, modern amenities, and strategic location, it serves as a welcoming gateway for travellers venturing into this culturally rich and historically significant region.
Palermo stands as a captivating destination that offers an array of fabulous experiences for visitors to indulge in. From exploring ancient landmarks and vibrant markets to savouring delectable cuisine and basking in the beauty of its stunning coastline, Palermo has something for everyone. Its rich history, cultural heritage, and warm Mediterranean charm create an enticing atmosphere that beckons travellers to immerse themselves in its unique blend of tradition and modernity. Whether it’s wandering through the charming streets of the old town, discovering hidden architectural gems, or simply indulging in the vibrant street life, Palermo promises an unforgettable adventure.
As the Normans called Palermo – it truly is “The kingdom in the sun”.