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What to Do in Palermo

Best Things to Do in Palermo

Palermo sits along the northern coast of Sicily just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” The regional capital is a vibrant city where the past and present collide. A place of mystery and intrigue with a unique atmosphere all its own, here, reality often surpasses the imagination and preconceived notions. It boasts a thousand years of history with ancient streets home to everything from Baroque palaces to Roman ruins. The often faded grandeur of churches and palazzi in the center give way to areas where you might think you’ve stepped back into another time. This is especially true in the bustling markets with their Arabic origins and exotic array of produce, filled with brilliant colors, aromas, and noise. Some of the most mouthwatering dishes in the country can be enjoyed in Palermo, everywhere from its markets to street foods and fine dining restaurants.

When it comes to things to do in Palermo, you’ll find plenty.

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral

The best way to start your exploits in Palermo is a visit to Palermo Cathedral as you can climb to the top and see almost the entire city laid out before you. You’ll be able to get your bearings for easy exploring later while enjoying the incredible panoramic view and the opportunity to explore the cathedral. One of the most important architectural monuments in Sicily, as Palermo has been conquered by many different empires and nations, it was built in many different styles. While it dates back to 1185, it’s been modified and expanded often over the centuries. You’ll notice Moorish influence in its exterior along with gothic, medieval, neoclassical, and Arabic features, including a passage from the Koran, engraved on one of the columns. The treasure chamber with a vast collection of artifacts spanning the church’s history, including the tomb of Emperor Frederick II. It also includes a 10th-century tiara and a 13th-century gold chalice.


Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel is located in the center of Palermo and is a must-see for any visitor. The royal chapel of the Norman kings of the Kingdom of Sicily, it’s part of the architectural complex of the Norman Palace. This beautiful and unique church is a testament to the city’s rich history and culture, built in the 12th century by Roger II, the first king of Sicily. It’s a fine example of Byzantine architecture and home to several important works of art, including a marble statue of the Virgin Mary and a wooden crucifix. There are stunningly detailed mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints as well, all adding to the religious significance of the chapel and its grandeur. The mosaics are widely regarded as some of the most impressive works of Byzantine art. The oldest include the Christ Pantocrator in the dome with angels surrounding Christ while Evangelists are absorbed in their studies.

Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas, Palermo

Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas

If you’re interested in the history of Palermo, the Archaeological Museum is where you’ll want to go. Located in the heart of the city, it was named for renowned Palermo archaeologist Antonio Salinas, its former director, and hosts one of the richest collections of ancient Greek and Punic art in Italy along with a wide range of items related to Palermo’s and Sicily’s history. Exhibits reveal how the city has changed over the centuries and was influenced by many cultures. In the first courtyard, you’ll see the spectacular fountain of Triton enticing visitors to explore further. Divided into multiple sections, some of the most popular items include the ancient Palermo Stone, engraved with a list of Egyptian kings who reigned between the 1st and 5th dynasties, the marble statue of Satyr, and lion statues that were found at the ancient site of Selinunte. The underwater discoveries and Phoenician relics are also quite impressive


Capuchin Catacombs

One of the most unique and popular things to do in Palermo is to visit the Capuchin Catacombs, a place where the living meet the dead. You’ll travel underground into the vast catacombs to explore the home of more than 8,000 skeletons and well-preserved bodies of those who died centuries ago and come from all walks of life. It includes Rosalia, the mummified body of a two-year-old who died roughly a century ago and is said to be the world’s “most beautiful” preserved person. The Capuchin monks kept each one in their original clothing and many were dressed in their finest. It was skillfully done using advanced embalming techniques with the oldest bodies dating all the way back to the 1560s and the newest placed here in the 1920s. Tours led by experts will reveal more of the history and details of the burial ground for an experience that’s more fascinating than morbid or frightening.

Teatro Massimo, Palermo

Teatro Massimo

The immense Teatro Massimo is Italy’s largest opera house. Dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II, it was designed by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile and constructed in 1864. It towers over the other buildings in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi. The exterior of the opulent building looks like a palace and the inside is just as lavish. For a distinctly Sicilian tradition, you can marvel at it while watching an authentic puppet show. In addition to the gorgeous interior, you’ll be able to see the incredible craftsmanship that went into making the puppets. While the shows are created for all ages to enjoy, they’re especially good if you’re looking for something that will keep the kids entertained, and the theater often reserves the entire front row for children. If you can’t catch a performance, consider taking one of the guided tours that are available that include the auditorium and boxes.


Botanical Garden

If you’re in need of some peace and quiet, take a break from sightseeing and escape the chaos of the city by spending a few hours at Palermo’s botanical garden. Part of the public university, it was created to study agricultural and medical species that contribute to the development of botanical science. Founded by the University of Palermo in 1789 and officially opened in 1795, the gardens are still used for scientific research and contain many living collections of plants with large collections of Mediterranean, tropical and subtropical plants, as well as by numerous exotic specimens. There are some 12,000 species with the most significant including palms, cycads, and succulents covering an area of 10 hectares. It also includes a number of interesting features like statues and bas-relieves. It’s just a few blocks from the seafront and if you look closely in the trees, you might see the green parrots that inhabit the garden too.

Mondello Beach, Palermo

Mondello Beach

During the warmer months of the year, one of the best places to enjoy a refreshing escape is Mondello Beach. Just minutes north of Palermo, easily accessed by public transport from the city center if you don’t have a car, it’s a sublime place for relaxation and enjoying a dip in the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean. This beautiful beach with its powdery soft golden sands is a favorite and as the temperature rarely falls below 75 degrees, it’s swimmable much of the year. It’s a great place to simply soak up the sun and enjoy the spectacular mountain backdrop or build a sandcastle. There are many loungers and umbrellas, so even when it’s crowded it’s usually easy to find a spot. At the heart of the beach, you’ll find a pier which is a great place to stroll and enjoy dining or a drink with a restaurant and bar here. 

Fontana Pretoria, Palermo

Fontana Pretoria

Fontana Pretoria is located at Piazza Pretoria, just steps from the intersection where all four ancient quarters intersect known as Quattro Canti. The square was often referred to as the “Square of Shame” due to its nude statues. In fact, legend tells that nuns from a convent nearby used to run out every morning and cover them with clothes. More likely it was nicknamed as such because the center of government was seen as the center of corruption. There are a dozen statues, all are magnificent and incredibly detailed, while the fountain itself was built in 1554 by an architect from Florence who eventually sold it to relieve his significant debt. It arrived to Palermo 20 years later with the marble statues featuring Olympians from ancient Greek mythology, including Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and Aires. Others represent animals and rivers in Palermo. All are opulently decorated and frame the centerpiece perfectly.

Vucciria Food Market, Palermo

Food Markets

One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its flavors. The food markets offer the chance to do just that while sampling daily local life. There are several great options that operate daily, with the main markets right in the center of the city, including Vucciria, Cap, and Ballaro. It’s a feast for the senses with everything from baked goods like pastries and cakes to fresh fruits and vegetables. You might haggle for a good price alongside locals at Ballaro before trying some of the delicious Sicilian street food like authentic arancini, a rich deep-fried, savory ball of risotto, or a cream-stuffed cannoli if you’re in the mood for something sweet. There are food tours that can bring you here as well, combining it with a walk through the ancient streets of the city to stop at some of the top spots for sampling the traditional Sicilian fare.

Sicilian Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting

If you want to try some of the best of Sicily’s wine, take a guided tour so you don’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel. It’s a treat for the taste buds and there are multiple options that can provide a gourmet tasting experience in Palermo. You might explore several wineries in the area like Porta del Vento in Camporeale where you can stroll around the estate and learn more about the winemaking process before sitting down for a tasting alongside local products. Or, combine sightseeing by visiting some of the old’s city’s most monumental areas followed by a tasting led by an expert guide in a famous wine bar. Sicilian wine has been winning markets worldwide and tastings typically include five or six different types that are most representative of the main local varieties, such as Catarratto and Nero d’Avola, complemented by high-quality Sicilian cheeses.

Foro Italico, Palermo

Foro Italico

Foro Italico offers a tranquil oasis on the slopes of Monte Mario in the Kalsa district. It’s a great spot to relax and take a break from the downtown hustle and bustle when you’re in need of peace and quiet. A huge expanse of green space along the seafront, it was commissioned in 1582 by the Viceroy Marco Antonio Colonna and expanded in 1734, covering more than 40,000 square feet today. It’s a great location for capturing photos, sunset watching, and practicing yoga. With a wide boardwalk, many locals come to enjoy a stroll or a jog, especially during the evening hours. There are large trees that make it ideal for a summer visit, providing a cool place to relax in the shade and enjoy the sea breeze. Or, come for a picnic on the grass while soaking up the sunshine. Foro Italico has also hosted a number of notable events like the 1960 Summer Olympic Games


Monte Pellegrino

If you want to enjoy a hike with a view, Monte Pellegrino is just a short drive north of the city. The granite mountain dominates Palermo’s landscape and the 1.8-mile path to the top is paved by the same granite stones that line the sidewalks here. The trailhead is clearly marked, and the ancient route has many switchbacks while being steep in some sections, but the views are fantastic. Early on you’ll enjoy a sweeping panorama of Palermo and the harbor. Watch for the colorful lizards that like to sunbathe on the rocks as you make your way up. Once at the top, you’ll reach the 17th-century Santa Rosalia Sanctuary, a church carved into the side of the mountain, dedicated to Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Sicily who is said to have died here in the 12th century. On September 4th every year, many pilgrims follow the path from Palermo to pay homage to Rosalia.


Capo Gallo Nature Reserve

Another good place to go for fresh air and to escape the noise and busy city streets is Capo Gallo Nature Reserve. Just outside the city center, you’ll find plenty of tranquility and the opportunity to look for all sorts of Mediterranean flora and fauna. A coastal headland, it’s home to forests, beaches, and a myriad of trails. This is an important stopover for migratory birds with everything from falcons to cuckoos and white storks spotted here. There are many different reptile species here too, including lizards and skinks. The hikes that wind through the reserve range from a short and sweet 1.23-mile trek to an over 5.2-mile route. One of the most popular will bring you up Monte Capo Gallo and covers 3.7 miles with a steep, over 1,300-foot elevation gain. On your way to the summit, which offers breathtaking views, you’ll pass the tower residence of a hermit artist.