What is there to see in Palermo and which are its most interesting sites? Let’s discover the beautiful capital city of Sicily and all its hidden treasures.
Palermo is simply magnificent: with its buildings, beautiful churches, and wonderful monuments, the city has the power of bewitching visitors who, from one moment to the next, are catapulted into a place that transcends space and time, where the present seems to have crystallized into an eternal past. But Palermo is much more: because there is its most popular side, the one formed by its districts and street markets, by the people who make the city what it is today and what it has always been, a place characterized by two souls that, in a continuous dialogue and juxtaposition of aesthetic contradictions, add to the charm of a city unlike any other in the world.
So, let's go and discover its beauties because there are so many things to see in Palermo. Let's begin to build the itinerary that will lead us to the discovery of the gods of the city and that will allow us to dive into a world that, in addition to being a spectacle for the eyes, is sure to also conquer the palate.
What to see in Palermo: a city with a thousand faces
Palermo has a thousand faces, as varied as the people who dominated it: from the Phoenicians to the Romans, from the Arabs to the Normans and up to the French, what we have is a multifaceted city that is also very rich from a cultural point of view. And the countless testimonies of this eventful past have survived to our present day, above all in the historical center, where many monuments have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Let's start our journey in Palermo from the Cathedral, which aptly captures the spirit of all the different civilizations that have dominated the city and shaped its millenary history.
Visit to the Cathedral of Palermo, splendid summation of the city’s past occupations
The Cathedral of Palermo has a long history behind it. It was born as a Christian basilica and then became a mosque, and it was only in 1185 that it took on an appearance similar to what we see today: because the restorations and subsequent renovations have changed the original appearance of the building. In the 18th century, in fact, the architect hired for its construction by Carlo Borbone imposed a strong neoclassical layout on the cathedral, which greatly reduced the Arab and Gothic influences that had characterized it up to that time. But one thing is certain: at the sight of the Cathedral of Palermo you will be amazed. The grandeur of the building and the way it rises up against the backdrop of the blue sky are bound to leave even the least impressionable of tourists speechless. Take some time to admire it from the outside and visit its interior: from the crypt to the roofs, take a look at the tombs contained inside. First of all, the tomb of Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of the city.
The four Canti, the Church of the Martorana and the Fontana Pretoria
Let's leave the cathedral behind and start walking along Via Vittorio Emanuele where, just a mile or so ahead, we will come upon three other architectural wonders of Palermo. The first ones we meet are the Quattro Canti, a small square with an octagonal layout that crosses via Vittorio Emanuele, also called the Cassaro, and via Maqueda, which owes its name to the decorative elements that delimit the crossroads. The Quattro Canti is an example of how, in Palermo, you can be surprised at every step, so much so that the city is scattered with continuous wonders.
Having contemplated the details of the famous square we proceed further and reach the Church of Martorana, located in Piazza Bellini. Prepare to be amazed, because you are about to enter one of the most fascinating Byzantine churches in all of Italy. The interior of the church is magnificent, and the merit for that is all of the decorations that alternate on its walls and up to the top of the dome, of Arab-Norman derivation. And it is right on the dome that we find the Christ Pantocrator who, surrounded by archangels and saints, represents in all respects the center of all the mosaic decorations that we find inside the church.
After having admired such breath-taking beauty, we leave the church to discover the third stage of our walk in the Kalsa district which, from the Cathedral of Palermo, also leads us to discover the beautiful Pretoria Fountain, called by Palermo "Fountain of Shame" because of the "nakedness" of the statues that decorate it. For about ten years now, water has been flowing on its restored surfaces again and the effect on the view is truly magnificent because the beautiful picture is completed by the buildings overlooking it. A real living postcard!
Palazzo dei Normanni and the Palatine Chapel: the oldest royal residence in Europe
Among the places to visit in Palermo, we cannot help but mention Palazzo dei Normanni, which, not surprisingly, is one of the most visited places in the whole of Sicily. Also known as the Royal Palace, it once was the center of Norman power, built in place of the Arab fortifications that once stood here. Today the seat of the Sicilian Regional Council, Palazzo dei Normanni is also the oldest royal residence in Europe. The sumptuousness of this place is undoubtedly striking, from the mosaics to the Palatine Chapel, or the church of the royal family, to the wooden ceilings, it is a site of rare beauty. In particular, the Palatine Chapel fascinates visitors with its splendid Byzantine mosaics, which almost always leave a lasting impression.
To visit Palazzo dei Normanni and the Palatine Chapel, go to the entrance of Piazza Indipendenza. The main entrance, the one in Piazza del Parlamento, in fact, is reserved exclusively to public authorities.
The Capuchin Convent and the Catacombs of Palermo
From the splendor of the buildings in the sunlight to the underground passages of the Capuchin Convent, located in the Cuba district. This is where the famous underground cemetery of Palermo, erroneously known as the "catacombs", is located. Unlike the latter, the basement of the Capuchin Convent was not a burial place, but a place of worship and gathering. Get ready to be impressed because what you are about to see is a rather macabre spectacle. Here, in fact, the corpses are not buried: on the contrary, they are hung on the walls or exposed in a lying position. A great metaphor for the transience of life, there are about 8,000 mummies that have found their eternal home here. Among the bodies on display, Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year-old girl who died of pneumonia in 1920, is particularly famous: the girl, in fact, appears intact and gives the impression that she is simply sleeping.
Popular Palermo: the local markets
We let the dead rest and go to places that, on the contrary, are perhaps the most lively in Palermo: we are obviously talking about the local markets. Here, the protagonists are all the myriad colors and scents of Sicily, as well as the characteristic voices of the peddlers. If you are staying in the city for a few days, our advice is to visit the market of Ballarò, perhaps the most "authentic" among those present in the city. Here the produce is guaranteed to be sourced locally and super-fresh and, rest assured, you will not go home with your hands (or belly) empty.
Other places to see in Palermo
It's very difficult to capture all of the beauty of Palermo in a single article, as there are so many things to see. Those just described are in fact the main attractions of the city, probably the most famous. But don't be fooled, because in reality, Palermo is an open-air museum and you just have to walk through its streets to discover many other churches and buildings that, due to time constraints, could not all be described here. And then you absolutely have to visit the Teatro Massimo in Via Volturno, which, in addition to being beautiful and impressive from the outside, is also the largest opera house in Italy. If, on the other hand, you want to bring your tributes to the patron saint of the city, take a trip to the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, located on Monte Pellegrino, halfway between Palermo and Mondello.
And since we just mentioned it, let's talk for a moment about Mondello, the beach of Palermo. Because, let's not forget, Palermo is by the sea – and what a sea, might we add! Seeing Mondello from above is a real pleasure for the sight: crystal-clear waters overlook the perfect seaside resort, with lots of Art Nouveau villas, bars and local shops.
Other places of interest in Palermo include Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, open to the public and the seat of the rectorate of the University of Palermo, the Addaura caves located on Monte Pellegrino, and the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, not far from Palazzo dei Normanni. If you want to get some rest from the city traffic, this is where you need to go: the cloister is a real oasis of peace.
What to eat in Palermo, the capital of street food
Palermo is a paradise for gourmets: because it is really difficult to be disappointed by the culinary offer of the Sicilian capital. Whether it's street food or a banquet served at a restaurant table, once you get to Palermo it's a good idea to put your diet aside and think about it once you return home. The oranges will never be too many, as will the croquettes. If you are particularly "brave", you can't help but try the sandwich with spleen or veal guts, a real local delicacy. Don't miss the panelle, special fried flat focaccia bread made with chickpea flour, a real must in Palermo.
The city’s sweets and pastries would deserve a whole article for themselves because Palermo is the undisputed capital of gourmands. According to many, Palermo's sweets are the best in the world, and it must be admitted that it is very difficult to resist the local preparations.
Then, after lunch or after dinner, leave room for a cannolo, a cassata or the countless almond pastries that are so popular in the city. If it is particularly hot, then, treat yourself to a nice granita (crushed fruit-flavored ice), perhaps to accompany a rich and tasty brioche. At the end of the holiday, the scale will not thank you, but your taste buds will rejoice.
To fly to Palermo you must have a valid passport or identity card with you
Palermo is characterized by rather mild but rainy winters and hot summers. If you want to visit the city, therefore, it is good to avoid summer: temperatures can be very prohibitive, especially when the scirocco wind blows. To enjoy the city at its best, therefore, the best time is undoubtedly spring: the days are mild, and it rarely rains. The months from April to mid-June are well suited to freely tour the city. If, however, you want to participate in a truly characteristic event, you will have to endure the heat because the feast of Santa Rosalia is traditionally celebrated on July 15th, although you begin to celebrate the evening of the day before: folk songs and dances, events and shows are part of a ritual that will not leave visitors dissatisfied.