Visit Palermo cathedral
Palermo cathedral is one of several important churches in the city of Palermo on the north coast of Sicily. The cathedral is classified as a UNESCO Heritage site as one of the sites listed as "Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale".
Explore the cathedral of Palermo
Italy This Way comment: the cathedral at Palermo is an interesting contrast with the other important churches in the town because it is the outside and the rooftop visit that are the main highlights, and the cathedral is rather a mix of different styles with little of its medieval character remaining, but certainly still a church to explore!
The cathedral is in the western part of the historic centre of Palermo, quite close to the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel (still within easy walking distance of the other historic churches).
History of the cathedral of Palermo
Several earlier religious structures had stood in this location before the cathedral was built at the end of the 12th century, including a byzantine basilica which had been converted into a mosque by the saracens, and the structure we see today is a substantially modified version of the original church.
The cathedral was built by Walter Ophamil, the archbishop of Palermo as well as teacher to William II and a leading political figure of the time, although little remains of this early structure because of the many modifications and additions that have taken place over the centuries.
The cathedral was perhaps originally built to rival the encroaching power of Monreale with their own imposing cathedral, but the original mosaics and frescoes have been removed from Palermo cathedral so it is hard to know if it achieved this goal.
The mosaics were removed in the 15th century and the frescoes were replaced with baroque style paintings in the 18th century as part of an "improvement" of the cathedral: also, the original ceiling was removed and the dome was added at this stage.
Although it is a mix of styles and the renovations have been poorly carried out it is probably only architectural experts who will be upset because it is still a very impressive building and many visitors to Palermo will tell you it was their favourite building in the city.
Highlights of Palermo cathedral
A visit will start in the large square next to the cathedral. Note that the main entrance is in the busy road to the left of this square (Via Matteo Bonello), and quite hard to see properly because of the buses and cars.
This facade was built in the 15th century and has a large central entrance and two side entrances, decorated with columns and statues and towers to either side. The arches across the street from the facade join the cathedral to the belltower and the Archbishop's Palace on the other sid of the road.
The part of the cathedral next to the square - the south side - is where visitors all gather, in particular to see the complete view of the cathedral and to look at the remarkable 16th century portico with three arches supported by stone columns and lots of carvings and statues - the detail in the fronton (the triangle at the top of the entrance) is quite remarkable.
The interior of the cathedral is as confusing to understand and explain as the outside because of the many changes that have taken place, although it still follows a traditional plan with a nave, two side aisles, a transept and an apse.
Among the items to see there are several tombs of the original Norman Kings of Sicily, most of them brought here from other churches in the 18th century. The baroque paintings on the ceiling will also attract your attention - these replaced the original wooden ceiling during the over-enthusiastic 18th century renovations - and you can visit the treasury to see items of clothing worn during important historical ceremonies.
It is also possible to visit the roof of the cathedral. The visit does not take long but has lovely views of the square below and the roofs of Palermo, and you can also see the dome up close as well as the row of charming cupolas with their green and yellow mosaics, that are almost hidden from the street below.
The rooftop visit costs a few euros (it is free to enter the cathedral) but we recommend it, for us it was a highlight of the visit to Palermo cathedral
You will want to visit most of the other sites listed together in Palermo as a UNESCO world heritage site during your visit: see the Palermo guide for details and to help you prioritise if your time available is limited, and also the Monreale guide for another cathedral nearby with exceptional byzantine mosaics.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.