Palermo is a city on the north coast of Sicily: it is the capital of the island. Over the centuries Palermo has been occupied by the Spanish, Arabs and Normans and all have left their influence, which combined with the Baroque architecture of the town gives Palermo a very charismatic charm.
Italy This Way comment: Palermo is our favourite city in Sicily, and one of our favourite cities in Italy, with many interesting ane beautiful sites to visit as well as a vibrant town centre. If you are touring Sicily allow at least two-three days in Palermo, and the city would also be an interesting 'short-break' city destination.
It is possible to see the main sights of Palermo on foot, and exploring the Arab-style street market, the grandiose Baroque buildings, the historic buildings in the Arab-Norman and byzantine styles, and other buildings in the Norman style, is very fascinating. There are numerous important monuments in Palermo, several of them listed as UNESCO heritage sites under the name "Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale".
It is true to say that some of the buildings would benefit from some maintenance but this adds to the charm of the city and is a part of the character of Palermo. I understand the town has been greatly improved in the years before our visit, perhaps in part because of being selected as Italian City of Culture in 2018, and if you have not visited for a long time it might be time to come back for a second look!
We started our exploration in the south of the town: there is a road called Via Vittorio Emanuele that traverses the whole city centre from north to south, and most sites are within easy reach of this road, so here we visit the monuments by following this street...
Start at Palermo's most extravagant building, the Royal Palace of the Normans. This Palazzo dei Normanni on Piazza Indipendenza is a Norman palace which was once home to the Kings of Sicily and is now home to the Sicilian Parliament. It is the oldest royal palace in Europe and is UNESCO World Heritage listed as part of the Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo.
The interior courtyard of the palace has beautiful three storey arched galleries and you can see several state rooms in the palace, but the highlight - and the reason you are likely to need to queue to get in - is the Palatine Chapel built in the 12th century. The interior of the Palatine Chapel interior is covered in golden mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible, and it is dazzling and quite fabulous - one of the most impressive churches we have ever seen!
A short distance from here you can visit Palermo cathedral, built originally in the Arab-Norman style although a lot of transformations have taken place since the 12th century, such as the removal of the original frescoes and mosaics, and the addition of various later features such as the dome and baroque decoration added in the 18th century. The cathedral is also part of the UNESCO listing in the town.
You can visit most parts of the cathedral for free but it is definitely worth buying the ticket to gain entry to the crypt, treasury, royal tombs and the roof. The views from the roof are excellent and the royal tombs of both Frederick II and Roger II are here.
At the heart of Palermo you reach the crossroads of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, called the Quattro Canti and surrounded by charming Baroque buildings.
The Quattro Canti was built in the early 17th century, and is symmetrical with the curved facade of a baroque building on each corner, each with three levels and covered with columns and statues. At ground level there is a fountain in each corner as well as a statue representing each of the four seasons. The next level has statues of the Kings of Sicily then the upper level has statues of the saints of the city.
A very short distance from here, the Piazza Bellini is home to three of Palermo's most important churches:
- San Cantaldo church is an Arab-Norman building and is distinctive on the outside because of its three red domes. Inside it has lots of columns and arcades and a fine marble floor, and largely retains its medieval appearance. See Palermo church of San Cantaldo
- The La Martorana church is divided into two parts: the original half is decorated with Byzantine mosaics and the more recent addition is covered with baroque frescoes. See Palermo church of La Martorana
- The Church of Saint-Catherine is a remarkable example of baroque exuberance with every surface covered with paintings and marble decoration: even if you think you don't like baroque decoration you will still love this church! See Palermo church of Saint-Catherine
Between Quattro Canti and Piazza Bellini you cross Piazza Pretoria with a huge fountain surrounded by nude statues of classical gods, also from the 16th century. The substantial fountain is also surrounded by impressive palazzos as well as one side of the Church of Saint-Catherine.
Another key sight is the Teatro Massimo which is the third largest opera house in Europe, and west of the Quattro Canti along Via Maquedo.
You have now seen the principal monuments, but you will want to continue exploring the historic centre, doing some window shopping and looking at more of the varied architecture. The area around Ballaro and Piazza del Carmine to the south-east and the quarter called Capo in the south-west of the centre are among the interesting areas of Palermo to explore.
If you would like to do some shopping you can head head for the streets around Via Roma and Via Principe di Belmonte where there are also some great bars and cafes when you are looking to take a break. As you do your window-shopping, there are numerous places where you can enjoy a coffee and a cannoli, a Sicilian speciality cake of pastry and ricotta and very delicious - as you explore.
There are lots of fine palaces in Palermo including the palaces of Zisa and Cuba: the Zisa palace is now home to the Islamic museum and the Cuba palace was designed and decorated by Arab artists in Palermo in Norman times. In the 16th century it served as a leper colony.
At the northern end of Via Vittorio Emanuele you reach Piazza Marina, a square with a little garden and some impressive old trees and overlooked by some imposing houses. The square is a few hundred metres further along the street and (in our opinion) not exceptional so perhaps not for visitors who have limited time in Palermo although the streets of the old town between Via Roma and Piazza Marina have lots of small squares and interesting buildings.
For a different flavour of Palermo be sure to visit one of the incredible markets. Those in Ballaro, Capo and Vucciria are the biggest and are a reminder that indeed Tunisia is not far away! The Capo market is probably the most atmospheric if you only have time to visit one.
Note that if you are looking for an out of season city break autumn is a great time to visit. In October many of the historic sites offer special openings for the Le Vie dei Tesori festival and towards the end of the month (check dates each year) the UNESCO heritage sites stay open until midnight.
Places to Visit nearby
One of Palermo's more unusual sites is the Convento dei Cappuccini where the mummified dead line the walls of the catacombs. The convent is a short bus ride from the centre.
Monreale is home to another Arab-Norman cathedral which forms part of the same UNESCO listing as that of Palermo as well as that of Cefalu. Both have amazing mosaics and the cathedral at Monreale is just a short bus journey away. Catch the bus at Piazza Independenza behind the Royal Palace.
If you are looking for a beach then Mondello is a bus ride away and is a favourite with the residents of Palermo.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.