Palermo is a stunning city. It is the capital of Sicily and due to its chequered history is an incredible mix of styles and flavours. It has been occupied by the Spanish, Arabs and Normans and all have left their influence which mixed with the Baroque architecture of the town gives Palermo a very charismatic charm.
It is possible to see the main sights of Palermo on foot and exploring the wonderful Arab-style street markets with their maze of narrow streets, the grandiose Baroque buildings, the Roccoco, the Romanesque, the Arabesque and the Byzantine and the Norman styles is utterly fascinating.
It is true to say that many sights are crumbling a little, roads are often chaotic and life often appears to be lived out on the streets but this adds to the charm and avoids the sometimes over-polished air tourist cities have.
Begin your exploration with Palermo's most extravagent building, the Royal Palace. The 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. Its interior courtyard has beautiful three storey arched galleries but the highlight is the Palatine Chapel built in the 12th century.
The Palatine Chapel interior is covered in golden mosaics depicting scenes from the bible. It is dazzling and quite fabulous! As well as the mosaics covering the walls notice the beautiful 'muqarnas' ceiling which resembles stalactites and is the only one to be found in a Christian church. The marble floors are also incredible. The Palace is UNESCO World Heritage listed as part of the Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo.
Next on your list will be Palermo's cathedral which is built in Arab Norman style though with the addition of various later features such as the dome added in the 18th century. This is also part of the UNESCO listing.
You can visit much of the cathedral for free but it is definitely worth paying the 7 euro ticket for entry to the crypt, treasury, royal tombs and the roof. The views from the roof are fabulous and the royal tombs and both Frederick II and Roger II are buried here.
At the heart of Palermo is the crossroads of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Maqueda and the Quattro Canti and there are lots of superb Baroque buildings here. The nearby Piazza Bellini is home to two of Palermo's most important 12th century churches, the church of San Cantaldo and the church of La Martorana.
San Cantaldo church is another Arab-Norman building and is distinctive with its three red domes. Inside it has lots of columns and arcades and a fine marble floor. The La Martorana church is sumptuously decorated with Byzantine mosaics.
Not far away is the Piazza Marina with a little garden and some amazing trees! There is often a good flea market here. Also nearby is the Piazza Pretoria with a huge fountain surrounded by nude statues.
Another key sight is the Teatro Massimo which is the third largest opera house in Europe. There are lots of fine palaces and in particular be sure to visit Zisa and Cuba. The Zisa palace is now home to the Islamic museum. 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.
For a different flavour of Palermo be sure to visit the incredible markets. 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.
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.
If you fancy doing a bit of shopping then head for the streets around Via Roma and Via Principe di Belmonte has some great bars and cafes when you are looking to take a break.
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.
2018 is set to be a particularly great year to visit Palermo as it is the 'Italian Capital of Culture' and it will host 'Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art'.
Palermo occupies a beautiful setting on the edge of the sea with a ring of mountains surrounding it. It is nice to drive back into the hills to get a view of Palermo and the bay and the mountains. For a closer view the views from the top of the cathedral tower are quite splendid.
Places to Visit nearby
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. The cathedral at Monreale is just a short bus journey away. Catch the bus at Piazza Independenza.
If you are looking for a beach then Mondello is a bus ride away and is a favourite with the residents of Palermo.
Map of Palermo and places to visit
Places to visit near Palermo
See more places nearby in the Sicily guide