Palermo is Sicily’s largest city: a bustling, vibrant port town par excellence. It’s also completely overlooked by most visitors to the island who are more interested in Sicily’s beaches and rural life. They have no idea what they’re missing. The city is a historic meeting point of Western and Arabic cultures, full of food, history, incredible architecture, and jaw-dropping scenery. Though it can still be gritty it’s one of Italy’s most interesting and authentic cities. If you’re looking to step off the beaten track a little and experience one of Italy’s coolest under-the-radar destinations, take a look at the Walks of Italy guide for things to do in Palermo.
Palermo’s grand markets
One of the coolest things to do in Palermo is to simply observe everyday life. Though Sicily is only separated from the mainland by a narrow strait of water, the culture is a world apart. For a good example of this dive into the souk-like Vucciria Market, between Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Piazza San Domenico, where you’ll find stalls selling everything from plastic knick-knacks to pigs’ intestines. The market is open Monday-Saturday until 2:00 PM and is one of Palermo’s best attractions.
If you love Vucciria, you have check out Ballarò, the city’s oldest Arab-style market. It’s located in the classically shabby-chic neighborhood of Albergheria. Here you can get an inexpensive lunch from a food stall while you listen to the screams of the vendors selling their wares. It’s hectic, exciting, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
Museums, palaces and churches in Palermo, Italy
Want to learn about the mixed-up cultural history of Southern Italy? The best thing to do in Palermo is to check out its architecture. The Cappella Palatina, or Palatine Chapel, is living proof of the Normans’ remarkable conquest of the city. While cultures and religions went to war all over Europe in the 11th century, the Normans settled into Palermo and encouraged the people living there – a mix of Arabs, Greeks, and Italians – to live peacefully together. They also built the amazing Palatine Chapel. Unassuming on the outside, the chapel is filled with exquisitely colored mosaics, carved wooden ceilings and soaring frescoes of Jesus in an extraordinary mix of Norman, Byzantine and Arab art.
For a unique spectacle of various architectural styles, check out the city’s Duomo near the Vucciria market on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Built in 1184 by the Normans, it was later added to by the Goths, the Spaniards and the Italians, creating a wonderfully unique building.
If you prefer more homogeneous (but even more jaw-dropping) edifices try the Church of Santa Caterina. This Baroque masterpiece was started in the 16th century, though most of the internal decoration was completed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Every inch of its interior is covered with frescoes, paintings, and carvings of everything from saints, Jesus, and Mary, to flowers, fruits, and even wild animals. Whether you think its too much or just right, it is a nearly unbelievable attraction.
Finally, one of the most culturally edifying things to do in Palermo is to visit the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, or Museum of Archeology. Located in a 17th-century convent with a beautiful ancient courtyard, the museum is choc-full of Greek and Punic art – the biggest collection of its kind in Sicily. Check out the sculptures from the temples of Selinunte, the ancient settlement on the southern coast of the island. The top floor is filled with ancient ceramics, bronzes and other artwork that you won’t find anywhere else.
The best beach near Palermo
Enjoying the water is not only one of the best things to do in Palermo, it’s one of the best things to do in Sicily. If you’re interested in checking out beaches near Palermo, Mondello beach is the go-to spot. It’s a small, seaside resort just outside of the city. Easily reached by bus, this beach is often crowded, (like many of the best beaches near Rome, Florence, and Venice) but visiting its stunning, white sand expanse is a ritual for locals from Palermo, so join the crowds and relax near beautiful, turquoise waters. It’s hard to get a more authentic Italian experience than this.
To get there, try the 806 or 833 busses from The Politeama and Piazza Sturzo in Palermo. Busses run often, with more added for the summer rush. The trip only takes about 20 minutes.
Eating and drinking in Palermo
Sicilian food is very unique and utterly delicious and Palermo is ground zero for some of the best Sicilian recipes. Trust us: you haven’t tried cannoli (deep-fried ricotta-filled cones) until you’ve tried them in Palermo! Another favorite dessert is the classic Italian gelato; a treat nearly worshipped in the hot streets of the city, where many claim it was invented. If you want to do as the locals do, try the citrus flavors of gelato, like lemon and orange – they will be better than anywhere else in the world. (for more on cannoli and other Italian sweets, check out our blog on Italian sweet treats!)
If you’re looking for a more substantial meal, get a milza sandwich. This Palermo delicacy is pretty simple: some crusty bread, local caciocavallo cheese, a squeeze of lemon, and oh yea, fried cow spleen. Most regions of Italy have their favorite offal dishes and this ranks pretty high on our list of the best. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely and deliciously worth a try. You can find them nearly anywhere food is sold in the city.
The best day trips from Palermo
Sicily’s biggest attraction, Mt. Etna, is a good 3-hour drive from Palermo and thus not the best day trip from Palermo. But there are a few other fantastic options.
No visit to Palermo is complete without a visit to the popular, and supremely creepy Capuchin catacombs. The Catacombe dei Cappuccini are filled with more than 8,000 corpses lined up along the dank walls fully dressed with frozen facial expressions. What started as a cemetery for the friars of the Capuchin monastery above ultimately grew into a museum of the dead, allowing anyone who could afford it to be buried there. To get there, take the No. 327 bus to the city’s western outskirts, getting off at Piazza Cappuccini. The catacombs are open every day but Sunday from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 3 – 6 p.m. Tickets cost €3.00. They might seem a little macabre but they reflect the monk’s belief in the fleeting nature of this life and their salvation in the next. They are easily one of the most memorable things to see in Palermo and, naturally, kids love the skulls!
(We run a tour to another Capuchin catacomb in Rome – it’s one of our most-loved tours and a completely unforgettable experience.)
Another must-see attraction near Palermo is Monreale. Just 9 miles south of Palermo, the town is perched on the slope of Monte Caputo, and overlooks the Conca d’Oro, or Golden Shell. This valley used to produce some of the largest citrus crops in the world and is still renowned for the quality of its oranges, olives, and almonds. Once there, head straight for the beautiful, 12th-century Duomo, a Norman-Arab cathedral that has 130 mosaic scenes, 200 intricately carved columns and a 65-foot-tall mosaic of Jesus. The entire structure covers more than 64,583 square feet. To get there, take the no. 389 bus from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo.