15 Best Things to Do in Palermo (Italy)

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Palermo is the capital of Sicily which is the largest island in the Mediterranean sea and sits at the bottom of Italy in close proximity to Tunisia and Malta. With a population of 676,000 and a greater metropolitan population of 1.3 million, it serves as the islands cultural and economical centre. Cave drawings have been found in Palermo and human settlements have been dated as early as 8000 BC. Initially under Roman Control, once the empire started to collapse, Palermo came under Germanic control and  then subsequently Arabic rule and finally Christian conquers in the 1000’s.

Today, Palermo is a thriving city that has seen huge development since the 1980’s and its economy centres around tourism and services. As a tourist destination, Palermo offers a huge range of historical attractions, ancient buildings, and dramatic coastlines to explore.

Lets explore the best things to do in Palermo:

1. Palermo Cathedral

Palermo CathedralSource: flickr
Palermo Cathedral

Due to the various conquering nations and empires that have had a presence in Palermo, this cathedral has a myriad of different styles and is a truly fascinating building.

Originally constructed in 1185 on the instruction of Pope Gregory I, the church has seen many uses including a mosque and a crypt.

The Moorish influence is present on the exterior and it features a fine central basilica and a tall renaissance clock tower.

Furthermore the portico side entrance features several ornate columns and a triangular pediment with a detailed fresco.

Inside, a prominent feature is the treasure chamber that holds various artefacts from different time periods of the church, and also the tomb of Emperor Frederick II.

2. Capella Palatina

Capella PalatinaSource: flickr
Capella Palatina

The Palatine Chapel is located in close proximity to the Pallazzo dei Normanni in the centre of Palermo and is one of the best preserved examples of Byzantine architecture and artwork in Europe.

As part of the palace, it was built in 1132 and commissioned by Roger II of Sicily.

Dedicated to Saint Peter, the chapel has a central basilica and features a plethora of fantastic Byzantine artwork and architecture.

Covered in stunning mosaics that exhibit a fantastic amount of detail and colour, the walls and ceiling are packed full of religious and historical iconography.

Every angle or corner you turn you will find another piece of detail or interesting depiction – This really is a true feat of ingenuity and artistic creation.

3. Palazzo dei Normanni

Palazzo dei NormanniSource: wikimedia
Palazzo dei Normanni

The Royal Palace or the Palace of the Normans served as the main seat of the Kings of Sicily.

It stands as one of the oldest royal palaces in Europe and was originally created in the 9th century by the Emir of Palermo.

The Norman and Moorish influence is undeniable and the palace exudes an official and stately feel.

A main feature of the exterior is the central courtyard that features some beautiful stone arches and decoration.

Furthermore, the Capella Palatina is a connecting building that has some beautiful mosaics and artwork dating back hundreds of years.

Ensure you visit this royal residence for a true slice of Sicilian history.

4. Palermo Archaeological Museum

Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio SalinasSource: flickr
Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas

Located in close proximity to the Teatro Massimo, the Palermo Archaeological Museum is a fantastic place to visit for those who love history.

This museum contains a vast collection of ancient Greek art and various artefacts and findings from the region and island of Sicily.

Split into various different sections, the museum is easy to navigate – Exhibits include underwater artefacts, Phoenician artefacts, Roman artefacts and more.

Notable items include the Palermo Stone that contains a list of Egyptian rules, the marble statue of Satyr, lion statues from the ancient site of Selinunte and a selection of decorated Greek ceramics.

5. La Martorana

La MartoranaSource: flickr
La Martorana

Palermo is packed full of ancient and beautiful religious buildings and the Martorana (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Admiral) is a truly delightful example.

As with Palermo Cathedral, La Martorana also features an amalgamation of various architectural styles due to years of conquest.

Located in the Piazza Bellini, the church is next to the famous Pretoria Fountain and Quattro Canti square.

Inside this fabulous building, the design and artwork is again sublime – The main dome features a golden mosaic of Christ and the ceilings and arches are full of frescos and colourful depictions.

It truly is a fantastic building to behold and the ornate workings will leave you in disbelief.

6. Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs

Capuchin Catacombs, PalermoSource: flickr
Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo

The order of Capuchin Friars dates back to the 1500’s and this abbey was dedicated to their usage.

Whilst the abbey itself is not a fantastic building, the catacombs are the true marvel and are not like any other attraction in Europe.

Here you will travel underground into the vast catacombs and see a macabre variety of burials and well preserved bodies from various periods in time.

The Capuchin Monks would preserve the bodies and keep them in their original garments and also use embalming techniques.

Tours are now possible of the catacombs and you can see this bizarre burial ground containing over 8000 bodies.

Suggested tour: Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo & Monreale Cathedral Tour

7. San Giovanni degli Eremiti

San Giovanni degli EremitiSource: viaggiatoriatipici
San Giovanni degli Eremiti

A truly small and charming church, this building dates back to the 6th century and is remarkably well preserved despite its immense age.

Domed towers sit at one end of the church and feature a brilliant red colouration that is still extremely vibrant.

The architectural style is considered to be a combination of Arabic and Norman but has later Roman additions.

A pleasant garden lies at the back of the church filled with exotic plant life and trees.

As one of the most important Arab-Norman buildings in Palermo, the inside remains quite simple with only a few frescos and religious artwork.

8. Monte Pellegrino

Monte PellegrinoSource: flickr
Monte Pellegrino

Sicily is full of mountains and hilly regions and Monte Pellegrino sits next to Palermo and offers an escape to nature with unparalleled views of the city and Mediterranean.

Aside from being a fantastic tourist attraction, the locals love to come here for an afternoon of fun too so expect to do some mingling.

Only 9 miles from the city centre, this mountain is easily accessible and there is a regular bus service that runs to the top from Politeama.

If you are particularly adventurous and fit, it is possible to hike to the top of Mount Pellegrino to, but don’t undertake this venture unless you are sure of your physical fitness and survivability!

9. Palermo Food Markets

Palermo Food MarketSource: flickr
Palermo Food Market

Food markets are a fantastic way to sample local life and so see the heart of a city.

Palermo has several wonderful food markets that operate daily.

The main food markets include Ballaro, Cap and Vucciria all of which are located in the centre of the city and not far from the main attractions.

Here you will find street vendors and shop fronts full of delicious fresh fruits, vegetables, cakes, pastries and more.

Prepare to have your sense assaulted with the variety of smells and the noise from the vendors selling their wares.

A truly fascinating part of Palermo that should not be missed – Also consider a specialized street food tour that will guide you through the best spots.

10. Teatro Massimo

Teatro MassimoSource: flickr
Teatro Massimo

Who would have thought that a theatre would be one of the largest structures in Palermo? The Teattro Massimo is immense and it towers over the relatively small buildings surrounding the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi.

Opened in 1897, it is the largest Opera House in Italy and is famed for its acoustic qualities.

With an exterior that looks more like a palace, this building is truly opulent, but the interior is just as lavish.

Guided tours are available daily of the interior of this fantastic building including tours of the actual auditorium and its boxes.

For film buffs, this theatre is also the place that the final scenes of the Third Godfather movie were filmed!

11. Fontana Pretoria

Fontana PretoriaSource: flickr
Fontana Pretoria

A monumental fountain that lies in the centre of the Piazza Pretoria, the Fontana Pretoria was built by a Florentine architect in 1554 and transferred to Palermo in 1574. Depicted on the fountain are marble statues of the twelve Olympians from ancient Greek Mythology including Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and Ares.

Each statue is highly decorated and sculpted and frames the centrepiece perfectly.

Aside from the mighty Olympians, the other statues represent the animals and rivers of Palermo.

12. Ustica Island

UsticaSource: flickr

Ustica is a tiny island that lies in the Tyrrhenian Sea and is roughly 50km from the coast of Sicily and Palermo.

Excavations have dated settlements here for hundreds of years and the current population is just over 1300. Ferries leave for Ustica from Palermo Harbour and it offers truly remarkable day trip.

Here you will find a gorgeous rocky island landscape that retains its charm and history.

Explore the cliffs and climb to see the tower of Spalmatore, or even partake in a spot of Scuba Diving which Ustica is well-known for due to the deep waters surrounding the base of the island.

13. Mondello Beach

Mondello BeachSource: flickr
Mondello Beach

15 minutes to the north of Palermo lies the buzzing town of Mondello – Here you will find the sublime Mondello Beach that is a great place to relax and enjoy the cool Mediterranean waters.

Although crowded at peak times, you will still have ample space to sunbathe or build a sandcastle! At the centre of the beach is the immense Art Nouveau pier and building that contain a restaurant and bar.

Come to Mondello to escape from sight-seeing and indulge in some relaxation or swimming in the crystal clear waters of the bay.

14. Quattro Canti

Quattro CantiSource: flickr
Quattro Canti

A simple yet effective and beautiful attraction, the Quattro Canti is an open square located in the centre of Palermo.

Constructed in 1608, the square provides a crossroads for Via Maqueda and VIa Vittorio Emannuel but it is the architecture that makes it famous.

At each corner of the square lies a semi circular face that contains marble columns, inscriptions and statues of  important Italian citizens and rulers.

Their symmetry and design are fantastic and you feel as if you have stepped into Florence or Renaissance Italy.

15. Try your hand at Parasailing

Parasailing PalermoSource: visitsicily
Parasailing Palermo

If you are looking for some adventure and adrenaline fuelled activities, why not try your hand at parasailing? Palermo lends itself to this sport due to its calm waters and location in the Mediterranean sea.

At the harbour and the beaches you can easily find tour providers offering this activity and prices are usually reasonable.

Glide over the city and waters in style and see Sicily unfold beneath your eyes – This is truly a memorable experience that you will treasure forever!

15 Best Things to Do in Palermo (Italy):

  • Palermo Cathedral
  • Capella Palatina
  • Palazzo dei Normanni
  • Palermo Archaeological Museum
  • La Martorana
  • Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs
  • San Giovanni degli Eremiti
  • Monte Pellegrino
  • Palermo Food Markets
  • Teatro Massimo
  • Fontana Pretoria
  • Ustica Island
  • Mondello Beach
  • Quattro Canti
  • Try your hand at Parasailing