Palermo, the largest city on the island of Sicily, is known for its lively markets and its stunning mosaics and architecture showing Byzantine, Arab, and Norman influence. Nine monuments and churches from the time of Sicily’s Norman kingdom, 1130-1194, make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalu and Monreale. Palermo was also the 2018 Italian Capital of Culture.
Palermo Top Sights
The heart of the old town is the area known as Quattro Canti and the city’s sights spread out from there.
- The impressive Palatine Chapel, Cappella Palatina, is the highlight of the Royal Palace. Once the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Kingdom of Sicily, its walls are decorated with beautiful mosaics. The palace is open daily, with shorter hours on Sundays, but the royal apartments can only be visited from Friday through Monday. There’s a separate ticket for the gardens.
- Pretoria Fountain is the centerpiece of Piazza Pretoria, the main square and seat of the town hall.
- The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio or Martorana, near Piazza Pretoria, shows the most Byzantine influence and was my favorite of the churches. Fabulous mosaics dating from 1143-1148 and a beautiful marble floor decorate the interior.
- Next to it is the tiny Norman Church of San Cataldo, built by Islamic workers in 1160 in Romanesque style. In the piazza below the church is a tourist information office.
- The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is another of our favorites, a peaceful place with beautiful gardens inside the monastery walls. Its architecture reflects the city’s Byzantine, Arab, and Norman influences.
- The exterior of the huge Cathedral is really more impressive than the interior, especially if you’ve already seen some of the other churches and monuments. Inside are tombs of the emperors and Sicilian kings. The cathedral is built on the site of a 4th century Basilica, rebuilt in the 6th century, transformed into a mosque, and returned to the Christians in 1072.
- You may recognize Teatro Massimo, the historic opera house, from scenes in the Godfather. Tours of the theater are available daily and its still used for opera and musical performances.
- Palermo has 3 historic markets: Ballaro’, Vucciria, and Capo. It’s fun to stroll through the market place and it’s a good place to shop for food if you’re staying in an apartment or for souvenirs to take home. The markets also have places where you can eat lunch and some places open for dinner or drinks in the evening.
- For something different, visit the Capuchin Catacombs, the cemetery of the Capuchin Friars’ Convent. These catacombs are unusual because they display hundreds of mummies, arranged in a series of corridors by sex, age, or occupation of the deceased.
- The Botanic Garden and the Villa Giulia city park next to it are 2 good places to see native Sicilian plants.
- Take a stroll along the Foro Italico, a park with walkway next to the sea that’s a popular gathering place of locals.
Plan Your Visit to Palermo
Where to Stay:
We spent an enjoyable week at Downtown House, a well-appointed apartment with a fantastic owner, in the neighborhood near the train station and botanic garden.
Top-rated central hotels include the 2-star Ariston Hotel & BB and the elegant 4-star Hotel Federico II Central Palace II with a spa and 2 restaurants on the 5th floor. For even more luxury, try the Grand Hotel Wagner, featured in the film the Leopard, with historic furnishings and decor.
Where to Eat:
While Palermo has plenty of fresh seafood, it has built a reputation on street food, the most famous being Pani ca’ Meusa. You’ll find plenty of places to try this inexpensive sandwich throughout the city. For a great introduction to street food, take a Palermo Street Food Walking Tour.
If you’re adventurous and don’t mind being the only tourists in the place, head to Il Bersagliere Trattoria for good typical food. We also enjoyed our dinner at Osteria Ballaro, a slightly more upscale restaurant with good local food, a favorite of the apartment owner.
Palermo’s airport has flights from most Italian cities and other parts of Europe. A bus connects the airport to the train station. Ferries arrive in the port from mainland Italy and Sardinia. Driving in the city is not recommended – there’s good public transportation including a free bus that runs around the historic center with stops near most major monuments. Several private companies have hop-on, hop-off bus tour options also.
Books about Palermo and Sicily
- Palermo (Armchair Traveller) by Roberto Alajmo, a lifelong resident of the city
- Palermo: Travels in the City of Happiness – Art, Architecture, and History in Sicily’s Ancient Capital
- Roger of Sicily and the Normans in Lower Italy, 1016 – 1154
Monreale: Take the bus from Piazza Giulio Cesare or Piazza Indipendenza up the hill to see the stunning gold mosaics in Monreale Cathedral. Spend a little time visiting the shops along the small town’s main street, go into the cathedral museum, and have lunch at Piccolo Refugio da Vito on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele for good local food.
Cefalu, less than an hour train ride, is one of Sicily’s top seaside towns. It also has a Norman cathedral with beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics inside. The historic center is in a pretty setting between a sandy beach and a rocky cliff. Take some time to wander through the town’s narrow streets and spend a little time on the beach or swim in the sea if it’s warm enough.
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