Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, is a melting pot of cultures and historical influences.
Having been extensively conquered over the years, including by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French, and the Bourbons just to name the most influential.
Each group has made its mark with its own culture and inevitably weaving the complex fabric of Palermo’s society.
The rocky past of this city makes it a fascinating place to immerse yourself for a while. If you go with your eyes and ears open, you will find that there’s a story behind each facade.
Present-day Palermo also offers breathtaking landscapes of land and sea, world-renowned street food, and a vibrant creative culture that will leave you with lasting memories.
With so much to see and explore, allow us to guide you through the top 10 things to do and see in the wonderful city of Palermo.
If you are looking to explore further, make sure to read the post about the best places to see on Sicily’s west coast and the Best Sicily luxury tours that includes also unique places to visit in Palermo and we can organize for our guests.
Visit the markets and try the street food staples
Palermo is considered by many to be the street food capital of Europe.
You can spend days eating just street food specialties such as; sfincione (palermo’s thick pizza), arancine, pane e panelle (bread and with fritters made from chickpea) or pane ca’ meusa (bread with veal) and much more.
The best places to enjoy Palermo’s street food and local life are its markets, the ideal places for an authentic dip into the city’s past and to witness some of the ancient traditions of Palermo’s lifestyle.
There are three main markets in Palermo each worth a visit: Capo, Ballaro and Vucciria.
At Ballaro, you will find an array of fresh produce conjuring up a wonderful mix of fragrances. Prepare to be jolted by locals as they keenly make their way to their favourite stalls.
It’s fabulous to see the colorful fruits and vegetables in their wonky forms, perfectly imperfect, as you would never see them at the supermarket.
Here you will also find an assortment of spices, reflecting the African and Middle Eastern elements of Palermo cuisine.
While you have the chance, make the most of enjoying more fragrant dishes such as couscous with fish, since these are more difficult to find elsewhere in Sicily or the rest of Italy.
La Vucciria Market
Although the market of Vucciria no longer exists how it used to, you can still find a notable array of street food to try around this area. You will first be hit by the smokiness as stall owners sizzle their delicacies on large grills.
The main dishes to try include the Pane Cunzato (seasoned bread) Pane e panelle (soft sandwich of chickpea and potato fritters), Pani ca’ meusa (veal sandwich), small fried fish, arancini, and stigghiola (made of lamb intestines).
Most of the street food available here is made of cheap, basic ingredients. The dishes, which were once ‘food for the poor’, are rich in simple flavor and have over the years earned a reputation of gastronomical excellence.
The Capo market is another vibrant Arabic market offering a sensory experience. Whichever you choose, go with your eyes peeled and you will be able to see the produce of the land and sea as you’ve never seen it before.
The beauty of these markets is that they are no-frills, working markets that have managed to retain their authenticity despite the large number of tourists they attract.
However, the markets can best be explored with someone who knows where to find the best that’s on offer. Foodies will certainly enjoy our ‘Open markets tour’ of Palermo to make the most of the experience.
There exists a dispute between Palermo and Catania regarding the ‘gender’ of the arancino. Those in Catania believe the fried rice ball is a ‘he’, making it ‘arancino’ and those from Palermo believe it’s a ‘she’, making it ‘arancina’.
Shop handmade crafts and the Sicilian puppets
As you wander the streets, you will notice small boutiques and shops selling handmade goods. There are plenty of opportunities to snap up unique gifts for family and friends, or to bag an artful souvenir to spark warm memories of your time in Sicily.
Palermo has a rich history of craft making, with one of the most famous creations being the Sicilian puppet. The puppets have a fascinating tale behind them, and are steeped in Sicilian culture.
Our Folklore Tour of Palermo gives you access into the world of the puppet maker who helps keep the tradition alive. Take a seat with our master “puparo” as he tells you all about the heroic deeds of the knights and shows you how to make and steer one of these charming figures.
If accessories are your thing, you are in luck as there are many unique, handmade goods for sale, and friendly owners are happy to tell you about their work while helping you to find something perfect.
Some of the best handmade jewelry stores can be found on streets around Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Discesa dei Giudici.
On Via Aragona there is the store of Torretta Vito.
Here, there are no frills on the outside, and you could easily miss it, but venture inside and you will surely be welcomed. The owners are masters of typical Sicilian straw bags (named coffa) and Sicilian cart decorations, which have served as inspiration for fashion houses including Dolce & Gabbana.
Explore the mafia history and anti-mafia culture in Palermo
Palermo is a place with a strong mafia history. It continues to live with the scars of its unsettled past and is equally proud of the collective fight against it. Resistance to the Mafia in Palermo was mainly carried out with courage by the anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
The two judges are held in high esteem by the Sicilian people, and one of the ways they are remembered is by a dedicated mural in Palermo’s La Kalsa district.
However, the city has shown a profound resilience in overcoming the threat of the mafia and instead regenerating itself to become one of Italy’s most significant cultural capitals with the visitor numbers to match.
When it comes to the word ‘mafia’ there are many stereotypes that have led to an inaccurate picture being painted of life in Sicily, past and present.
For a fascinating educational experience of Sicily’s rocky past, join our ‘Against the stereotypes’ tour where our expert guide provides insight while challenging the misconceptions.
Also worth a visit is the No Mafia Memorial, which houses an informative exhibition about the activities of the Mafia and those who risked their lives to bring them to justice.
It’s a moving exhibition that will open your eyes to the reality of life under the Mafia in Sicily, as is not often portrayed in the movies.
Awe at Palermo’s Baroque
The majority of the city is built in typical Sicilian baroque. The elaborate and theatrical style is an emblem of the area’s wealthy time in history when it experienced life under Spanish rule.
One of the early examples can be seen at Quattro Canti (The Four Corners), which is the central point of the old town.
The Quattro Canti is significant not only in an artistic sense but also for its purpose connecting the main ancient streets: Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. Spinning around, you will see that each ‘quarter’ consists of four levels, and above the fountain on each, there stands a saintly statue representing each season of the year.
Palermo’s most significant master of baroque is thought to be Giacomo Serpotta. Rumour has it that during his life, the renowned sculptor never actually left Sicily.
His life-like sculptures boast an impressive level of technical precision combined with a creative approach that allows the viewer to gaze from the ground with a unique perspective. His works can be admired at Santa Cita, San Lorenzo, and San Domenico.
More unmissable baroque can be found at Piazza Pretoria, also known as the ‘square of shame’ due to the various nude sculptures that surround the impressive fountain.
Tip: To get up close and personal with the baroque architecture, the café on the top floor of Rinascente has a gorgeous terrace with a view where you can really feel ‘amongst’ it since you are just meters away from the statues that embellish the church of San Domenico.
Admire Palermo’s impressive church interiors
Palermo is home to some of the most stunning church interiors in the whole of Italy. The city houses more than 100 churches, and while impossible to see them all in one trip, you can get a true taste of the variety by choosing wisely.
Among our recommendations would surely be the Church of Santa Caterina. It’s worth taking the full ticket including the monastery and rooftops.
In the monastery, you will be humbled as you peer at the immaculately kept bedrooms of the nuns that once served at the church. This is a reminder of the strong religious history that runs through Sicily, and the sense of devotion of the men and women who helped build it.
More significant religious interiors can be admired at the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (also knows as La Martorana church) and La Capella Palatina, both of which serve as important symbols of the fusion of Arab and Norman influence.
Wander through Palermo’s botanical gardens
After spending the first half of your day taking in sacred sights and acquiring new knowledge of this fascinating place, the afternoon calls for a pleasant wander through the city’s botanical gardens to switch off amongst nature.
As you enter, you will feel transported by the exoticism of the place. And while it’s certainly not the most groomed of gardens, its unkempt mossiness adds a certain charm.
In this little corner of respite, take some time to slow down and notice the details of various plants and greenery.
The garden contains a large pond that is home to various wildlife species, and if you are lucky you will see terrapins basking in the sun. Here, nature lovers can easily spend an hour or two being occupied by the collection of cacti and local trees.
If nothing else, the botanical gardens are a wonderful place to get a dose of nature, escape the chaos, and relax in the shade on a hot summer’s day.
In Piazza Marina, you will find the widest tree in Europe: the Ficus macrophylla.
Soak in the atmosphere at night
During the evening, Palermo’s vibrant energy disperses into its numerous bars and lively squares.
As the day draws to a close, head to the old town centre where you will find many understated wine and cocktail bars, with crowds spilling onto the streets.
Or, if you’re looking for ultimate sophistication, you are in the right place. Palermo is home to one of Italy’s most dominant opera houses; taking in a show at The Teatro Massimo will be a special night to remember. Many of the opera world’s most famous stars performed here- including Gigli, Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Pavarotti.
While out for a passeggiata, you may come across crowds of young people gathering in the main squares. They come together on summer evenings to listen to music provided by those who pitch up with speakers. An ultra-European way to spend a Friday or Saturday night!
Discover the city’s unique history
In a city with such rich history and so many stories to tell, it’s easy to let it all wash over you. But if you take the time to engage with the stories behind the facades, you will gain valuable insight to how the past has informed present-day life in Palermo, and you will surely return home with richer memories of this special place.
The best way to engage with the city’s history is to allow a local expert to take you under their wing.
Find out what makes this city particularly special during our ‘Private Guided tour of Palermo’. Your guide will lead you through the most enchanting places of the city and will give insight into elements such as the architectonic style of the Cathedral, which is a synthesis of the history and art of Sicily’s last millennium.
Alongside our Palermo expert, you can discover the significance of the domes and mosaics of the Arab-Normal monuments, the Serpotta oratories, and evidence of prehistoric settlements; all of which deserve more than just a glance.
Wonder at unique Arab-Norman Architecture
In 2015, Palermo’s nine Arab-Norman-style buildings and cathedrals were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
These stunning buildings are “an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures. This interchange gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on novel concepts of space, structure, and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region…”
The Palermo Cathedral
One of the most stunning examples of this style is the Palermo Cathedral. You cannot miss the imposing building and its cupola that presides over the Palermo skyline.
The architecture of the cathedral is the perfect example of Palermo’s long history of conquering empires – the foundation of the church began as a Byzantine basilica and was later turned into a mosque by the Saracens after their conquest of the city in the 9th century.
The bell tower was a medieval addition, and the Catalan Gothic porch records Sicily’s Spanish domination, while the cupolas bring us up to the Baroque age. The spaces around the cathedral, including the piazza in front, meanwhile, are crowded with statues, an exhaustive repertoire of saints.
Worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage title, the cathedral is worth a visit. You can sit on the piazza in front and take in the magnificent architecture while enjoying a gelato or espresso. One of our favorite recommendations is to take the rooftop tour of the cathedral. You get to marvel the cupola up-close and take in the bird’s eye view of Palermo from above.
Palazzo dei Normanni
From the cathedral, continue up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past the splendid Piazza della Vittoria (with its high-rise collection of palm trees), under the 16th century Porta Nuova (built to commemorate the visit of Charles V), and on to Piazza Indipendenza, home of the Palazzo dei Normanni – the Norman Palace.
The palace has been the seat of Sicilian Kings and rulers since the Arabs built a castle there in the 9th century, and currently home to Sicily’s regional parliament.
Take a trip to the sea
One of the special things about Palermo is its positioning close to expansive turquoise seas. When the bustle and city heat becomes overbearing, you can easily escape to a beautiful seaside town and swap the views of crowded streets for those of rocking fishing boats.
Indeed, Oscar Wilde famously credited Palermo as “the most beautifully situated town in the world – it dreams away its life in the Conca D’Oro, the exquisite valley that lies between two seas.”
Mondello is a chic holiday resort nearby, and its easy accessibility from the city makes it a good choice for a seaside fix. The excitement of this town continues into the night, and you can spend a pleasant evening hopping from bar to restaurant and soaking up the atmosphere.
Lasari beach is another good choice for those seeking a quieter alternative.
For the patient traveller, approximately an hour’s drive can take you to some of the best beaches in Sicily: San Vito lo Capo, Riserva dello Zingaro and Tonnara di Scopello.
Alternatively, hop on a train and you can be in the charming town of Cefalù within 90 minutes. It’s worth staying here for a night or two and enjoying the slower pace of life. In this charming town, considered to be one of the prettiest in Italy, there is also history and culture at your fingertips.
To book onto one of the unique tours mentioned here, contact us and we will be delighted to help. Alternatively, allow our team of experts to craft your perfect itinerary for an unforgettable experience of Sicily’s west coast and beyond.