When you’re planning a trip to Sicily, there’s a good chance that you’ll visit Palermo at one point during your trip. But what is Sicily’s capital known for? We will tell you all about the unique things in Palermo in this article.
Palermo is known as a cultural melting pot. You’ll find authentic Sicilian street-food and restaurants, Italy’s biggest opera house in the city. The city is home to many historic buildings that listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Palermo is located in a bay and often referred to as “Golden Basin,” because of its subtropical climate and unique location.
The city of Palermo has a great history, which dates back to 740BC. Many say it is the economic and cultural heart of Sicily. So let’s find out what makes this city so unique.
Italy is the country with the most Unesco World Heritage listings in the world. In Sicily, you’ll find the most of these Listings. That’s mainly because the history in Sicily dates back to around 1100BC. The first settlement on the island was by the Phoenicians. A civilization that traveled from Lebanon and what we call now Isreal. The Phoenicians created their first settlement in the western part of Sicily.
The ancient Greek civilization played a big part in the development of the island. Palermo wasn’t always the most important city in Sicily. During the Greek period, the city of Syracuse was the first settlement of the Greeks. Syracuse was at a certain point, even a bigger city than the Greek capital of Athens!
We wrote more about the Sicilian history in this article.
Many remains of buildings and city walls of the first settlers are today still visible in Palermo. The city, however, is renowned for its Norman buildings. An architecture style which was popular in the 11th & 12th Century AD.
A few of the famous landmarks in Palermo are;
The Norman Palace
The seat of the Sicilian government, which also hold a unique Norman Chapel. It is an excellent example of Norman architecture, which you’ll find everywhere in Palermo.
Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas
This museum has the biggest collection of Punic and Greek art in Italy. It is a great place to learn more about Sicilian history.
The most prominent opera theater in Italy is a building you don’t want to miss even if you’re not into opera. The theater is a relatively young building, and it was built in 1864, which makes it one of the youngest historical landmarks in Palermo. It is the third-largest opera house in Europe.
It is a beautiful building, and the surroundings are especially at nighttime fantastic to see.
When you get the chance, it is excellent to visit performance in this opera house. You can also take a guided tour during the day, which offers you a peek backstage and allows you to even walk on the famous stage.
The Capuchin Catacombs
This site is maybe not for everyone, but if you’re ready for something different, make sure not to skip this part. The Capuchin Catacombs are referred to as ‘the place where the living meets the dead.’
The convent of Capuchin Friars, who began to mummify the deceased monks around early 1600, and look after their bodies in the catacombs, after they didn’t have enough space in the regular cemetery. Soon it became a status symbol for the rich Sicilians to get buried in the catacombs and get looked after by the monks of Friar.
Nowadays they turned it into a museum, where you can visit the catacombs and over 8000 mummies. The last person was mummified in 1920, but some of the bodies are hundreds of years old.
A bizarre and strange place to visit, which makes your visit memorable.
Quattro Canti (Piazza Viglenia)
A baroque style square which is the heart of the center, and connects the most prominent streets. Built around 1608, with beautiful art and buildings surrounding the square. When you love to stroll around the old building and enjoy the architecture, you probably will love this square.
The Praetorian Fountain
You’ll find this fountain at Piazza Pretoria. The fountain is in the middle of the piazza and dates back to 1554. A beautiful monument to visit built for the garden of Luigi de Toledo in Florence. But the fountain was later relocated to Palermo.
Churches in Palermo
The list of churches in Palermo feels endless, and you probably not going to visit all of them. But there are a few you don’t want to miss. It doesn’t matter if your religious or not, you can visit these churches for many purposes. One that’s common for everyone is the unique architecture and buildings.
It’s probably the most significant building in the city, so you can’t miss it. The cathedral was originally built in the 12th Century AD. But over time, it was many times reconstructed, and throughout the year’s people had different styles of building and renovating a building. This cathedral is a magnificent building where you can see the influence of different building styles. The cathedral is also known as the cathedral of the assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The cathedral is one of the many sites that listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.
Palace of the Normans (Royal Palace of Palermo)
This unique building was the palace of the Kings during the Norman period. The palace is renowned for its amazing chapels and beautiful mosaics, which represent different civilizations. It is here where you can find a lot of Sicilian history.
San Giovanni Degli Eremiti
This interesting building, which was built in the 6th century AD, shows the influences of the Arabs in Sicily. Especially the red domes are an excellent example of Islamic influences.
A church more in the renaissance style, you’ll find this building in the middle of the center of Palermo, between Bellini square and Pretoria square. The church is known for its many beautiful paintings and artwork.
Palermo Food & Markets
Traditional Sicilian food, where better to find it at one of the many food markets in Palermo. Exploring the traditional food, you’ll find the influences of many civilizations that reigned in Sicily.
Typical Sicilian dishes are Arancini (crispy fried risotto balls), Cannoli (fresh wraps with ricotta cheese), Brioche filled with Vanilla icecream, Sfincione (Sicilian pizza).
You can taste all these dishes and much more fresh food at one of the many markets in Palermo. Strolling along one of Palermo’s markets gives you a bit different vibe. It doesn’t feel like a typical Italian market, more like you walking around in a North African country. It is maybe at the markets where you still find the influence of the Arabs in Sicily.
Every quarter in Palermo has its market, with its own identity. They’re all fresh markets, but the vibe is different in each quarter. So what’s there to expect when you visit the markets?
You’ll find this market on the south side of the city. It’s here where you find the best fresh ingredients, fish, and meat. Walking around Ballaro Market is a great place to experience local life, as not many tourists visit this market. And a great place to taste the typical Sicilian dishes.
La Vucciria Market
All the markets in Palermo are historical food markets, but many developed overtime. La Vucciria is an excellent example of a market that offers more than food. Walking around this market during daytime feels more like walking around a flea market. Great for buying a few local souvenirs.
At the end of the day, this market transforms, street-food stalls, music bars, and small café’s are opening shop and attracts many young locals for a great night out. Are you looking for the best place to enjoy the nightlife on the streets? LaVucciria Market is the place where you want to go to.
Remember the vibe we described for the Ballaro market? You’ll find this in Capo as well. A lively food market, where you can buy fresh fish, meat and all sorts of local ingredients.
Capo Market is much busier and feels chaotic. The small streets and many stalls give this market its unique vibe.
When you’re not keen to explore the local food, the Capo market is also a great place to visit and see Palermo’s street-art. You’ll find unique graffiti paintings on each corner of the market.
The markets can be very crowded. It is safe to walk around, but it is also a paradise for pickpockets. So when you visit one of the markets, make sure to pay extra attention to your stuff, and don’t bring more cash or valuables then you need.
Best Beaches in Palermo
You’ll find this beautiful white sandy beach on the edge of the city. It stretches out over 7.5 miles (12 kilometers)of beach, right in the middle you’ll find an old bathhouse.
Mondello beach is by far the most popular beach in Palermo. It is excellent for a day visit and enjoys the crystal blue water.
During the peak season July and August, this beach will be overly crowded though. So you might want to go early to avoid the crowds, or drive a little bit further along the coast to find some other beautiful beaches nearby.
You’ll find this rocky beach southeast of Mondello. And because you can’t relax on the soft white sand, it is less crowded than the neighboring Mondello beach. But a perfect place when you want to relax and swim in the beautiful sea. It can be tempting to jump in the water from the rocks, but that’s a bit dangerous. The sea is not that deep, so the chance that you get an injury while jumping is real. When you take it easy, you’ll be fine though. Just don’t do any crazy tricks!
You’ll find this beach around 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) west of Palermo. It is easy to reach with public transport or when you have a rental car. It is less crowded than Mondello Beach, but also a great place to relax. During the peak season, it is busy everywhere on the island, so even this beach gets crowded. Capaci Beach has beautiful white soft sand, and crystal water. Great place for snorkeling as well.
Just a bit further down the road, 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) of Palermo, you’ll find Cinisi Beach also known as Magaggiari. This is a beach that gets less crowded, even during the high season, but where you’ll find everything you need. Nice bars and restaurants, great vibe and a perfect white sandy beach.
Palermo is surrounded on one side by the Thyrenean Sea. The other side you’ll find Mount Pellegrino. Which makes the surroundings of the city spectacular. Visiting Mount Pellegrino is a must-do while in Palermo. You can easily reach the top with a local bus, by car or you can hike to the top.
Either way, once you’re there, you’ll have a fantastic view over the coastline of Palermo.
Make sure to visit Castello Utveggio when you’re on top, a historical landmark which overlooks the bay of Palermo.
Getting Around Palermo
Palermo is a busy city, but getting around the city is straightforward. You can easily take public transport. There are several ways of public transportation in Palermo, and depending on where you’re going, you can pick one.
When you want to go around the center or go a bit further away from the city, your best way of transport is to take a bus. The bus network is extensive, safe, and cheap. The buses leave several times an hour but can be very crowded.
When you’re staying in the city center, it is best to take the tram or metro. Both ways will only connect the most prominent tourist spots in the center, but when you’re tired of walking it is an easy way to get around.
Another option is to take a taxi, which is way more expensive than taking the bus. A bus ticket on average is around €2,00. A taxi cost around € 25, depending on where you’re going.
The best way to get around Palermo and explore more of its surroundings is to rent a car. Driving around in the city can be a bit busy, but once you leave the center driving around is straightforward. We love to drive around with our car or a rental car; you have so much freedom to explore everything. It is our favorite way of transportation!
Best Places to Stay in Palermo
Palermo offers a lot of different places where you can stay during your city trip or a round trip to Sicily. Palermo is a safe city, so there aren’t any places you need to avoid. But the best places to stay in terms of walking distance to the main attractions are the Liberta Quarter and the Old Town District. When you want to be close to the city center but closer to the beach, make sure to book accommodation near Mondello Beach.
When you still need to book your trip to Palermo and Sicily, make sure to read our recommendations for planning a trip and the best travel accessories for your trip.
Best Time to Visit Palermo
Sicily is known for its Mediterranean climate. Which means summers are warm and dry. Winters are mild but wet. Best time visiting Palermo is during one of the shoulder seasons. May – June, or September – October. This is also the best time to visit Sicily. In this period the weather is perfect, it is not too warm, and there’s almost no rainfall. Temperatures are around 77F (25 celsius) on average.
A lot of people are visiting Palermo during July and August, which is the peak tourist season. While it is busier during this period, the weather is also better. It’s much warmer in these two months, and there’s also no rainfall. Temperatures are on average around 30 degrees.
Best time to visit Palermo and Sicily are also depending on what you want to do on the island. When you want to visit for a city trip and relaxing on the beach, you probably enjoy yourself more between July and August. When you’re looking for an active hiking vacation and want to explore a lot of the historical sites, you want to during the shoulder seasons. We wrote this article about the best time to visit Sicily.