Embark on a journey to the enchanting city of Palermo, one of the most beautiful places in Italy, and experience its thriving art galleries and burgeoning restaurant scene. Immerse yourself in its rich history and bask in the warmth of the sun. Here's our guide to Palermo. Get ready to be captivated by this revitalized gem in Sicily.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Sicily your essential guide for visiting Palermo, Sicily.
Why should I visit Palermo, Sicily?
Palermo doesn't go easy on you. Car horns blare incessantly, the summer sun's relentless and opening hours seem flexible. But be patient. It's also a charming city where the air smells of sweet pastries, backstreets open onto pretty squares and mosaiced churches dot all over.
You can't escape history in Palermo. The city's awash with Arabic cupolas, baroque facades, byzantine mosaics and Norman relics. But now there's also a contemporary art scene, Palermo's food is cutting edge and there are plenty of great new places to stay.
Explore the picturesque Mediterranean island just off the 'toe' of Italy's 'boot' on this tailor-made trip to "Legend and Legacy: A Tour of Sicily". Once the centre of the known world, Sicily enchants with its winding coastal roads, charming towns, and picture-perfect scenery, creating an ideal setting for exploration by car.
Why is now a great time to visit?
Palermo's been transformed. Its tired districts have woken up. You'll find here new restaurants all over the place and even some of the city's grand Baroque palaces now welcome guests.
If you want to get involved with city life during your stay, take an interest in supporting anti-Mafia businesses. To find out what you can do and how you can help, Addiopizzo is a great source of information.
Top things to do in Palermo, Sicily
From historical landmarks to delectable street food, Palermo, Sicily offers a charming and diverse Mediterranean getaway. Let's explore some of the top things to do in this captivating Sicilian gem.
Go inside Capella Palatina
The showpiece of the Royal Apartments on Palazzo dei Normanni is the Sala di Ruggero, one of the earliest parts of the palace and richly covered with a twelfth-century mosaic of hunting scenes.
The highlight of the palace, however, is the beautiful Cappella Palatina, the private royal chapel of Roger II built between 1132 and 1143. The undisputed artistic gem of central Palermo is its cupola, three apses and nave entirely covered in mosaics of outstanding quality.
Catch the views from the top of the Cattedrale di Palermo
A visit to Cattedrale di Palermo, Sicily is another must and if you climb up to the roof, you will be rewarded with some of the longest, clearest views in the entire city. The triple-apse eastern end and graceful matching towers date from 1185. Despite the Catalan-Gothic facade and arches, there’s enough Norman carving and detail to rescue the exterior from mere curiosity value.
There’s also a treasury to the right of the choir. The highlights of which are a jewel and pearl-encrusted skullcap, and three simple, precious rings, all enterprisingly removed from the tomb of Constance in the eighteenth century.
Book your tickets for Teatro Massimo
From the cathedral, you can bear left, around the apses, and up into the Capo quarter, whose tight web of impoverished streets is home to a market. Further beyond, the streets off to the left gradually become wider and more nondescript as they broach the area around the monumental Neoclassic Teatro Massimo, supposedly the largest theatre in Italy.
To appreciate the interior fully, take a tour. That said, one of the best things to do in Palermo, Sicily is to attend one of the classical concerts or operas (held here between October and June).
Head to the beach
On a hot summer’s day, when the city heat is oppressive, the most obvious escape from central Palermo is the 11km run to Mondello,. This is a small seaside resort tucked under the northern bluff of Monte Pellegrino. A 2km long sandy beach fronts the town, and there’s also a tiny working harbour. Explore the jetty and try your luck at fishing. Or explore the remnants of the local medieval tower.
In July and August, like most Sicilian resorts, it’s a bit of a zoo, featuring tacky souvenir stalls, hot-dog and burger vans, pizza places and packed lidos. At night, there’s a crush in the bars in the main square while the roads around are filled with cruising cars and preening youth.
Don't forget Palermo museums and galleries
One of the top things to do in Palermo, Sicily for art lovers is visit to Galleria d’Arte Moderna or spend a few hours browsing Museo Archeologico Regionale.
The Convento di Sant’Anna, on Piazza Sant’Anna, has been stunningly restored to house the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. This houses a collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sicilian art. The works here are displayed thematically to great effect. Its café, spilling into the courtyard in summer, is a lovely place for lunch or an aperitif.
Although the Museo Archeologico Regionale has been closed for restoration for years, small sections open sporadically. Occasional temporary exhibitions offer a chance to see some of its magnificent collection of artefacts, which spans the island’s Phoenician, Greek and Roman heritage.
Take a walk down Via Emanuele
One of the best things to do in Palermo, Sicily to immerse yourself in its rich historical heritage is to stroll along via Emanuele, where the main architectural treasures are located. One of the main attractions of the street is the Palazzo dei Normanni, otherwise known as the Norman Palace.
Next, you will pass by several beautiful churches such as the Church of San Cataldo and the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammirallo (also known as Martorana). Both of these churches are decorated with breathtaking Byzantine mosaics, giving a glimpse of Palermo's artistic heritage.
Esape to the green Giardino Garibaldi
The large square of Piazza Marina encloses the tropical Giardino Garibaldi, famed for its enormous banyan trees. It’s a popular venue for the city’s elderly card players, who gather around green baize tables at lunchtime for a game. The square itself was reclaimed from the sea in the tenth century and subsequently used for jousting tournaments and executions.
Visit the Capuchin Catacombs
Home to some eight thousand mummified bodies, the gruesome Catacombe dei Cappuccini is a popular attraction for horror-movie fans. The bodies were preserved by various chemical and drying processes, then dressed in a suit of clothes and placed in niches along rough-cut subterranean corridors.
In different caverns reserved for men, women, clergy, lawyers and surgeons, some of the bodies are decomposed beyond recognition. Meanwhile, others are complete with skin, hair and eyes. Those that aren’t arranged along the walls lie in stacked glass coffins, and it’s an unnerving experience to walk among them.
Explore local food markets
Palermo, Sicily is famous for street food. The city's best morning market, Ballarò, is street food central. It's noisy and the stalls are crammed into narrow streets, butchers' counters overflow with gore and produce stalls are abundant. So when you feel hungry, this is the place to be.
Tucked into the wedge of streets between Via Roma and Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the morning Vucciria market. This was once the most famous market in Palermo, however, it is now a shadow of its former self. Though it is still great for its basic bars and fish trattorias.
Best restaurants in Palermo
For another true taste of Palermo, Sicily try II Cuochini. It may be tiny but it's a favourite with locals for Palermo specialities like ragù-stuffed arancini and panzerotti. If you want more refinement head to Buatta Cucina Popolana where traditional Sicilian cooking meets the slow-food movement.
Bisso Bistrot is another local haunt, you'll find it behind Quattro Canti. For the best value wine, visit your neighbourhood enoteca and to really experience Palermo's culinary culture, past and present, book a street food walking tour and let a local be your guide.
Day trips from Palermo
Palermo is a great base for exploring Sicily and several fascinating places make easy day trips from the city.
Visit the Roman site at Solunto, which you'll find perched above the coastal town of Porticello. Seaside Mondello is another easy day out and combines beaches, good restaurants and fishing village history.
Think about heading away from the coast to see the stunning Norman-Byzantine cathedral in the hill town of Monreale. Or hop on a train and ride to Cefalù - one of the best beaches in Italy and spin your day trip overnight with a stay at Hotel Kalura.
If you don't want to limit yourself to just Palermo and wish to explore Italy further afield try our tailor-made Italian dream trip to Rome, Sicily and the Amalfi Coast. Discover ancient history and take a cookery class in Rome, before marvelling at Baroque architecture and iconic Mount Etna on the island of Sicily.
Best time of the year to visit Palermo
Palermo, Sicily can be an extremely uncomfortable place to visit at the height of summer when the dusty Scirocco winds blow in from North Africa. In July and August, you’ll roast – and you’ll be in the company of tens of thousands of other tourists. Hotel availability is much reduced and prices will often be higher.
If you want the heat but not the crowds, go in May, June or September. Spring is really the optimum time to come to Palermo, and it arrives early. The almond blossom flowers at the start of February, and there are fresh strawberries in April.
How to get there
There are two options for getting to Palermo, Sicily: arriving at Palermo Airport, you can take a taxi to the city centre, which is the most convenient option and takes around 30 minutes. Alternatively, several shuttle bus services are available between the airport and the city centre, offering a cost-effective choice. AMAT, the local public transportation company, also operates buses connecting the airport to different parts of Palermo.
The second option to reach Palermo is from Catania. You can take a train, which is a comfortable choice, with frequent connections offered by Trenitalia. Private bus companies also run direct routes between Catania and Palermo, taking approximately 3.5 to 5 hours. If you prefer flexibility, renting a car in Catania is an option, with the drive taking around 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the route and traffic conditions.
Where to stay in Palermo
Most of Palermo’s traditional budget hotels lie on and around the southern ends of Via Maqueda and Via Roma, close to Stazione Centrale, but you’ll get far more for your money in the city’s B&Bs. Prices tend to stay the same year around, but advance reservations are recommended if you want to be sure of a room in a particular place. Here is our pick of where to stay in Polermo:
- For couples: La Terrazza sul Centro
- For a cosy B&B: Casa Jolanda B&B
- For price and quality: Cartari Apartment
- For families: Operà
- For luxury: Grand Hotel Wagner
Find more accommodation options to stay in Palermo, Sicily.
Ready to plan your dream trip to Palermo, Sicily? Check out The Rough Guide to Sicily and start planning your perfect trip.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.