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Guide to the Best Things to Do In Palermo Italy

With so much to do in the regional capital of Sicily, this guide to the best things to do in Palermo Italy will help you see the most important spots.

Archway of a cathedral in Italy.
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A busy port city on the northwest coast of Sicily, you’ll need a few days to explore the beautiful architecture, museums, and churches.

The city was bombed very heavily during WWII. Some of the raids caused a lot of damage to the city. Many historic palaces and churches were destroyed, but thankfully, many of the historic structures were rehabilitated.

Palermo offers a blend of old and new, with plenty to experience in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. I explored Palermo for a week with a local guide from Exodus Travels and it was one of my favorite trips of all time.

I’ve been to Italy quite a bit spending 3 days in Rome following a cruise a couple of years ago when I first visited Taormina and Messina.

So though this wasn’t my first time in Sicily, I had not been to Palermo. Visiting the capital of Sicily is a must!

Where Is Palermo?

Palermo is located on the northwest coast of Sicily. If you look at Italy as a boot, Sicily would be the large island at the tip of the boot.

It is approximately a 10-hour drive from Rome, part of which includes the Messina Ferry from mainland Italy to Sicily. The route from the ferry terminal to Palermo hugs the northern coast of Sicily and offers some amazing views.

Palermo also offers an expansive airport to fly directly to Sicily and then drive about 20 miles into the city.

As the largest city in Sicily, Palermo is an incredible blend of modern city life and historic sites dating back to 1072. 

Why We Love This City

The Sicilian capital city of Palermo is a feast for all the senses. The stunning architectural style is a unique Arab-Norman blend, with a bit of baroque and Art Nouveau influences mixed in.

Because of Sicily’s strategic location, it has frequently changed hands over the years, being under the control of Greek, Arab, Norman, Roman, Phoenician, Ostrogoth, British, and more over the years. 

As each group took hold on the island, they left their mark on architecture and culture, as well as providing a unique and rich history.

A great way to learn about the history and culture of Palermo is to take the Hop On Hop Off bus tour. This is the best way to see a lot in a short time.

And, of course, you can’t talk about areas around the Mediterranean without mentioning the incredible food. In fact, my tour with Exodus Adventure Travels was culinary-focused, making it easy to learn about the best local spots without having to do the research.

Like everything else in Sicily, the local food in Palermo is a blend of flavors. The food was definitely a big draw for me!

Top Things to Do in Palermo

Explore Quattro Canti Square

Also known as Four Corners Square, this is one of the most iconic locations in Palermo. Located at the intersection of the Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele at the city center, this main intersection is filled with façades with a variety of statues.

Square with historic old buildings in Palermo Italy.

There are statues for the four seasons on one level, four Spanish kings on the next, and then four patron saints above that.

This area was always bustling with people and was fun to just explore the nearby shops and restaurants.

Just down the street from Quattro Canti Square, you find Biga, the perfect place for a slice of pizza.

Visit Piazza Bellini

At the Piazza Bellini, you can find a couple of buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage list: the church of San Cataldo and the church of La Martorana. These historic buildings were built during the Norman era of Sicily. 

Cathedral with people in front.
Piazza Bellini

See Santa Caterina Church

This Roman Catholic church is also in Piazza Bellini. Dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, it was first constructed in 1310 as a convent for Dominican nuns.

Inside of a church with marble alters and paintings.

The church has had a long history of expansion and damage due to political instability. It features several stunning chapels and sculptures of many venerated Dominican nuns. 

This was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen.

Opulent church alter.

Take the steps to the rooftop. The way up is uneven, and there’s scaffolding that you have to walk across from one side to the other if you want to see both views. However, the view is gorgeous and worth the climb.

When I was there, the roof terrace closed at 5 p.m., so keep that in mind when planning your day. 

View of the mountains of Sicily.

Walk around Piazza Pretoria

This location is a short walk from Quattro Canti and has a gorgeous fountain, Fontana Pretoria, that is great for photos with marble statues of mermaids, nymphs, satyrs, and more.

As this was right across the street from my hotel, I visited a few times, and there were always people taking selfies with the fountain and statues.

Marble statues of naked men.

This location is also known as Piazza della Vergogna (the Square of Shame), but is it because of the nude statues that offended the sensibilities of centuries gone by or because of the corrupt government of the time that was nearby? You’ll have to decide! 

Explore Palermo Cathedral

The Palermo Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains several locations worth exploring including Chapel of the Relics, Royal Tombs, the Crypts, and the Treasury.

Cathedral against a blue sky.

One of the most special relics here to the people of Palermo is a silver urn with the ashes of Saint Rosalie. It is said that she saved Sicily from the Black Plague in 1624.

A huge celebration takes place in July every year in Palermo to mark the anniversary of the discovery of the relics of Saint Rosalie.

2024 will mark the 400th anniversary of this event, and a celebration of celebrations is being planned.

Church in Sicily.

Not only will there be a feast ending with a procession of Santa Rosalia’s remains being brought through the streets as they do in Palermo every year, but the entire year leading up to this anniversary has been proclaimed the Rosalian Jubilee Year, from July 10, 2023, through September 4, 2024.

We saw a festival honoring Saint Rosalie taking place when we were there in September, and if it is any indication of what the 2024 festival will be like, it will be one to remember!

The Palermo Cathedral is also the final resting place for many other notable figures in the history of Sicily, but it’s clear that Santa Rosalia is very special to the people who live here.

Visit the Puppet Shop and Take in a Show

For something more lighthearted, you’ll love seeing one of the puppet shows and exploring the puppets for sale from puppet master Vincenzo Argento.

Older man in a shop of puppets.

He’s one of only two puppet masters left in all of Sicily and from a family line in puppetry dating back to the late 1890s! This is one of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage traditions. 

Taste Authentic Gelato

One of the best things to try, especially on a hot day, is authentic gelato.  A great place to sample this delicious dessert is the Gelateria La Kala.

Made with high-quality materials and fresh fruit, a dish of gelato is a great treat to savor. 

Gelato in cone in front of a sign.

Visit Open Air Capo Mercado

The Capo Mercado is such a fabulous al fresco market full of stalls with fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, and Sicilian street cuisine.

We wandered through the carts and kiosks of street vendors with our guide filling us in on what we should try and why.

Man pointing at market with sign behind.

The colorful street markets and local bakeries were my favorite stops to try some of the best local specialties.

Tomatoes in wooden bin.

This is one of the best places to get a literal taste of local flavor. 

Note: This type of spice and beans would not have made it through customs. Remember to only buy items that are properly sealed for traveling to another country.

Spices at a market.

Eat Traditional Sicilian foods, Palermo-style!

Fish rolled with stuffing and served with lemon.

We tried arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat sauce and cheese), panelle (fried chickpea pancake), and sfincione (the traditional pizza of Palermo). They all were absolutely delicious.

Rice and meat ball in brown wrapper.

You can make your own amazing food tour by walking around and seeing what strikes your fancy or take a local tour.

Eat a Spleen Sandwich

Speaking of food, you can’t talk about food in Palermo without mentioning this one.

The “Pani ca Meusa” (or Sicilian Spleen Sandwich) is a Palermo street food delicacy made with fried cow organs (like the heart, lung, and of course spleen) on a soft bun with cheese and sometimes a squeeze of lemon.

Spleen cooking in a big pot.

I didn’t love it, though a couple of people in our group ate the whole sandwich! I did try it, and you must, too!

Spleen sandwich on a white plate.

Another great foodie city is Venice! If you’re planning to go, save this list of things to do in Venice Italy in one day!

Take a tour of The Steri of Palermo

The Inquisition was a troubling time in the history of Palermo, where no one was safe from being labeled a heretic or accused of committing some sort of crime against the church.

The 14th century wood ceiling has been in the restoration process since 2017. It’s pretty spectacular.

Wood ceiling at Steri Palermo in Sicily.

The Palazzo Steri was used as a prison during the Spanish Inquisition and was a place of imprisonment and atrocious torture.

Many of the Jewish population of Palermo were arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake.

While held in confined cramped cells, inmates from all walks of life used whatever they could find – coal, terracotta, even urine and spit – to create drawings on the walls of the prison cells, and the artwork is surprisingly well preserved even today. 

The artwork is a beautiful, yet haunting, reminder of a dark time in the history of Europe. Guided tours are available.

Go Shopping

There are many little shops with housewares, stationery, foods, beautiful clothing, and more! There’s something for everyone in the little boutiques throughout the city. 

Shop for gifts on street.

Wine prices are very affordable, so bring a large tote bag to carry on with your worn clothes and pack your suitcase with local wines and foods.

Make sure whatever you buy is sealed airtight. Some local foods, such as herbs in a bag just stapled shut, won’t make it through customs.

See a show at Teatro Massimo

The Teatro Massimo is the third largest opera house in Europe and offers perfect acoustics for listening to a performance.

The interior has 1381 seats in a horseshoe layout around an inclined stage, so you can always find a good seat in the house!

People in front of Teatro Massimo.

Taste Sangue Sicilian Vino Liquoroso

This local drink is delicious but potent! 

Hand pouring liqueur into apertif glasses.

It is a fruity wine, similar to port wine, with flavors of cherries, blood orange, and cranberries, giving it a rich “blood wine” color.

We had such a good time at Taverna Azzurra. Can you tell?

Man looking between bottle of liqueur and glass of liqueur.

Spend Some Time at the No Mafia Memorial

For most people, thoughts of the Mafia bring up images of The Godfather movies. (Fun fact, parts of The Godfather III were filmed in the Massimo Theatre!)

While the movie version of the Mafia is Hollywood’s take on this, the No Mafia Memorial tells the real story of the Mafia and the many deaths that it has caused over the years through a series of educational exhibits.

Take a Horse and Carriage Ride

You’ll usually see them in the Quattro Canti area. This is a great way to get a unique view of the area at a relaxed pace.

Horse and carriage in front of building with many on segway on road.

Drink Local Wine and Beer

From someone who pores over wine lists before ordering, this was such a nice break. I tend to get headaches from some red wines, so I usually stick to Pinot Noir or a Red Blend.

I don’t think I ordered a specific brand of wine the entire time I was in Sicily. Simply ordering a glass of red wine was all I needed to do, and each glass was excellent.

I also enjoyed a local beer now and then, perfect on a warm day.

Local beer in Palermo Italy.

Explore Palazzo Normanni

Palazzo Normanni is also known as Norman Palace or The Royal Palace. This is where the seat of the Kings of Sicily was located during the House of Hauteville, Norman Dynasty, in the 11th and 12th centuries. The history is fascinating.

The building is now the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The first-floor Palatine Chapel is worth the visit in itself.

Large opulent church in Sicily.

Where to Stay in Palermo

I stayed at B & B Hotel Palermo Quattro Canti, right in the heart of Palermo. It was so convenient to everything and they had an amazing breakfast on the rooftop.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the weather like in Palermo?

The rainiest months are January through April and November through December. Temperatures are fairly mild during the winter, but in higher altitudes on the island, there is often some snowfall in the winter. July and August are the warmest, with temperatures up near the 90s. If you want the most comfortable weather with dry conditions, June, September, or October is the best time to visit.

Will I find tours in Palermo?

Yes. The hop on hop off bus gives you a nice tour. Our guide with Exodus Adventure Travels was local and gave us included tours throughout our trip. Tourism is a major draw for Palermo, with around 750,000 visitors each year. That means there are a lot of resources available to help you get around.

Is English spoken widely in Palermo?

As a large city and tourist hub, you will readily find English spoken within the hospitality industry, as well as by many of the younger residents. (English is taught in schools.) Still, it is always helpful to brush up on a few polite phrases before you go. 

City of Palermo from balcony.

Top Tips for Visiting

Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking along cobbled streets, so this is not the place for fashionable high heels!

Leather sneakers were all I wore the whole time I was in Sicily. They’re comfortable and they go with just about anything. I have a pair of white and a pair of black. 

Bring a power converter. Palermo, like most of Europe, has 220-volt electrical outlets instead of the standard 110 in the U.S. Having a power converter is a must! 

This converter is the one I use everywhere. A nice feature is that it also has two USB ports, which is very convenient for charging multiple electronics at the same time.

Expect to eat on Palermo time. Lunch times at restaurants usually run from around noon to 3:30.

After that, restaurants are closed for most of the afternoon and early evening, reopening for dinner from around 7:30 PM to 11:00 PM.

You will still be able to find some places to eat, but if you’re looking for an early dinner, you likely will be out of luck. Go with the flow and enjoy Sicily time like a local when it comes to meals!

Your phone can be a great resource at historic sites. At many churches and monuments, there will be QR codes. Use your phone camera to access the QR code, click the link, and get more information about the location.

Make sure to respect local customs when visiting churches. Bring a scarf or sarong to cover bare shoulders and thighs when you visit churches.

If a church service is already in progress, enter quietly or avoid intruding altogether. 

Pack wisely! Grab a free printable packing list to help you plan your wardrobe and make sure you don’t forget essentials.

My trip to Sicily was with Exodus Adventure Travels and I loved leaving all the planning to them. Palermo was our first stop.

Next was Erice for a day trip before heading to Marsala. Interested in seeing the whole trip? That’s coming soon!

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