What to see and do in Palermo, the Sicilian capital

I’ve visited Palermo twice—once in November with my aunt and another time for a friend’s bachelorette party. Each trip was unique, but one thing was clear: Palermo amazes me each time. I’ve seen lots of negative reviews on TikTok about the city being dirty or filled with pushy street vendors, but that’s just scratching the surface. Traveling is about discovering the true essence of a place, and Palermo offers so much more beyond the obvious tourist spots. It’s a city rich in history, culture, and character. If you’re planning a short visit, check out my detailed 3-day Palermo itinerary. In the meantime, here’s my take on the best things to do in Palermo.

1. Visit the Palatine Chapel at the Palazzo dei Normanni

Walking into the Palatine Chapel was a jaw-dropping moment for me. Hidden within the Royal Palace, this chapel combines Byzantine, Norman, and Arabic art, all under one roof. It’s unbelievable that this place isn’t more famous outside Sicily. The chapel is where Sicilian kings once prayed and were crowned, and it’s a World Heritage Site for a reason. For the best experience, go for a guided tour instead of just an audio guide. The guides can bring the history and art to life. You can also check out the Royal Apartments, but note that they are closed when the Sicilian Parliament is in session from Tuesday to Thursday. Make sure to purchase your tickets in advance to avoid standing in line under the scorching heat!


2. Go on a Boat Trip

On my second trip to Palermo, I joined a group of friends for a bachelorette party, and we decided to go on a boat trip. Despite the sea being a bit rough that day, it turned out to be one of the best experiences. We set off from Palermo’s port and sailed to Bagheria. Along the way, we swam, enjoyed a delicious lunch, had some wine, and soaked up the sun. The highlight was spotting a school of dolphins that followed us for about 30 minutes as we headed back. It was magical. Our captains, Salvo and Luana, were wonderful hosts, making the trip even more memorable. If you’re in Palermo, I highly recommend taking a sailing trip.


3. Taste Cannoli and Cassata

Sicily is the birthplace of cannoli and cassata, and Palermo offers some of the best. I found two spots that stood out. The first is Pasticceria Costa, right next to Quattro Canti. They have small-sized cassatine and cannoli that are perfect for a quick treat. The second spot is I Segreti del Chiosto inside the Monastery of Santa Caterina. This pastry shop is part of a project dedicated to preserving the ancient traditions of conventual pastry-making in Palermo. The monastery’s spezieria or dolceria was historically where nuns made ricotta cakes, almond biscuits, filled pastries, and fritters, which were sold to support the monastery. The recipes were once closely guarded secrets passed down from senior nuns to novices. Their portions are huge and absolutely delicious. Both places offer a taste of Sicilian sweetness that you shouldn’t miss.


4. Join in the Fun at Local Markets

Palermitans know how to party, and you don’t need to visit a club to experience it. Just head to one of the local markets, and you’ll find people dancing, music blasting, and an infectious energy. I spent an evening at the Vucciria market, which transforms into a lively party scene at night. There are multiple stereos playing different music, and chiringuitos selling cheap cocktails (don’t expect top-shelf liquor). The atmosphere is incredible with group dances and spontaneous celebrations everywhere you look. Just a quick FYI: there are pickpocketers so be careful with your belongings—keep your phone and purse secure at all times, avoid wearing your phone as a necklace (one of our friends had her phone stolen like this). We also visited Mercato del Capo on a Sunday afternoon and found people dancing right after lunch. It’s a fun, spontaneous way to experience the local culture. I’d recommend going in a group.


5. Trendy Cocktail Bars

Palermo might surprise you with its trendy cocktail scene. One of my favorite bars is Terra, located in Piazza Magione. It’s a charming spot in Piazza Magione with bartenders who really know their craft. My new favorite drink, the Specialotto—a gin and tonic with basil infusion—was expertly made by Barbara, the fantastic barwoman there. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, and you can enjoy your drinks either at the tables or right on the piazza.

Another spot worth mentioning is Ferramenta near Piazza San Domenico. I first visited this place with my aunt in November for dinner, and it was already buzzing. When I returned in June, it was packed with people. The area around the port of Palermo is also buzzing with new and renovated spots. We had an aperitivo at Ciurma, which was nice, but the whole area is full of great places to explore. Bottega Colletti also caught my attention for its cute setup and vibrant vibe.


6. Day Trips from Palermo

If you have some extra time, consider taking a day trip from Palermo. There are plenty of options that offer a change of scenery and a deeper dive into Sicilian culture.

  • Mondello Beach: Just a short drive from the city, Mondello offers beautiful sandy beaches and clear blue waters. It’s perfect for a relaxing day under the sun.
  • Monreale: A quick train ride away, Monreale is famous for its stunning cathedral with intricate mosaics. It’s a must-see for history and art lovers. If you’re not in the mood to take public transportation you can book a round-trip transfer instead.
  • Winery Tours: Sicily is known for its wine, and there are several wineries near Palermo where you can enjoy tastings and tours. It’s a delightful way to spend an afternoon, sipping on local vintages and learning about the winemaking process.

7. Visit the Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti

The Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a must-visit for its unique architecture and serene atmosphere. This church stands out with its red domes and is a striking example of Arab-Norman architecture. The interior is simple but beautiful, with a peaceful garden that provides a quiet retreat from the city’s hustle. The church’s history dates back to the 6th century, and it has served various purposes over the centuries, adding layers of history to its charm. It’s a lovely spot to take a break and reflect, surrounded by history and tranquility.


8. Walk, Walk, Walk

Palermo is best explored on foot, so wear comfortable shoes and get ready to wander. The city’s streets are a mix of polished elegance and charming rough edges. Start your walk at Teatro Massimo, one of the largest opera houses in Europe, and make your way to Quattro Canti, the symbolic heart of Palermo. Don’t miss Piazza Pretoria with its impressive fountain, and make sure to visit the Palermo Cathedral, a marvel of different architectural styles. Strolling through the streets, you’ll notice locals lowering baskets from their balconies to exchange goods with neighbors—a charming old tradition. Each corner of Palermo tells a story, making walking the best way to truly absorb the city’s essence.


9. Enjoy the Food Scene

Palermo’s food scene is a paradise for foodies. While the street food is legendary (and yes, you must try the arancina—never call it arancino here, that’s a Catania thing), the city also boasts fantastic restaurants. Start with Ke Palle for their delicious arancina alla norma, a unique twist on the classic dish. For a more traditional meal, visit Antico Forno San Francesco or Osteria Mangia e Bevi. If you’re in the mood for pizza, Il Funnarò, listed among the top 50 pizzerias in Italy, won’t disappoint. An absolute favorite is Le Angeliche near Mercato del Capo where you can taste outstanding contemporary Sicilian dishes. Each meal in Palermo is an opportunity to explore the rich flavors and culinary traditions of Sicily.


10. Explore Hidden Gems

Palermo is full of lesser-known spots that are just as captivating as its famous attractions. La Cripta delle Repentite, tucked away beneath the streets of Palermo, served as a refuge for “repentant” nuns seeking redemption. The crypt’s eerie atmosphere, complete with skeletal remains and religious artifacts, provides a haunting glimpse into the city’s complex history. Another fascinating find is La Camera delle Meraviglie, or the “Room of Wonders,” hidden within a nondescript building. This secret room is adorned with vibrant, intricate patterns in blue and gold, reminiscent of Islamic art. Originally designed for private meditation, it feels like stepping into another era, offering a mesmerizing glimpse into the opulent lives of Palermo’s historical elite.

The Chiesa della Martorana, also known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Inside, you’ll find breathtaking mosaics depicting biblical scenes, some of the finest in Sicily. Its blend of Greek and Latin influences makes it a unique spot for history and art lovers. Nearby, the Chiesa del Gesù, or Casa Professa, stands as one of Palermo’s most ornate Baroque churches. The interior is a riot of color and decoration, with intricate stucco work, frescoes, and marble inlays that leave visitors in awe. The level of detail and artistry here is simply unparalleled.

Palermo is a city that rewards those who take the time to look beyond the surface. Whether you’re exploring its historical sites, enjoying its vibrant food scene, or simply soaking in the local culture, there’s always something new to discover.

Author

I'm the daughter of an Italian family of diplomats, the second of three children, and a global citizen. I've lived in 7 cities around the world, I have a gigantic crush on Italy and my name has been mispronounced more times than I can remember.

Write A Comment

Exit mobile version