The Top 16 Things to Do in Palermo

Italy, Sicily, Palermo, Church of Santa Catarina
Martin Child / Getty Images

Ancient and edgy, the Sicilian capital of Palermo is a city of many contradictions. From venerable Arab-Norman architecture to a hip international food scene, elegant Baroque palaces and modern Liberty-style villas, pulsating outdoor markets, sun-soaked sandy beaches, the vibrant and always buzzing port city of Palermo is never lacking in things to do and see.

Compact and densely populated Palermo is fairly easy to explore on foot. Its historic city center can be divided east to west with cathedrals, museums, shopping, dining, and theatres all within walking distance of one another.

Here are our picks of the best 16 things to do in Palermo.

01 of 16

Start Your Day with Granita con Brioche

Brioche, granita and espresso
Mary Gaudin / Getty Images

A visit to Palermo wouldn’t be complete without partaking in its most famous morning fare: a “breakfast” of a granita con brioche. The high-calorie delicacy—a sorbet-like frozen mixture of water and sugar flavored with fruit, nuts, chocolate, or coffee is paired with a warm and buttery pastry bun. The combo is most popular in the summertime, but you can order it all year round. To eat this treat like a local, break
off a piece of brioche and dip it into the granita before taking a toothsome

02 of 16

Be Inspired at the Palermo Cathedral

View of the Cattedrale (cathedral) di Palermo
Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 490, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 334373

Sprawled across a grand piazza, Palermo’s Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A wonder of Arab-Norman architecture, the centuries-old cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption has been modified several times over its 1500-year history. Today, it's a fascinating mix of geometric exteriors juxtaposed with neoclassical interiors, a reminder that this Catholic church was
once a mosque. Vestiges of its dynamic past are everywhere: Norman arches, a medieval bell tower, a Catalan Gothic portico, and a cupola that harkens back to the Baroque age. Down below in the crypt, the oldest part of the church, you can visit the imperial tombs holding the remains of the church’s founders and wealthy patrons. 

03 of 16

See Puppet Show at the Museo delle Marionnette

Marionettes on display at the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino, Palermo
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images
Address Antonio Pasqualino, 5, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 328060

One of Sicily’s most enduring folk traditions, l’opera dei pupi (puppet theater) was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. Learn about this beloved Sicilian art form at the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino. View an impressive collection of handcrafted puppets and marionettes (burattini), then delight in performances of Frankish romantic poems with main characters such as Charlemagne and his paladins battle to save the empire. The museum hosts the annual Festival di Morgana, which showcases traditional and contemporary puppetry worldwide.


04 of 16

Check Out Street Art in La Kalsa

Street art in The Kalsa

Alternative Tours Palermo

The hip La Kalsa district is experiencing an urban renewal, and it's become a mecca for some of the most jaw-dropping street art in all the city. Spend some time strolling the colorful and gritty streets and alleyways and discover the range of works here, from tiny stenciled images to large graffiti masterpieces by renowned international street artists. Begin at the Mercato di Vucciria and check out the avant-garde murals by Ema Jons. Slowly wind your way through the quarter to end at the Pier of Sant’Erasmo, where you’ll be treated to a stunning view of the humungous mural depicting the saint for which the area was named. Alternative Tours Palermo offers a guided walking circuit of the uniquely Palermitan art scene.

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05 of 16

Visit the Norman Palace

Carriage on the square behind Norman Palace, Palermo
LYSVIK PHOTOS / Getty Images
Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90129 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 705 5611

A masterpiece of Islamic architecture, the Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) was built by the Arabs in the 11th century and expanded by a Norman King as his royal palace. It’s been altered many times, the last in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it
is also home to the Sicilian Regional Assembly, with the royal apartments housing
Sicily’s parliament.  

Devote at least part of the day exploring this bastion of the city. With its elaborately adorned walls and arches, the Sala di Re Ruggero boasts beautiful 12th-century mosaics in motifs of plants and animals. The Chinese room has frescoes by Giovanni and Salvatore Paricolo, and Sala Gialla is marked by decorative tempera paintings on its vaults.

Following the tour, cool off in the shady public gardens located just outside the palace walls.

06 of 16

Experience the Palatine Chapel

Italy, Sicily, Palermo, Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans), Capella Palatina (Palatine Chapel)
Christophe Boisvieux / Getty Images
Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90134 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 705 5611

A highlight of any visit to the Norman Palace is to behold the Palatine Chapel’s (Cappella Palatina) astounding mosaics. They’re a must-see for anyone visiting Palermo. Located on the second floor of the palace, the enchanting chapel, commissioned by Roger II (the first King of Sicily), is studded wall-to-wall with intricate mosaics depicting stories from the Bible and likenesses of prophets, saints, and warriors. Inside the center apse is a remarkable portrait of Christ flanked by angels and archangels. The chapel once had 50 windows to ensure the illustrated biblical stories were always illuminated.

07 of 16

Attend an Opera at Teatro Massimo

Sicily - Teatro Massimo Interior
Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images
Address Giuseppe Verdi, 90138 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 605 3521

One of the foremost European opera houses and the largest in Italy, Teatro Massimo opened its doors in the late 1800s, during what was called the city’s belle epoque era—a cultural and social Renaissance of sorts. Lavishly decorated with Corinthian columns and ceiling frescoes, the Teatro is open year-round and includes opera, ballet, and music performances. 

08 of 16

Plot a Course for Quattro Canti

Quattro Canti junction of Via Maquade and Via V Emmanuele in Palermo, Sicily Italy
Izzet Keribar / Getty Images

Considered the crossroads of the historical center, the Quattro Canti (four corners) on Piazza Vigliena is a Baroque square marked by fountains and statutes on each corner. The concave facades, containing figures of Spanish kings and the four seasons, divide the city into four districts or mandamenti: Capo to the northwest, Loggia in the northeast, La Kalsa to the southeast, and Albergheria to the southwest. Constructed in the 1600s as part of Palermo’s new town plan, the fashionable square offers luxury shopping, hotels, and dining in the city's heart.

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09 of 16

Scarf Street Food at Ballarò Market

Various kinds of olives and any kind of local food and dishes at street market Ballarò in Palermo
poludziber / Getty Images

Work your way over to Palermo's oldest and most vivacious open-air
market, Mercato di Ballarò. There you can munch on mouth-watering street
food. Choose your indulgences from the many street food vendors who set up stalls
daily at this rollicking bazaar. For the best snacks on the go, grab a cone of paper
filled with arancini; deep-fried rice balls stuffed with ragu and cheese. If you're feeling more adventurous, try a pani câ meusa—a sandwich of chopped veal spleen simmered in lard. Wash it down with Sicilian craft beer and finish things off with a palate-cleansing gelato.

10 of 16

Count Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral

Interior of the famous Cathedral Santa Maria Nuova of Monreale near Palermo in Sicily Italy.
Cezary Wojtkowski / Getty Images
Piazza Guglielmo II, 1, 90046 Monreale PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 640 4413

A spectacle of wealth and power, Monreale Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale) is an hour’s
bus ride from the city center. Founded by King William II in 1172, the cathedral is famous for its twin-tower facade and 12th and 13th-century mosaics. Crafted by Sicilian and Byzantine artists, they form an enormous portrait of Christ the Pantocrator, as well as narrate scenes from the Old and New Testaments. In all, Monreale contains around 70,000 square feet of dazzling micro-tiles.

Don’t forget to visit the cloisters in the monastery at the south end of the cathedral. The Moorish-Norman stylized gardens are enlaced with hundreds of carved columns gilded with thousands of glistening tiles. A palm tree fountain plays a trickling soundtrack.

11 of 16

Be Captivated in the Capuchin Catacombs

Convento (Monastery) dei Cappuccini, the Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks)
Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images
Piazza Cappuccini, 1, 90129 Palermo PA, Italy
Phone +39 091 652 7389

Visit mummified bodies and skeletons of Capuchin friars, along with the remains of some of Palermo’s former aristocratic citizens at the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Located west of the city center, this labyrinth of corridors is filled with well-preserved corpses, including the first friar to be interred there, Fra’ Silvestro dal Gubbio, who died in 1599. Visit a small chapel where the body of a little girl who passed in 1920 is so chillingly lifelike that she seems to be sleeping. The noted Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) is buried in a tomb located in the cemetery next to the catacombs. Some find Italy's catacomb experiences creepy, while others find them strangely captivating. Regardless, they're not recommended for children under 12.


12 of 16

Climb to the Top of San Nicolo all'Albergheria Tower

Via Nunzio Nasi, 18, 90145 Palermo PA, Italy

Not far from the clattering noise of the Mercato di Ballarò, get a bird’s-eye view of Palermo’s city skyline by climbing the quadrangular tower of San Nicolo
all'Albergheria (Torre di San Nicolo all'Albergheria). Dating back to medieval times, the austere and slender structure once served as a civic watchtower in defense of the fortified walls of the ancient Cassaro—the most ancient street in Palermo. From the terrace high above, catch a rare 360-degree glimpse of Palermo’s characteristic rooftops, glistening church domes, and impressive spires.

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13 of 16

Catch Some Rays at Mondello Beach

Mondello, beach and Kursaal bathing establishment
Maremagnum / Getty Images

A short distance north of the center of town (about a 30-minute bus ride), Mondello is a favorite summertime haunt for locals and tourists alike. The wide and white sand beach, pinched between two rocky promontories, is where you’ll find a small fishing port (once a 15th-century village) and rows of dining and bathing establishments (stabilimenti). Swim at the feet of Mount Pellegrino and Mount Gallo, then sun yourself all afternoon, either by renting a lounger and umbrella at a private club or by claiming a small plot of sand on the public side for free.

14 of 16

Eat a Cannolo

Fresh cannoli
EnkiPhoto / Getty Images

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” That classic line from the movie "The Godfather" serves to illustrate the reverence Sicilians have for their sugary, ricotta-filled pastry. Cannoli are made of deep-fried and crispy pastry shell tubes stuffed with sweetened creamy ricotta cheese, often mixed with fruit or nuts. Find Palermo’s best at Cannolissimo on the city’s main drag, Via Vittorio Emanuele. This charming pasticceria (pastry shop) often has lines out the door until midnight, so don't go there if you're in a rush.

15 of 16

Wander Vucciria Market After Dark

The market Vucciria in Palermo
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Immortalized by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso in his famous "La Vucciria," this ancient outdoor market has a distinctive international flair. Located in Palermo’s Castellammare district, the market begins at Piazza San Domenico and runs south along Via dei Maccheronai to finish at Piazza Caracciolo. Although in decline since its heyday, it’s still a great place to buy fresh produce and fish, along with exotic spices, second-hand books, and antique bric-a-brac. But it’s when the sun goes down that Vuccuria Market lights up. Tables and chairs fill Piazza Caracciolo as young and old gear up for late-night music and dancing in the streets. To view Guttuso’s evocative painting in person, head to Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri on Piazza Marina in the Kalsa quarter.

16 of 16

Shop for Mafia-Free Souvenirs

Addio Pizzo sign in a Sicilian store window

A growing anti-mafia movement is helping local businesses resist paying pizzo (extortion money) to the mafia. Support this grassroots effort by patronizing shops displaying the “Addio pizzo” (goodbye pizzo) sticker in the windows. Purchasing olive oil, wine, honey, mozzarella, and pasta with the words “Libera Terra” on the label is another way to support Sicily in its struggle against organized crime. Libera terra products are those grown on state-confiscated farmlands that are now free from mafia control.

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The Top 16 Things to Do in Palermo