Hot, colorful, and spicy, Palermo — the capital of the island of Sicily — is an assault on the senses, so it can be difficult for a visitor to figure out where to start. The following list of top things to do in Palermo offers a sensual sample of the city's best markets, landmarks, and events for the first-time or returning traveler.
In the heart of the historic center of Palermo, the Palace of the Normans dates back to 9th century; today it's the seat of Sicilian Parliament. The palazzo holds the Cappella Palatina, a gorgeous, gleaming example of some of the world's most beautiful Byzantine mosaics.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
A symbol of the city of Palermo, this red-domed building near the Palazzo dei Normanni is reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Though its name derives from the time it was a Benedictine abbey, Byzantine, Arab, and Norman influences make San Giovanni degli Eremiti an ideal spot for examining the architectural intersection of the many cultures that influenced the look of Palermo.
Blocks from the Palazzo dei Normanni off of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo's main drag, the Palermo Cathedral is a building of colossal proportions and varying architectural styles. Marvel at its Moorish, Gothic, and neoclassical exterior, then head inside to view Norman tombs, Greek and Roman sarcophagi, and the jewel-encrusted crown of Catherine of Aragon.
From clothing and crafts to produce stands overflowing with Mediterranean delights, the 700-year-old Vucciria Market is a great introduction to the sights, smells, and citizens of Palermo.
One of the most famous settings for a scene in The Godfather, Teatro Massimo is one of Italy's top opera houses and one of the largest opera houses in Europe. If you're not able to catch an opera here, there are guided visits daily (except Monday). The monumental stairs leading up to the theater is also a favorite meeting place of Palermitani.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini — Catacombs in Palermo
Of all the places in Italy to see mummies and skeletons, Palermo's Catacombe dei Cappuccini is one of the creepiest. From the 16th century until as late as 1920, corpses were sent here for "burial" wearing their finest clothes. On view are hundreds of mummies in various states of decay. This bizarre and haunting exhibit is not for the faint of heart.
Stroll Around Quattro Canti and Piazza Pretoria
The Quattro Canti, the nexus of old Palermo known as "il teatro" (the city theater) is ideal for people watching and gentle strolls, especially so you can check out the scandalous statues that inhabit the main square of Piazza Pretoria. Once called the "Piazza Vergogna," or "Square of Shame," the Piazza Pretoria features a Mannerist fountain replete with nude marbles of river gods, tritons, and nymphs.
Beaches Near Palermo
The island capital sits on the north shore of Sicily, within a short drive of several fabulous beaches. West of the city are the beaches of San Vito lo Capo, Isola delle Femmine, and Mondello, which is also where the annual beach festival is held in May. East of Palermo are a slew of resorts and public beaches on the way to Cefalù. Within Palermo, among residential buildings, is the small beach of Arenella, which will do in a pinch if you can't get out of town.
Saints Day Festivals
Palermo lives it up during festivals for its patron saints, including San Giuseppe (March 19), Madonna della Catena (mid-August), and San Nicola (December 6-8). Palermo's main patron saint – Santa Rosalia, – has been celebrated in this city with music, parades, and much feasting, for more than 400 years. The Festa di Santa Rosalia is held each year in July. Saints day festivals are a great time to see traditional Palermo at its best.