1. The cathedral of Palermo
I can hardly start with anything other than the crown jewel of Palermo. In 1185 the first stone of this magnificent building was laid and over the years so many new parts were added that it only took its final form in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In full it’s called ‘Il Cattedrale della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta’ (the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary) and it’s characterized by different styles. This is partly due to the fact that it was also built by the Saracens as a mosque. It’s the most important church of the city and one of the most beautiful sights of Sicily. And the best thing? You can enter it for free! Only if you want to view the tombs or head to the rooftop you have to buy a ticket.
For the roof you pay €5, a ticket for the crypts and the roof costs €7.
Personally, I didn’t think the crypts were terribly interesting, but the view from the roof is phe-no-me-nal! So definitely climb up there if you can!
2. Palazzo dei Normanni
Once the kings of Sicily lived in this imposing building, and it now is the seat of the Sicilian parliament. It’s even the oldest royal building in Europe! The first part of this complex was in fact an Arab castle that was built in the ninth century by the Emir of Palermo. These Arab influences are still clearly noticeable and in the cellars you can even see Arab vaults.
Later in history, the building was chosen by the Normans as a residence for their kings and they transformed this Arab palace into a multifunctional complex with both administrative and residential purposes. All buildings were connected by colonnades and enclosed by gardens. In 1132 King Roger II added the famous Capella Palatina to the whole, which is without a doubt one of the most beautiful sights of Palermo. This chapel is in fact the best preserved example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that characterizes Sicily.
3. The catacombs of Palermo
They aren’t as well known as the catacombs of Paris, but they’re definitely worth a visit. In my opinion this is one of the coolest (and strangest) things to do in Palermo. They are in fact called the ‘catacombs of the Capuchin monks’ and this macabre place arose because of a lack of cemeteries. For this reason, the Capuchin brothers decided in 1599 to mummify their recently deceased brother Silvestro of Gubbio and to place him in the tombs under their monastery. Originally it was meant only for other Capuchin monks, but soon it became a status symbol to be “buried” here. Today you can see more than 8000 corpses and admire 1252 mummies. The best known is Rosalia, a very well-preserved mummy of a two-year-old girl. The catacombs have inspired the Flemish comic artist Merho for his album “De Hoofdzaak” and you too will notice how memorable this place is.
4. The Orto Botanico di Palermo
The Orto Botanico di Palermo is both a collection of botanical gardens and a research and educational center of the University of Palermo. The history of this place goes back as far as 1779 when the medicinal functions of certain plants began to be investigated here. Over the centuries, a swimming pool, greenhouses and various other beautiful gardens have been added. In the herbarium there are between 50,000 and 200,000 different types of plants. This makes the Orto Botanico di Palermo the ideal place to stroll around in all its green splendor.
Don’t miss this place! I liked it so much, that I would even dare to say that it’s the most beautiful botanical garden I’ve ever seen!
5. City park Villa Giulia
Right next to the Orto Botanica you’ll find the Villa Giulia. This city park welcomes you with beautiful, tall palm trees and comfortable benches where you can rest after having visited all the tourist attractions in Palermo. In the middle of the park you can find four peculiar half-open buildings that are centered around a beautiful fountain. Less impressive than the Orto Botanico, but nonetheless worth a short visit!
6. Giardino Garibaldi
If you like city parks: I have good news. There’s another one that definitely deserves your attention! You should definitely visit the Giardino Garibaldi. This piece of natural beauty in Palermo has beautiful ficus trees. With their thick stumps and strange twisting branches, it seems like you’ve ended up in a jungle. One of the ficus trees here is even one of the oldest trees in Palermo, and not that long ago it blowed out its 150th candle!
Also make sure to take a look at the wrought iron fence that runs around the city park. In the fence you see beautiful drawings and some mysterious letters.
7. Teatro Massimo
The Milan opera may perhaps be the most famous one, the Teatro Massimo is the biggest opera house of the country and the third largest in Europe. Only the Opéra National de Paris and K.K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna are bigger. It was opened in 1897 in honor of king Vittore Emanuele II. Up to 1387 visitors can enjoy perfect acoustics here. Therefore it’s strongly advised to attend an opera performance if possible.
8. Fontana Pretoria
The Fontana Pretoria is located in the middle of the old city center. This spectacular fountain was first constructed in Florence, but less than twenty years later it was completely demolished and rebuilt in Palermo. Unfortunately, certain parts were damaged and adjustments had to be made. However, the fountain still looks pretty incredible! You can hardly imagine that this monument could’ve looked even better… Near the fountain you can also find tourist attractions such as the ‘Quattro Canti’, the ‘Martorana’ and the ‘San Giuseppe dei Teatini’ church.
9. Quattro Canti
Like in almost every Italian city, Palermo also has dozens of monumental squares. At this one you’ll find four baroque buildings, each with their own beautiful façade. Each façade has a fountain with a statue of one of the four seasons, one of the four Spanish kings of Sicily and one of the four patronesses of Palermo.
It reminded me a bit of the Quattro Fontane in Rome, but even more beautiful!
10. Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (Martorana)
Like most churches in Palermo, this church also consists of a melting pot of building styles. If you’re completely in awe with the chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni, I recommend to visit the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, or shorter: Martorana as well. I think the interior of this church is even more impressive. Beautiful Byzantine mosaics with all kinds of mythical and biblical scenes play on the golden ceiling above you. On the beautiful dome, in front of the church, you can see Greek influences.
If you’re looking for a day trip from Palermo, then you must consider Monreale. This cosy town lies only nine kilometers (5.6 miles) from the Sicilian capital. If you don’t know what to do in Palermo anymore, you should hop on a bus that leaves close from the catacombs. After about twenty minutes you reach Monreale, the royal mountain (Monte Caputo). From here you have a beautiful view of Palermo itself and also “La Conca d’Oro”, the golden basin. This is a particularly fertile valley where oranges, olives and almonds are grown which are then shipped in huge quantities throughout the world.
The crown jewel of Monreale is the Norman-Byzantine cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a national Italian monument and one of the most important sights of Sicily and thus a must-do day trip from Palermo. Next to the cathedral there’s plenty of other things to see in this quaint village. You should spend at least half a day here.
12. The many restaurants
Food has such a separate status in Palermo (and Italy) so you could say that this is a tourist attraction in itself. Palermo is bursting with cozy, sophisticated and authentic restaurants to an extent that can even be considered overwhelming. To help you on your way I give you five restaurants that you should try at least once when visiting Palermo!
If you want to eat among the locals, far away from all the tourists, you should be at Dolce Carlino (Sweet Little Carlo). During the afternoon you can eat a delicious pasta for barely two euros and you can finish with one or more canoli. This sweet delicacy is the specialty of Sicily and is addictively delicious.
The diverse history also shows itself in the varied cuisine that characterizes Sicily. The Arabs brought couscous with them and in i compari this is served with a delicious stew.
When you visit Sicily, you should definitely try an arancina. This is a fried stuffed rice ball that you can eat all over Italy, but differs in shape on the island. Traditionally, the filling consists of minced meat, tomato sauce, cheese and peas. Ke Palle (What a ball) decided to take this specialty to a whole different level. They invented dozens of different fillings, of which the americana (barbecue pig) is one of the most popular.
This is one of the most popular (and best) restaurants in Palermo and unfortunately they don’t work with reservations. If you want to get hold of a table, make sure to arrive early at the door (opens at half past eight in the evening). Then the chances are that you can enjoy these delicious and local dishes.
Of course you should also try some pizza in Palermo, and although it’s almost impossible to eat bad pizza in Italy, there are places where you can enjoy truly magnificent pizzas. If you can’t get a table at Buatta you shouldn’t give up hope. Just walk a little further and then you’ll see Pizza Ferrari. If you’re not hungry, choose a piece of pizza (al taglio) or you can always share a pizza. Although you will soon order a second one because this is definitely the best pizza in Palermo!
Once you’ve explored this historic playground, there is so much to see in the vicinity as well. If you dare to drive the car in this jungle you should definitely go to Céfalu. The red roofs and sky-blue ocean provide a breathtaking mix. You can also relax on the beach of Mondello, but actually Scopello is better. For beautiful walks you must be in La riserva naturale dello zingaro (The nature reserve of the gypsy). There’s things to do in Palermo for everyone and the city will without a doubt become one of your favorite holiday destinations.
Excursions and day trips from Palermo
Do you prefer to tour around the most beautiful sights of Palermo? That’s off course also a possibility! There are certain day trips that will show you a lot more from Sicily. For ideas and fun tours you can look online:
A rich and diverse history
Due to its ideal location in the Mediterranean, Palermo was a popular area in the eyes of many peoples. Countless blood has therefore been shed, while many tried to conquer the capital of Sicily. The Carthaginians were the first to colonize the area, but after the Punic Wars it soon became a Roman colony. They built roads, temples and bathhouses that you can still admire today. In the fifth century it was torn from Roman hands by Germanic conquerors, who later lost it to the Saracens.
These North African people constructed mosques and libraries all over the island and changed the name of many cities. Thus, Palermo was renamed Balharm and served as the capital of Arab Sicily until 1072. This influence is still very noticeable when you stroll through the streets.
Then it was the turn of the Normans who built a number of castles, of which the Palazzo dei Normanni (the Palace of the Normans) is the best known.
This multicultural influence makes Palermo (and by extension Sicily) a very interesting holiday destination and you will quickly notice how different it is from the rest of Italy.
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.