Last Updated on December 5, 2023
Palermo is a beautiful Sicilian city of history, delicious food, and gorgeous sights. Here’s your definitive guide to Palermo, Sicily.
I found myself in Palermo, Sicily for the first time by total accident. At 19 years old, I was backpacking across Italy and …I boarded the wrong train after working on my Rome bucket list.
Next thing I knew, I was headed to the southernmost part of Italy: Sicily. Sicily is the biggest of the Mediterranean’s islands which sits at the most southern point of Italy – the island is just below the toe of Italy’s boot, and it’s right in-between Italy’s mainland and North Africa.
After a long train trip, I arrived in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, with zero knowledge and zero plan. I had no idea if there was anything worth seeing in Palermo. I’d never even heard other backpackers mention the city. All I knew was that Palermo is known historically as the epicentre of the Sicilian Mafia.
That impromptu trip to Palermo was brief. At that point, I didn’t know that I would later fall in love with a Canadian-Sicilian man, and end up returning to Palermo regularly to see his family. Over the years, I’ve fallen more and more in love with Palermo and Sicily, and I firmly believe the region is an underrated gem in Europe.
Read on to learn why you need to add Palermo to your bucket list: this guide will cover what you must see in Palermo, what to eat in Palermo, where to stay in Palermo, and day trips from Palermo.
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- Brief History of Palermo City
- The History of Sicily’s Mafia
- What is Palermo Like Today?
- Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
- Is Palermo Expensive to Visit?
- Best Time to Visit Palermo
- How Many Days Should You Spend in Palermo
- Where to Stay in Palermo
- How to Get Around Palermo
- Must See in Palermo
- Things to Do in Palermo
- Sicilian Cuisine: What to Eat in Palermo
- Day Trips From Palermo
- Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
Brief History of Palermo City
Palermo was founded in 8th century BC, so it goes without saying that the city has a long and vibrant history characterized by Arab and Norman rule, immigration, and Mafia presence. Since the early 2000s, an Anti-Mafia movement has developed, and you will see evidence of this in Palermo.
Another example of Palermo’s fascinating history is the Capuchin Catacombs, which date back to 1599 and serve as an open cemetery, which shows the history of mummification in Sicily.
The Capuchin Catacombs initially housed only the bodies of Friars, but from the 1700s on, those of esteem (i.e. the rich) could buy their place in the catacombs.
Mummification alongside the Friars was a symbol of status and dignity reserved for the wealthy. Today, the catacombs are a worthy tourist destination, particularly macabre compared to others around Europe.
The History of Sicily’s Mafia
The Mafia is a network of organized-crime groups based in Italy and America that evolved over centuries in Sicily. They evolved because of Sicily’s long history of foreign invaders.
For centuries, Sicily was ruled by a long line of foreign invaders, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish.
In defence of themselves, the residents of Sicily created groups to protect themselves from the often-violent occupying forces, as well as from other regional groups of Sicilians.
These groups eventually became known as clans or families, and they developed their own system for justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret.
By the 19th century, small private armies known as mafia started taking advantage of the frequently violent, chaotic conditions in Sicily, and specifically in Palermo.
They exerted their power by extorting protection money from local landowners. Over time, the Mafia gained a reputation of manipulation, violence, and criminal activity.
What is Palermo Like Today?
Today, Palermo (and the rest of Sicily) is much more peaceful than it sounds in the above descriptions! While the Mafia does still exist, since 1992 it has been far less active in the region.
Palermo today is a vibrant city with upbeat energy. The city is now known for its art history, opera house, food markets, and shopping areas – all of which I’ll touch on in more detail, later in this guide.
Palermo is not like other Italian cities – it has a unique culture that extends to its food and architecture. And, the city is visited far less than other Italian cities, making it a unique spot to add to your bucket list.
Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
Yes, Palermo is a historic city that is absolutely worth visiting. The city centre is compact enough to wander on foot, with plenty of notable sights to see like Quattro Canti square, Fontana Pretoria, and the Palermo Cathedral. Plus, you can explore Palermo’s markets and enjoy Sicilian cuisine!
Is Palermo Expensive to Visit?
The less touristy nature of Palermo and Sicily’s other towns and cities has kept the island affordable in comparison to mainland Italy. Of course, the amount you spend in Palermo depends a bit on how you travel.
It is possible to stay in 5 star hotels and eat in higher end restaurants, but it’s equally possible to visit Palermo on a budget while still enjoying incredible food and hotels with character.
In Palermo you can easily have a meal for less than 10 euros, and a beer can go as low as 2 euros. My favourite cocktail, aperol spritz, usually is around 6 euros.
Many of Palermo’s attractions, like churches, cathedrals, and other monuments, are free to enter. Palermo is filled as well with vibrant markets which encompass the traditions of Sicilian people, and of course, those are free to explore!
So if you’re on a budget, when deciding what you must see in Palermo, you can fully opt for spots that are free to enter.
Best Time to Visit Palermo
April to early June and September to October are generally considered the best times to visit Palermo. During these months, the temperatures aren’t as sweltering as they are in the summer months, and the region isn’t as busy with tourists as it is during the summer. That said, if you like the heat and want to hit some of Sicily’s beaches, coming in summer is tons of fun!
From late October to March, things are quieter in Palermo. There are fewer tourists and sites and attractions tend to close earlier. The trade off is that during these months the weather is cool (light jacket weather) and because it’s tourism low season, accommodations and tours are priced a little lower.
How Many Days Should You Spend in Palermo
Staying 2-4 days in Palermo is the perfect amount. With 1 or 2 days, you’ll be able to fit in all the highlights, but your days will be long and busy. In my experience, 3-4 days is the sweet spot. It’s enough time to get a solid feel for the city without rushing through your days.
Of course, if you can spend longer, do so! A longer stay gives you more time to learn about Palermo, explore it’s different neighbourhoods, and fit in some day trips.
Where to Stay in Palermo
Palermo is a large city, comprised of 25 different districts – this can make deciding where to stay in Palermo a little bit tough. Of all these districts, the best ones to stay in are Old Town or Politeama/Libertà because both are safe and close to the sights that tourists want to see. If you stay in either of these districts, you won’t need a car and you’ll barely need to take public transportation or cabs.
Mondelo, in the north of Palermo, used to be a seaside fishing village, and has now become a sought after district to live in. Mondelo has access to beaches as well as a busy nightlife during the summer. If you choose to stay there it’s recommended to have a car to get you around because the district is a bit far from the city centre. If you don’t choose to stay there, consider visiting the neighborhood as a day trip!
There are plenty of hotels in different price ranges available in all of these neighborhoods, and a couple hostels as well. I also recommend checking out AirBnbs that are available because they are affordable, and you can find adorable gems. Just be sure to support a host who is local to the region!
How to Get Around Palermo
Palermo is a very walkable city, especially if you stay in the Old Town or Politeama/Libertà . Many tourists have no need at all for a car. Besides driving and walking, it’s possible to go by cab or by bus – Uber does not operate in Sicily.
Cabs in Palermo are reliable, but do have a reputation of overcharging tourists – so be sure to settle on the price before getting in the cab. I also like to track the trip on my own maps app whenever I take a cab in a foreign city. This way, I can be sure the driver is taking me to the correct place.
Busses are fast and reliable in Palermo, and the Google Maps app reliably shows the routes and times of departure.
Must See in Palermo
Every time I visit Palermo, I’m blown away by how quickly you can fill your days just by wandering around the Old Town and LibertÃ . By strolling the streets, you’re bound to come across cute cafes and ornate churches. If wandering isn’t your thing, here’s a list of what you must see in Palermo:
The Capuchin Catacombs
Mentioned above in this guide, the catacombs represent a fascinating piece of Sicilian history. Described as the “place where the living meet the dead,” the catacombs are admittedly a little spooky. While roaming the cold hallways of the catacombs, you view bodies that have been shockingly well-preserved.
Visiting hours are 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM, and 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Entry is 3,00 euro. The catacombs aren’t in the city centre – you can drive or cab to them, or take bus N5 from Palermo Centrale.
The trip is 30 minutes by bus and costs 1,40 euro each way. I truly believe the Catacombs are a must see in Palermo for their fascinating history.
Officially known as Piazza Vigliena, Quattro Canti square is a definite must see in Palermo! Quattro Canti is a Baroque square which was built in the early 1600s, and it’s an absolute must see in Palermo.
This piazza is octagonal, made up of four ornate facades with statues and small fountains. As the sun shifts position in the sky throughout the day, a different facade is lit up by the sunlight.
Nearby Quattro Canti is the Fontana Pretoria. This monumental fountain was built in Florence, but transferred to Palermo in 1574. Between the 18th and 19th century, the fountain was seen as a depiction of the corrupt municipality of Palermo, a depiction completed by it’s nude statues. Hence, it’s known as the fountain of shame.
Tour the roof of Palermo Cathedral
Palermo’s main cathedral, known as Cattedrale di Palermo dates back to 1185. The cathedral is characterized by different architectural styles, due to a long history of additions, alterations and restorations.
Found in the very centre of the city, it’s a must see in Palermo not only for its architecture, but for it’s roof! The church is free to enter, but for 5,00 euro you can climb to it’s roof terrace for incredible views of the city.
See an opera at Teatro Massimo
Teatro Massimo is one of the most important opera houses in Italy: the largest in Italy and one of the most renowned in Europe. Besides its cultural significance, it also is beautiful architecturally. You can take a guided tour of the opera house, or grab a ticket to see a show.
Things to Do in Palermo
There are so many things to do in Palermo, you can easily fill up 3-5 days. Here is a round up of my four most recommended activities:
Visit one of Palermo’s markets
Visiting a market is one of my personal favourite things to do in Palermo. The city is actually known for its outdoor markets because many of them have been around for hundreds of years.
As a result, Palermo’s markets maintain many ancient traditions of Sicilian people. There are two markets I recommend visiting. Each one is devoted to a different product.
Ballaro is the largest and oldest market in Palermo. It is loud, smelly, busy, and sells everything from fish to odds and ends.
Capo is a major trading market for meat and vegetables, and is a great spot to buy fresh bread and visit a salumeria (deli).
In either of these markets you can find a small street patio and enjoy a drink while watching the action. For both these markets, be sure to go first thing in the morning to see them at the peak of their action!
Enjoy a Sicilian puppet show
Puppet Opera (Opera dei Pupi) is a unique Sicilian tradition which dates back to the 19th century. At that time, puppet shows became wildly popular with Sicily’s working classes.
Puppeteers told stories based on medieval literature and Italian poems of the Renaissance, as well as tales saints and notorious bandits. Dialogues in performances were often improvised by the performers. Theatres were often family-run business, and attending shows was a very social event.
Catching a puppet opera is a fantastic thing to do in Palermo because it is more than just entertainment: it represents Sicilian tradition and history. The oldest existing theatre is Cuticchio Theater. Their website does not offer English, but speak with your hotel or hostel desk and tickets can be arranged.
Take a Sicilian cooking class
I love to take cooking classes when I travel because it’s an opportunity to learn about local food and tradition, and you get to cook yourself a meal! I recommend this cooking class because it takes you through the entire process of cooking, including the shopping.
On this highly-rated Half-Day Cooking Class & Market Tour, you’ll meet the chef in the morning and go together to the old market Capo to buy the fresh food you will use to cook the dishes. You’ll learn to cook 4 courses, and afterward, enjoy eating them along with Sicilian wine. This is a small group tour, with no more than 8 participants!
Learn the history of Mafia in Palermo
In July 1992, more than 1,500 soldiers armed with automatic weapons took up positions on every street corner of Palermo to combat what was then the peak of Sicily’s mafia wars.
This is exactly why for so long, many didn’t view Palermo as a destination safe for tourists. But over the last two decades the hold of the mafia in Palermo has weakened.
The No Mafia tour is a unique walking tour that teaches about the Mafia and the civil Anti-Mafia movement whilst walking through the picturesque historic centre. It’s a must-do in Palermo especially for those interested in the history and current status of Sicilian Mafia.
Sicilian Cuisine: What to Eat in Palermo
It isn’t just about what you must see in Palermo, it’s about what you must eat. Sicily is famous for its distinctive food. Yes, you can have the Italian staples (pizza and pasta of course) but it’s important to know exactly what to eat in Palermo specifically, because there you’ll find Sicilian dishes that originate from the region.
Here’s what to eat in Palermo:
Pasta con le sarde
If you enjoy fish, this dish is for you! Pasta con le sarde is pasta served with olive oil, onions, sardines and anchovies. Sometimes wild fennel, saffron, pine nuts, or raisins are added to flavour the dish, and it’s often topped with toasted breadcrumbs.
Arancini are a Sicilian food staple: rice balls which are typically coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. They are always stuffed with something delicious like mozzarella, ham, or peas.
Most cafes and bakeries in Palermo will sell arancini. The best time to get your arancini is first thing in the morning – they are nice and fresh, and will give you the perfect boost to kick start your day of sightseeing!
Cannoli are a decadent staple: tube-shaped shells of pastry dough, with a creamy ricotta filling. Small candied fruits, chocolate chips, or pistachios are sometimes mixed into the cheese mixture.
Cannoli originates from Palermo specifically, where it was prepared during Carnevale season as a symbol of fertility. Pop into a bakery to grab a cannoli – Spinnato’s is a good one in Palermo.
Another dessert that originates in Sicily, granita is semi-frozen and made of ice and sugar. It’s typically flavoured with local ingredients, like fresh lemons. The way granita is served varies from city to city in Sicily, but it’s often had with coffee or brioche.
When deciding what to eat in Palermo, of course go for some traditional dishes. But, I can guarantee every meal will be fantastic regardless of what you eat. Some of my best meals in Palermo have come from street food stands in busy markets!
Day Trips From Palermo
There a several day trips from Palermo that are worth doing if you have the time to fit them in. Day trips from Palermo are easiest done if you have rented a car, but most of these spots can also be accessed by bus or train.
Explore the coastal city Cefalù
Cefalù (pronounced shef-a-loo) is a coastal beach city just under an hour driving from Palermo. Cefalù is the perfect day trip from Palermo because you can make the trip by train as well as by car. The city is small and has a beautiful beach if you’re in need of some relaxation.
Cefalù is also known for its Norman cathedral, a 12th-century building with elaborate Byzantine mosaics and twin towers. Nearby, the Mandralisca Museum is home to archaeological exhibits. And, be sure to swing by Piazza Duomo, the perfect place for a coffee or aperol spritz.
If you are feeling up to a climb, head up La Rocca: a craggy mountain that once had a Norman castle at its summit. The 284m climb will include a visit to the ruins of Tempio di Diana, as well as incredible views of Cefalù’s Old Town and the sparkling blue sea. After climbing La Rocca, reward yourself with a plate of pasta from Pasta & Pasti.
Visit the ancient temples of Segesta
The Temples of Segesta are Doric temples that were built by the Elymians, and Indigenous population of Sicily, and they date back to around 430 BC. Perched on a hill, the temples look very Greek, and are impressively preserved.
There are three specific sites to visit: The Doric Temple, the Segesta Theatre, and the Sanctuary of Mango. The temples make for a great day trip from Palermo because they are only a 1 hour drive from the city!
Explore the Cathedral of Monreale
Monreale is a town and commune just 7km’s away from the centre of Palermo. But, because it is up on a hill, it can take some time to reach the town.
Monreale is home to one of the greatest existing examples of Norman architecture: a cathedral, built beginning in 1174 by William II of Sicily. The cathedral’s detailed mosaics are super impressive, making a trip to the hill-side town of Monreale an essential day trip while in Palermo. After exploring the cathedral, there are plenty of cute lunch spots in the town’s main piazza.
The best way to visit Monreale is by bus. You can go by car, but parking can be tricky especially if you go in the summer when it is busy.
There are two busses that will take you there: Bus number 389 which departs from Piazza Indipendenza or another bus run by Azienda Siciliana Transporti (AST) which leaves from the train station. The trip is about 1 hour each direction because of traffic. Be sure to bring change with you to pay the fare, which is 1,40 euro each way.
Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
Absolutely! Palermo has such a distinct feel to it when compared to other Italian cities. It’s a little bit grittier and a tad bit louder, but that’s exactly what makes it special.
Have I convinced you to check out these must sees in Palermo, Sicily? Tell me in the comments, and pin this post for later.
Erin has been traveling for over a decade, both solo, and with her partner. She’s now traveled to countries across 6 continents, and has lived in 2 countries abroad. Erin also hosts the travel podcast, Curious Tourism, where she interviews travel industry thought leaders and experts about responsible tourism. Learn more about Erin, and get in touch with her, here.