My first trip to Sicily landed me in Palermo. I didn’t know anything about the area—all I knew was that there was some amazing food available and it was very different than other parts of Italy I had seen. However, I soon found out there was more to Palermo than I had thought, and also that there were a number of things to do.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about visiting Palermo was the fact that it had a nice blend of food culture and history—plus, there are also some incredible beaches. I soon found that Sicily was very different than northern Italy (which warrants its own post). There’s a little something for everyone, but I do recommend checking out other areas of Italy before heading south.
Here are some of the highlights I would recommend for those visiting Palermo for the first time.
1. The Norman Palace
As the stronghold of the Norman domination of Sicily, this opulent palace was the imperial seat of the Kingdom of Sicily for a few hundred years. It’s located at the highest point of the center of the city, and it was redesigned by the Spanish Bourbons to make it even more fancy. It’s also one of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites in the area, and it’s worth spending an afternoon marveling at the wealth the owners of the palace had.
Piazza Indipendenza 1, +39 091 626 2833
2. Teatro Massimo
Located in the heart of the city of Palermo, the Teatro Massimo was a wonder when it was built. It still remains one of the largest opera houses in Europe, and it can seat over 1,300 people. You can take a tour and gain some knowledge on the neoclassical architecture, or you can attend one of the many performances that take place here throughout the year.
Piazza Verdi 1, +39 091 605 3521
3. Chiesa del Gesu
This church is a bit tucked away from the main drag, but it’s definitely worth considering a walking tour in order to find it. The well-balanced design offers some of the most incredible carvings in Italy. As with most Jesuit churches, the more ornate the better, and a rather plain façade gives way to an intricate and delicate interior. It’s also nearby the local market, where you can grab a glass of the famous Sicilian orange juice.
Piazza Casa Professa 21, +39 091 332213
4. Street food walking tour
After all these churches, it’s time to eat some food! You can make the decision to walk around on your own, or you can choose to book a tour. Much of this can depend on how much time you have and if you have any dietary restrictions. I highly recommend completely stepping outside the typical foods you would expect from Sicily (cannoli) and looking to expand your palate a bit.
Here are some companies I recommend for food tours:
5. Palazzo Conte Federico
Another day, another palace. This offers a great experience for those who need an afternoon activity that allows you to enjoy some art. If you are so inclined, you can also spend a few nights within the palace itself—giving you a chance to experience what it’s like to live like Sicilian royalty. Regardless, it’s an intimate museum within the ancient Roman walls that helps you to escape the hustle and bustle of the city of Palermo.
Piazza Conte Federico 2, +39 091 651 1881
6. Mondello Beach
There are a number of beautiful beaches near Palermo, but if you plan on seeing one while you are visiting, make sure to check out Spiaggia di Mondello. You can take a cheap taxi or the bus system right to the boardwalk. It’s one of the cleanest beaches I’ve seen, with white sand and jade-colored water. It’s also a cultural opportunity to people watch the locals tanning and taking a day to relax.
Viale Regina Elena, Mondello
7. Santuario Santa Rosalia
Take the afternoon and head up to Monte Pellegrino, where you can see the church built into a cave meant to honor the patron saint of Palermo. You can take the local bus or a taxi to the top, or if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can research some of the hiking trails that go up and down the mountain. Personally, I’ve never seen a Catholic church quite like this, and the views over the city were just stunning.
Via Pietro Bonanno, +39 339 870 6117
8. Cattedrale di Palermo
One more church (I promise this is the last one)! This church echoes the Norman style that you can see at the Norman Palace since they were built around the same time. It also offers a climb to the top, where you can get some excellent views of the city. It’s a large church, so you might want to spend an afternoon to enjoy the architecture before heading out for a nice dinner in the city center.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, +39 091 334373
9. La Vucciria market
Whether you are looking to buy some souvenirs or you want to try some local delicacies, the market is still the best place to find what you want. This is the most popular market in Palermo, and it’s open every day except Sunday. You’ll find a variety of fruits, veggies, and seafood, but there are also handicrafts on sale. Make sure you arrive early in order to haggle for the best stuff!
10. Catacombs of the Capuchins
You might think you’ve seen catacombs in Rome and Paris, but Palermo also has an impressive collection of, erm, dead people. It’s estimated that over 8,000 people are buried at this site. It’s cheap to enter, but remember to bring a flashlight or your cell phone if you want to read some of the plaques describing some of the burial techniques. Perfect thing to do on a hot afternoon and if you are interested in the macabre.
Piazza Cappuccini 1, +39 031 652 7389
Have you ever been to Palermo? Have any tips for first timers?