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Best Things to Do in Palermo, Sicily

things to do in palermo

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Paying a visit to the Italian island of Sicily and wondering where to explore? Well, you can’t skip its incredible capital, Palermo, as it’s a busy city buzzing full of flavors, aromas, and experiences just waiting for you.

Palermo is surrounded by the Mediterranean, so you know that the food is going to be spectacular here. Not to mention the immense cultural diversity this vibrant city has on offer. From the grand Palermo Cathedral to the delectable street food, there are so many fantastic things to do in Palermo, Sicily.

This is definitely an underrated city — a melting pot of cultures, contrasting identities, art galleries, and bustling markets. Keep reading to make the best of a trip to this ancient capital, one of the best places to visit in Sicily.

Explore the Historic Center

palermo things to do

If you’re looking for what to do in Palermo, you could start by wandering through the ancient city center, which is full of unique and historic buildings. 

Quattro Canti / Piazza Vigliena

palermo activities

Standing at the intersection of Palermo’s two most notable streets, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, is Piazza Vigliena, a stunning Baroque square. Named after a Spanish Viceroy, this piazza was constructed in 1609, when the city was under Aragonese rule. 

It’s also known as Quattro Canti or “four corners”, as each of its corners has an 18th-century palace and a different figure representing the four Spanish kings that ruled over Sicily. This square is definitely worth visiting if you want to learn more about the history of the Sicilian capital. Moreover, it’s also great to appreciate the ornate façades and architectural styles of Quattro Canti.

Piazza Pretoria

what to do in palermo

Another highlight of visiting Palermo’s historic center is the stunning and inviting Piazza Pretoria. It’s home to many nude statues of mermaids, humans, and Greek gods and the exquisite Fontana Pretoria – a magnificent fountain.

Once known as the “Square of Shame” due to the opinions held by Catholic society at the time for the gratuitous nudity, it’s now a great way to experience Sicilian culture. What’s more, right next to the fountain is Palazzo Pretorio – which houses the mayor’s office. You can tour this historic building for free, which is a terrific opportunity to see its wide collection of artifacts.

Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria

things to do in palermo

If you’re wondering what to see in Palermo for lovers of Baroque art and interior design, then a visit to Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina will satisfy those needs. This picturesque church boasts a grand western-facing façade, Corinthian pilasters, and various frescoes, paintings, and sculptures done by prolific Italian artists. This list includes Filippo Randazzo, Antonello Gagini, and Vito D’Anna.

Built in the early 14th century, the church honors Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who features on several artworks within the building. However, it offers more than just ornate decorations and detailed pieces; it also has a brilliant view over its surrounding piazzas. To access these vistas, go to the convent’s rooftop terrace, where you can look over Piazza Pretoria and Piazza Bellini.

Chiesa del Gesù di Casa Professa

Another spectacular church in the historic city center is Chiesa del Gesù di Casa Professa. Why this? Well, it has some vibrant frescoes, ornate marble finishes, and stunning ceiling details. Decorated in a Baroque style, it’s adorned with marble sculptures, a majestic organ, and extravagant patterns that will make your jaw drop.

Originally constructed between 1564 and 1578 by the Jesuits, this church is full of history. Unfortunately, it suffered some major damage from bombs in World War II, but it remains in fantastic shape and should definitely be on your Palermo sightseeing list.

Botanic Gardens

palermo things to do botanic gardens

Take a short walk from Palermo’s Central Train Station, and you’ll reach the Orto Botanico di Palermo, a stunning botanical garden. Visiting Palermo without checking out this stunning collection of rare and unusual plants would be a mistake, as it’s a calming way to slow down after sightseeing.

The garden currently has around 12,000 different species, from endemic trees to tropical plants, and covers over 25 acres. There are also various sections, including medicinal plants, a greenhouse, useful plants, a tropical orchard, and even some historical collections.

So, whether you’re coming here to sit down and enjoy a book or learn more about some groovy plants, it’s a terrific way to detox from the busy city energy.

Tour suggestion: This Historic walking tour of Palermos Monuments and Markets includes a visit to the Palermo Cathedral and a wander through the ancient Capo market.

Street Food and Local Markets

One of the top things to do in Palermo is to try the delectable Sicilian street food, whether you’re on a food tour or at one of its bustling markets.

Palermo Street Food

palermo activities street food

This wonderful place in Southern Italy is famed for its exceptional street food stalls and local wines. That said, here are some local specialties that you must try: 

Sfincione – This delectable focaccia-like bread is a Sicilian version of pizza. Traditionally, it is covered with tomato sauce flavored with hard cheese, onions, oregano, and anchovies. Cooked in a wood fire oven, it comes out crispy and with a thicker, rounder crust than pizza.

Cannoli – This mouthwatering sweet treat was born in the Sicilian capital and is said to have originated from the Saracens, an ancient Arabic group, who brought sugar cane to the island. It is a deep-fried pastry that is filled with a sweet ricotta mixture. Other common toppings include crushed-up pistachios and chocolate chips.

Arancini – Now, unless you’ve lived under a rock, you’ve most likely heard of arancini. These are rice balls that are often stuffed with mozzarella before being coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Talk about the perfect bite!

Pane e panelle – Another exceptional fried dish is pane e panelle, which is a chickpea flour fritter served in a soft, luscious bread roll. Often, you’ll find these fritters garnished with finely chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon.

Stigghiola – This street food dish is a must-try for carnivores, as it is lamb innards (most of the time) wrapped around a leek or stuck on a skewer and grilled. Originally made as a dish for those in poverty, now it is celebrated as a charming delicacy.

Polpo bollito – Since Palermo is on an island, it would be weird not to feature some delectable seafood. This dish features boiled octopus topped with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley.

Tour suggestion: On this Palermo Street Food Tour you get to taste a variety of delicious Sicilian treats and drinks including Sfincione, Arancina, and of course Sicilian cannoli.

LISTEN: To our podcast on the delicious food of the island, in Tastes of Sicily.

Palermo’s Markets

what to do in palermo markets

Another terrific way to experience Palermo street food is by visiting one of its bustling markets. Here are the three main ones:

Ballarò Market – Just a few blocks from the Norman Palace is Palermo’s busiest market. It is packed full of clothing, household goods, and street food stalls and is open all week from 07:00 until 19:30. It’s a brilliant way to take in the street scenes, smells, and noises of this major European city.

Capo Market – Running along Via Mura di Porta Carini and Via Sant’Agostino, this market has a fantastic atmosphere, where you can get fruit and vegetables, freshly gutted seafood, and locally farmed meat. It’s open all week from 07:00 until 20:00 (except for Wednesdays and Sundays when it closes at 13:00.

Vucciria Market – Found in Piazza Caracciolo and close to Piazza San Domenico, this market is full of energy, from sellers’ cries to echoing music at night. This is perhaps Palermo’s most charming mercato, with some delicious street food and some of the freshest fish, thanks to its proximity to La Cala. It is open from Monday to Saturday, from dawn until 14:00.

Sicilian Cuisine Cooking Class

things to do palermo cooking class

If you’re not so keen on taking a street food tour but still want to experience Sicilian cuisine in a traditional way – why not take a cooking class? It’s one of the best things to do in Palermo for food lovers or even if you just want to improve your culinary abilities.

There are quite a few options to choose from, so whether you want to learn how to make homemade pasta or cannoli – it’s all possible.

Tour suggestion: This Palermo half-day cooking class includes a tour of Capo Market, plus local wines and a four-course meal. 

Relax on the Beach

Of course, you can’t visit Palermo without spending a day (or more) at one of its many stunning beaches. Here are just a few of its best options:

Mondello

mondello beach palermo things to do

Perhaps the most well-known beach in Palermo is Mondello Beach, which is around 25 minutes from the city center. Now this is definitely the perfect place to come to enjoy crystal-clear waters, a stretching coastline, and white sands to sunbathe on.

Feeling a bit peckish after some fun in the sun? Mondello offers lovely cafés and restaurants for a drink or traditional Sicilian lunch. One of the more popular options is Badalamenti Cucina e Bottega, serving Italian meals and fresh seafood.

Now, be warned this is one of Palermo’s busiest beaches, especially from July until August. So, if you want a more relaxing beach visit, between September and November is a better time to come.

Tour suggestion: If you want to experience the seaside without worrying about the fuss of transportation, this boat tour of the gulf is an exceptional option. Exploring Grotta dell’Olio and trying some Sicilian wine are included.

Addaura

If you’re looking for a more chic beach experience, consider taking a short bus ride from Palermo to Addaura Beach. It’s southeast of Mondello and is famous for its brilliant beach clubs and scuba opportunities.

It’s also about 25 minutes from Palermo Centrale and has some incredible views of Monte Pellegrino. What’s more, it has some dramatic rock formations – which are ideal for your Insta feed and to make your friends jealous.

As mentioned, Addaura is idyllic for those who enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving, as the water is crystal clear, and there are plenty of tours on offer.

Capo Gallo

capo gallo palermo activities

Another unique beach near Palermo is Capo Gallo, which is around 35 minutes from the city center. It’s also in the Capo Gallo Nature Reserve, so it’s perfect for outdoor enthusiasts.

Even better, it’s one of the less crowded beaches near Palermo, so that’s fantastic if you’re looking for a more relaxed time and appreciating some brilliant natural beauty. You’ll need to pay admission to enter the nature reserve and access the beach, but it’s well worth it for a tranquil experience.

NOTE: Capo Gallo itself isn’t your typical beach, as it’s full of pebbles, so keep that in mind.

Capaci

We can’t talk about beaches near Palermo without mentioning Capaci Beach – a charming spot around 40 minutes from the city. This is a popular beach amongst Sicilians, as it has some lovely restaurants next to it, as well as white sands and an expansive stretch.

It’s also one of the most suitable beaches to visit if you’re traveling in Sicily with kids, as the waters are calm here and there are lots of private clubs available. In fact, that brings up a great point – if you come in summer, this beach gets very crowded, so the paid beach area is better for families. These often come with sunbeds and umbrellas, so you can sunbathe in peace.

Visit the Palermo Cathedral

what to do in palermo cathedral

When visiting this magnificent city, one of the best things to see in Palermo is the Cattedrale di Palermo. This is probably the top tourist attraction, and for good reason, as it’s an architectural highlight of Sicily.

Built in 1184 by the Normans, this Christian church is an ornate masterpiece with gold finishings, an impressive exterior, and multiple design styles, including Gothic, Arabic, and Medieval. It’s right next to the Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel, so let’s get into more about those two.

Palazzo dei Normanni

Palazzo dei Normanni, or the Norman Palace, is one of the oldest residences in Europe and the highest point in Palermo. What’s more, it currently houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly and is a stunning representation of Sicily’s architectural beauty.

It’s no wonder that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site as this palace shows off multiple eras of the city’s history, with the Normans constructing the Palatine Chapel in 1130, the Byzantine art, and a Medieval exterior. It’s open from 08:15 until 17:40 from Monday to Saturday, and admission costs 8.50 euros per person.

Palatine Chapel

things to do in palermo palatine chapel

Next up, the ornate Palatine Chapel, which is actually inside the Norman Palace, is a must-see in Palermo, Sicily. With its granite columns, gilded Corinthian capitals, elaborate pulpit, and Byzantine mosaics, there is a lot to take in.

However, it’s absolutely worth it as it’s a wonderful way to take in the diversity of Sicily’s heritage and culture. Additionally, it goes without saying that you should dress modestly when visiting the chapel to respect this space.

Tour suggestion: If you want a more in-depth experience of these two aforementioned spots, this Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel tour is ideal.

READ: Our guide on Where to stay in Palermo.

Discover Sicilian Culture

Sicilian culture is more than just incredible churches and chic palazzos; there are also some brilliant entertainment options in the forms of puppet shows, theater performances, and art museums. Let’s get into it!

Puppets

palermo things to do puppets

Palermo, Sicily, is known for many things, but one thing you might not have known it for is puppets. Yes, puppetry is a centuries-old tradition in this ancient city, and one of the fun things to do in Palermo is to catch a puppet show. 

The best spot to catch a performance is at the Opera dei Pupi, which has been open for over 200 years. These shows are a fun way to experience a unique tradition, plus they don’t cost too much at 10 euros.

TOP TIP: If you want another terrific way to learn about Palermo’s puppetry, then pay a visit to the Museo delle Marionette. This museum houses one of the biggest private puppet collections in Europe.

Teatro Massimo

palermo activities teatro massimo

A visit to Palermo isn’t complete without checking out the largest opera house in Italy, Teatro Massimo. Now, not only is this an architectural masterpiece on the outside, but its elegant galleries and staircases are just as stunning inside.

Moreover, its Great Hall has the perfect acoustics and the Symbolic Wheel, which both improve the performance-viewing experience. And with its classic red armchairs, golden ornaments, and Murano chandeliers, this theater is doused with elegance.

So, if you’re looking for what to do in Palermo, Italy, in the evening, catching a music concert, an opera show, or a play is highly recommended. Tickets start from 10 euros per person.

Tour suggestion: If you’re more interested in learning about the architecture and history of the opera house, this Teatro Massimo guided tour is a magnificent option.

DISCOVER: More Things to do in Sicily and Palermo.

Stanze al Genio

One fun thing to see in Palermo, Italy, for art aficionados is the Museo delle Maioliche, found in the Stanze al Genio. This is a collection of over 5,000 tiles known as maiolica – which date as far back as the 15th century.

These tiles range in a vibrant range of colors, and are situated in a picturesque apartment with verdant doorways and antique furnishings – which only maximizes the viewing experience. Stanze al Genio is open from Tuesday to Sunday by appointment only, and admission costs 10 euros per person.

Palazzo Butera

what to do in palermo palazzo butera

Another one of the best things to do in Palermo, Italy, is visit the vibrant Palazzo Butera, which was recently renovated and opened. It’s a massive royal residence built between the 18th and 20th centuries.

This incredible building only gets better with the decorations that are inside it. It’s adorned with 19th-century paintings, Art Nouveau glassware, Tiffany lamps, and Fabergé silver sculptings – which all come from the collection of Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi.

It’s a great way to spend a few hours in the city, which, paired with a meander in the botanic gardens or around La Cala, is certainly a day well spent. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday between 10:00 and 20:00, and tickets cost 10 euros per person.

LISTEN: To our podcast on Exploring Palermo.

Get Spooked at the Capuchin Chapel

Not far from the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the Norman Palace is the Capuchin Catacombs – one of the most unique Palermo tourist attractions – for an interesting reason. They house around 8,000 bodies, which have been well-preserved and dressed up in their smartest outfits.

So, the Capuchin Catacombs are definitely not an attraction in Palermo for everyone, but it does represent the importance Sicilians have on keeping connected with their dead relatives. There are bodies here that date back to 1560 and have been the final resting place for all kinds of people, including monks, doctors, and even celebrities.

Tour suggestion: To learn more about the first and last person buried in the catacombs, as well as see the Spanish painter Velazquez’s mummy, this Capuchin Catacombs tour is an informative learning opportunity. 

Take a Day Trip

Now that you’ve experienced a lot of what the city has to offer, day trips from Palermo, Sicily, are an awesome way to see some of the nearby towns. Here are four great options:

Cefalù

things to do in palermo cefalu trip

One of the most popular day trips from Palermo is to the delightful fishing village of Cefalù – full of culture, atmosphere, and dining spots. Its most famous tourist attraction is the Cefalù Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What’s so magnificent about the Cathedral is its elaborate Byzantine mosaics and the Arab-Norman arches.

Erice

palermo things to do erice trip

If you want to experience a more ancient version of Sicily, then visiting Erice is ideal. It’s full of medieval castles, picturesque views, and a slower pace. A must-visit in this town is Castello di Venere, a Norman-built structure that’s surrounded by towers and an English-style garden.

Tour suggestion: If you’re looking for a wine-tasting tour, this Erice and Marsala day trip is a great option.

Agrigento

agrigento valley of the temples

On the other side of Sicily, you’ve got the stunning town of Agrigento, which is one of Sicily’s oldest cities and has an interesting history. You can witness this at the Valley of the Temples, which is home to a Greek theater and Museo Archeologico Regionale di Agrigento.

If you’d prefer to relax and do some sunbathing, visit one of the town’s expansive beaches, such as San Leone or Punta Bianca.

Tour suggestion: This tour of the Valley of the Temples includes a skip-the-line ticket at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Monreale

monreale trip

Monreale is full of lovely buildings and mesmerizing mosaics. You’ll definitely want to visit the Monreale Cathedral, which is an Italian national monument. Built in 831, it’s a well-preserved building that’s full of cultural diversity.

Tour suggestion: This walking tour of the Monreale Cathedral, Monastery, and mosaics is one of the best ways to experience this UNESCO World Heritage monument.

LISTEN: To our podcast on the best Excursions from Palermo.

Things to do in Palermo, Italy – Wrapped Up

what to do in palermo sicily

In Palermo, things to do aren’t in short supply. There is so much to see in this inspiring city, from exploring its cultural-diverse past to tasting some delectable food. All you have to do is book your flight to Palermo Airport and pack your bags. 

You certainly won’t regret traveling to Palermo, but you might not be sure where to stay or when to come here. If so, this Sicily travel guide has all the info you’ll need.

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