If you have read the history of Palermo, you’ve realized there is something to see in every corner of the city. Despite the city being famous all over the world for Mafia, food, and sea, in truth, Palermo has a great history with an enviably vast cultural heritage. The regional capital is massive, and though you won’t be able to get it all, I’ll try to give you hit the highlights. Following is what the 15 Must-See Palermo sights and attractions are.
1. Palermo Cathedral
Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Cathedral of Palermo embodies the cultural and historical background of Italy and its past dominations. First constructed for Christian worship in 600, it was converted into a mosque by the Saracens in 800, and then transformed back into a Christian church in 1100 by the Normans. This surreal mixture of styles makes the Duomo unique. Inside, you will find pieces of work of Gagini and Villareille, as well as many treasures, such as the crown of Empress Constance of Aragon and the famous Assumption of Mary of Velasquez. Every ten paces, you have to stop and admire something.
The church is the primary place of Catholic worship in the city and Roman Catholic Metropolitan Archdiocese of Palermo. Since July 3, 2015, the Cathedral is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of special cultural and physical significance.
weekdays from 07.00 to 19.00
holidays from 08.00 to 13.00 and from 16.00 to 19.00.
The visits are suspended during the sacred liturgies, prayer meetings and events held in the Cathedral.
Tour arrangements for groups
Organized groups (nine visitors) with guides will be equipped with radio guidance system (wireless microphones and radio headphones).
MONUMENTAL AREA (treasure – vault, royal tombs area, roofs)
weekdays from 09.00 to 17.30
holidays from 10.00 to 12.30 (only royal tombs area).
N.B. Spaces may be closed without notice due to liturgical service.
Entry into the Temple is free (except the MONUMENTAL AREA consists of the local treasury and crypt. From the area of the royal tombs and roofs for whose visit is required to pay an entrance fee).
Cost of the ticket for the whole area (treasure – crypt, tombs and roofs):
€ 7.00 adults
€ 5.00 children from 11 to 17 years
Cost of the ticket for treasure, crypt and tombs:
€ 3.00 adults
€ 1.00 children from 11 to 17 years
€ 2.00 over sixty-five
€ 0.50 children from 6 to 10 years
Cost of the ticket for only treasure and crypt:
Cost of the ticket for only royal tombs:
Cost of admission to only area roofs:
€ 5.00 adults
€ 3.00 children from 11 to 17 years
the entrance to the Treasury and Crypt is from within the Church (right door of the Chapel of St. Rosalia) or the front door in the garden of the Cathedral (during liturgical celebrations).[
At the entrance of the local treasury and crypt and the entrance to the area of the royal tombs.
2. Teatro Massimo
Don’t think for a second that it is just any theater. The Teatro is the biggest in the Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe (the third following the Opéra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Austria). A visit to the theater is an absolute must-do.
The Teatro Massimo of Palermo was constructed in the late nineteenth century, designed by Giovan Battista Basile, and completed by his son, Ernesto Basile, the pioneers of Art Nouveau in Italy. It reached a great deal of fame throughout the world for its fabulous style, inspired by the classic art and Greeks temples. The result was a massive building, skillfully decorated, whose ambition was to compete not only with the great Italian music temples, but also with those in Europe.
Basile Jr. enlisted the help of the most famous contemporary painters, such as Ducrot for the wainscoting and Ettore De Maria Bergler for painting. At that time, Palermo revolved around the fortunes of the Florio family and their unique lifestyle. Thus, Palermo – which was considered the capital of the Florio’s kingdom – must inevitably have had its opera house for entertainment, as well as an informal club to discuss business and political life.
In 1897, Teatro Massimo was inaugurated with Falstaff opera by Giuseppe Verdi and established itself as one of the most important Italian theaters for the quantity and quality of the operas represented. On the architrave of the porch, it is engraved an inscription: “Art renews people and reveals life. The enjoyment of the shows is empty where its purpose is not to prepare for the future.”
In 1990, the auditorium was the setting for some scenes in the film The Godfather – Part III directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, and Sofia Coppola.
Here you can see the theater from webcam:
3. Chiesa della Martorana
Step inside the Church and your body will seize up with ecstasy. It beautifully juxtaposes two styles of architecture, compelling you to snap thousands of pictures.
The church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio or parish of San Nicolò dei Greci, well known as Chiesa Della Martorana, overlooks the Piazza Bellini in Palermo. It’s worth a look for those interested in Byzantine art. The Chiesa belongs to the Eparchy of Piana Degli Albanesi and officiates the Liturgy according to the Byzantine rite. It is one of the most fascinating Byzantine churches that exists in Italy, dating back to the Middle Ages. In Italy, it testifies to the presence of the Orthodox religious culture and art, still present today. Albanians who took refuge in the island to escape Turkish persecution in Balkans spread the Orthodox creed. They have left their mark in icon paintings, religious ceremonies, language, and customs of the traditional Albanian colonies in the province of Palermo. Today, this community belongs to the Catholic Church, but the rite and traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The God’s house is famed for its spectacular mosaics and the variety of styles that it includes. As time went by, it was enriched by various other cultures. Since July 3, 2015, it has been part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as part of the ”Arab-Norman Palermo, Monreale and Cefalu” route.
4. Palazzo dei Normanni
Palazzo Dei Normanni (Norman Palace) – formerly the Royal Palace – is the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. It is one of the most visited sights of Sicily and the oldest royal house in Europe. During the centuries, it housed the kings of Sicily and was the imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV. On the first floor of this majestic building is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), a three-aisled basilica situated within the architectural complex of the Norman Palace. It makes you and your foolish lifespan feel insignificant when you see this infinitive beauty. The chapel is entirely adorned in the upper part of Byzantine mosaics; they are among the most important in Sicily and represent the Christ Pantocrator blessing. The church is dedicated to the Apostle Saint Peter.
The first construction of Palazzo Dei Normanni, the Qasr – meaning Palace or Castle – is linkable to the Arabs. Then, Normans transformed it into a multifunctional complex that enhanced the power of the monarchy.
5. Monte Pellegrino
Monte Pellegrino is the mountain where all Palermitans turn their gaze lovingly every day. Over the centuries, it was a landmark for sailors and emigrants who departed or were returning from afar. It is not by chance that the mount was celebrated by Goethe as the most beautiful promontory in the world. The mountain is 606 meters high, and it is home to the sanctuary of Saint Rosalia, the patron of Palermo. Saint Rosalia – also called La Santuzza or “The Little Saint” – lived in Palermo between 1130 and 1170.
The cult of Santa Rosalia in Palermo is sacred. The sanctuary is settled inside a cave, where Rosalia lived the last years of her life. If you want to do something like a real “Palermitano”, then don’t miss the “acchianata”, namely, the walk up of the mountain from the old road. Mystical, yes, but also invigorating!
6. Quattro Canti
Quattro Canti (The Four Corners) is the real center of Palermo. It is an octagonal square, Piazza Vagliena, formed by the intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda roads. In the four square’s corners, there are four buildings adorned with statues, fountains, and columns, representing the four districts of Palermo: Albergheria, Capo, La Loggia, and Kalsa. At the center of each of these buildings are the four statues that represent those who once were the patron saints of the city: Cristina, Ninfa, Oliva, and Agata. Once you get into the square, you’re confronted with what the word “ancient” really means.
7. Piazza Pretoria
The monumental Renaissance fountain has been proudly displayed in the beautiful Piazza Pretoria since 1581. Charming buildings, old churches (San Giuseppe dei Teatini e Santa Caterina), and the Praetorian Palace frame the square. Fontana Pretoria was made in the sixteenth century by sculptor, Camilliani, for the Florentine villa of Don Pedro de Toledo and later bought by the Senate of Palermo. Inside are allegorical statues, representing mythological gods and the four rivers of Palermo: Oreto, Kemonia, Papireto, and Maredolce. Due to the nudity of the figures, the fountain was renamed “Fontana Della Vergogna” (Fountain of Shame), or referring to the square “Piazza Della Vergogna” (Square of Shame). Considered among the most beautiful fountains in Italy (in fact, the Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari called it “stupendous source”), the magnificent architectural construction, after a long restoration, has returned to shine again. Note the Fontana Pretoria among the things to see in Palermo.
8. Duomo di Monreale
Once you step into the house of worship, you will find yourself throwing around a lot of superlatives words, like “amazing”, “incredible”, “stupefying”, “sublime”, and further so.
At about 7 km from Palermo, in the town of Monreale, stands the beautiful cathedral in Arab – Norman style dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a destination for tourists and pilgrims from around the world. The grandiose religious building was erected in 1174 at Norman King William II’s behest after the Madonna appeared in a dream and asked him to raise a temple in her honor.
Magnificent golden mosaics of Byzantine school (XII and XIII c.) cover the walls of the Cattedrale di Monreale, depicting scenes from the Bible and stories of the Church. In the apse, there is the central figure of Christ Pantocrator.
Among the many treasures that the Duomo kept, which deserve mention include: the high altar by the silversmith Valadier (1711), the sarcophagi of William I and William II, and the six keyboards organ of the twentieth century. Don’t miss the Chapel of the Crucifix, an excellent example of Sicilian Baroque, which houses the Treasury of the Cathedral with the reliquary, containing a thorn from Christ’s crown. Also worth visiting is the monastery of the Benedictine convent (XII sec.) next to the cathedral.
9. Stanze al Genio
Inaugurated in December 2008, the unique Stanze al Genio contains one of the largest collections of Neopolitan and Sicilian majolica in Europe with over 2,300 specimens (from the late sixteenth century to the early twentieth century) and other smaller collections of contemporary and modern art. The Museum rooms are housed in an elegant and private historical building, called Palazzo Torre or Piraino, in the historic center of Palermo. The museum space is divided into four beautiful rooms (entrance hall, dining kitchen, dining room and flower neoclassical) also used for holding cultural side events.
10. The Capuchin Catacombs
Although it’s not rational, we humans possess the irresistible urge to be terrified. We simply love it. That’s the reason we pay money to watch horror movies. In the Capuchin catacombs, you will experience the long-lasting sense of dread, which worsens with each step.
The underground cemetery of the Capuchin Monastery, wrongly known as Catacombe di Palermo (the Catacombs of Palermo), preserves the mortal remains of monks, famous, wealthy, and ordinary people. There are about eight thousand mummified bodies deposed from the seventeenth to the end of the nineteenth century in the tunnels built under the convent and in the adjacent church dedicated to the Lady of Peace.
The climate conditions of these burial sites and methods used by the friars to embalm corpses have allowed the bodies to be preserved almost intact and very recognizable.
Among the corpses of the Capuchin Catacombs, the one of Rosalia Lombardo – visible in the Chapel of Santa Rosalia – is very famous as she still seems alive, so that she has earned the name of Sleeping Beauty. Born in Palermo in 1918 and died of pneumonia on Dec. 6, 1920, the child was one of the last people to be eligible for burial in the crypt. Embalming, strongly supported by the heartbroken father, was curated by Professor Alfredo Salafia, the one who embalmed Francesco Crispi. The Catacombe is a sight to see.
11. Palazzo Steri – Chiaramonte
Palazzo Chiaramonte, well known as Palazzo Steri (it derived from Greek “Hosterium”, and it means “fortified palace”), was built by the powerful Chiaramonte Family, and it is one of the most important attractions in Palermo. From the late 15th century to 1517, it was the residence of the Spanish viceroys, and then from 600 to 1782, it was the seat of the Holy Inquisition. In the square outside, government opponents were executed. Today, Palazzo Steri is a museum and houses the rectorate of the University of Palermo. Among the artworks, it lodges the famous Renato Guttuso’s Vucciria.
12. La Zisa
The name Zisa probably derives from Al-Aziz (which in Arabic means noble, glorious, and magnificent). It dates back to the 12th century and is one of the best examples of Arab-Norman domination in Sicily. It was the summer residence of the king, and it was erected by the Normans, drawing inspiration from the magnificent houses of their Arab predecessors. Today, the Zisa Castle houses the Museum of Islamic Art, which contains works from Sicily and the Mediterranean area, produced between the 9th and 12th centuries.
The area is renowned for the beach – which is one of the most sought-after in Sicily – and for its many Art Nouveau villas. These buildings (many by the famous architect, Ernesto Basile) are among the best examples of Art Nouveau in Italy and Europe.
Mondello has many accommodation facilities, exclusive clubs, restaurants, shops, a marina, and an old bathhouse (one of the landmarks of the city). It is home to the World Festival on the Beach.
14. Outdoor Markets
The street markets are arguably part of Palermo History. In museums, villas, and gardens, you can recognize all the features of the art history and literature of Palermo; the carnival atmosphere of old markets tell us the story from a different point of view. The foreign rulers have left their mark on the city in different ways, and the “culture of market” undoubtedly comes from the Arab tradition of the bazaar. Walking through the streets of Ballaro, Vucciria, Capo or Borgo Vecchio means to enter in colorful and exciting spaces that accentuate and stimulate all five senses all the time like few other places can do.