I’ve written a brief history for Palermo (and even though I’m sure you’ve already read it) there is a lot that most people don’t know about the culture and heritage of this great city. While traditionally we are best known for the food, the sea and the Sicilian Mafia, there is a lot more to Palermo than this. It isn’t a surprise to anyone living here that it’s the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018.
Palermo is known to most historians as the most conquered city in the world. It seems that countless powerful cultures have held positions in this area stretching out for thousands of years. Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians and Spaniards have all called this region home throughout the ages. Compared to the crooks (who look a lot like politicians) who run the city now, any of those other rulers might be deemed “the good ole’ days”. I digress, you don’t want to know about present day politics, you want history.
This capital city is the fifth largest in all of Italy, and it has one of the biggest historical centers found in all of Europe. Unless you plan on spending a lot of time in the city, you likely aren’t going to have enough time to appreciate all it has to offer. Fortunately for you, I’ve narrowed down a list of must-see sights.
Here is an important tip: Choose a place to stay that is close to the attractions that you want to see the most. You will find the public transportation in Palermo to be a letdown, so stay close to what’s important to you. If you haven’t booked yet, have a look at the best areas to stay.
Want to know what to see in Palermo? Below you will find a list of the Top 15 tourist attractions in Palermo along with a brief description to help you choose among them.
1. Palermo Cathedral
This cathedral is an excellent representation of the history of Palermo through each of its former rulers.
This impressive structure was created in the year 600 as a place for Christian worship to take place. The Saracens would make it a mosque during their rule in 800. The Normans would convert it back into a Christian church when they ruled in 1100. The structure is loaded with impressive artwork and architecture. You will find paintings of Villareille and Gagini, along with treasures like the Assumption of Mary of Velasquez or Empress Constance of Aragon’s crown.
While there are churches that can dwarf this church in adornment, there is a cultural and historical significance to this sight that makes it one of the must-see places in all of Italy.
While today it is used as a place of Catholic worship, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the site as being culturally and physically significant back in 2015.
2. Teatro Massimo
This is no ordinary theater. This is the third largest theater in all of Europe (behind Opera National de Paris and the K.K. Hof-Opernhaus in Austria). This definitely needs to be on your must-do list of Palermo sightseeings. This is like Paris’s Eiffel Tower, you don’t come to Palermo and not see Teatro Massimo.
It was built in the late nineteenth century per the design of Sicilian architect Giovan Battista Basile. His son (Ernesto Basile) would be the one to actually complete the project though. It was themed expertly on the Greek temples and classical arts. This was done to compete on a global scale as one of the most expertly constructed, and magnificently adorned buildings.
Ernesto would call upon some of the most skilled painters of the time to help with the completion, including Ducrot and Ettore De Maria. At the time Palermo was deemed the center of the Florio family’s supposed kingdom and this theater would serve as both entertainment and functionality (meetings and political business) for the Florio Family affairs.
Since 1897, Teatro Massimo has been inaugurated with Falstaff Opera by Giuseppe Verdi. This would ensure that it would always be considered among the top Italian theaters for the quality and quantity of the operas that would grace its stage.
The architrave of the porch features an engraved inscription: Art renews people and renews life. The enjoyment of the shows is empty where its purpose is not to prepare for the future. Of course, no one knows for sure where the quote came from, but this is a highly debated issue.
Speaking of a good mystery, here’s another interesting story. When the theater was built, a church had to be torn down for the space to construct it. There is a legend that the first Mother Superior of the convent torn down also known as “the Monachella” (Little Nun) still roams the halls of the theater.
There are many reports from people throughout the years who have seen the nun wandering behind the scenes or moving through the underground areas. It is believed that those who are skeptical of her presence trip on a specific step while entering the theater. Be careful. If you like chasing ghosts though, you definitely should check out a haunted villa in Mondello.
One last thing about the theater is that in 1990, scenes from The Godfather –Part III were filmed within the building.
3. Chiesa della Martorana
Have you ever walked into a place and you just couldn’t move because you were so happy and excited? If you haven’t, you will soon know what that’s like when you enter this church. The juxtaposition of two distinct architectural styles will have you taking countless pictures.
This church has many names such as the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio or San Nicolo dei Greci, but no matter which of the three names you call it, it overlooks the Piazza Bellini in Palermo. If you are interested in the art and culture of the Byzantines, this is a must see spot for you.
This is one of the most impressive Byzantine churches in all of Italy, and it takes back into the Middle Ages. This is a structural testament to Orthodox culture and art from a religious realm. This religious presence began back with the Albanians who were fleeing persecution from Turkish lands and began to spread this religion throughout the region. This soon spread into paintings, ceremonies and languages. While the Catholic Church claims this church now, much of the rites performed within I are distinctly Eastern Orthodox.
There are breathtaking mosaics included inside from several different artistic styles. This is another church that UNESCO deemed historically significant for its par of the Arab-Norman Palermo, Monreale and Cefalu route.
4. Palazzo dei Normanni
The Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) was once known as the Royal Palace. Currently, is it where the Sicilian Regional Assembly gathers but it used to be the home to influential kings throughout Palermo’s history. While I won’t get into the idiocy that now presides from its hallowed halls, the history and culture within these grounds is unmistakable.
This is one of the most visited spots in all of Sicily. It is the oldest royal house in all of Europe as well, and was once the seat for many Sicilian kings and imperial leaders such as Frederick II and Conrad IV.
On the first floor of the Palace, you will find the Palantine Chapel (Cappella Palatina). Its infinite beauty will leave you breathless. It is ornately adorned every possible way it can be with impressive mosaics. The most noteworthy of these represent the Christ Pantocrator blessing. It is also important to note that this entire church was committed and dedicated to the Apostle Saint Peter.
While the Arabs might be credited with building the Palace (or Qasr to them), the Normans would be the driving force in what made it into what it is today.
5. Monte Pellegrino
This is a mountain that has served as a reverent landscape feature for Sicilians for centuries. It has served as a landmark to guide sailors home, and a final parting beautiful look to those emigrating across the seas to new lands. Standing at 606 meters high, it is the home of the Saint Rosalia Sanctuary. Saint Rosalia (La Santuzza [Little Saint]) is the patron of Palermo and lived here from 1130 to 1170.
The cult of Santa Rosalia in Palermo is sacred. This sanctuary exists within the very cave where Rosalia spent the last years of her life. If you want to do something truly authentic and special to the residents of Palermo, don’t skip out of the “acchianata.” This is a walk up the mountain from the old road that feels as surreal as it is.
6. Quattro Canti
Among the top things to visit is the Quattro Canti (Four Corners). This is an octagonal square that is constructed around the crucial intersection of the two main roads (Via Vittorio and Via Maqueda). In each of the corners is a building adorned with impressive statues, columns and fountains. They represent each of the four primary districts within Palermo (Albergheria, Capo, La Loggia and Kalsa). Each of the four buildings feature statues for the former patron saints of the city: Ninfa, Oliva, Agata and Cristina.
There is a lot of history contained within this small area, but there is also a lot of congestion and smog from vehicular pollution. There is so much vehicle traffic through this iconic spot that most of the street facing facades have turned black over the years. The municipality has not made the connection that these buildings are being ruined by the cars, but with any luck on day they will. I believe it was Buddha who said “patience is the greatest of prayers”, and that’s something I’m certainly praying for.
7. Piazza Pretoria
A fountain is the focal point of this plaza that is comprised mainly of charming buildings, churches and Praetorian Palace.
Still, the fountain is what draws in the most tourists. It was originally created in the 16th century for Don Pedro de Toledo, but it was later purchased by the Palermo Senate. Even though the work is a masterpiece representing mythical gods and the four Palermo rivers, the nudity of the figures has been controversial for centuries. In fact it was such an eyesore to the local old churches there that they perpetuated a now common nickname for the fountain ( and square itself) as the Fountain of Shame or Fontana Della Vergogna.
8. Duomo di Monreale
There are no real words to express the beauty that is contained within the walls of this church, but you will likely try your best. You might find all kinds of adjectives flowing out of your mouth as you soak it all in.
Only around 7 km from Palermo in Monreale is an Arab-Norman cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This is a huge attraction for those all around the world. This massive cathedral was constructed in 1174 at the order of Norman King William II. He claimed the Madonna appeared to him in a dream and asked him to build a temple in honor of her.
There are golden mosaics covering the walls which depict iconic stories from the Bible as well as influential stories of the church itself. In the apse, there is a figure of Christ Pantocrator.
There are many treasures contained within these walls as well, such as the high altar (by Valadier), the sarcophagi of both William the I and William II, and the impressive twentieth century organ. Make sure you don’t skip over the Chapel of the Crucifix which has the Treasury of the Cathedral. Inside, you will see a thorn from Christ’s crown on display. While you are in the area, check out the monastery of the Benedictine convent next door to the cathedral for even more history and culture.
9. Stanze al Genio
Inaugurated at the end of 2008, the Stanze al Genio features one of the biggest collections of Neapolitan and Sicilian art in all of Europe. It features a collection of over 2300 pieces spanning from the late 16th century to the early 20th, and it also features a smaller grouping of contemporary and modern artwork.
The Palazzo Torre or Piraino is an artistically elegant building that the Museum’s rooms are inside of. In total, the Museum is four rooms (entrance hall, kitchen, dining room and flower neoclassical), and it has been used in the past to host cultural events for the city.
10. The Capuchin Catacombs
Even though it makes very little sense, humans cannot resist the urge to scare themselves half to death on a regular basis. We even pay money for it in the form of horror films and the like. In these catacombs, you will have that same sense of dread you instinctively crave, which intensifies with each step that you take.
This underground cemetery is often mislabeled as the Catacombs of Palermo (Catacombe di Palermo). In fact it belongs to the Capuchin monastery. Inside are the remains of the monastery’s monks, famous people, wealthy people and a lot of commoners. In total, nearly 8000 mummified remains from the 17th through 19th century can be found within these tunnels below the convent.
Careful climate monitoring even centuries ago have preserved the remains of each body to still be highly recognizable.
While there might be thousands of bodies down there, there are a few that stand out as very significant. Rosalia Lombardo has was born in 1918 Palermo and died just 2 years later of pneumonia. She was among the last to be buried in the crypt, but has earned the nickname of “Sleeping Beauty” for her almost perfect preservation for over 100 years. These catacombs are not to be missed.
11. Palazzo Steri – Chiaramonte
Palazzo Steri (a name pulled from the Greek term “hosterium” which meant fortified palace) was constructed by the culturally significant and powerful Chiaramonte Family. From the late 15th century to 1517, this massive structure would house Spanish viceroys. From 1600 on through 1782 this would be a official seat of the Holy Inquisition. The square outside was once a popular site for the execution of those who opposed the government. Today, Palazzo Steri is the rectorate of the University of Palermo as well as a museum featuring paintings from famous artists like Guttuso.
His painting, Vucciria, showcased a time in Palermo’s history when the Vucciria Market thrived. This painting will leave you wanting more, and you will be able to find many other amazing paintings here to satisfy that urge.
12. La Zisa
It is believed that the name Zisa comes from the Arabic term for noble and magnificent (Al-Aziz). This structure dates back into the 12th century and is a great architectural example of Arab-Norman presence and rule in Sicily. This was a Norman construction, though it favors the unique Arab architecture of the buildings constructed before the Norman conquering. Today, this building is the Museum of Islamic Art, which showcases works from the 9th through 12th centuries in the Mediterranean area.
This is an area of vast beaches and beautiful waters. While you aren’t likely to find an overwhelming amount of monuments here, like you might in Old Town, there is still a lot that will draw in tourism from all over the globe. The buildings (most designed by Ernesto Basile) are among the greatest examples of Art Nouveau, perhaps in all of Europe. But a walk along the beach and a swim in the crystal waters will be something you simply cannot forget. Of course, you can only really get in this swim from late spring to early fall when the waters are still warm.
There are structural draws to Mondello as well, such as their world class accommodations. In addition to this, you will find some of the best clubs, shops, and restaurants here that rival anywhere else in all of Sicily. Take a moment to check out the old bathhouse (a city landmark) and the marina for some amazing sights.
14. Outdoor Markets
There are numerous street markets all throughout Palermo, and it is a huge part of the history of the city. While you might look to the museums to see the artistic history and culture, you can clearly see the old rulers’ influence on the city even today in the look and feel of the open-air markets. They have a feel and pace of old Arab bazaars. You will find these markets walking through Ballarò, Vucciria, Capo or Borgo Vecchio. There are no other places in all of Palermo that can stimulate every one of the five senses simultaneously like these old marketplaces can.
15. Church of Jesus
His is one of the most important religious structures of the Baroque era in all of Palermo. It is also one of the most beautiful churches in the entire city as well. It might seem nonsensical, but if you can only see one church in your trip to Palermo, you should make it this one which overlooks the earlier listed Cathedral.
Other than the Church of Jesus, this church is also known as Casa Professa. This was a building constructed by the Jesuits in honor of the powerful presence and influence that religion had upon the city under Spanish viceroy control.
A style known as “mixed marble” is what describes the look of this church’s interior. There is a great deal of precious polychrome marble work and statues that command your attention as you walk through the rooms of the church. An American historian Donald Garstang once wrote about this look as being something that belonged in a fantasy world. That is how surreal and impressive the marble work actually is.
This building suffered quite a bit of damage in 1943 bombings, destroying most of the church. It took a long while but much o it was build and restored to its original glory in 1954.
These are 15 must-see places and sights throughout Palermo. You should take a little bit of time getting organized to make sure that you can see as much as possible with whatever time you have allotted to visit the city. You can look into some of the self-guided walking tours that I have created to help you get the most out of each day you’re here. One more thing before I bid you farewell: rent a car. You don’t want to waste half the time you are here waiting on unreliable public transportation.
If you have any questions or concerns, use the comment box below and I will be sure to respond quickly.