Here is a guide to the 15 most unmissable Palermo attractions. When you are visiting the Sicilian regional capital for the first time, you don’t want to pass this up. I have also included 7 unusual things for travelers and some helpful tips you cannot find anywhere else.
Ciao! As always, it is your pure-bred Sicilian best friend Nico here. Today I want to talk about what you should see when you are in Palermo.
Before you begin wildly scrolling down, take a moment and read what I have to say.
I agree with you, because I am a skimmer too. I know you want to just scroll down to whatever you think applies to you directly, but there’s a few things that you should know before you get to the list of attractions.
You are preparing to visit a historical city known for three specific things:
- Palermo has the second largest historical center in Europe
- Palermo is deemed as the most conquered city in history (nearly 15 different cultures have occupied Palermo at one time or another)
- Palermo is one of the cities with the largest number of UNESCO sites.
So, of course the question is why should you care? While I love singing the praises of my city, this information helps you to understand one crucial concept.
Here in Palermo, there are many things to see, many things to do, many stories to hear, and a lot of moving around. Without a plan, you are going to have a very stressed and horrible experience.
The public transportation system, information available to tourists, the amount of people who can speak credible English, and other standards for tourists are far below the normal for other areas of Europe.
I love the Google-and-go game as much as the next guy, but here that’s not such a good idea.
When you are in Sicily, you need to have a clear and concise plan.
You should actually take a moment, sit down and plan out your trip with pen and paper. Create an itinerary and provide yourself with something to narrate what will be in front of you.
Options include books, audio guides, and actual human tour guides to help you better understand the city.
Being an unfocused and poorly planned explorer is only going to guarantee that you waste your money.
When I list the 15 important attractions below, I’m doing this to give you more than just an overall picture. This should be a starting point for you to create an itinerary and not just follow along with the list.
I’ve even made your life easier by already putting together 7 itineraries that can help to inspire you when creating your own. If you don’t know where to begin, these are good read.
While the itinerary is important, the source information you keep with you when sightseeing is also critical period looking at attractions without knowing their story is like watching a standup comedy show on mute. That would just be a random idiot with a microphone, right? If you want to avoid that unnecessary effect, I suggest using audio guides to help.
Top 15 Attractions You Cannot Ignore in Palermo
While I have no intention of busting your balls, I would hope that you didn’t just skip over the fundamental introduction I wrote above.
Coming to Palermo, you’re going to visit the most conquered city in the world. You have a literal avalanche of things to see and stories to hear, but this city is not one that was ever designed for tourists.
If you didn’t do it, read the introduction above with some life changing tips, before you continue below.
If you already read that introduction, you can look below to find a list of the top tourist attractions in Palermo along with a brief description for each.
Nico’s Golden Tip 💡:
Have you taken a look at our page on the public transportation here? If you have, you know that it sucks. If you want to explore the city and maximize your time, you need to have a vehicle and stay in key areas. If you don’t have a vehicle, and stay away from the city center, you’re pretty well screwed.
1. Palermo Cathedral
This might seem of blasphemous, and I hope God doesn’t strike me dead, but I would say that our cathedral in Palermo is one of the most schizophrenic churches I have ever seen. Currently, it is a UNESCO site.
Throughout its life, it has gone back and forth between being a Christian church and a mosque before permanently being devoted to Jesus Christ in 1185.
This split and its personality is not just in its history, but also the art involved.
Looking at the exterior, there are many hands that have made up the architecture. Influences from Roman, Norman, Greek, Arabic, Gothic, Sicilian Baroque, Catalan, and others are present.
Truth be told, it is this eclectic collection of architecture that makes the building so unique. It is the same as leafing through pages of an art history book.
To further accentuate this example of schizophrenia, this vast variety of styles on the exterior of the building does not compare to the dull and sad interior of the church. The most decorated things within the building are the tombs of the monarchs.
Take a moment to appreciate the tomb of Frederick II, who is considered one of the greatest emperors of the Middle Ages.
Not surprisingly, there is an explanation for the contrast between the buildings outside and inside.
The legend goes that the archbishop who built the cathedral was in a competition with King William II who constructed the Duomo of Monreale. The game was about building the most beautiful cathedral in the area.
Naturally, the archbishop focused only on the external aspects of the church while neglecting the internal elements, while the king did precisely the opposite.
The roof here is the real cherry on top. You might need to shell out a couple of euros to get there, but it’s worth the look. You get a privileged view over palermo’s Old Town and can see how remarkable the city actually is.
There are many reasons why you should not miss this UNESCO attraction. The top three being that it is a great mix of different historical periods, it features some majestic tombs of the influential rulers of Sicily, and also has a breathtaking view over Palermo.
Sources of Information:
Visiting a monument is like going on a date. If it’s physically attractive, that is a point in the plus column, but hardly the whole point. You need a voice narrating what you can see within these walls to help provide you with a back story that makes the monument more attractive. Audio guides are a good option, or you can look for a book inside of the cathedral.
2. Teatro Massimo
If you intend to visit the city and don’t see that Teatro Massimo, I would not tell everybody that you meet. You are sure to get some glaring looks, snootiness, and raised eyebrows for this decision.
Let me tell you now why this is no ordinary theater.
This place is not special just because it is the third largest theater in Europe. It is not even special because of scenes from The Godfather – Part III being filmed here.
What is truly fascinating, is the history of the theater.
At one time, Palermo was deemed a center for powerful and wealthy lords wanting to show the entire world that they had the best of everything.
At this point in history, you couldn’t show off by posting pictures of your belongings on Instagram with some sports car in the background. You did it by building up the majestic palaces that still stand in many parts of the world today.
The construction of the Massimo building was a way to yell out to the planet that “we are still the coolest around”.
Inspired by Greek temples and classic arts, Ernesto Basile set to work on designing one of the most expertly constructed and magnificently adorned theaters in existence. The structure would eventually get built in 1897.
Want to hear another interesting story? When the theater was built, a church had to be torn down for the space required to build it.
There is a legend here that the Mother Superior of the convent torn down for the Massimo Theater, known as “the Monachella” (Little Nun) still roams the halls here. Those skeptical of her presence trip on a specific step while entering the theater.
Because it is the third-largest opera house in Europe, it has hosted many of the most prolific performers of the years, such as famed Luciano Pavarotti multiple times. Scenes from the Godfather film franchise were shot here. I could continue, but I am sure you already know that you cannot miss this.
Source of information:
You are not allowed to wander the theater on your own, so to visit it beyond attending a play, you need to take a guided tour. This lasts around 40 minutes , and the guide will recount all the necessary information you might need to best understand the theater.
3. Chiesa della Martorana (Martorana Church)
This place isn’t even a church. It’s more like a Wonderland that’s missing its white rabbit.
If you have not already done so, you will soon know what it’s like to enter this church. From the outside you’re probably going to think “OK, this is just like any other church in Palermo”. But trust me, it isn’t.
Once you walk inside, you can get blown away by the breathtaking mosaics featuring several different artistic styles. It almost instantly improves your physical and mental wellbeing, just from seeing it.
The church itself was built in 1143 and has two names: Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio or San Nicolò dei Greci. The locals here have taken to giving it a nickname however, and so the building is most known as Martorana.
If you have you ever tried the cassata cake, you know that ‘martorana’ is the marzipan fruit on the top.
Martorana originated at this church, so it is a fitting name.
As the story goes, nuns decorated empty fruit trees with marzipan to impress a visiting king. The name Martorana comes from the churches founder, a noblewoman Eloisa Martorana.
Don’t expect that you can come here and stuff your face on sweets, as there are no cakes. You come here to admire both the art and culture of Byzantine rule, which is something you are unlikely to see in many other places.
This medieval church is praised as one of the most impressive structures and churches in all of Italy. Naturally, it has become a UNESCO spot.
Palermo has no shortages in churches, as there are more than 100 of them. Most are very beautiful, but this one is among the top five in the city. Built in 1143, and considered among the most spectacular testaments to Orthodox culture an Italian art, the mosaics here are sure to take your breath away.
Where to get information:
Yes, the church is physically attractive, but beauty is not everything. You can give voice to all the wonder inside of the structure so that you don’t come away from it without learning something. Within the church there is not a lot of material explaining what you see. I would suggest audio guides or a human guide to find out more.
4. Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace)
Once known as the Royal Palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) was built in 1130. Currently, it is now the location where the wastes that make up the Sicilian Regional Assembly gather.
Despite the idiots that now oversee the building in its hallowed halls, the immense history, beauty and culture of the palace speaks for itself.
I won’t spend much time talking about royal apartments, as this should be self-explanatory – stunning furniture, huge rooms, frescoed ceilings, fine cloths and fabrics, famous paintings, etc.
Even with the pomposity, the palace is eclipsed by its greatest feature: the Palatine Chapel.
Sometimes I wish I was more of a poet so that I could accurately describe the beauty and majesty of this church from 1140. Perhaps the simple words of Guy de Maupassant are enough: “This is the most beautiful church in the world”.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing of all is the significance of the decorations and mosaics throughout the structure.
A true visionary, the king called upon different cultures to provide artists that could enrich the church. There is a truly happy union of different races and creeds, blending the eastern and western worlds together seamlessly.
This is all of humanity united in a beautiful and indescribable dream.
I almost forgot, in the era of marketing, labels are crucial. Both the Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel are UNESCO sites.
They are also part of the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale UNESCO itinerary.
Bottom Line:The Norman Palace is perhaps one of the most visited monuments in all of Italy. Though nothing can take away from the palaces room, the real highlight of this facility is the Palatine Chapel, praised by many to be one of the best churches in the world.
Where to get information:
If you are willing to spend about 7€, you can get an audio guide on the spot. You can also allow Old Don Tano to explain the monument to you. If you prefer to read, you should be able to easily find a written guide in the bookstore within the Palace.
5. Monte Pellegrino
This is much more than a 2000-ft-high (606 meters) hill – but a special place for the locals.
This is an amazing spot to take selfies with Palermo as you backdrop, jog on its roadways, practice cornering on our motorcycles, take our children to play outside, and someone has even conceived a child on these dark streets at night in a car.
Honestly, though, there is one main reason above all others that we Sicilians come here.
Mount Pellegrino is the home of the Saint Rosalia Sanctuary. Known as the Little Saint (La Santuzza), Saint Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo, and she lived here from 1130 to 1170.
The cult of Santa Rosalia in Palermo is sacred for those who are religious and those who do not believe in anything.
Each year on July 14th, we are all believers when the colorful festivities honoring Saint Rosalia begin. On that evening, relics are paraded through the city on a grand chariot, and the event finishes with a spectacular firework display.
While everyone might sign up for the parade with the fireworks in the middle of the summer, on September 4th (also known as the liturgical feast), true believers make the ‘Acchianata’ (climb) to honor our patron saint.
This is a 4km (2.5 mile) trail leading up to Saint Rosalia’s sanctuary, which is done on foot (some devout believers do it without shoes.) The sanctuary is within a cave where the last years of Rosalia’s life were spent.
Don’t think that you have to visit on September 4th to do the acchianata, though. There are many who make this journey by foot, or by car, to get a good soul cleansing any time of the year.
Beyond eating until you burst, paying tribute to Saint Rosalia by climbing Mount Pellegrino on foot is likely the most Sicilian thing you can do in Palermo. If you don’t have the time for making the trek in your itinerary, you can always take a rented car up to the top or a bus.
Source of information:
There is a certain magic about acchianata and visiting the sanctuary that happens when you know more about Rosalia, her story, and Sicilian traditions. I narrate the life of Saint Rosalia and her significance in one of my stories you can buy along with our guide. You can also find books, hire a tour guide, or have a talk with Saint Rosalia herself.
6. Quattro Canti
The Quattro Canti (Four Corners) is an octagonal square that has been created through the intersection of two of Palermo’s main roads: Via Vittorio and Via Maqueda.
To understand this, you need to go back to the 1600s when Spain was the ruling Sicily.
The ruler of the time was Viceroy Marquis of Vigliena, who completely redesigned this portion of Palermo and had a road built to intersect with the Via Vittorio Emanuele. He named it Via Maqueda in honor of the Marquis’ predecessor, the Duke of Maqueda.
Each of these corners features rare and incredible statues, columns, or fountains. Individual sections represent the primary districts of Palermo (Albergheria, Capo, La Loggia, and Kalsa).
This alluring location would be a centerpiece of public life as the city continued to grow, being the place for weddings, festivals, state funerals, feasts, and even executions.
Viceroy Marcantonio Colonna even organized a race of prostitutes that would speed past the Four Corners half naked once a year.
If you purchased the package with The Sicilian Way, you will find that there is a story all about this infamous annual race.
While no prostitutes should be racing through the intersection, nor will you see the gallows set up as they might have been 400 years ago, The Four Corners is still a key area for processions and parades to pass through.
If I had to narrow my list to three things you must see, this would be on it. The adorned facades are sure to take your breath away, and when combined with the story behind the area, it is an amazing experience for visitors.
Source of Information:
There are several audio guides and travel books, but you could also hire a guide to explain it all to you. Whatever you choose, make it entertaining. You start reading about facades on Wikipedia and it will assuredly put you to sleep.
7. The Fountain of Shame
Congratulations – we have now reached the infamous monument that managed to completely piss off the church (with good reason.) This fountain features multiple naked men and women cavorting.
With backsides and detailed genitals on clear display, imagine the reaction of a population that was predominantly devout Catholic in 1574.
When Francesco Camilliani’s first reached Old Town near Quattro Canti, there was a general outrage between the Catholics, elderly, and (deep-down perverted) nobles.
Perhaps the angriest of all was sister Mary from the Santa Caterina monastery, which shared the square with the newly installed fountain.
Maybe you have been fortunate to never have seen an angry nun before, but they can make anyone wet their pants.
She would look out of her window every morning at the fountain and shout with the rage of the devil “How shameful! You sinners will burn in hell!”
This became such a common occurrence of the time that the monument (and really the entire square) would be known as The Fountain of Shame, or Fontana Della Vergogna in Italian.
Despite the nuns feeling violated by its very presence, the general public grew to love it, so it has been here for nearly 450 years.
The fountain initially belonged and was commissioned by a Spanish noble, Don Luigi de Toledo in Florence. How it became to get owned by Palermo is a roller coaster of a story involving many elements from gambling and debts to addiction.
As a Catholic country, The Fountain of Shame was a scandalous addition to Palermo. Despite the controversy, this is amazing and detailed art with many stories to tell someone willing to listen.
Source of Information:
You want to make sure that whatever guiding information you choose has entertaining stories to tell you, not just chronological facts that make you want to space out. There are no panels for information, much like the other outdoor monuments, so make sure you find some information to help.
8. Duomo di Monreale
“The Duomo of Monreale is an anticipation of Paradise” was surprisingly a statement by both Bernard Berenson, one of the greatest art historians, and my grandma. Because these two don’t know each other, I would call this a general consensus by its visitors.
I have been here many times, and each time I follow the same ritual.
I walk into this UNESCO church, and I am struck by the 6400 shiny golden mosaic tiles. Once I pick my jaw up off the floor, I say “How the heck did they make this? ”
I position myself at the end of the cathedral’s center, in front of Christ Pantocrator. The priest here told me, this mosaic hugs the visitors as they arrive and does not judge their deeds – it is why Christ has his arms open wide.
Looking to the right and left I get rejuvenated by the story mosaics depicted the parables of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments.) I work to feel the union of sky and earth the priest Nicola here told me about.
While it is now a protected UNESCO site, it was originally constructed in 1174 at the order of Norman King William II. In true divine inspiration, Madonna appeared to him in a dream and asked him to build a temple in honor of her.
As you might remember from the description of the Palermo Cathedral, the inside of this structure is so magnificent because the king sought to outdo the creations of the Archbishop of the Diocese of Palermo – who chose instead to make the outside of that cathedral spectacular.
There is an undeniable narrative to Duomo. The golden mosaics here are so remarkable and incredibly beautiful, but more importantly, regale famed tales of the bible like pages of an adorned children’s book. Whether you are a believer or not, you should listen to what these mosaics have to say.
Source of Information:
There is an audio guide in the Cathedral available for €7 or you can buy a guidebook or yes you can opt for Don Tano’s audio guides. Whatever you choose, make sure you have information to help you understand and appreciate the monument as you should so you can bring some incredible stories home.
9. Stanze al Genio
We Italians are fetishistic in painting. We have painted everything, from ceilings and walls to facades and carts. We have even painted flooring by each individual tile.
Perhaps the most direct testament to this painting fanaticism is the first floor of the palace Torre Pirajno built in the 1500s.
Here is a house-museum (yes, someone still lives here) which beautifully displays a collection of about 5,000 ancient Neapolitan and Sicilian dating from the 1400s to the early 1900s.
Two things about this really get to me.
First and likely most important, how could nobles just casually walk over hundreds of hand-painted tiles. What if you dropped some heavy glass of water on the floor? You just have to kill yourself, I guess.
Another good question is: who lives here? You never see them during operating hours, which are seven days a week. It is a pretty big mystery to even us locals.
There are eight rooms in the museum, each of which presenting a different collection based on a specific era or geographical region. Each portion of the museum narrates a unique story through intricate artwork.
Some of these pieces almost appear to be futuristic at times, using cutting edge geometric graphics you might expect from some mysterious alien race from the far side of our universe. Who knows, maybe it did come from there.
I would say everyone should see this because it is one of the most unique places in Europe. You might agree with me that there are almost no other places on the planet to see 5000 majolica tiles from the 1500s in a repurposed noble palace from the 16th century.
Source of information:
To enter, you want to take the tour, which lasts about an hour. The first half of this is a knowledgeable guide explaining these different styles that you can see from various time periods. For the second half of your hour, you can wander around freely to view specific collections as you please.
10. The Capuchin Catacombs
To some grown up children like me, this is more like an amusement park. I don’t know what is wrong with us humans, but we do like to get so scared we wet our pants.
There is no doubt that this place is going to creep you out.
Like something out of one of the scariest horror movies you have ever seen, you can walk down narrow corridors with literal corpses hanging from the walls.
The privileged individuals you are likely to see along the walls are monks from the monastery, along with famous people , the wealthy, and even some of the commoners who ended up there for some reason.
There is a little girl among the dead that you cannot afford to miss.
Don’t worry, she’s not going to pull something off the script of The Shining and beckon you to ‘Come play with us forever and ever”. This little girl, Rosalia Lombardo, is still going to give you the shivers.
The remarkable thing about this little girl is that she died in 1920 of pneumonia. She was two at the time. She has earned the nickname of Sleeping Beauty for her almost perfect preservation for more than a century.
As one of the greatest embalmers to have ever lived, Alfredo Salafia has given her a second chance. This individual was responsible for creating would some have deemed the elixir of immortality.
Alfredo Salafia was an interesting character, and you can learn all about his incredible story with our guide The Sicilian Way. We have included an audio story about him with the package.
I don’t know what it is, we all like to get spooked deep down. This might explain why these catacombs are among the most visited attractions in all of Italy. Little Rosalia is the main event however, lying intact for more than 100 years.
Source of Information:
I would suggest that you take along a book or listen to something explaining the stories behind the cemetery you are seeing. Otherwise, you can start to get bored out of the first 10 minutes without context.
11. Palazzo Steri – Chiaramonte
The powerful Chiaramente family constructed Palace Steri in 1307, not just as a place to live in luxury as they believed they deserved, but as a high point to yell at the commoners that “they are the ones who really matter”.
With all due respect to the Chiaramonte family, the most interesting part of the palace’s story is between 1600 and 1782 when the Holy Inquisition set the palace as the official seat and chamber of horrors.
The Palace became a point of a prison, setting up cells like little mouse cages. Here they would put the heretics, blasphemers, and which is to redeem them through a baptism of violence and torture.
No one would make it out alive.
Some of the prisoners refused to lose hope, and drew their desires and stories on the cages and walls using a mix of stool, urine, and other matter. The graffiti is still highly visible to this day.
I remember seeing this graffiti for the first time, and was left awestruck bye how dark yet inspiring it truly was.
I would put myself in the shoes of the prisoners for a moment and thought “How insane the Inquisition was! How do you get horribly tortured day in and day out and never lose hope?”
I don’t know that I could have lasted five minutes.
As a side note, you can expect to see another important site for Palermo on this tour. The painting La Vucciria by Renato Guttuso showcases a time in Palermo’s history when the Vucciria Market thrived.
I won’t lie to you; this is far from the most beautiful attraction in Sicily. It might even leave you a little scarred. Listening to the story of how prisoners were tortured and seeing some of the actual torture tools and the graffiti on the walls, will stay with you for a long time.
Source of Information:
To visit the prisons, you must use one of the guided tours organized daily. If you do get my audio stories with our travel guide The Sicilian Way, you can listen to a story about Diego La Mattina. He was a fierce bandit and priest, who would alone put the entire Holy Inquisition in jeopardy.
12. La Zisa
La Zisa was a castle built in 1165 by the most controversial and debated Norman Kings, William I. He was nicknamed King William the Bad.
William I was most known for being a heavy party boy.
Through the 12 years that he was the King of Sicily, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I, threatened to invade Sicily every day.
It seemed that everyone in Sicily was worried about this except for the King. He was busy playing ‘spin the bottle’ with women of his harem or embellishing Palermo with more of its current beautiful constructions.
Among these are two UNESCO sites in Sicily, the church of San Cataldo (another must see) and, as I said, La Zisa Palace. Both of these structures are an excellent example of the Arab-Norman presence in Sicily during this time period.
In Arabic, the term “Zisa” or “El-Aziz” means “magnificent” and this is exactly what William I wanted most of all.
“When people see it they must be captured by the artistic perfection” he would say.
There is a legend suggesting that this palace was not built by that Norman King, but rather by two Libyan love birds. They hid a treasure within his walls and the devil’s painted the walls protecting it forever.
If you grabbed a copy of The Sicilian Way travel guide with Nico’s story pack, you could hear all about this and the spell these devils do on the people of the area.
This castle is one of the best examples a union of Norman art and Arab engineering and architecture. Even without the magnificence of the building, its history and legend could be the subject of an entire series on Netflix.
Source of Information:
What people have to say about the place varies between “it’s a waste of money” to “this was an excellent place to see.” The difference lies in who brings material to narrate what they see. With no material available on site, you need to bring a book, audio guides, or something similar to describe what you see and its significance.
13. Salinas Museum
I surely hope that the thought of a museum doesn’t make you yawn out of spite, but I promise that this one is worth your time and pretty cool.
This structure possesses one of the richest collections of the Punic an Ancient Greek art in all of Italy. Is also has multiple items from various eras in Sicilian history.
There are many great things that you can see here, but personally, I enjoy the metopes that tell you stories of beasts, abductions, fights, monsters and even love.
Granted, no one can say this was a marriage based on Fidelity. Zeus famously had more than 90 sons around the world, but gossip and lack of available contraceptives are the true spice of Greek mythology.
Another thing I love is the Gorgon. This is a horrific visage that would turn those who beheld her to stone and is represented in many forms.
Last thing that I want to mention, and I don’t intend to spoil anything else, is the Palermo stone. This has inscribed all the sovereigns of ancient Egypt. Thanks to the stone, historians have managed to reconstruct lesser-known aspects of Egypt’s ancient history.
This is one of the best Greek antiquity museums you are ever likely to see, sending you back more than 2500 years when the Greeks were a naval force in the Mediterranean Sea. Their colonies spread from Spain to the Black Sea. It is certainly something you do not want to miss.
Source of Information:
Unlike many other places, this will have information panels that are helpful and easy to understand. The history of Sicily is long and complex, however. I recommend relying on audio guides to support your visit, or if possible, you can afford a human guide which is in my opinion the best choice.
14. Outdoor Markets
I have to be honest with you, sometimes when visiting historical cities like Palermo, I have thumbed my nose at some important monuments. I will say something like “I had no time; I tried my best, but I couldn’t make it”.
While I can forgo some of the important monuments, I simply cannot disregard all the places one should pig out according to the locals. I’m not going to skip a single place on that list. What if I never go back there and haven’t tried that eatery that makes everyone crazy?
The visitors to Palermo must feel the same way, as our street markets often see 10 times the amount of traffic than attractions like the Salinas Museum.
In case you did not know, many experts have said that Palermo has the best street in Europe and the fifth in the world. Our street markets are the Disneyland of street food for those interested.
Everything about the street market is designed to make you chew down food like your Yogi Bear. You have colors, flavors, and smells that are enticing and alluring. I’ve watched people step inside the street market as a vegan and come out a furious and carnivorous T-Rex.
But the street markets are not just about food, they are an amusement park to themselves.
Visiting any of our ancient street markets is kind of like going to the circus without the lion tamers and elephants.
You are going to see just about everything here from 8-year-olds riding around on scooters to 100-year-old grandmas carrying around sacks weighting 100 kg.
You cannot drown out the singsong voices of the vendors dangling swordfish. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
This area has the feel, pace, and noise of old Arab bazaars with good reason. There is a direct Arab influence on the city, especially with the open-air marketplaces.
The street markets have preserved their origins of the bazaars of days gone by, making them a real blast from the past for those looking for a unique experience on their visit. What you find here is what many experts praise as the best street food in Europe. If you love food and want to have some fun while you enjoy it, make sure you try out our markets.
Source of Information:
Nearly all of our markets have been in action since the medieval times. As you might imagine, with more than 1000 years of operation, there are interesting facts and stories that these markets have to tell. You can use our audio guides to give yourself some more context and information to narrate your experience.
15. Church of Jesus
I must say this phrase one more time, although it applies to several places. This is one of the most beautiful churches in the whole city.
I know, you think I’m a broken record.
Consider that we have many churches and Palermo that are more than a century old. As a lost sheep, I solemnly swear that I’m bringing up only those that are the most beautiful and worthy of your visits.
This is a church from the baroque era constructed in 1590. While officially, the name is Church of Jesus, many locals have taken to calling it the Casa Professa.
American historian Donald Garstang once wrote about the church, suggesting it looked like something belonging in a fantasy world. That is how surreal and magnificent the marblework is within the building.
Consider for a moment that this was not built for mainly religious reasons, but rather as a political gesture.
When the Spanish were ruling Sicily in the 1500s, Viceroy Juan de Vega invited a congregation of Jesuits, who were a sort of influencers without iPhones to move to Palermo. Their opinions would help to win political points for the viceroy.
But as I’m told, when you give the Jesuits an inch, they want to take a yard.
They began grumbling about the church they received from the viceroy claiming that it was not up to their standards. Juan who needed them to help him get the equivalent of followers and likes of the time, allowed them to construct the Church of Jesus.
The result is breathtaking, but the precious marble work and statues within does not really embody the ideals of modesty and humbleness traditional of Christian churches. As with all influencers, the Jesuits were a little bit spoiled.
There is no denying that this is a masterpiece of baroque art with a renaissance flair. You might take a look from the outside and believe I have lost my mind, but this is proof of the adage that you should “never judge a book by its cover”. You will be picking your jaw up off the floor when you walk inside.
Source of Information:
Inside they will give you a piece of paper with some information in English, which is better than many places. If you are looking for a little more than to say ‘oh wow’ multiple times, you can get our audio guides or hire a human guide to provide interesting stories that you can share with your friends.
Unusual Things You Should Try to See
If you have some extra time, I have listed a few unusual things you might want to take the time to see.
I would like to again point out that if you don’t provide yourself with some context or something to narrate the stories, you might not make heads or tails of some of these suggestions.
Sometime in the first millennium BCE, before Instagram was shrinking brains and Amazon was solving problems, the Arabs invented the Qanats.
The Qanat means “channel”. This is a sloping underground channel transporting water from aquifers through cleverly engineered slopes up to the surface to be enjoyed as both drinking water and for irrigation purposes.
This was a much needed invention when you were living in the sometimes burning oven of the Middle East.
Much like in their Homeland, the Arabs built one of these exceptional hydraulic engineering structures in Palermo when they were ruling in Sicily. If you are not claustrophobic, I would suggest that you go for this underground tour.
2. Falcone Tree
You know already that we have an intricate story of mafia on our shoulders that started early in the 19th century with the extortions by Gabellotto to the late Nineties with the end(?) of the Corleone’s Empire.
There is a big tree with messages scribbled by locals at the entrance of the building where Falcone lived. Many still pass by to pay tribute to these men or visit the obelisk erected on the spot where the Mafia killed Falcone.
3. The Godfather Sicilian Shooting Locations
While still on the topic of the mafia, some of the scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather saga were shot in Sicily.
Fans will remember when Michael is forced to flee after he murders his father’s assassin and travels to Sicily. He then finds himself in Corleone, a small village from which his family took their names.
Surprisingly, most of the scenes for Corleone were not actually shot in Corleone, but other Sicilian villages on the island.
We have an article all about the Godfather Sicilian shooting locations, so take a moment to check out these places if you like.
4. The Strangler Tree
Between the 1500 and 1738, we had the bloodthirsty Spanish Inquisition in Sicily and they had their official seat and macabre game room at Steri Palace.
These self-proclaimed “men of God” enjoyed chopping off people’s heads. The place where these executions often occurred was right in front of the Steri Palace, close to a centuries-old big tree which still stands today.
Because of its location, it has been deemed the strangler tree, as its roots are known to wrap around a nearby host trees and supplant them.
It is said this tree is so strong because it would feed on the blood of the victims who died here, though you can find a similar tree which was not fed the blood of the innocent at a nearby botanical garden.
5. Church Immaculate Conception
In my travels, I have seen some of the most magnificent structures, but I would have to put the Immacolata Concezione al Capo Church at the top of a list of the world’s most underappreciated constructions.
Starting at Porta Carini, among the fish in vegetable stalls of the Capo market, you can reach this structure in just over half a mile. This was built in 1604 as a Sicilian baroque church that usually is hidden from many who pass by.
On the outside, surrounded by fruit and vegetable crates, the entrance may fool visitors. Once you step in through threshold, however, it is as though you have passed through the gates of Heaven itself.
6. Villa Mondello
As local legends would have it, there were no forms of pornography during World War Two. German officers stationed in the Mondello district set up a brothel, as was customary for soldiers, in an old villa to blow off steam.
One night, American soldiers who were pissed off at Hitler stormed the villa and killed everyone inside. This included the poor whores. This act of violence left souls to wander the premises even to this day.
Since that tragic night, this outstanding Art Nouveau villa has had a couple of owners who either mysteriously died or just up and left one day. The villa now sits empty, abandoned, and for sale. Perhaps you might want to take a tour inside while you visit.
7. House of Cagliostro
The Count of Cagliostro was a mystery to many, even experienced and knowledgeable scholars of the time. Many argue his true origins, whether he was a swindler, heretic, gambler, healer, or magician.
One thing is for certain, he was a skilled forger who was able to set up ingenious scams for his time, including a banknote printer. This allowed him to wander Europe with a wallet full of money wherever he went.
He was a credited with defrauding some of the most intelligent and famous people of his time, including the noted seducer Giacomo Casanova, Voltaire, the Empress of Russia, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and even the Pope.
Today, you can visit Cagliostro’s house, or better described, what remains. You can follow what clues still exist to learn as much about this character as you would like.
BONUS TIP: See Palermo on a Bike
Many of the coolest tourists coming to town go biking through the old alleys in Old Town or the seaside of Mondello. There are actually many breathtaking itineraries that you can follow when you travel this way, allowing you to explore Palermo in a truly unforgettable way.
I would suggest before you go this route that you have some experience with bikes. I would not suggest that anyone should try to navigate Palermo on a bike if they are not comfortable with using one. Palermo is not the place to learn. Instead, you could go running among monuments.
I realize that I have overloaded you with information, but I only did this because I really care and want you to have the best vacation possible when you come to Palermo.
We talked about a lot of things in this guide, including the list of important attractions. But there are a few points that I would like to stress again with you. These include:
- There are many things to see in Palermo, as it is one of the largest cultural heritage sites in Europe.
- Do not rely on public transportation to get you from place to place. You need a well thought out itinerary that covers all of your planned stops.
- Nearly all attractions do not have adequate information for travelers. Do yourself a favor and purchase audio guides or secure a human guide to help.
I may have only brought up one attraction outside of Palermo city, but the province is full of other things you need to see. Check them out.
You actually might benefit from just choosing to secure your place with organized tours. I have already put together a list of the best possible tours without the BS. Most of these depart from Palermo and they offer a lot of really cool experiences.
As always, I recommend taking a moment to read our tourist information page. Learn the things you need to know when you visit. You will be sure to thank God you read it after you do, because it is life changing for your trip.
That’s all I have for you now. If you have questions, concerns, or doubts, make sure to use the comment box underneath this guide and I will respond to your message.
I hope to hear from you soon,
P.S. – Don’t forget to get the 7 FREE Itineraries I told you about. You’ll also get 5 videos with exclusive tips on Palermo. Check them out.