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27 Unique things to do in Palermo, Italy

by Lisa Stentvedt
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If you are wondering what to do in Palermo, look no further! I recently visited this Sicilian city, and absolutely loved it. In spite of the rain (it rained pretty much the whole day I was there), I found lots of fun things to do in Palermo, and I know you’re going to have a great time there as well (rain or shine). Below, I have shared a list of some of my favourite Palermo sightseeing activities but thought I’d cover a few basics before jumping into my list of 27 things to do in Palermo.

Palermo is a city on the island of Sicily in Italy. You know, the island that it looks like the Italian “boot” is kicking. Naturally, there are plenty of things to see in Palermo, mainly including the Italian classics; great food, even better wine (in my opinion), lots of beautiful, historic buildings, and picturesque streets (including laundry hanging out to dry: the Italian movie staple).

I visited Palermo, Sicily (or Palermo, Italy – both are used interchangeably, I’ve learned) with Costa Cruise Lines, and you can read all about my West Mediterranean Cruise experience here. Additionally, if you are going on a cruise for the first time, head this way for some of my best tips for first-time cruisers. Now, let’s cover some of my favourite things to do in Palermo, Italy!

If you are planning on going on a cruise yourself, don’t miss my list of essentials for a cruise (consider it your packing list).

things to do in palermo, italy
Read on for 27 great things to do in Palermo, Italy!

The best things to do in Palermo, Italy

As mentioned, this is a city with many classic Italian offerings (find the shortlist in the introduction above), but you’ll also find that there are some pretty unique Palermo things to do, that are specific to the island of Sicily. This is mainly food-related (and wine-related), but also comes as a result of the incredibly interesting history of the island.

I’m not a historian, but I’ll give you a brief history lesson (or you can simply skip down to the list of things to do in Palermo, or alternatively use the table of contents above).

Sicily is a very interesting island, and not just for the mafia and wine (all though those two do bring some extra flair to it). What is especially fascinating is that through the ages, the island has seen several different rules, with very distinct cultures. They have gone from being a part of the Roman Empire to having a Germanic rule, to an Arab period and eventually to the Normans.

This has resulted in an island rich in history and very different historic influences, and Palermo is a city where this becomes clear. Out of all the fun things to do in Palermo, you’ll find that many of them are a direct result of the various rules and influences of the city. For example, did you know that Palermo is home to the oldest street markets in Italy, dating back to the Arab rule of the island in the years 800-1000?

Did you know that you can travel to the Aeolian Islands from Palermo? Here’s a guide and Aeolian Islands itinerary if you do!

27 great things to do in Palermo

Without further ado (did you see how I tricked the history lesson in there?), here are some of the best things to see and do in Palermo, Sicily.

I actually did all of these on a rainy day, so feel free to consider this a list of what to do in Palermo when it rains! Of course, they can all be done no matter the weather.

#1 Visit the Piazza Marina and see the Ficus Macrophylla

The Piazza Marina is a beautiful square, not too far from the port of Palermo. Thus, arriving on a cruise ship, it is quite easy to visit, and within walking distance. In the middle of this square, you will find the beautiful Garibaldi gardens.

This is the location of the oldest tree in Italy; a beautiful Ficus Macrophylla tree that dates back to the 1800s (or longer). It is actually the oldest of its kind in Europe! This tree is definitely one of the more important things to see in Palermo during your visit, regardless of how silly it sounds. I mean, at Hampton Court you can see the largest vine in Europe, so why not opt for the oldest tree in Italy too?

Mafia fun fact: A US police officer was killed in this square during a secret mission against the mafia in 1909. There is a memorial for him in the park. His name was Joe Petrosino.

things to see in palermo, the ficus macrophylla
The Ficus Macrophylla is definitely one of the things you should see in Palermo, Sicilia!

#2 Get the lay of the land on a walking tour

Whenever I visit a new city for the first time, and I am a little short on time, I love joining a tour to get an overview of the sights and the walking distance. In Palermo, I jumped on one of the hop-on-hop-off buses, so that I could quickly (within an hour) get an idea of where to find all the great Palermo sightseeing in the city.

Side note: this was in large part because I only had a few hours in the city. If I had a full day, I would have joined a walking tour!

There is a great Palermo walking tour on Around, taking you around all the top sights of the city (most of which are included in this guide). This is an affordable and flexible way to explore, as it is completely at your own pace. I love these kinds of self-guided walking tours, as it lets you take the time you need (and stop for gelato whenever). I did something similar on my recent trip to Tenerife, and had the best time.

So, your first point of action in Palermo should be going on a walking tour!

#3 The Church of San Domenico

This is the biggest church in the city, and worth seeing for the beautiful details on the exterior alone. The beautiful facade dates back to 1726, but the church itself to 1640. Several notable people from Sicily have been buried here, and the church is therefore nicknamed the “Pantheon of Illustrious Sicilians”.

palermo sightseeing, the san domenico church

#4 Get lost in the beautiful streets of the city

There is nothing like getting lost in a city like Palermo, with beautiful cobbled streets, wry stairways and charming alleys where clothes hang out to dry across the buildings. I could have spent an entire day simply walking around in the streets of Palermo, getting completely lost in the beauty of the city (and trying to learn Italian on the way).

#5 Piazza Giulio Cesare

Piazza Giulio Cesare (Julius Cæsar) is the busy square in front of the central station of Palermo. In the middle, you’ll find a small garden, and a statue of Vittorio Emanuele, dating back to 1886. The square itself was built in the same year. Vittorio Emanuele (Victor Emanuel II) is a figure that I noticed often as I walked around Palermo, and I quickly learned that he was the first king of Italy (from 1861 to 1878). Just for fun, I’m going to share with you his full name; Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso di Savoia. Now you know.

#6 Visit one of the street markets in the city (Ballarò)

As mentioned above, Palermo and Sicilia have a long history of different rules, and each rule has left behind unique pieces of culture and history for us to enjoy. One of the remnants of the Arab rule of Sicily are the street markets in Palermo, and I strongly recommend you visit at least one of these during your time in Palermo. The street markets in Palermo are some of the oldest in Italy, and there are several different ones to visit:

  • Capo
  • Vucciria
  • Ballarò
  • Borgo Vecchio
street market palermo things to do

#7 Drop by the Piazza Independenza

This is one of the main squares in Palermo. It is where you will find the Porta Nuova (#11 below), and you’ll be within walking distance to several of the main things to do in Palermo by knowing where the Piazza is. I recommend pinning it on a map, so you always find your way around.

#8 Cripta dei Cappuccini

Out of all the things to see in Palermo, the catacombs are high on everyone’s list. And with good reason. The Capuchin Catacombs date back to the 16th century, when the original cemetery of the monastery of Capuchin ran out of space. The monks began digging using the space below ground and even mummified some of the people buried there.

The last burial in the catacombs is from the 1920s, and tourists have been visiting ever since. Amongst the 8000 corpses and over 1200 mummies found in the catacombs, I want to highlight the body of a 2-year-old girl from 1920. She has been preserved so well that she almost looks alive, and has given her the nickname “Sleeping Beauty”.

Here you can book a private tour of the catacombs in advance.

#9 Palazzo Del Normanni

You know there is no way I would visit a city without hitting up the castle, right? So naturally, once I had done some light Palermo sightseeing, it was time to head to the local palace.

The “Norman Palace” of Palermo is not only a beautiful building in itself but also enriched with history and traces of the Arab, Norman and Byzantine rule of the island of Sicily. I strongly recommend spending an hour or two exploring it, and there is also an exhibition covering the vast history of the place. It is also called the Palazzo Reale.

what to do in palermo, the palazzo exterior

#10 Cappella Palatina

The Cappella Palatina (“the Palatine Chapel”) is actually found inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, but it is worth its own section on my list of what to do in Palermo. The Chapel was built in the 1100s and is decorated with beautiful mosaics all around. My only tip for your visit to the Cappella Palatina is to take your time and look up.

capella what to see in palermo

#11 Porta Nuova

Porta Nuova means “new gate”, but I dare say it isn’t new anymore. The Porta Nuova is a beautiful monumental gate dating back to 1535. It was built to celebrate Charles the 5th, the Holy Roman Emperor, after his victory in Tunis when he visited Palermo after (and entered through the gate). It is decorated with 4 large statues of imprisoned Moors.

#12 Porta Sant’Agata

Another gate, and quite an interesting one at that! The Porta Sant Agata is the oldest gate in the city of Palermo. It is named so because of the nearby church. The gate is located just a few metres from the Ballarò street market, so if you are dropping by there, make sure to walk the extra minute to see the gate. It is unsure how old the gate actually is, but we know it existed in 1071, as it has been mentioned in retellings and letters dating back to that year.

porta sant agata, palermo, sicily

#13 Try local sweets (Cannoli)

It’s not possible to visit Palermo (or Sicily in general) without trying the local Cannoli! This yummy sweet is made with sweet ricotta cheese, and whatever flavour you choose. It is a little pipe (“canna” is actually Latin and means “small pipe”), and the cheese and other condiments is used to fill the pipe. Visiting Sicily without trying this local treat just wouldn’t be right, so do make sure you get your hands on a Cannoli (or five) while you are in Palermo!

cannoli in palermo, italy

#14 Enjoy Sicilian wine

Since we are on the topic of food, of course, this had to be on the list. You know I love a glass of wine, and always try to explore local wine culture when I travel. Luckily, Italy is the perfect country for this!

Sicily has some great wine to offer visitors, in great thanks to the volcanic land the vines are grown on. This makes for some truly unique wines, and it is worth spending a few hours at a wine tasting on the island (like this one) or just spending them at a wine bar in Palermo.

#15 The Cathedral

The Cathedral of Palermo is a truly marvellous building. It is absolutely massive (so big that I wasn’t able to fit the whole building into my photo). As with the palace, you can find several different styles and influences both inside the Cathedral and on its exterior, due to several alterations and additions through the years. The original church dates back to 1185, and it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Entrance is free, and I do recommend heading inside to explore.

Fun fact: The main facade of the original church is not actually the “front” that is seen in the photo (facing the piazza), but the side you see on the left, with two arcades connecting it to the Archbishop’s Palace.

the cathedral of palermo, italy

#16 The Archbishop’s Palace

As mentioned, the Palace is the building you see on the left of the photo above, and it is connected to the Cathedral by two arcades. The Palace is today the Museo Diocesano; the Diocesan Museum and has been since 1927. A visit to the museum will not only give you an impression of what the Palace was like in the glory days of the Archbishops of Sicily, but also share a bit of local religious history, through artefacts, paintings and more. Entry to the museum costs €4,50.

#17 Villa Bonanno

In the oldest part of the city, just in front of the Palazzo dei Normanni, you’ll find Villa Bonanno. These are some beautiful gardens, with tall palm trees, perfectly manicured bushes, and winding pathways. Grabbing a coffee (or a cannoli) and having a stroll here comes highly recommended when you are visiting Palermo. In the garden, you will also find an encryption cellar, complete with a see-through ceiling so you can gaze down into it.

villa bonanno, gardens in palermo, sicilia

#18 Piazza verde and the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele

The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele is the third-largest opera house in Europe, following the opera of Paris and Vienna. The inspiration is clearly classical, and on the facade, you will find a beautiful inscription that translates to “Art renews the people and reviews their lives”.

Creepy fun fact: The opera is build in the place of two churches, that were torn down in order to build it. It is said that the ghost of a nun from one of the churches haunts the building. Apparently, those that do not believe in the story always trip over a step in the church called “il passo della suora” (the nun’s step).

#19 Fontana Pretoria

Named in English “The Fountain of Shame” (from the local nickname “Fontana della Vergogna”), and by some called the most interesting sight in Palermo, this fountain sure is a detailed piece of architecture. It is riddled with over 50 statues of monsters, humans, and mythological creatures. Some call the statues grotesque, and it is said that Goethe himself was appaled when he saw the fountain during a visit to Sicilia in 1787.

#20 Go shopping for some unique souvenirs

Did you know that Palermo has a growing community of artisans and artists? Around the city, you will find markets, craft stores and pop-up shops focusing on unique and handmade products. Head this way to learn more and find out where to find some of these unique places. I found the sign below in Via Maqueda, pointing towards a market square of handmade products.

handmade sign in palermo, sicilia

#21 Walk along the dock/marina

During my day in Palermo with Costa Cruises, I spent some time simply strolling along the waterfront, and I really enjoyed it. So, this had to make it to the list of things to do in Palermo. Simply taking in the charming, Italian buildings along the waterfront, and oogling the sailboats and yachts parked there was a great way to spend an hour, and also super relaxing. Even in the rain, it was quite a beautiful experience. The marina isn’t far from the Piazza Marina (and the oldest tree in Italy), so both can easily be done at the same time.

the docks of palermo, italy

#22 Stroll down via Maqueda

Here’s another stroll for you, but this one is a little less relaxing than walking along the marina (seriously, I think I clocked over 20’000 steps during my trip to Palermo). Via Maqueda is a pedestrian street (and a bit of a main street) in Palermo, where car traffic simply has been blocked off by massive barriers. If you need something to do during your visit to the city, simply head here (or to the similarly pedestrianised via Vittorio Emanuele). There are shops, cafes, restaurants and hole-in-the-wall style bakeries selling cannoli for you to enjoy. Find the street here.

#23 Get lost in the local food

There are several ways to deep-dive into Sicilian food, such as joining a cooking class in Palermo, or having lunch or dinner at a local chef’s house! Regardless of which one you choose, if you are a foodie, this should be on your list of what to do in Palermo, Italy!

This is the highest rated food tour in Palermo!

#24 See a Sicilian puppet show

This one may seem a little odd, but did you know that the Sicilian puppet theatre; in Italian “Opera Del Pupi Siciliani” is actually listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List? Well, it is, and it’s considered a cultural treasure of Sicily. Head to the Cuticchio Theater to catch one of these shows, and to marvel at the incredible details in the hand-painted puppets used. This one is fun for the whole family, and definitely something to consider if you are travelling to Palermo with kids!

#25 Marvel at the many churches in the city

As with many Italian cities, Palermo has a rich religious history, and this becomes clear as you walk through the streets. I felt as though a church or religious building popped up whenever I turned a corner and loved looking at all the details of the buildings themselves, and reading about their history. Some are older than others, and you can often tell by looking at the walls and colours of the stone, proving that time truly has left its mark.

The church pictured below, for example, is the church of Santa Maria Della Catena. It dates back to the turn of the 16th century, and it is believed that the building of it started in 1490! Can you imagine the events these walls have seen through the years?

church in palermo, italy

#26 Visit the Museo Riso

The Museo RISO, or the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia, is the contemporary art museum of Sicily. Contemporary artists from the whole region have their pieces displayed in the museum, and it is considered one of the most important museums in Sicily. Any art fan should set aside time for a visit.

#27 Join a day tour from Palermo

If you, unlike me, have more than just a day or two to spend in Palermo, why not explore some more of the island outside of the city? There are plenty of great day tours from Palermo that I would have loved to try if I had more time. Whether you want to visit a vineyard for a wine tasting or hike Mount Etna, there is a day trip for you!

Now you know what to do in Palermo

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you should have a pretty clear idea of all the things you can do in Palermo. The city surprised me in so many ways (not that my expectations weren’t high), and I loved strolling through the streets, eating my cannoli and taking in the sights of the city. Palermo truly has something for everyone, whether you are a foodie, an art geek or a history lover.

From the architecture of the city and churches to the incredibly interesting history with traces of Arab and Norman rule everywhere, you won’t be bored during your trip to Sicily and Palermo! If you found this post helpful at all, please share it (and bookmark it for your trip).

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