When you look at lists of top places to go in Sicily, Palermo rarely makes the cut. Most travelers flock to charming east coast towns like Taormina and Catania. Or, they spend very little time on the main Sicilian Island and head to the Aeolians instead. So, is Palermo worth visiting when there are so many other, more popular places to visit in Sicily?
Of course! Palermo, Sicily is the capital and is therefore packed with tons of historic buildings and great restaurants. It’s the location of a UNESCO World Heritage Site which protects the unique Arab-Norman churches in Palermo and neighboring towns of Cefalù and Monreale. These churches are a must-see in Palermo. The city is also home to some of the world’s best street food and the Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy.
Sure, it still has crumbling buildings dotted around from the devastation of WWII. And no, it isn’t the cleanest of cities. But you will see a far more real and local side to Sicily than you will anywhere else.
This ultimate travel guide to Palermo will show you all the most beautiful places in Palermo, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Palermo, and things to do in Palermo which will help you in planning a trip to Palermo.
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How To Get to Palermo
Palermo has its own, albeit small, airport. There are many direct flights to Palermo from many major European cities via airlines like Lufthansa and British Airways. At the moment, there aren’t any direct flights from the US to Palermo but Air Italy and Air Swiss offer flights with one short layover.
You could hop on a Trenitalia train from almost any major Italian city like Rome, Florence, and Venice. It’s quite affordable as even the 17+ hour journey from Venice to Palermo costs less than €50 per ticket.
FlixBus operates direct services between Palermo and Catania or Rome if you are traveling to Palermo on a budget. There aren’t many major cruise liners that sail in the Tyrrhenian Sea though there are some passenger ferries to mainland Italy and Malta. Renting a car is a popular way for tourists to get around Sicily though the roads can be rough.
What To Expect in Palermo
The big question on many people’s lips when visiting Palermo is, “Is Palermo safe?”. Organized crime remained a huge problem in Palermo until 1992 when the Sicilian mafia killed a beloved judge. After a series of violent protests, the mafia retreated into the shadows.
There is still a lot of mafia-driven corruption in Sicily, but as a tourist, you will never see it. Most tourists will feel perfectly safe in downtown Palermo city. Businesses in the Addio Pizzo (goodbye mafia) movement display orange crosses on their storefronts so you can support them.
The currency in Palermo, like the rest of Italy, is the euro. Tipping is not part of the culture in Palermo and is quite uncommon. Even if you speak Italian, you may find it difficult to understand Sicilians as it’s a separate language. Most locals working in hospitality will speak very good English but other locals often don’t.
How To Get Around Palermo
Despite being a capital city (or the capital of an Island, at least), central Palermo is quite small. Most of the Palermo, Italy points of interest are within walking distance of each other. But you should be aware that motorbikes and small cars invade sidewalks and pedestrianized areas even though they aren’t supposed to.
Palermo has no less than 10 regional train stations you can use to travel significant distances across the city. But if you want to travel shorter distances, use the bus system. You can buy 24-hour tickets from AMAT kiosks before boarding.
Uber has only been operating in Sicily since 2022 so taxis are still the most popular form of private transport. Most short taxi journeys cost around €10. If you want to take a taxi to the airport (instead of taking a regional train to Palermo’s Punta Raisi station) then expect to pay between €35 – €45.
The Best Time to Visit Palermo
Palermo has a Mediterranean climate so it has scorching hot summers and mild winters. Unless you happen to be a cold-blooded reptile, you’ll want to stay as far away from Palermo as possible in the summer months of July and August. Temperatures can reach 40°C/104°F and higher.
The only reason you should visit Palermo during July is for the Feast of Santa Rosalia. The festival lasts for six days and celebrates the city’s patron saint. Easter week also hosts lots of parades, markets, and other special events.
Late spring and early autumn (around May and September) are the best times of year to visit Palermo for warm weather. Keep in mind that September is often the most expensive time to visit Palermo for this reason. Many restaurants and attractions will close or have limited opening times during the winter but the city will be much quieter and cheaper.
Things To Do in Palermo
All cities around the world have a “center” or “downtown” area that acts as the heart of the city. But how many of those are able to pinpoint the exact historic center down to a few square feet? Palermo can! One of the must-see places to visit in Palermo is the Quattro Canti. It is a baroque square in the middle of Palermo intersected by streets: Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. It’s a beautiful square but it’s also useful for navigation. Book accommodation near here and you’ll be near all the top attractions in the city!
Dating back to 1184, Palermo’s Cathedral is part of the Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Church of Santa Maria Dell’Ammiraglio is also part of this site. These churches have a blend of Western, Islamic, and Byzantine architectural styles and cultures that influenced other movements around Europe. Outside the architecture is exquisite, inside it is rather plain, but you can find the pièce de résistance on the cathedral’s roof: the vistas. Climb up at sunset for one of the best views in Palermo.
Palermo is full of surprises. Who would have thought that the largest opera house in Italy would be the Teatro Massimo in Palermo? It’s said to have perfect acoustics and it was infamously closed for 23 years (between 1974 and 1997) for renovations, which mafia corruption delayed. Today, it’s open for operatic shows or you can book a guided tour during the day.
Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel
Some of the best things to do in Palermo are to visit all of the absolutely stunning churches and cathedrals. It is an Italian city, after all! The Norman Palace is the former home to the Kings of Sicily in medieval times but now it’s home to the local Government. The Palatine Chapel is an impressive royal building dripping in golden mosaics. Witnessing this opulent room alone is worth making the trip to Palermo.
Mercato del Capo
If you asked a local what to do in Palermo, they would no doubt tell you to eat! Palermo has some great markets but one of the best is the Mercato del Capo. Like most food markets, there are vendors selling fresh produce for cooking later. But there are also lots of street food sellers and tables where you can take a load off with a small glass of limoncello.
Piazza Pretoria (also known as the Square of Shame) is only a few steps behind the Quattro Canti but it deserves its own section. The Pretoria Fountain encompasses most of the square and most of the source of shame. It was built for one of the notable families in Florence back in the 1500s. When the family fell into debt, the city of Palermo bought the fountain. But the people of Palermo disliked the nudity of the fountain’s Greek figures, hence the shame. It’s well worth examining the fountain yourself to see how Palermo “fixed” the nudity issues!
Palermo is a coastal city so, naturally, it has a beach. Mondello Beach is only a short bus ride north of the center and the perfect place to cool down on a hot Sicilian summer day. There are hiking trails nearby and a charming Art Nouveau pavilion at the end of the pier.
What To Eat in Palermo
Every Italian region and major city has its own signature dishes that are now famous and eaten worldwide. How does Palermo stack up? Well, it just so happens to be the home of some of the best street food in the world.
Some traditional dishes you can find in Palermo include arancina (or arancini), panelle, crocchè, Sicilian deep-fried pizza, and spleen sandwiches. Arancina is the most common type of street food in the city and these are fried rice balls with various fillings like meat, mushrooms, and peas. Panelle are delicious fried chickpea fritters and crocchè are fried potato fritters (yes – both suitable for vegans!).
You can’t visit anywhere in Italy without sampling a gelato or five. But the Sicilians have a unique way of consuming it; in a brioche bun! Yes, ask for brioche con gelato at a gelateria in Palermo and they will hand you mounds of delicious gelato in bread.
Carbs on carbs not for you? Try granita instead. Similar to snow cones or sorbet, granita consists of shaved ice, sugar, and flavorings. But the signature dessert in this part of the world has to be cannoli. If you haven’t watched The Godfather and aren’t familiar with this dessert, it’s a tube of fried dough filled with ricotta cream cheese. Like gelato, they’re available in various flavors like pistachio, chocolate, and hazelnut.
Where To Stay in Palermo
Budget – If you’re usually a budget traveler, it might seem like every new hostel that’s popping up these days is an ultra-modern spaceship. Not in Palermo! Most of the low-cost accommodation options are more like cozy B&Bs with shared rooms. The Liola B&B Hostel only has a handful of rooms and offers free breakfast as well as a communal kitchen. If you do prefer to stay in more lively, social hostels then Sunshine Palermo is the best option. It’s in a trendy neighborhood and boasts a beautiful communal courtyard.
Mid Range – When you want to know where to stay in Palermo if you’re traveling with family or a partner, B&Bs (ones with private rooms!) are your best bet. BB22’s rooms start at €70 per night and they include breakfast and a central location not far from Via Roma. Their decor is far more luxurious and modern than the rate would suggest. And if you prefer hotels to guesthouses, Palazzo Brunaccini is a fantastic mid-range option. It’s a 21st-century boutique hotel in an 18th-century palace only a stone’s throw away from Palermo Cathedral.
Luxury – Don’t mind staying slightly outside of central Palermo to enjoy the serenity on offer at the city’s most luxurious hotel? Then book a stay at Villa Igiea. From €350 per night, you can stay in an incredible suite inside one of the most beautiful, secluded old palaces with breathtaking sea views. And if you prefer to stay in the thick of it when you travel, check into the Grand Hotel et des Palmes. It’s a five-star Palermo institution only a few minutes’ walk from Teatro Massimo. The hotel retains its original opulent Art Nouveau glamor without looking dated.
Tours To Do in Palermo
Street Food Tour
Palermo has endless markets and street food carts that could make you waste precious stomach real estate on average dishes. By joining a street food tour, you can learn about how Palermo became a mecca for casual, al fresco dining and hit up all the best spots. Plus, you’re more likely to bite the bullet and chow down on a spleen sandwich if other travelers are egging you on.
Anti-Mafia Walking Tour
Like it or not, the mafia is still a prevailing force throughout Sicily but especially in Palermo. By joining an anti-mafia walking tour, you will learn all about the history of organized crime in the exact places where that history was made. And you will be supporting the local businesses that want to drive out the corruption by booking this tour!
Monreale Cathedral and Catacombs Tour
There are nine structures that make up the Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site in Palermo. Two are palaces, three are cathedrals, three are churches and the final one is a bridge. One of the most spectacular is the Monreale Cathedral. It sits on a hill just a few miles outside of central Palermo, so hopping on a tour is the most convenient way to explore this and the fascinating Palermo Catacombs.
Day Trips From Palermo
Sicily is a pretty small island. It only takes four hours to drive from east to west so you can use Palermo as a base to take lots of day trips. One of the best day trips from Palermo, Italy is to Cefalù. Pronounced chef-a-loo, this charming coastal city is only a 50-minute drive east of Palermo. It has a stunning cathedral (also part of the Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site), cobbled side streets that you can wander down, and a postcard-perfect seafront.
If you wanted to visit the filming locations in The Godfather movies, then you shouldn’t actually visit the town of Corleone where it’s set. They shot most of the scenes in Sicily on the east coast. But if you’re interested in visiting the real Corleone and uncovering the secrets of the mafia, learning about the top kingpins, and visiting the anti-mafia museum in the town then you need to book this day trip. The town is just over one hour’s drive from Palermo so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.
Valley of the Temples
Did you know that Sicily was once a Greek island and that Medusa is still the symbol of Sicily? If you didn’t, then you should visit the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento to learn more. These eight ruined temples are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are some of the best-preserved Ancient Greek structures in the world.
Recommended tours in Palermo
- Agrigento and Valley of the Temples Day Trip from Palermo
- Etna And Taormina Full Day Excursion from Palermo
- Streaty – Palermo Street Food Walking Tour
- Palazzo Conte Federico
- Sicilian cookery lesson
- Rent a Carbon or Aluminum Road Bike in Sicily
- Last minute Palermo Walking Tour and Street Food
- Private Monreale, Cefalù & Castelbuono Tour, from Palermo area
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