Palermo is the capital of the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily. Surrounded by mountains, lush vegetation, and the Tyrrhenian Sea, this ancient city is ideally situated. Palermo’s history dates back to over 2,700 years ago and this is noticeable in the different architectural styles, archaeological sites, artistic heritage, and cuisine.
Centuries of invasions and conquests have shaped Palermo for the melting pot it is today. The Byzantines, Greeks, Normans, Romans, and Arabs are just some of the groups that have left their mark on this city.
Is Palermo Sicily worth visiting?
Palermo has a vibrant and unmatched energy that makes it undeniably unique. It feels like a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, comparable to a less frenetic Marrakech. I believe this is what makes the city so charming. However, travelers to Italy tend to overlook the Sicilian capital. Highly touristic cities like Rome, Venice, and Florence seem to take precedence.
Perhaps it’s because Palermo is the southernmost part of Italy or has the ridiculous reputation of being “too chaotic” and “dangerous”. Palermo is like any big city where you should be mindful of your surroundings. It may look a bit rough around the edges but I never felt unsafe here. Travelers should not let these misconceptions deter them from missing out on an enriching experience. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, consider making a pit stop in Palermo, even for a short stay.
How many days do you need?
This depends on whether you want to see Palermo at a relaxed pace or if your jam-packed itinerary will only allow the highlights. To experience the depth, beauty, and personality of this complex city, I recommend a 3-5 day stay. This gives you enough time to see all the attractions but also savor the surroundings.
Best things to do in Palermo
There is no shortage of things to do in Palermo. Historical monuments, museums, food markets, religious sites and gardens are plenty. The city is also very walkable and and pedestrian friendly so you can get to most major attractions by foot.
Seven Restaurant & Rooftop
Want to enjoy spectacular views of the city over dinner or a delicious cocktail? In the heart of Palermo is Seven Gardens Rooftop. This rooftop restaurant is the perfect way to cap your evening. I suggest arriving before sunset for the best view and to see Palermo’s skyline light up.
Dating back to 1185, this iconic city landmark is an architectural and cultural must-see. The magnificent facade highly contrasts against the interior due to the number of restorations and additions. Some of the architectural styles you may recognize are Neoclassical, Baroque, Gothic, and Moorish. Inside the cathedral, beautiful paintings and mosaics from the 12th century adorn the walls.
Access to the cathedral is free but you can purchase tickets to access the other exhibits and monuments. Our ticket included admission to the treasury, crypt, and rooftop.
The cathedral treasury houses a collection of precious jewels and religious artifacts. The crown of Queen Constance of Aragon sits here and the Barbavara Mitre.
Below the church is a crypt that houses various sarcophagi and royal tombs. What’s interesting is that it still holds its original Romanesque structure.
To conclude the tour we headed to the Cathedral roof. A narrow spiral staircase up the bell tower leads to stunning 360 views of the city. The rooftop walkway provides amazing scenery of the surrounding mountains and harbor in the distance.
A unique experience during our time in Palermo was seeing the Federico Palace. This Palazzo is hundreds of years old and inhabited by a Sicilian aristocratic family. The son of the current Conte led our tour which made it that more personable. He shared the history of his family home. It’s fascinating to hear the story of each room, see the memorabilia, architecture, and some of their renowned guests such as Garibaldi.
The Norman Palace is an absolute must-see in Palermo. It’s the most historic palace in the city, and was a former fortress turned into a palazzo in the 12th century. Today it hosts the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
The main courtyard features a portico, Egyptian granite columns, and stone archways. The marble staircase leads to the focal point of the Palace, the Palatine Chapel. Dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, this grandiose Palazzo contains combinations of Arab, Norman, and Romanesque styles.
As you enter, breathtaking Golden mosaics depict scenes from the bible and Christ’s life. The baptism, Lazarus’s resurrection, and entry into Jerusalem. Saint Peter immediately greets you as you enter the cathedral. The ceiling is covered in wooden Muqurnas architecture which is a phenomenal sight on its own.
Norman Palace gardens
After admiring the ornate architecture and art we took a breather at the royal gardens. This botanical garden consists of succulents, cactuses, palm trees, and friendly critters. We came across a few small lizards who were enjoying the heat and camouflaging amongst the plants.
What to eat in Palermo Sicily
Sicily is a food lovers’ paradise. If you’re on a diet, I advise you to temporarily hold off on it during your time on holiday. The food is too exceptional to pass up. Sicilian cuisine is a melange of cultural influences such as Arab, Spanish, French and Greek.
Arancini is a deep-fried rice ball filled with rice and toppings such as mozzarella, meat, spinach, cheese, and pesto. Typically eaten as a snack or finger food, these rice balls are very filling and can replace a heavy meal. There are many restaurants and snack bars where Arancini can be purchased in Palermo. Ke Palle, located on Maqueda street is a popular crowd favorite. They have a variety of flavors with a modern twist such as curry and smoked salmon. I promise that you won’t be able to get enough of these crispy snacks once you try them.
Lovers of eggplant will enjoy this delicious antipasto. An explosion of tomato, capers, olives and parsley wakes up your tastebuds. I’m not a huge fan of eggplant but this dish completely changed my palette.
Cannoli is a world-famous dessert that originated in Sicily. Essentially, it’s a fried pastry dough shell, filled with sweet ricotta cream, and sprinkled with sweet toppings like chocolate and candied fruit. The best cannoli I tried had a chocolate shell, pistachio cream, powdered sugar, and candied orange on top. Many cannoli shops will let you choose the cream base, filling, and topping.