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The Sicilian capital city of Palermo in Italy is one of the most fun Italian cities to explore. The historic center is pretty compact so you can see a lot in a short space of time, and there is an exciting buzz all hours of the day and night.

To help you make the most of a trip to Palermo, we’ve brought together our favorite things to do while in the city so let’s dive in.

palermo cathedral and front garden
Visiting the gorgeous Palermo cathedral is just one of the many things to do in the Sicilian capital

Food and drink in Palermo Sicily

First up on our list are the must-try foodie things to do in Palermo. Southern Italy is famous for its incredible food and Palermo is no exception:

1 – Start your day with a traditional breakfast of granita and brioche

Okay, so this might sound odd, but trust us, this combination absolutely works. Sicilian granita is less a drink and more creamy, so you can eat it with a spoon. Adding in the slightly sweet, fluffy brioche bread just makes it perfect, especially in the summer when it can be extremely hot in the city centre. Granita comes in many flavors here, you must try the traditional almond (mandorla) and pistacchio but there are also lots of fruits used.

sicilian granita and brioche breakfast
The soft brioche bread combined with creamy granita is a winning combination, and makes for the perfect breakfast

2 – Explore Palermo’s street markets

Palermo is famous for its markets, filled with stall after stall selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to street food to spices. The best way to explore is to take a street food tour, with a guide who can explain everything that’s on offer, but once you’ve got the lay of the land, you can explore to your heart’s content. The biggest markets are the Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria, with each one having a distinct feel.

3 – Try panelle

The first thing to look out for when wandering through the markets is panelle, which don’t look particularly tasty, but looks are deceiving. These slices are made from chickpea flour which is seasoned with herbs and made into a dough by mixing with water, before being rolled out thinly and fried until crispy. Sicilians usually eat the slices as a sandwich filling, but you can also eat panelle by themselves.

4 – Refresh yourself with a fresh-squeezed juice

All around Palermo you’ll see carts with oranges, pomegranates and other citrus fruits piled up, ready to be made into juice. Sicily has ideal growing conditions for these fruits so if you need to cool down and cleanse your palate after the markets, stop by and get a delicious fresh-squeezed juice for just a few euro.

5 – Taste Palermo’s pizza

You can get traditional pizza in Palermo, but they have their own version which you should also try during your visit, called sfincione. Another street food classic, spongy pizza dough is prepared in large rectangular trays before being topped with a mixture of tomatoes, onions and cheese (sometimes also anchovies) that has been slow cooked, before the whole tray is baked. The combination is very different from the usual pizza you find in Italy, but is absolutely delicious.

sicilian food platter
You can try many of Palermo’s delicacies together, such as the panelle (bottom) and sfincione pizza (top)

6 – Enjoy an arancina

Arancini have become very well-known around the world, but they originated here in Sicily, when the conquering Arabs brought rice with them in the 10th century (a crop previously not grown here). However, in Palermo they are known as arancine (plural) or arancina (singular), which are also the words for oranges/orange and this distinction is important. The rice balls in Palermo are rounded and look a little like an orange when cooked, whereas those made in eastern Sicily are made with a pointed top.

7 – Taste traditional desserts

Craving something sweet? Right in the heart of the Sicilian capital city there is a very special pastry shop you should visit, in the cloister of Santa Caterina, a convent and church. Hundreds of years ago, nuns living in Sicilian convents would use local produce to make items to sell, and at this convent they specialized in pastries and desserts. They handed down their recipes to each generation of new nuns but when this way of life was dying out the convent was worried the recipes would be lost. A project was started to preserve them, and today you can buy traditionally made cannoli, cassata, marzipan fruits, cookies and much more.

santa caterina convent cloister
Purchase some of the traditional Sicilian desserts and enjoy them in this charming cloister

8 – End your day with aperitivo

After a long day walking around the city, there is nothing better than sitting in a busy piazza and enjoying a refreshing drink before dinner. Palermo has a vibrant nightlife with lots of bars to choose from, and most will serve you small snacks with your drink. There is a great cocktail culture here, or you can stick with the iconic spritz.

Explore Palermo

As well as making the most of the food and drink in Palermo, you’ll want to see some of the city and its fascinating sights, including:

9 – Visit the Norman Palace and see the Palatine Chapel

The Palazzo dei Normanni will be busy and you will need to book tickets in advance, but trust us, it’s worth it. The original structure is almost 1000 years old, and the later additions and improvements make the whole royal palace unique. The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel are breathtaking, and given the chapel was built in 1132, they are incredibly well preserved. As you explore, be sure not to miss the gardens which are a welcome break from the crowds, plus there is a little bar here serving coffee and snacks.

norman palace palermo mosaics
The mosaics in the Norman Palace are stunning – just look at those colors!

10 – Admire the Palermo cathedral

A few minutes walk from the Norman Palace is the Palermo cathedral. This cathedral does not look like many other Italian churches, with a complete mix of architectural styles on display thanks to its long history. There is plenty to see inside the cattedrale di Palermo as well, and you can also climb to the rooftop for great views of the surrounding historical buildings. In the park surrounding the cathedral you can also see some ancient Roman ruins.

11 – Visit some of Palermo’s other churches

As well as the Palermo cathedral, there are plenty of other churches to see. Opening hours and days can vary so check in advance if there is a specific one you’d like to visit. The church of San Cataldo is a particular favorite, dating back to the 12th century it is small but filled with fascinating touches. The next door Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (better known as the Martorana church) is much grander, with stunning mosaics that rival those in the Palatine Chapel.

san cataldo church interior in palermo
The interior of San Cataldo church looks simple but dates back hundreds of years

12 – Get up close with the shame of Palermo

Just a few minutes walk from the church of San Cataldo is the Fontana Pretoria, a large monumental fountain in Piazza Pretoria. Originally created for a garden of a nobleman in Florence, he ran up a lot of debt and sold it to the city of Palermo. Transported in pieces, the fountain was not reassembled until 1581. Later the piazza became known as Piazza della Vergogna ‘the square of shame’, although the story behind this varies. Some say it was because the nuns living nearby had to cover their windows to avoid the naked statues, other that it became a metaphor for the corruption of the Palermo rulers, but whatever the reason, it’s an interesting square to see when you visit Palermo.

13 – See a Sicilian puppet show

Not just for children, the puppetry tradition in Sicily is very entertaining. Telling stories of chivalrous knights conquering evil with lovingly painted backgrounds and puppets, take in a show or visit the museum dedicated to the long history of this art form.

14 – Pick up a bargain at an antique market

There are many places to shop for vintage items but the weekend market in Piazza Marina near the port is an excellent one. Wander round stalls selling everything you can think of and see what you can find. Bargaining is very normal so give it a go!

15 – See Palermo’s opera house

Even if you’re not an opera fan, the Teatro Massimo should absolutely be on your itinerary. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and even if you only have time to see it from the outside, it’s worth it. Inside is even more impressive, and you can join a guided tour if attending a performance isn’t possible.

16 – Stand at the center of Palermo

The road of Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs from Porta Felice near the port up to Porta Nuova by the Norman Palace, cutting through the heart of the city as it has for centuries. All the major sights are on roads that branch off Vittorio Emanuele, such as Teatro Massimo, Piazza Pretoria, Piazza San Domenico and the cathedral, but at the central point where it crosses with via Roma is the impressive Quattro Canti (four corners). On each of the four buildings facing the central point are layers of decorations, fountains representing ancient rivers, statues representing the four seasons, then Spanish kings and the top layer are statues of the four Palermo patron saints. Quattro Canti is more than just a way point so take the time to look at each layer.

upwards view of buildings in the quattro canti area of palermo
The Quattro Canti is unavoidable when in Palermo, but take the time to look up and admire the buildings when walking through

17 – Get spooky at the Capuchin monastery catacombs

This spot is not for the squeamish, but is a fascinating insight into life and death in Palermo. Starting in the 16th century, the monks living at the Capuchin monastery had run out of burial space in their cemetery so started excavating crypts underground. In these crypts they started interring members of their order when they passed away, embalming them and then dressing the bodies. Later it became a sign of high status to be able to be entombed here in this way, and today you can walk through the crypts and see the bodies of these people, still wearing their clothes.

18 – Visit one of Palermo’s museums

There are lots of different museums in Palermo, so you’ll be sure to find one suited to your interests. La Zisa, housed in a Norman castle, takes you through the many rooms and gardens showcasing the Arab Norman architecture style. The Regional Archeological museum has a huge collection of ancient Greek artifacts, and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna collection is art from the 19th and 20th centuries.

19 – Browse Palermo’s shops

As well as looking at the stalls of a street market, Palermo has lots of shops selling items made by local artisans. Ceramics of all shapes and sizes, jewelry, craft items and much more are on offer – just try to stay away from the tourist shops selling items imported from elsewhere in the world.

20 – Find some multilingual street signs

In the heart of Palermo’s ancient city you can see a fairly recent addition; street names in three languages, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew. Palermo has a long history and many people have come and gone, but their influence remains. In an effort to remember this, many of the smaller streets have these signs, so see if you can find some of them as you walk around the city.

Join us on an adventure in Sicily!

Complicated, misunderstood, generous, outrageous, sensual and seductive, Sicily is pure opera. If you think you know Italy but haven’t been to Sicily, you are in for a mind-bending treat. 3000 years of history piled up like a sweet cassata cake is waiting for your exploration. Andiamo!

Day trips from Palermo Sicily

If you’re looking for a change of scenery or to explore Sicily further, there are some excellent day trip options available to you. These are some of the best in our opinion:

21 – See the mosaics in Monreale cathedral

The cathedral in Monreale, a hilltop town close to Palermo, has some of the most incredible mosaics anywhere. The mosaics in the Palatine come close, but Monreale is exceptional. There is good reason for it to be included in the Arab Norman Palermo UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can easily visit it in a day. You can take either a taxi or a bus, which picks up from Piazza Indipendenza and runs regularly.

monreale cathedral interior mosaics
The mosaics inside Monreale cathedral are breathtaking, and well worth taking a trip out of Palermo to see them

22 – Relax at Mondello beach

If you’re visiting Palermo during the summer you may want to escape the city heat and cool off at the beach. Nearby Mondello beach is ideal, with a long stretch of white sand and lots of places to set up for the day. Mondello can be reached by bus from Palermo, you can also drive but the roads can be very busy at times.

23 – Experience a slower way of life in Cefalù

Cefalù is along the coast, east of Palermo, and while there is some similarities in architecture, the way of life could not be more different. The old town center is beautiful, and you can also relax on the beach if you’re there in the summer. There are hiking routes in the mountains above the town and great restaurant options. There are regular trains running between Cefalù and Palermo so this is a simple day trip to take.

24 – Walk around the ancient Greek ruins at Segesta

In ancient times there were many settlements on Sicily, and one of these was Segesta, west of Palermo. Today you can get up close with an ancient temple and a Greek-style theater high up on a hill. Located in the surrounding mountains near Palermo, you feel like you’ve gone back in time – well worth making the trip if you’re a history fan. There is a bus to Segesta that leaves from the main train station but you may be better off hiring a car or booking a tour with transport included.

close up view of temple at Segesta
You can get right up close to the temple at Segesta, giving you the chance to come face to face with history

We love visiting Palermo and sharing it with our guests, so if you want to experience everything Palermo has to offer, why not join us on our next Sicily tour?

 

 

 

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.

2 Comments

  • Janet Sutton says:

    Hi Sarah! I am eager to take your Sicilian tours but can’t fit them into my 2024 schedule. Do you plan to offer them in 2025? If so, do you know yet when they will be and when you will start offering them? I would hate to miss out!
    Thanks, Jan Sutton

    • Dawn Roe says:

      Hi Jan,
      The 2025 tour calendar will be published to Patreon subscribers on April 3. Hope to see you in Sicily in 2025!
      Cheers,
      Dawn

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