The most impressive sight in Palermo is that of its Cathedral.
It can be said, with practically no hyperbole, that Cathedral by itself is worth visiting Palermo for. It is an amazingly architecturally diverse structure, with many additions and alterations in a mix of styles having taken place through the 18th century, after the original church had been built in 1185.
The interior, surprisingly, is relatively subdued, especially if you compare it to the Baroque decadence of some other churches in town.
The cathedral is free to enter, and for extra fee you can visit the royal tombs, the treasury, and the roof terrace. I highly recommend the latter (a few perspectives from the roof are found at the beginning of the previous post), while the other parts can be skipped.
The great church is one component of the serial World Heritage site of Arab-Norman Palermo, inscribed for the fusion of cultures and religions that is reflected in several architectural masterpieces. There are seven named sights in Palermo, of which we ended up visiting four, and two more cathedral churches in nearby towns of Monreale and Cefalú, neither of which fit into our itinerary around Sicily this time.
The Royal Palace is part of the serial WH site, and probably the second most important attraction in Palermo. It is not exactly grand as far as the exterior goes, just quite big. I did not retain any reasonable shot of its façade, as it turns out, aside from it being in the background for a shot of the sculptural group of Teatro Marmoreo.
Inside, there are quite a few interesting spaces, diminished in my opinion somewhat by doubling as occasional government offices.
Nothing too breathtaking, to be sure. That is, until you come to Sala di Ruggero, with its remarkable ceiling mosaics.
And then there is the main attraction, Capella Palatina, which is altogether jaw-dropping for the amount and quality of its Byzantine mosaics.
The Palatine Chapel is one place where you may have to wait to get in during the busiest hours. The line in our case was about 25 minutes long. Thankfully, there are some details to observe while waiting.
Two not very big churches that are part of the WH site are located on Piazza Bellini, which connects to the Piazza Pretoria seen in the middle of the previous post. The smaller one is called San Cataldo. Its three distinct red domes are among the clear markers of a former mosque.
The compact interior of San Cataldo is relatively bare.
Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio next door, conversely, offers a significantly more decorated interior. The mosaics here are just as vibrant as inside the Palatine Chapel.
San Cataldo and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio do not take too much time to see. At the cathedral, unless you decide to go to the roof, you can probably get your fill of it in under half an hour; the roof adds up to 45 minutes, depending on the wait and your desire to linger. The palace can be seen in under two hours, including the wait to enter the chapel. These four points of interest are all located within the historic core of Palermo, reachable on foot in under 15 minutes from practically anywhere in the city center, and within less than 15 minutes from each other.
One other component of the serial site, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, is not far from the palace and was on our itinerary; my information about its hours of operation inexplicably turned out to be off by half an hour, and the place was already closing up as we were approaching. Two more components, a palace and a bridge, are only another 15-20 minutes further out from the center (albeit in opposite directions) but each would be too much of a target-driven walk for us to fit into our relatively short time in Palermo; we wanted to aimlessly drift around the city core instead.
I have to admit that my usual prioritization of World Heritage sites proved to be quite a useful gauge in determining whether visiting Palermo was worthwhile. There is plenty to see in this city. And it might not have made the cut, based on various opinions and advice I had gathered before the trip, if it did not boast a World Heritage site. That would have been a pity!