I doubt many people who are not of Sicilian heritage would put Palermo on their bucket list. It is by turn dirty or neglected, even around its major monuments in the historic center. However, you can still find quite a number of architectural gems here or there, especially when it comes to places of worship.
Starting with the Cathedral ♥♥♥, which is a remarkable feast for eyes from the outside. It is also reasonably stately inside, although in a somewhat muted way. There are several combination tickets allowing you to take a look at areas of the cathedral complex beyond the main church. My recommendation is to get one of the cheapest options which includes access to the roof – while other accessible parts are only of mild interest, the roof is an undeniable highlight, well worth on its own the cost of the ticket.
A few opulent church interiors are well worth checking out on your walks around Palermo’s center. Chiesa del Gesù ♥♥♥ is almost over-the-top luxurious, with amazing decorative details on every inch, marble, plaster, fresco, stone, columns, organs, etc. Church of the Immaculate Conception ♥♥ is similar but on a more intimate scale. Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore ♥♥ is also of the kind, but it has the distinction of being the “theater church”, shaped in an unusual oval form, and situated sideways to the main entrance, which provides for a performance venue look; you can also climb under its dome ♥♥ for fabulous views over the city, which is well worth the extra cost. San Giuseppe dei Teatini ♥ is another luxurious interior, clearly restored after the wars.
Santa Caterina is purportedly yet another opulent example but we did not go into the church proper; instead, a pasticceria ♥♥ in the cloister is a serene place to enjoy a sweet and/or granita.
San Domenico looks almost poor by contrast, but it is an important church on account of being the resting place of key opponents of the Mafia.
Keep in mind that seemingly every central church in town hosts a wedding on Saturday night. Also, If you buy tickets to get into one church, you apparently can get discounts at others, so keep your past tickets at hand; it should be noted that each entry is usually only a couple of euros anyway.
Palazzo Normanni ♥♥ is another undeniable top sight in town. Its main highlight is the Palatine Chapel ♥♥♥, resplendent in its mosaic decorations. Inside the Royal Apartments ♥♥, Sala del Ruggero and Torre Pisana are among the most impressive places. There are also the gardens and a couple of additional exhibitions.
Palermo’s UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage monuments include the Cathedral and the Norman Palace, as well as the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio ♥♥, which also boasts beautiful mosaics, and San Cataldo, with distinctive red domes and small, indicative but bare interior. Three other components of the WH site should be worth considering as well: San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Castello della Zisa, and Ponte dell’Ammiraglio. Further afield, cathedrals in nearby towns of Monreale and Cefalù are also listed on the same WH inscription – and reputedly even more magnificent than the cathedral in Palermo.
Another worthy attraction is Teatro Massimo ♥, where a guided tour takes you to the foyer, the orchestra, the royal box, and finally the “echo room”, a highlight of the tour on account of its weird acoustics.
Unmissable open public places include Piazza Pretoria ♥♥ with its tremendous fountain (which unfortunately did not operate during our time in town); Quattro Canti ♥♥, the historic central juncture of the city, where you can listen to street music performances practically around the clock; Piazza San Domenico ♥; and a few others.
There are three major markets in town, at least one of which has to feature on your walks. The most intimate and my favorite is Vucciria ♥; a slightly bigger one is Mercato del Capo ♥; and the biggest of them all is Ballarò ♥ which can actually be marginally overwhelming.
A food-centric walking tour ♥♥♥ is an excellent way to get yourself acquainted with Palermo. We loved our choice of the Palermo Night Tour with Streaty.
There are a number of minor museums and palaces in town that may appeal to various tastes: Museum of Majolica Genius, Palazzo Abatellis, Museo Palazzo Mirto, Modern Art Gallery Sant’Anna, Palazzo Riso, Palazzo Conte Federico, Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas, and others.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Palermo. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of a specific recommendation is Sfrigola (two locations: on Via Maqueda close to Quattro Canti and on Corso Calatafimi near the Cathedral), a great introduction if you need any to arancini; if you do not sit on the street, a table by the edge of the upper-level loft area gives you a view into the preparation of the food; well-made arancini are fantastic, cheap, and very filling – just 3 should be enough to share between 2 people for lunch; there are many different fillings available.
The aforementioned Monreale and Cefalù are prime day-trip destinations from Palermo. Trapani, Erice, and some other destinations on the west coast of the island are similarly accessible. Some sights in central Sicily can probably be visited from a base in Palermo, but the east coast sights would require a base closer to them. See this article for various destinations.