For your visit, one full day may be sufficient to get a feel of the city, but two may be needed to see all major sights while keeping a pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in all cases.
Worthy attractions: Duomo; Palazzo Normanni with Capella Palatina; Teatro Massimo; a number of opulent churches; street markets.
Left for another visit: Castello della Zisa; a handful of minor museums.
Last visit: September 2021.
I doubt many people who are not of Sicilian heritage would put Palermo on their bucket list. It is by turns 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 that 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 it the extra ticket 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 did not fit into our so far only visit to the city: 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 – but we left them for a future visit as well.
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 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 is a number of minor museums and palaces in town that may appeal to various tastes (none visited by us): 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.
In the fall of 2021, we stayed at B&B Villena Plaza ♥ (link). The location cannot be more central, right at the Quattro Canti (it also means that you have to park some distance away – see the note on parking below). It is a family-run B&B, well-renovated, nicely appointed room. The 5th floor with no elevator (73 steps in total) can be a challenge for some. Breakfast is the killer feature, served in the cozy lounge from 8-10 am, with lots of first-class pastries, mini-sandwiches, fruits, juices, coffee, etc. On the inconvenience side, electricity does not work without the room key, so on a hot day, the room will get rather warm when you return (and charging your devices while away is not possible); also, opening the balcony door immediately stops the A/C, and in our room (Albergeria) I had to work really hard to reclose it to make the A/C work again. On balance, a good choice.
I only know of one covered parking garage in central Palermo, Parcheggio Maqueda on Piazza Sant’Onofrio. Getting in involves calling the owner on the phone (the number is posted by the entrance); he is very nice but speaks very little English. The cost is €20/night.
Other than that, if you drive into town, you will have to find street parking. This is actually not as hard as could be expected, especially if you are not trying to park as close to the central sights as possible.
Places to Eat
Brief notes on a few places where we had meals on our visit to Palermo in the fall of 2021. All visited as a couple.
Sfrigola ♥♥♥ has two locations, on Via Maqueda close to Quattro Canti and near the Cathedral. We went to the former for lunch, and for introduction 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 and very filling (just 3 were enough to share between 2 people); we took traditional carne (meat sauce), salsiccia, and mushroom and beef. Damage: €14 for the entire meal, including soft drinks.
La Cambusa ♥ at Piazza Marina was a random choice for dinner. Tried a number of Sicilian specialties, including the dessert, cassata. The bucatini pasta (with mashed sardines on top) was especially excellent. Damage: €81 including a gigantic carafe of white wine.
Stopped by buffet-with-service Enoteca del Capo for a street-food lunch. Not bad, not exceptional, multiple selections will add up in cost, but not too expensive overall. Damage: €30 for a few selections with drinks.
Honorable mention goes to Rosticceria Kadi ♥ where we stopped for an espresso. The proprietor offered us a couple of small donut-like desserts on the house, because “coffee on its own is sad”. Great experience and great hospitality.
Mondello Beach ♥ is about 20 minutes away from central Palermo by car. Street parking provided a challenge to pay for; tickets need to be bought at a nearby – but not right there – tobacco shop and then placed under the windshield; the process ate into our allotted short time. The beach is taken up almost entirely by paid fenced sections (amenities only available to those who pay), but a narrow sliver by the water is free for public use. The water was very warm and rather shallow. If you don’t mind paying for amenities for a full day, it feels like a great choice.