If you followed me on social media while I was in Palermo you will have already understood how much I was struck by it. I had been there a couple of times many years ago, I couldn't wait to go back and I had very high expectations. Inside I knew this journey was going to trigger a titanic war between Naples and Palermo in my heart but I tell you already that in the end it remained so: I would not know how to choose between the two! They are cities that overwhelm you for their beauty and their humanity, cities that were European capitals between the end of the 800th and the beginning of the 900th century, then fell into neglect and are now experiencing a new spring. But I don't want to bore you with my mental blowjobs so, I'd go straight to the point!
When to go to Palermo
The weather and the fact that it was there in the low season certainly contributed to the boundless love I felt for this city. Compared to the first, Palermo (like all of Sicily) enjoys a wonderful climate, it is sunny for most of the year, and in January you can eat with a sea view in short sleeves (I did it twice!). The high season starts in March-April and ends in October, but you can always come! In July and August it is very hot..I would say that these are the months to avoid, unless you are interested in experiencing the city during the most important holiday (which is Santa Rosalia and is celebrated on July 14th). I was there in January, during the week for more, and it was priceless to see the places with almost no one !!
How to reach the center of Palermo from the Falcone-Borsellino airport
The Falcone-Borsellino (or Punta Raisi) airport is located about 30 km north-west, in the direction of Trapani. The most convenient ways to reach the center are 2: 1) the bus: the Prestia e Comandè company connects the airport with Palermo every 30 minutes (here you will find timetables, stops and prices). If there is no traffic it takes about 40 'and makes several stops at Via della Libertà, Politeama, Vucciria and Central Station. 2) the train: there are 2 trains every hour to the Central Station. They take about 50 minutes and cost € 5,9 (one way).
Where to sleep in Palermo
B&B Hotel Palermo Quattro Canti: this hotel is in a perfect location, in the middle of the 2 main pedestrian streets (Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda). From here you can explore the entire historic center on foot, the station is 15 'away (on foot) and is also very convenient for the evening (the Vucciria clubs can be reached in 2'). It is a modern hotel with a beautiful terrace overlooking Piazza Pretoria. It's also great value for money… in hindsight I couldn't have chosen better (I swear they didn't pay me to write it!).
Where to eat in Palermo
Find all the info on the best restaurants, rotisseries, bars, pastry shops and street food in Palermo in the article Where to eat in Palermo: the best restaurants and bars.
How to get around Palermo: on foot!
If I have to think about a sore point of the city this can certainly be the efficiency of public transport (even if, for the needs I had as a tourist, it didn't have much impact in the end). Almost all the places you will find in this article can be easily reached on foot (the historic center is definitely on a human scale). The only cases in which you will need to use public transport are the Zisa (if you don't feel like walking for 3-4 km), the Chinese building, Monreale, Mondello and Cefalù. The times are long but in the end we arrive. Avoid taxis because they have really prohibitive costs (and I thought that Milan was expensive !!): to reach the Chinese building from the center they asked me for 25 euros (we are talking about 5-6 km! thieves).
What to see in Palermo in 3 days (or more!)
For convenience, I have divided the city into 4 zones (the 4 segments that form from the intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele) and it will be convenient for you to explore them one at a time, so that everything will be close. If you want to orient yourself and immediately get an idea of the city I recommend this free 2h tour in Spanish which explores the main monuments of the historic center. When and if to go alone, the only things you need to pay attention to when planning your itinerary are the opening hours of some monuments:
- Cathedral: for the ascent to the roofs and the royal tombs the last entrance is at 13:30
- Norman Palace: the royal apartments are closed from Tuesday to Thursday for parliamentary sessions.
- Churches: the smaller and less touristy ones are open only in the morning. The others usually close from 13:30 pm to 15:30 pm.
- Monreale Cathedral: closes between 12:30 and 14:30
- Cathedral of Cefalù: from November to March it closes between 13pm and 00pm
1.The Monumental District: the Arab-Norman Palermo
Cathedral of Palermo
This imposing church is the result of several hands that have followed one another over the centuries: the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Normans. The entrance portal and the apse and the terraces are magnificent (pay attention to the timetables, the last climb is at 13:30). Inside the Cathedral there are also the royal tombs of Frederick II of Swabia, his wife Constance of Aragon, Henry VI, Roger II and Constance of Altavilla (they can be seen with the same ticket as the rooftop climb - 5 €).
Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel
Initially built as a fortress (XNUMXth century), this imposing palace was later embellished and enlarged by the Normans (of which the Palatine Chapel and the towers remain). It then went through various periods of abandonment before being restored by the Spanish viceroys (XNUMXth century) but above all by the Bourbons (XNUMXth century) who made it their royal residence. Today the Palazzo is seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly (ARS)..call them fools! Not to be missed inside is especially her, the Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece in which Byzantine, Islamic and Roman elements blend, which was built by Frederick II in 1143. The gold mosaics really leave you breathless! Also visit the Ancient Royal Apartments (closed from Tuesday to Thursday) with the crazy mosaics of Ruggero's room (reminiscent of the Palatine Chapel). The gardens are also beautiful with huge ficus and a nice bar where you can relax among the plants (cumulative ticket Palace + Royal Apartments + Gardens + exhibition 17 €).
St. John of the Hermits
In an almost hidden street a stone's throw from Palazzo dei Normanni there is this oasis of peace that you just don't expect. The abbey of San Giovanni degli Eremiti it stands on the remains of an ancient mosque built by Roger II; the shapes are simple and the 5 pink domes recall those of other churches of the same period (such as S. Cataldo). Very beautiful is also the cloister immersed in the garden full of palm trees, agaves, bougainvillea and prickly pears. A magical place. To have a magnificent view of the cloister and on Palazzo dei Normanni you can also get on the bell tower of the nearby church of San Giuseppe Cafasso (weekend 10-17, 3 euros). For S. Giovanni degli Eremiti there is a combined ticket valid also for Palazzo Abatellis for € 10,5, lasts 3 days, which will save you something.
2.I Quattro Canti e l'Albergheria
Behind the Quattro Canti (the square on the intersection between Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, with 4 beautiful Baroque palaces) is one of the most beautiful squares in Palermo (if not the most beautiful). The square is almost completely occupied by a huge one Renaissance fountain made up of steps, balustrades and water features. Around there are the monastery and the Church of S.Caterina, Praetorian Palace (seat of the Municipality of Palermo) and the church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini.
This church was for me the first impact with the Palermo baroque and I still have to recover! As it happened many other times during my days in Palermo, I entered a seemingly anonymous place to be stunned by the beauty and richness of the interiors. The latter are of white marble worked according to the best Baroque tradition, they are loads to die for but beautiful. Also go up to the roof from which you can enjoy a magnificent view of Piazza Pretoria and the cloister of the monastery (which was inhabited by the cloistered nuns until the early 2000s). Inside the monastery there is also the cooperative The Secrets of the Cloister where they make excellent desserts to eat there or to take away (entrance to the Church + roofs 7 €).
La Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio) and S.Cataldo
These two churches are located in front of the monastery and the Church of Santa Caterina, in the same square. As for the latter, even when you enter the Martorana you are entranced by Byzantine mosaics probably made by the same artists who built the Palatine Chapel. In addition to these, the Baroque frescoes and polychrome marble floors are also beautiful (almost all the churches in Palermo have wonderful floors!). Leaving the Martorana, with a few steps you will enter a San Cataldo, a Norman church very bare but really impressive (entrance fee for Martorana and San Cataldo is € 1 and € 1,5 respectively - discounted ticket by purchasing others for other churches / oratories).
Ballaró: the market and the Church of the Gesù (Casa Professa Complex)
On the opposite side of Via Maqueda there is the district of Ballarò, very different from the elegant area that surrounds Piazza Pretoria. This area of the city is densely populated and the Muslim and Jewish quarters are located here. It's a definitely multi-ethnic neighborhood and you will notice it right away. The famous Ballarò market it is the oldest historical market in Palermo and extends from Piazza Casa Professa to Corso Tkory. The whole area around the market is very beautiful to see, at times it is very decadent and full of street art. In this context, the interiors of the still screeching Church of the Gesù (or complex of Casa Professa, together with the college of the same name) entirely covered with stucco and semi-precious stones. Also worth seeingSaturday Oratory (on the 1st floor), all decorated by Serpotta (a sculptor and plasterer from Palermo who embellished many palaces and many churches).
This is one of the neighborhoods that has changed the most in recent years, passing from a popular (and poor) neighborhood where you could hardly enter to the neighborhood where the most prestigious museums in Palermo and the most beautiful buildings in the city are located, now reported to the ancient splendor. The area was almost razed to the ground during World War II, but has since been slowly rebuilt. To see all the places I talk about below it will take you almost 1 full day.
This Catalan-Gothic palace houses the Regional Gallery of Sicily, and houses sculptures and paintings from the medieval period up to the seventeenth. The most famous pieces are the Triumph of Death (which dates back to the 10,5th century) and the Annunziata by Antonello da Messina (you can buy the combined ticket with San Giovanni degli Eremiti for € 3, lasts XNUMX days).
Palazzo Butera and the bad walls
Palazzo Butera it is the 2nd largest building in Palermo after Palazzo dei Normanni and it is simply spectacular !! I would have stayed there forever, even barricaded inside! After years of semi-abandonment, the palace was bought by the Valsecchi (a couple of art collectors from Milan) in 2016 and has since begun the restoration. Today it is possible to visit the halls on the first floor, the exhibition spaces on the ground floor, the attics and the panoramic tower. When the works are finished it will host a center for arts and culture and the private collection of the Valsecchi. The palace overlooks the seafront and has magnificent terraces opening onto the Walls of the Bad (where there is also the local "Le Cattive" which can be accessed from Palazzo Butera). The cost of the ticket is 7,5 €
Oratory of the Whites
This Oratory is located next to the popular houses of the Kalsa, and is surrounded by street art. We hardly notice it (even if the contrast with the surrounding buildings is very evident). It was founded in 1542 by the Compagnia dei Cavalieri Banchi, religious and lay men who dedicated themselves to saving the souls of those condemned to death. You go up a majestic Carrara marble staircase to get tooratory, magnificently embellished by Serpotta, and then al Fumagalli room. Free entry.
La Magione and S. Maria dello spasimo
The big piazza della Magione it is one of the main squares of the Kalsa. Surrounded by long-abandoned buildings and churches, it has been slowly renovated and several very popular bars and clubs have opened there. From the square there is also access to S. Maria dello Spasimo, one of the most evocative churches in Palermo (it was the only thing I remembered about the city). This church is the only example of Nordic Gothic in Sicily; it was built in 1506 and the painting for its altar was even commissioned to Raphael (but today it is in the Prado Museum in Madrid). Even before it was finished, the church was used as a fortress, then a theater, a hospital, a hospice for the poor and finally a hospital (until 1986). Today it is a magnificent open-air space (the roof of the central nave collapsed in the XNUMXth century) where concerts and exhibitions are organized. Free entry. Not far from there there is also Palazzo Ajutamicristo but you can only visit the courtyard at the moment.
Another building that has struck me is Mirto Palace, a very luxurious palace left to the city by Beginning Filangeri Lance. A red marble staircase leads to the main floor which still retains all the original furnishings (of immense value). Note the Chinese sitting room where the prince smoked opium (with Spanish leather floor and walls), the luxurious Pompadour lounge with the walls covered in silk, the Hall of the Baldacchino and ancient stables with sedans and vintage carriages. The ticket costs € 6 and there is a guided tour included on the noble floor.
If you love botanical gardens like myself, the one in Palermo cannot be missed !!! Founded in 1789, it is a true oasis of peace in the chaos of the city and is full of very rare oriental and exotic plants that have perfectly adapted to the climate of Palermo. Also beautiful are the greenhouses (especially the Maria Carolina greenhouse) and the pool with water lilies and bamboos. It is truly held by god! (entrance ticket € 6).
Vucciria and the Marina
Located near the ancient port, it was in this district that the merchants who exchanged goods from other maritime cities (Pisa, Amalfi, Genoa, etc.) gathered. Today the commercial soul of the area is still visible in the famous Vucciria market (whose name derives from the French boucherie) which develops around Piazza Caracciolo. Unlike the markets of Ballarò and Capo, this market has now remained more of an evening place where young people from Palermo come to eat street food or drink in one of the many clubs in the area (like the Taverna Azzurra for example).
Oratory of S. Domenico and S.Cita
A few steps from the Vucciria market there is Piazza S. Domenico with the homonymous church. The latter is the Pantheon of Palermo, in fact, here rest all the illustrious characters: Serpotta, Rosolino Pilo, Vincenza Florio and Giovanni Falcone. Behind the church there are two oratories that are absolutely worth seeing: theOratory of San Domenico and S. Quote, both embellished by the works of Serpotta. In the Oratory of San Domenico there is a beautiful Madonna del Rosario by Van Dyck. L'Oratory of S.Cita It is considered the Serpotta's greatest masterpiece with a riot of cherubs (admission € 5 to see both; the ticket also gives you a discount to see the Martorana and S.Cataldo).
5.The Cape and the "New City"
Massimo Opera House
Il Massimo Opera House is one of the most important European opera houses and is the 3rd largest in Europe by size. The facade is neoclassical while the interiors are in Liberty style; the galleries are adorned with flower-shaped lamps, all different from each other. Magnificent is the Sala Pompeiana which acts as a foyer and the terraces from which you can enjoy a beautiful view of the city (entrance with a 30 'guided tour - the 1st visit is at 9:50 am then every 40-50' - cost € 8 or € 20 with the terrace).
Capo Market and Church of the Immaculate Conception
Il Cape market it is one of the 4 historical markets of the city and it is the most authentic one. The market starts from Porta Carini and continues on the homonymous street and on via Beati Paoli. Don't miss out at the beginning of Via Carini the beautiful Baroque Church of the Immaculate Conception! Another place that you won't give a penny from the outside, but that will turn out to be quite another once inside.
6. Outside the center of Palermo
This bizarre and fascinating building is attached to the Favorita Park (the ancient hunting reserve of Ferdinand II of Bourbon, about 6 kilometers outside the center). The building is "Chinese" only on the ground floor, on the other floors the style is more varied with Pompeian, Ottoman or Louis XVI style rooms. It is an incredible place that I would call "Wes Anderson" (free admission). To reach the Chinese Palace from the center of Palermo there is bus N.645 from the Stadium.
Near the Chinese building there is the gate to reach Villa Niscemi, now the seat of the Public Relations Office of the Municipality of Palermo. If you go there in the morning and ask the ushers they will let you in. This is another crazy villa, and it is the villa in which Tomasi di Lampedusa set Tancredi's house in the Leopard. Inside there are sumptuous halls with original furnishings but the real show is your large terraces that open onto the garden with blue and white tiles, a dream (free admission).
Palazzo della Zisa and Zisa cultural sites
This palace it is part of the Arab-Norman Palermo and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. It was built as a place of rest and entertainment in 1166 by the Norman king and is decorated in Arabian style: it recalls (in small size) the Alhambra in Granada. Inside today there is also the Museum of Islamic Art (admission € 6). Immediately behind there are the I. Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa (Eg Ducrot workshops), in a former industrial area of Palermo, which is used as an exhibition space for theatrical, musical, cinematographic events and cultural initiatives of all kinds. Inside, among others, there is also the International Center of Photography directed by Letizia Battaglia. To reach the Zisa from the center of Palermo there is bus N.124 from Piazza Verdi.
Catacombs of the Capuchins
This is a very special and, I would add, decidedly macabre place, but it has a certain charm. It is located west of the city and you can reach it by walking for about 15-20 ′ from Palazzo dei Normanni. Under the Capuchin convent there is a vast underground cemetery formed by tunnels dug in 1500 which unfold to accommodate about 8000 mummified bodies, fully dressed. The bodies are divided by gender and social class (mummification was very expensive and took a long time to complete), with men usually hanging on the walls and women lying in niches. Some are truly incredibly preserved, and among them is the body of a 2-year-old girl who looks just asleep! The cost of the ticket is 5 euros and you cannot take pictures inside. In the cemetery next to the entrance there is also the tomb of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Mondello it is located 10 km north of Palermo and is the best known holiday resort in the area: in summer all of Palermo pours here! The area was discovered by the upper class of Palermo in the early 1900s and began building magnificent ones there city in Art Nouveau style, as well as the large liberty establishment located in the center of the beach. At the end of the beach, passing behind the La Torre hotel you can take a walk to reach it the abandoned Capo Gallo lighthouse (it is a natural reserve, very suggestive). Continuing further you can also get to the little one fishing village of Sferracavallo. To reach Model from the center of Palermo there is the number 806 bus from Piazza Sturzo.
A trip to Palermo cannot be separated from the visit of Cathedral and the Cloister of Monreale! This town, which is located a few kilometers outside Palermo, developed in the XNUMXth century around the Benedictine abbey, the royal palace and the Cathedral. Nothing remains of the palace and the abbey, while the Cathedral and its cloister have been perfectly preserved. The Monreale complex represents the quintessence of Arab-Norman and Byzantine art. The mosaics of the cathedral are something simply unique and perfect. The view from the terraces of the Cathedral is also beautiful, as is the Cloister, with more than 90 columns decorated with mosaics and Romanesque capitals (free entrance to the Duomo - entrance to the terraces + diocesan museum + treasure + cloister 12 €). To reach Monreale from the center of Palermo there is the AST bus from the Central Station (recommended! It has more timetables - 3 €) or the N.389 from Piazza Indipendenza (ask for all the timetables in the Information offices that you find around the city ). To visit everything, expect about 2h-2h30.
Monte Pellegrino and Sanctuary of S. Rosalia
From practically every point of Palermo you will be able to see the outline of the Monte Pellegrino, where is the sanctuary of the patron saint of the city, or S. Rosalia. The sanctuary dates back to the XNUMXth century and is located in the cave where, according to legend, the remains of the Saint were found. Continuing further along the road you will come to a belvedere from which you can enjoy a beautiful view of the sea. On Monte Pellegrino you can only arrive with a private vehicle.
You might also be interested in these other articles I wrote about Sicily:
- Western Sicily: 3 days between Marsala, Mazara, Selinunte, Segesta and Gibellina
- What to see in Catania and surroundings
- Where to eat in Palermo
- Favignana: the beaches, where to sleep and where to eat
- Marettimo: how to reach it, what to see and where to sleep
- Levanzo: how to reach it, what to see and where to sleep
- 10 beautiful farmhouses with swimming pool in Sicily