Located a long distance away from the traditional tourist route in Italy, Palermo is a place that fewer tourists find themselves in. While it is by no means a hidden gem, Palermo has a much more local feel to it than many other cities located along the main spine of Italy. Palermo is the capital of Sicily, which is a large island off of the southwestern coast of Italy that is known for its food, its laid back culture, its mafia roots, and its stunning ruins.
While there are many parts of Sicily that deserve a visit, Palermo has an entirely different feel than most of them. While most Sicilian destinations feel much more like towns than cities, Palermo is the polar opposite. It is a city of about 700,000 people, and this size is why visitors often choose Palermo as their home base while exploring Sicily. This post is going to take a look at everything you need to know about visiting Palermo, helping you to plan your itinerary and save a bit of cash in the process.
Best Things to Do in Palermo
1. Venture Out to the Monreale Cathedral
Monreale is a town tucked into the mountains just outside of Palermo, and the views it offers of Palermo and the Mediterranean Sea are unbeatable. While the town itself is incredibly charming, the Cathedral at the center of it is absolutely mesmerizing. As context, Sicily has been ruled by just about every dominant empire in European history, and influences of each of them can be seen all around the island.
Palermo is especially well known for its Arab-Norman architecture. Built in the 12th century by Norman King William II of Sicily, this church is one of the greatest remaining examples of Arab-Norman architecture in Palermo and should not be missed. It is truly epic, especially when you consider just how old it is.
2. Go on a Street Food Tour
While all of Italy is known for its food, some places stand out more than others. Bologna is the rightful culinary capital of Italy, but there are several other places around the country that deserve special recognition for their foods. Palermo is certainly one of them.
Sicily is very unique from the rest of Italy, and its history is quite different. As a result, its cuisine has developed all on its own, and is not very intimately tied to traditional Italian cuisine. For this reason, going on a street food tour is easily one of the best things to do in Palermo, as many of the foods are things you won’t find anywhere else.
3. Spend an Afternoon on the Beach
While the city and the churches are nothing short of epic, Sicily is best known for its stunning beaches. Located out in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily’s water is usually crystal clear and quite warm. Spending a day on the beach in Palermo is a must if you enjoy basking in the sun, as Sicily has most of the best beaches in Italy.
While Palermo itself does have beaches, they aren’t as nice as the ones a bit further out from the city. This is typical of any port city, really, as port cities tend to have more pollution and inferior beaches as a result. Two of the best beach areas near Palermo are Cefalu and Terrasini, which can both be reach in less than an hour by car.
4. Descend into the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
While most travelers think about things to do in Palermo above ground, one of the best things to do in Palermo is beneath the city’s surface. Visiting catacombs is often a unique thing to do in European cities, and Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs do not disappoint. While the catacombs started as a burial place for the Capuchin monks in the area, they eventually became the most desirable final resting place for citizens in all of Palermo.
The Capuchins were exceptionally skilled at embalming, and local people with some extra wealth when they died often opted to pay a premium to be buried with the monks in the catacombs. Nowadays, the catacombs are an exceptional place to learn about the history of Palermo and explore one of its more macabre sides.
5. Attend Mass in the Palermo Cathedral
Attending a religious ceremony is often the best way to truly experience a culture – especially when the country cares as much about religion as Italy does. While some major faiths are a bit more restrictive regarding who is allowed to attend a service, the Catholic Church is the polar opposite. Built in 1185, Palermo’s cathedral is massive and truly jaw-dropping, and walking around the sanctuary is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Palermo.
Everyone is welcome to attend mass, and attending mass in Palermo’s cathedral is truly epic. The only restrictions are that Italian Catholic churches require modest attire (usually no shorts or spaghetti straps) and non-Catholics are not welcome to receive communion.
6. Marvel at the Uniqueness of the Palatine Chapel
Located in the Royal Palace of Palermo, visiting the Palatine Chapel is often ranked as the best thing to do in Palermo. This chapel is regarded as the single best example of Arab-Norman style in all of Palermo, as the Catholic Normans commissioned the work from the Arabs who were living in the area. In this chapel, you can see stylistic elements from Islam, Roman Catholicism, Byzantine Catholicism, and ancient civilizations. While the chapel is small, it is breathtaking.
7. Grab an Evening Aperitivo in the Historic Center
One of the best aspects of Palermo is its relaxing culture. The people of Palermo, although extremely hardworking, know how to sit back and relax at the end of the day. Aperitivo is one of our favorite Italian traditions, as it is a means of bringing people together every day to enjoy each other’s presence. Aperitivo is essentially an Italian happy hour, and you simply can’t go to Italy and not take part in Aperitivo. If you want to get the most out of your Aperitivo experience, make sure you read my guide to Aperitivo in Italy before you go.
8. Hike up to the Belvedere of Monte Pellegrino
The Belvedere di Monte Pellegrino is a scenic lookout area on a mountain above Palermo. This mountain is right on the edge of the city, and the views from the top are stunning. Palermo is a beautiful city, and the sprawling landscape of Sicily is unforgettable. Admiring the Sicilian landscape, coasts, and cities from this lookout is one of the best things to do in Palermo for those who like to get outdoors and appreciate natural beauty.
How to Get to Palermo
While it is one of the biggest cities in Italy, Palermo is pretty distant from the Italian mainland. Still, driving, flying, and taking a train are all viable ways that you can get to Palermo.
If you are coming from anywhere other than Italy, this is easily going to be your best option. Sicily is an island, and there are no roads leading into other countries. While there are ferries to a few other countries, including Malta and Tunisia, odds are that the ferry will cost more and take longer than a flight.
Palermo Airport (PMO) is located about 45 minutes outside of the city, and it is by far the best airport option in the area. It is the biggest and busiest airport in all of Sicily, and there isn’t a better airport option to use for hundreds of miles.
Palermo Airport is very well connected to the city, and you can take either a train, bus, or taxi into the city center. I prefer the train, which costs just about €6 and arrives in just over an hour. Tickets can be bought at the airport station, and trains run about every 45 minutes.
If you are already in Italy, your best bet is probably still to fly. Palermo is nowhere near most parts of mainland Italy, and a train likely takes the brunt of a full day, depending where you are. For example, We flew from Genoa to Palermo on a direct Ryanair flight and paid less than €50 per person. The whole flight was just two hours.
Taking a train to Palermo is really only viable if you are in Southern Italy or Sicily, and it is even a stretch at that point. The train routes from Rome and Naples take over 10 hours, and from Catanzaro take about 7 hours. If you are thinking about taking a train to Palermo, check out my guide to using trains in Italy.
How to Get Around Palermo
BUS | METRO | TAXI
Palermo is a relatively large city, and its public transportation system is definitely not robust. Palermo does have a bus network and a limited train system, but they tend to be complex for non-Italian speakers to figure out. Driving in Palermo is also not recommended, as it can be a treacherous undertaking if you are not familiar with the roads.
Many guides simply recommend taking taxis everywhere you go. Palermo is way too big to rely on walking everywhere. Personally, I think that the buses and trains are easy enough to figure out. Using them will definitely cost significantly less than riding taxis, too, as a ride on the bus or train only costs about €1.50. Further, there are buses connecting the center of the city to each of the city’s most important districts, including Monreale.
We stayed at the Villa Igiea Hotel just outside of the city, and there didn’t seem to be many buses passing through on a regular basis. If you are traveling to Palermo, it is usually best to budget for at least a few taxis. Make sure they use a meter or you agree on a price before getting in.
How Many Days Do You Need to Visit Palermo?
Palermo is a large city, but the best things to do within Palermo can all be done over just a couple of days. If you are planning on only visiting Palermo, I recommend visiting for no less than 3 full days to fully experience all of the main things that the city has to offer. From food markets, to iconic churches, to beaches and more, you will want to make sure that you see it all while in Palermo.
If you are planning to do any day trips around Sicily, you will need more time. Palermo deserves 2-3 days on its own, and any day trips you go on should all add time onto your itinerary. Sicily is loaded with incredible places to visit, like Agrigento, Catania, and Taormina, and Palermo makes a great home base for a trip around Sicily. Just be sure to add a full day for each day trip that you plan to go on, plus 2-3 days to explore Palermo itself.
Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
As the biggest city in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions, it is safe to say that Palermo has a lot to offer. But with all of the other incredible places to visit in Italy, is Palermo worth visiting? Does Palermo deserve a visit above places like Rome?
It all depends what you want to do. I don’t think that Palermo is the best city to visit in Italy – far from it, really. While Palermo is a really amazing place to visit, I wouldn’t put it above places like Florence, Milan, and Venice for first-time visitors to Italy. If you have already been to Italy, though, and are looking for a new place to explore, Palermo deserves a spot high up on your list.
That’s all we have for you about Palermo! Hopefully this post is helpful as you start planning your journey to the capital of Italy’s breadbasket. I really do think that Palermo is worth visiting, even if only for a few days.
If you’re planning a trip to Palermo, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!