Things to do in Palermo
Palermo is the capital of Sicily, home to many beautiful buildings, delicious restaurants, and fascinating stories. It’s one of those places that you can enjoy simply by walking around, taking in the sounds, smells, and sights.
Once a famous mafia hotspot, Palermo is now one of the most up-and-coming places for a city trip. Plus, many attractions are also half-price for Europeans under 25, making the city very accessible for travelers.
Tip: Parking is an issue in cities around Sicily, and Palermo is no exception. We recommend researching parking on the fringes of the city and then walking or taking the bus into the center.
1. Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni)
The Norman Palace is one of the oldest royal residences in Europe and a top thing to do in Palermo! The stunning palace is a must-see in the Sicilian capital — home to beautiful botanic gardens and the intricately designed Palatine Chapel (Capella Palatina). Although it doesn’t look much from the outside, the interior is stunning, particularly the gold mosaic detailing of the Capella. (Book a guided tour here)
Spend a few hours exploring the many different areas of the grand palazzo; stroll through the peaceful gardens, take photos of the colorful species of plants and trees, and relax with a drink on the outdoor terrace.
Villa Bonanno Garden
One of the most intriguing things about Sicily is the paradox between bustling city and tranquil hidden spots. Nestled between the Norman Palace and the Cathedral is one of the most peaceful areas: the Villa Bonnano Garden. This peaceful, green oasis is filled with palm trees, flowers, and tinkling fountains.
2. Palermo Cathedral
In line with the city’s complex history, Palermo Cathedral is a fascinating building made up of many different architectural styles. From the outside, it’s not a typical-looking cathedral. Instead, it’s made up of stunning arches that face a luscious plaza filled with green shrubs and palm trees. (Book your guided tour here)
Take a quiet moment to sit and look at the exterior from one of the many cafes around the cathedral. Alternatively, climb to the rooftop for amazing views of the city (best done at sunset as one of the top things to do in Palermo!).
Just outside of Palermo is the stunning and grandiose Monreale Cathedral. This incredible site is one of the absolute must-sees in Sicily, home to Byzantine detailing, which reminded us of the Alhambra in Granada. However, while beautiful, it’s mainly famous for its breathtaking mosaics depicting stories from the bible.
After exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site, climb the stairs to the attic and take in incredible views of Palermo from the fringes of the city.
Did you know? The Cathedral is constructed from 1800 kg of pure gold!
Tip: There is not much to see in Monreale town besides the cathedral. Instead, simply relax with a coffee outside in the sunshine after you’ve explored the beautiful interiors.
How to Visit the Duomo of Monreale
The Duomo is open every day from 9 AM – 5 PM (closed 12:45 PM – 2:30 PM) except Sunday when it is open 2:30 PM – 5 PM.
It’s a 30-minute drive from the center of Palermo (we visited it on our way to the city). You can park your car just 5 minutes from the Cathedral or arrange a tour that includes transport.
4. Orto Botanico di Palermo, Sicily
The Palermo Botanical Gardens are a peaceful place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Located on the coastline, the gardens are home to 12,000 species of plants, beautiful neoclassical buildings, and lovely water features. It’s the perfect spot to escape the Sicilian sun!
Orto Botanico is open every day from 9 AM – sunset, and tickets cost 7 EUR.
5. Visit the Bustling Food Markets
Sicily has a fantastic street food culture, and Palermo is right at the beating heart of it! Exploring the many incredible open-air markets in the city is one of the best things to do in Palermo, Sicily.
The three main ones are Mercato del Capo, Mercato di Ballaro, and Mercato di Vucciria. These Arab-style street markets, which have been influenced by Sicily’s proximity to North Africa and the Middle East, are a lively and vibrant display of colors, noise, and smells. It can be intense when crowded, particularly in the mornings, but embrace the craziness and get stuck in!
Opening Times: The markets are open Monday to Saturday from 7 AM – 8 PM. Please note that on Wednesday, they close at 1 PM. The mornings are normally when it is busiest.
Mercato di Ballarò
Our favorite market was Mercato di Ballarò, the biggest and the busiest of the three. Here you can find stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, slabs of cheese and giant olives, vendors shouting for attention, and huge sizzling pans of street food. Make sure to try some cannoli, as Palermo is where the delicious crunchy treat originated!
6. Sip an Aperitivo
Aperitivo is a way of life in Italy, and Sicily is no exception! Enjoying a refreshing drink before dinner is said to help you work up an appetite, so do as the Sicilians do and sit down to enjoy an aperitivo on the restaurant terraces. This is one of the top things to do in Palermo and certainly the most relaxing!
There are plenty of great places to enjoy this cultural ritual in the heart of the city. Some of our favorites are:
- Bottega Monteleone
- Seven Restaurant & Rooftop Cocktail Bar
- Mak Mixology
- cheers Wine Bar
7. Church of the Gesú, Palermo
Although it seems like any other church from the outside, once you step inside, the Church of the Gesú takes your breath away with its extensive Baroque detailing. Take some time to marvel at its intricately decorated walls, ceilings, marble statues, and beautiful frescoes.
Best of all, it’s conveniently located close to the Ballarò market, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re already in this area of Palermo.
Opening Times & Entrance Fee: Open from 7:45 AM – 4:30 PM daily (Sunday hours may vary due to mass). No entrance fee, but donations are welcomed.
8. Fontana Pretoria
In the center of Palermo, Sicily, is the Piazza Pretoria. This bustling square is the place to go for street musicians and locals — everyone hanging out and enjoying the balmy evening air. The centerpiece of the piazza is the unique Pretoria Fountain, surrounded by regal stone stairs, which you can walk up from all sides.
During the day, the Fontana Pretoria is the perfect place to spend some time before heading to Caffè del Kassaro, a great lunch spot with amazing pizza. At night, the 16th-century fountain is lit up, making this spot even more beautiful.
9. Santa Caterina Church
Visiting this beautiful tucked-away spot is an absolute top thing to do in Palermo, Sicily. Santa Caterina Church is a former monastery, still functioning as a church, with a museum on site. From the outside, it seems like most other churches. However, if you visit the interior, you’ll be blown away by the fantastic frescoes that cover the walls and ceilings.
Best of all, there’s a pastry shop on site called I Segreti del Chiostro, packed with sweet treats made by the nuns. Some say you’ll find the best cannoli in town here; you can even create your own toppings! Unfortunately, there is no seating in the shop. However, you can take your pastry, coffee, or fresh orange juice and sit down in the beautiful church courtyard outside.
Relax in this beautiful oasis within the city, taking in the fountain sounds, picturesque mosaic tiles, and citrus trees. Open 10 AM – 6 PM every day.
10. Bunker Di San Cataldo
Bunker Di San Cataldo is one of the most off-the-beaten-path destinations in Sicily and one of the top things to do in Palermo! This ancient abandoned bunker was built on top of the cliff during WWII and used primarily as a lookout. These days, it’s still not super easy to find, hidden away on the rocks of this remarkable coastline. However, it’s well worth discovering, as it offers spectacular views of the azure ocean water.
Best of all, there are almost no tourists here! This means you can have the place almost entirely to yourself as you relax and watch the color of the water change from emerald green to bright turquoise over the course of the day. You can even see a volcanic cave (Grotta delle colombe) from this spot!
Note: There are stairs from here that lead down to the water. However, it is not safe to swim because of the high level of pollution here (occurring from industrial spills).
Getting to Bunker Di San Cataldo
You can find the bunker at Cala Muletti, close to the more well-known San Cataldo Bay. The exact location is here. It’s a 40-minute drive to reach the bunker; you’ll need a car, as there are no public transport options.
Park the car at this location before walking down to the beach. Once you’ve reached the beach, turn right, and follow the cliffside along an overgrown gravel path and an abandoned building (approximately a 5-minute walk). Be aware that this path goes alongside a cliff, so there is a minor risk of falling rocks.
Although it’s a little challenging to find, it is relatively easy to access the bunker. Plus, it’s well worth the car rental price as it was one of the most impressive spots we visited in all of Sicily!
This stunning temple looks like it could be straight out of Greece — an Acropolis-style structure crafted by an architect from Athens in 420 BC! The temple’s remains and surrounding settlement can be found on a small hill surrounded by meadows and wildflowers, making it a truly beautiful spot to visit.
Drive from the city, and witness this impressive structure appearing on the horizon (one of the top things to do in Palermo!). It’s the remains of an old Roman amphitheater on a hill, surrounded by the mountains of Sicily on all sides.
How to Visit the Temple of Segesta
Tickets cost 6 EUR to visit the Temple of Segesta. It costs 2 EUR for a round-trip shuttle bus to the theater (many people choose to do this instead of walking as it’s hilly).
Opening times vary depending on the time of year, so always check ahead on the official site before your visit.
Getting there: It’s a 1-hour drive from Palermo to the Temple of Segesta. Because of this, we recommend combining your visit with a day trip to the Bunker Di San Cataldo. Alternatively, add it as a stop-off on the journey between Palermo and Trapani as part of your Sicily road trip.
If you don’t have a car, it’s possible to join a tour from Palermo which includes return transportation and entry.
12. Catacombe dei Cappuchini
Catacombe dei Cappuchini is definitely one of the more unusual things to do in Palermo! The eerie catacombs are located underneath the Capuchin Monastery, where you’ll find dark corridors filled with the mummified remains of thousands of corpses. Most of the remains are incredibly well preserved and dressed in clothes from the time of their death.
This spiritual site can sometimes feel quite morbid, so it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted!
Entry fee and opening times: 3 EUR (cash). Open 9 AM – 12:30 PM, 3 PM – 5:30 PM. Please note that no pictures are allowed inside, as this is an important spiritual site.
13. Trip to Cefalú
If you’ve got time on your trip to Palermo, Sicily, we recommend visiting the idyllic beach town of Cefalú — one of the most picturesque places on the island! Spectacular all year round, but particularly special in summer, Cefalú is the place to enjoy the authentic Dolce Vita lifestyle.
Take a stroll through the medieval old town with its sandy-colored houses, and sip on a cappuccino in the Piazza del Duomo. After, head down to the Old Harbor, with its tiny beach, for some well-earned sunbathing. From the pier, you will see the most iconic view of the stunning shoreline with its backdrop of rustic houses and La Rocca di Cefalú behind it.
14. Beaches in Palermo
There are some stunning beaches around Palermo, Sicily, and in the hot summer months, the turquoise ocean is the perfect place to escape the heat. Some great beaches in the area are:
- Mondello Beach. Most popular with locals is the beautiful Mondello Beach, with its soft white sand and clear blue water. Best of all, it’s just a 20-minute drive from the city center, making it easily accessible on your trip to Palermo, Sicily.
- Sant’Elia. Further down the coast (40 minutes by car), discover this charming fishing village with colorful houses perched on the edge of rocky coves. Visiting this picturesque coastal retreat is one of the best things to do in Palermo and the perfect place to swim with its crystal clear, emerald-green water.
- Ombelico di Venere. Only a 40-minute drive away from Palermo is the beautiful and rugged shoreline of Ombelico di Venere. This stretch of beach is wide and open and, because of its pebbly character, is home to clear water that’s fantastic for a dip or snorkeling.
- Cefalù. This medieval fishing town is home to several dreamy beaches, both pebbled and sandy, to enjoy. It’s an hour from Palermo, so visit on a day trip or stay the night on your road trip through Sicily.
15. Teatro Massimo
The Massimo Theater is Palermo’s opera house and the largest theater in Italy. Used as a filming location for famous films and TV shows like The Godfather Part III and The White Lotus, the theater’s interior is absolutely stunning and can be explored on a guided tour where you can learn more about its history and architecture. Better yet, check their website for upcoming events and treat yourself to a live performance!
Best Cafes and Restaurants in Palermo, Italy
Palermo is a haven for anyone who loves food. Street food stalls, open-air markets, gelaterias, and family-owned trattorias are around every corner, just waiting to be discovered. Food is cheap, with two pizzas and drinks costing as little as 15 EUR.
Local food that you should try in Palermo include arancini, crispy chickpea fritters, Sicilian pizza, spleen and ricotta sandwiches (!), and of course, cannoli. Here are our favorite food spots in Palermo:
- Caffè del Kassaro
- Ristorante La Galleria
- Fúnnaco PizzaLab
- aTipico (vegan)
- I Segreti del Chiostro (pastry shop)
- Cioccolateria Lorenzo
Tip: Be aware that restaurants don’t open before 7 PM, with most people having dinner around 9 PM. Never assume a restaurant is open despite their opening times on Google Maps, and it is best to book beforehand.
Where to Stay in Palermo, Sicily
It’s best to stay around the historic center of Palermo, so you are within walking distance of all the main sights. We stayed at Canceddi B&B, close to some of the top things to do in Palermo, like the Cathedral and the Norman Palace.
Bear in mind that accommodation is a little more expensive than in other places in Sicily, but you can find reasonably priced hotels and B&Bs, particularly in the Kalsa neighborhood.
How Many Days in Palermo?
Allocate 3-5 days to enjoy all the top things to do in Palermo. This is also a good amount of time to take a day trip or two outside the city.
Sicily is a very relaxed place, so don’t feel like you have to rush around – take time to get lost in the narrow streets, hang out at the beach, and enjoy long, drawn-out lunches!
Is Palermo Safe?
The Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, has a long and bloody history on the island. However, these days, their influence is low, and organized crime operations don’t pose a threat to tourists.
If you want to learn more, there are a few anti-mafia walking tours that tell you about the violent history of Palermo and point out the businesses that are opposed to the mafia. We recommend supporting these if you can.
Tip: As with any other big city, be aware of your belongings and use your common sense at night.
How to Visit Palermo, Sicily
The Palermo international airport is about 30 km away from the city center. Please note that although Palermo is the capital, the bigger airport in Sicily is Catania, which is approximately a 3-hour drive away.
There are frequent buses and trains to the center, which take between 45 minutes to an hour and cost 5-10 EUR. The quickest option is a taxi, but this will cost significantly more.
If you are on a Sicily road trip, you can easily reach Palermo by car, but we wouldn’t recommend driving around once you’re in the city. There are many car rental companies in the center if you plan to start your trip from here. Remember that parking can be an issue, so double-check with your hotel before you arrive where is the best place to park.
Palermo is a port city, so plenty of ferries are arriving daily from many destinations in mainland Italy and around Europe. You can also take a ferry from Salerno to Messina (the narrowest stretch of water) and take the train from there to Palermo.
There are trains available all over the island that connect the main tourist spots, and there are lovely scenic routes through the Sicilian countryside and along the coast. Train timetables can sometimes be unreliable, so be prepared to be flexible. You can also take the train from mainland Italy, which crosses the Strait of Messina by boat!
We don’t recommend driving in the city, as there is a lot of congestion, so if you are arriving by car, park by your hotel and explore on foot. The city center is compact; you can walk to most attractions within half an hour or less.
How Much Does Palermo Cost?
Palermo is a reasonably cheap travel destination compared to other more touristy destinations in Italy. It’s walkable, the food is very cheap (you can get two pizzas and water for as cheap as 15 euros!), and museums and tourist attractions aren’t expensive to visit.
Best Time to Visit Palermo, Italy
The best time to visit Palermo, Italy, is during the shoulder seasons, particularly late spring and early fall when the weather is warm and sunny (perfect for exploring).
The summer months can get very busy, with September being the island’s busiest month for tourism, so prices can increase during this time. As a big city, there are always things to see and do, regardless of the season, so it really depends on your budget and preferences!