After having lived in Palermo for nine months, I can describe the city in just two words: charming and chaotic! Sicily’s capital is a fascinating and underrated city that appeals to a range of travelers. Whether you are a beach-lover or an arts-enthusiast, Palermo will no doubt entertain you. It is a city steeped in history and culture. This reflects the island of Sicily as a whole, and Palermo is a great base from which to begin exploring Sicily.
Palermo is Italy’s fifth-largest city with a population of just over 600,000. It doesn’t really feel like ‘Italy’ at all though. Indeed, its bustling markets and numerous motorbikes whizzing past give the city a real North-African flavor.
When looking for things to do in Palermo, you can visit amid scorching hot summers and mild winters, Palermo is great to visit all year round.
Top Things to do in Palermo, Sicily
For travelers who don’t like 40 degrees heat, spring and autumn would definitely be the best time to visit. The weather is still warm and sunny, although not unbearable.
You can keep yourself amused in Palermo for at least two or three days, with a combination of historic sightseeing and beach lounging. There is a lively tourist scene in the city (even during COVID), and it is not hard to meet travelers from all over the world. We suggest jumping on a walking tour to get the feel for the city.
It was tough to choose a top 10 itinerary for Palermo, as there are a plethora of great things to do! However, here is my top 10 things to do in Palermo.
1. Relax on Mondello Beach
Mondello Beach is stunning and is one of the most famous beaches in Sicily. Palermitans and tourists flock here in their droves during the summer months, but it is also pretty packed throughout the year. The water is lovely and warm during summer, and certainly warm enough during spring and autumn too!
As well as sunbathing and swimming in the sea, there is a beautiful nature reserve within walking distance from Mondello. It is called Capo Gallo, and for just a €1 entry fee you can enjoy a beautiful coastal walk.
Mondello is not within walking distance from the city center, but it is easy to get to via public transport. To get to Mondello Beach, take the 101 bus from the central bus station until Piazza Crispi, from where you can take the 806 bus directly to Mondello.
2. Visit Cattedrale di Palermo
Palermo’s cathedral is arguably the single main tourist attraction of the city and the Historic Centre. You can lounge outside it and admire the beautiful Arab/Norman architectural influence that makes this cathedral’s style so unique.
It is well worth entering the cathedral too, as well as climbing up to the cathedral roof for panoramic Palermo views.
The entry is free to the cathedral, and it costs €7 for a rooftop view combined with access to the Royal Tombs within the cathedral. If you want a more immersive experience check out this Palermo Art Tour.
3. Admire Quattro Canti
A short walk down from the cathedral along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, you will come to one of Palermo’s most famous landmarks and gathering points- Quattro Canti.
This mini-square marks the intersection between Via Vittorio Emmanuele and Via Maqueda- Palermo’s main central street. What is most remarkable are the four perfectly symmetrical baroque buildings that make up the ‘piazza’. The Spanish constructed these during their reign in Sicily.
4. Enjoy an Aperitif on Via Maqueda
Palermo’s bustling main street comes alive in the evenings and at night- particularly during the summer. It is the ideal place to sit back and relax with an aperitif after a day of exploring the city.
Many bars and restaurants line the street, and there is a really pleasant atmosphere during the late evening. It feels like all the locals are here! During the day, it is also pleasant to eat or drink something here.
However, it feels more like a shopping street during daylight hours. There are many designer stores at the end of Via Maqueda and the adjacent street (Corso Ruggero Settimo). The evenings are when you really get a feel for the Mediterranean outdoor dining culture.
5. Visit and Admire Teatro Massimo
Palermo’s Massimo Theatre is yet another cultural icon of the city, located right in the heart of the historic center. This extravagant opera theatre is one of the largest in the whole of Europe and the largest in Italy. It is always pleasant to relax in the Piazza Verde surrounding the theatre whilst admiring its beautiful architecture lined with exotic palm trees.
6. Walk around La Cala and Foro Italico
Palermo’s port (known as La Cala) is another picturesque part of the city. I used to go for a walk around here virtually every day! You can walk along the promenade and admire the pretty fishing boats before heading further along to Foro Italico.
Foro Italico is essentially a large, green space and stretches along the waterfront. It is a great place to relax and watch the boats coming into Palermo harbor.
Indeed, you can take the boat to other destinations in Sicily and Italy from here, including Messina, Naples, and even Sardinia!
7. Visit The Norman Palace and The Palatine Chapel
Palermo’s Norman Palace is one of the single most-visited historical landmarks in the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The palace is located at the highest point of the city- very close to Piazza Indipendenza (Independence Square).
Its Arab/ Norman influence is evident, and this palace is actually one of the oldest in Europe! It was once a centre of Sicilian royalty and traditionally housed the Kings of Sicily.
You can also visit the lavish Palatine Chapel which is connected to the Palace. With its stunning Byzantine mosaics in its well-crafted interior, you will get a true feel for an ancient Sicilian noble life.
There is a €7 Euro entry fee to the Palace and Chapel together, which is well worth it if you are a history buff.
8. Shop at the World-Famous Ballaro Market
I would say that Ballaro Market epitomizes Palermo: gritty, hectic but culturally fascinating.
This market is alive daily, with street vendors selling just about everything! Whether it be food, clothes, or everyday items, you can buy pretty much anything from Ballaro. Ballaro is located pretty close to Palermo’s historic center- in the Albergheria quarter of the city.
It is one of Europe’s oldest and most authentic street markets, dating back 1000 years. You can buy some of Palermo’s best street food from here, at a predictably cheap price.
Walking through Ballaro’s many stalls for the first time made me feel like I was in Morocco. You really get a sense of Palermo’s cross-cultural blend and North African influence here.
9. Eat Palermo’s Famous Street Food
Street food is available in abundance all around Palermo, not just at Ballaro market.
Whilst Italian cuisine, in general, is more famous for its Pasta and Pizza dishes, Palermo and Sicily are quite unique with their street food reputation. Don’t get me wrong, the pasta and pizza dishes are still delicious here! However, the city is characterized by its traditional and varied street food.
Explore the amazing street food of Palermo with this highly popular Food Tour!
Arancini is probably the most famous option. These heavy and filling rice balls are not the healthiest, but make a great occasional treat! You can choose a vegetarian option (burro) or have them filled with meat (Carne). Another popular choice is Panelle e Crochhè- containing fried chickpea and flour.
10. Take a Short Day Trip To Monreale
Even if you are only staying a short time in Palermo, any local will recommend you to make the short, half-hour bus trip to the nearby town of Monreale. To arrive in Monreale, simply head to Piazza Indipendenza and take the AMAT 389 bus that will drop you directly in Monreale.
Monreale is technically a part of the metropolitan city of Palermo, although it feels much more like a separate town. It is most famous for its incredible Arab/ Norman cathedral that really gives Palermo Cathedral some serious competition!
Constructed in the 12th century, this monumental complex features a remarkably well-designed interior and marvelous mosaics that you can admire for free. You also have the option of accessing the cloister, treasury, and cathedral roof for a combined €10 ticket.
If you are looking for a more immersive experience at the cathedral check out this guided tour which takes you behind the scenes.
There is not that much else to do in Monreale except visit the cathedral. There is a beautiful panorama of Palermo and the surrounding region to be enjoyed from just below the town center, however.
Those are just ten of the best things to do in Palermo; I could name many more!
Palermo really is one of the most underrated cities I have experienced. Sure, there are many tourists in the summer months, but the city doesn’t enjoy the status of Rome or Milan.
Spending a few days exploring Palermo before traveling around the island of Sicily is a great adventure for any backpacker. I would happily do it all again!