Monreale is situated a few kilometres south of Palermo, in north-western Sicily. The town is in a pretty setting of orchards of olives and oranges.
It is Monreale cathedral that attracts the visitors - and rightly so, because it is one of the most impressive cathedrals to be found in Sicily.
Sicily Visitor Comment: The beauty of the Byzantine art in some of the churches in Sicily including the Monreale cathedral was one of the highlights of our Sicily trip.
Monreale is an attractive hill town on the slopes of Mont Coputo and has great views over the Conca d'Ora valley below and over Palermo and the sea. A leisurely stroll around the town and a visit to the amazing cathedral is definitely recommended.
Monreale cathedral is a very fine 12th century Norman monument founded by the Norman King William II. It has an attractive exterior with arched arcades on the central square of Monreale and round the sides some beautifully decorated stone work. However it gives little clue to the treasures to be discovered inside.
The cathedral successfully brings together Norman, Arab and Byzantine art and architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of a group of nine buildings listed as "Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale. Before visiting Sicily we had little idea as to the beauty of Byzantine churches and have been completely awestruck by the beauty of these churches.
In the interior of the cathedral are three naves each of which has its own group of fabulous mozaics which cover around 10000 square meters in total. These mosaics are made of glass and gold leaf and the skill and detail of the mosaics is phenomenal. The mosaics date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and some of the finest craftsmen of the time were involved in their creation.
Above the altar, in the dome at the head of the church, is a huge mosaic of Christ surrounded by the saints. The central nave has mosaics depicting scenes from the old testament such as Noah's Arc and the side naves have scenes from the life of Christ and some of his miracles.
The mosaics are so beautiful that we spent a long time circling the cathedral and sitting to admire each mosaic in detail.
Also noteworthy inside the cathedral is an elaborate 12th century Romanesque bronze door, covered with reliefs depicting stories from the Bible by Bonanno pisano and the tombs of both William I of Sicily and his son William II. It was William II who commissioned the building and one of the mosaics features William II offering the cathedral to the Virgin Mary.
It costs about 10 euros for a combined ticket to see the treasury, cloister and the cathedral roof and terraces with views from these over Palermo stretching out to see and also along the inside of the cathedral high up from where you can get a much closer look at some of the mosaics decorating the cathedral. It is definitely worth the price.
On the south side of the cathedral is the entrance to the cloister of the Benedictine monastery. The cathedral cloisters surround a garden area and are highly ornate, based around arches supported by double stone columns.
Many of the columns themselves are also decorated in gilded and ornate patterns, and there are numerous intricate carvings to admire in the 'capitals' (the part between the columns and the arches). There are 228 columns in total and their patterns are inspired by Arab, Burgundian, Provencal and Salerno medieval art.
If you pay for the cathedral roof and terraces ticked you can also see the cloisters from above.
Driving anywhere near Palermo is very difficult. Best not to try and drive to Monreale as the roads around Palermo are chaotic and parking in Monreale is very difficult too. Monreale is an easy bus trip from Palermo and buses are reasonably frequent making this by far the best option for a visit. (To avoid driving around Palermo we drove straight to the airport, left our car there and then got a bus to Palermo. We then had a relaxing few days exploring Palermo by foot and taking the bus to get to Monreale.)
Where to visit nearby?
Monreale is a short distance from Palermo which also has a glorious Arab-Norman cathedral, the fabulous Palatine chapel and some more stunning churches as well as many other wonderful sights. Cefalu Cathedral is another cathedral with fabulous Byzantine mosaics.
Nearby Bagheria was once a popular home town of many wealthy people of Palermo and is full of wonderful villas.
You can find more local travel ideas in the guide.