Palermo is the capital city of Sicily, a role it took from Syracuse when under Muslim rule around 878 AD. Founded by Phoenicians, it is a port, like all the major Sicilian cities and economic centers, and is located on the north-western part of the island.
It is in a fine naturally protected setting on the slopes of Monte Pellegrino with the attractive harbour below. Palermo is home to some stunning churches and its rich architectural heritage, make Palermo an absolute highlight of a visit to Sicily.
Palermo holds a unique place amid cities of the world due to its rich cultural and historical heritage. Due to the historical political conflicts in Sicily, the architecture in Palermo is a mix of Arab, Byzantine, Roman, Norman and modern.
The centre of the city is a fascinating mix of grand palaces, churches and other fine buildings interspersed with narrow streets of crumbling yet beautiful ancient houses which give Palermo its own very personal character. On a recent visit to Sicily we were bowled over by the splendors of the churches in Palermo and now that cheap flights are operating here it would certainly make a great weekend break.
Palermo cathedral is a stunning building built in Arab-Norman style and is part of a UNESCO listing for the Arab-Norman buildings of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalu. The cathedral was founded in 1184 and is a mix of Gothic, Catalan, Norman and Arabic styles.
The cathedral is well worth a visit. Much of it is free but it is definitely worth paying the 7 euro ticket to see the treasury, crypt, royal tombs and the roof. The tombs include those of Frederick II and Roger II. From the roof you will have splendid views over the city and the surrounding mountains.
Perhaps the most impressive of Palermo's buildings is the Cappella Palatina or Palatine Chapel which is housed in Palermo's Royal Palace and is simply stunning. Its walls and ceilings are absolutely covered in gold and coloured 12th century Byzantine mosaics depicting bible scenes. It also has unusual 'muqarnas' ceilings which look like honeycombs and are usuallly found in Islamic architecture.
The Palazzo Reale or Royal Palace is a Norman Palace and today is the seat of the Sicilian Parliament though once it was palace to the kings of Sicily. The Palace can be found to the south-west of the cathedral next to a large park of palm trees. Come early to visit the Cappella Palatina as long queues can form due to the bag checks and security needed to enter the palace. Tickets to visit the chapel include a visit to the palace but it is really for the chapel that you will want to visit.
In most towns you would feel privileged to visit such a beautiful chapel and cathedral but Palermo has yet more treats in store. Head to the Piazza Bellini which has three magnificent churches around its edges. The Chiesa della Martorana church known as La Martorana has arches and columns covered in magnificent Byzantine mosaics and at the front of the church the arches are covered in baroque paintings.
Next to La Martorana is the church of San Cataldo with its three red cupolas. The San Cataldo church is another Arab Norman builiding and inside is a much simpler but very atmospheric style of decoration. On the other side of Piazza Bellini is the San Giuseppe dei Teatini church which is considered to be a key example of Sicilian Baroque.
To find three such magnificent churches next to each other is quite amazing. Back near to the Palazzo Real is another interesting church, the San Giovanni degli Eremiti church which is an interesting blend of Gothic and Arab architecture. Originally a Mosque it has red cupolas similar to the San Cataldo church and has filigreed windows and Islamic style arches. A Norman church was then built in the grounds and in the 13th century a cloister added whose ruins can still be visited.
Whilst Palermo was once centred around Palermo it is now the Quattro Canti that are at the heart of the city. These four almost identical baroque palaces sit on each corner of a crossroads of the main streets of Palermo and are decorated with statues, columns and fountains. Nearby is the Piazza Pretoria with its large fountain famous for its nude statues which caused some consternation at the time of its creation and the square became known as the 'Square of Shame'.
Palermo has a huge opera house, the Teatro Messimo Opera House, which is the third largest in Europe. It has been renovated recently and is an active cultural center of the city. The Archaeological Museum and the Palazzo Abatellis Art Museum are very useful to gain an insight on the history and culture of the city and the region.
Other sites of interest in Palermo are the Palermo Botanical Gardens, the Capuchin Catacombs (a spooky 'display' of mummified monks) and the panoramic views of the city from the nearby Monte Pellegrino. In the northwest of the city is the 'La Favorita' park where you will find the Chinese Palace which was the Royal Residence of the House of Bourbon.
Other Palermo information
The feast day of Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of the city, is celebrated on July 15.
Beaches near Palermo include Mondello just a few kilometers away, which is a very popular beach for summer holidays, Arnella, Cefalu, Pollina, Salinelle and Lascari. On your visit to Palermo, don’t forget to try the local gastronomy to complete the experience of your Sicilian holiday.
2018 was a big year for Palermo as it was the 'Italian Capital of Culture' and also host to 'Manifesta', the European Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Places to Visit Nearby
The Arab-Norman cathedrals of nearby Monreale and also Cefalù are included in the UNESCO listing along with the Arab-Norman buildings of Palermo. The neighbouring town of Bagheria is where the wealthy folks of Palermo built their fancy Baroque villas and is well worth a visit. It is just a short distance further round the coast.
You can find more local travel ideas in the guide.