Everything you need to know to plan your time in Palermo, Sicily!
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For one thing, the architecture is insanely gorgeous. Sicily has been part of so many different empires and countries one the centuries that the island has an incredible mash-up of cultures. You’ll see it on every street, taste it in the food, and hear it from the local dialect.
When I sat down to write up this Palermo travel guide, it was hard to boil it down! So I’m going to gloss over the historical details and encourage you to do a guided tour, talk to some locals, or research it yourself!
Where to Stay in Palermo
First off, we have to talk accommodation! Palermo is the type of city where a small boutique hotel or apartment is the way to go. You can stay in the historic district for a really reasonable price this way.
We stayed in an apartment on the top floor of a palazzo, and it was incredible. The place was ornately decorated and felt just as if we’d stepped back in time a few hundred years. But still with excellent air conditioning. 😉
The best part though was the terrazza. The apartment had a two-level rooftop patio that offered 360° views of Palermo! When we arrived, the hostess walked us up and pointed out each of the major rooftops. As if that wasn’t enough, the apartment overlooked the Quattro Canti, which is the main Spanish-style square of the old town!
We couldn’t have been placed better for our time in Palermo, and it was very reasonably priced. Underpriced for that terrace view! If you want me to connect you with the host, reach out!
What to do in Palermo
Palermo is PACKED with history, so walking through the historic district is a great way to get a feel for the place. But without a local, it’s hard to see!
We did a free walking tour with Agorà Palermo. You can sign up online and enjoy a two-hour tour that covers many of the highlights of the city, complete with recommendations on where to eat and explore more! We love to do tours like this our first morning in the city, because it gives a great foundation of what to see the rest of our time.
On our tour, we saw most of the highlights, such as the Quattro Canti and Pretoria fountain. These are beautiful spots you can always walk by and read about, but it’s an entirely different experience when you have someone telling you the local legends to go with them! Doing the guided tour is a great way to start our time in the city.
Like many of the great Italian cities, it’s packed with churches. Some are gems inside and merit a visit, but you can’t always tell from outside. Here are the ones we loved:
Chiesa Santa Caterina is unassuming on the outside, but has a stunning baroque interior. Formerly a convent, it still offers a small patisserie inside using the historic recipes! Entry is 3€, less if you’ve toured another church and bring the ticket. You can also buy a combination ticket to go on the roof for one of the best views of Palermo from above.
Chiesa di Santa Maria sits just across the piazza from Santa Caterina. It offers beautiful gold mosaic decor that feels like a unique mix of cultural styles. Definitely worth seeing! Entry is 2€.
After those two, the Palermo Cathedral might be a bit of a letdown. (Don’t tell a Sicilian I said that.) It’s beautiful, yes, but with less of the ornate style in the other two. It has a distinctly Norman style with its curved roof and austere walls. It’s also famous for hosting the bodies of the four Norman kings that ruled Sicily. You can buy a combination ticket to see its crypts and also climb the roof – another great place the view the city!
Another must-see is the Massimo Theater. It’s actually the third biggest in Europe after Paris and Vienna. You can see a show or take a tour, but even standing outside you get a feel for the grandeur of Palermo in days past. The theater is also a local gathering spot because it marks the divide between the historic old town and the more modern area.
The Norman Palace is also a major draw. Historically it was the palace of the kings of Sicily during Norman rule, and is actually the oldest royal residence in Europe! It sits just behind the Villa Bonnano, a free garden that’s a great spot to get away from crowds for a minute.
We were in Palermo when Italy won the Euro Cup, which was a huge deal. Everyone rushed to the front of the theater and thousands of people celebrated in the streets for hours! It was truly a once in a lifetime experience to be living in Italy for that, but even more crazy to be in a city as passionate as Palermo!
One of the biggest experiences in Palermo are the markets! The city has three daily markets, each with their own flavor, and you can’t say you’ve experienced Palermo without visiting!
The Capo market is primarily known as a fish market, and therefore has more going on in the mornings. Even if you’re not planning to buy anything, it’s such a great taste of local Sicily. It’s best to come through here before lunch, although on Sundays it’ll be slower than average anyway.
The Ballaro market is my favorite – if you only have time for one, do this one. It’s where you want to come and wander, check out the local products, and peoplewatch. The local spices (oregano is a Sicilian specialty) are very inexpensive and make a great souvenir! This is also a good spot to come for great street food, another Palermo staple.
The Vucciria market is best visited at night, because this neighborhood is known for nightlife! There are so many popular bars and restaurants over here, and the diverse food options means everyone will love it.
Palermo Foods to Try
Sicily offers so much in terms of local food, so here are a few things to remember at restaurants in Palermo!
Palermo is a GREAT city for street food. You can find delicious stuff on every corner, and many of the traditional dishes are street food style!
First off, arancini: the Sicilian rice balls you’re likely familiar with. In Sicily, they’re much larger than you typically find them at Italian restaurants in the US: they’re baseball-sized. If you want one, you usually order an “arancino.” However in Palermo, they’re called “arancina,” and they will give you a side-eye if you get that wrong.
The traditional filling is a ragu, meaning tomato sauce and meat. You can also find them with vegetarian fillings, cheeses, and tons of other options! Often we’d order a few and compare, but typically our favorite was the traditional! Usually, the best ones are the ones that are fried to order, rather than at a cart where they’ve been sitting for hours.
Two other typical lunch options are pane con panelle and pane con la milza both sandwiches. Panelle is a fried chickpea fritter served on bread with a squeeze of lemon. La milza is… cow spleen. Not the most appetizing sounding thing, but worth trying!
For breakfast, any bar worth it’s salt will have granita con brioche, a popular breakfast choice. It’s essentially a slushy served with a pastry, and it’s delicious. Like all great Italian foods, the granita is literally just a frozen icy version of whatever flavor you chose. My favorite was coffee and I ordered it all over Sicily!
Definitely eat street food often. But when you’re ready to try some restaurants as well, here are a few we loved!
This is the best pasticceria in Palermo, so head here for breakfast one day! It’s a great place to try some of Sicily’s traditional pastries, like cannoli or cassata. It’s also super conveniently located just off the Quattro Canti.
Osteria al Casareccio
If you want an excellent but no-frills meal, Osteria al Casareccio is great. The service was great, they offer both pizza and pasta dishes, and they make really great sauces! I ordered a shrimp and pistachio pasta that was unbelievably good. They also offer a mixed fried appetizer plate if you want to try a bunch of the classic Palermo fried bites in one go.
If you want a nice meal, head to Gagini. It’s a Michelin-starred spot, and their style is a modern twist on Italian flavors and ingredients. We loved everything we tried, and their multi-course set menu was a fantastic way to try a little of everything!
Enoteca Butticè is where the locals go for an apertivo. It’s outside the historic district but less than 10 minutes walk from either the Massimo Theater or the Capo market. They have great wine selections for a reasonable price, and the snacks that come with their drinks (an Italian staple) are pretty hefty! I don’t have a recommendation, because the best way to order is ask the staff for their favorites.
I can’t recommend Palermo enough! It might have been my favorite city in Sicily. It’s also one of the airport cities, so be sure to attach few days here when planning your time!
I’ll be sharing Sicily guides all month long, so check back soon. In the meantime, check out all my Italy guides to plan your next vacation!