Finally making a first contact with the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily, and Palermo itself, its capital city. A long time desired destination where unfortunately it is rare to find good flight deals at more or less decent flying times. We knew this trip was going to be quite a busy non-stop from one place to another, but definitely well worth it. Furthermore, the more we could visit the better in order to leave plenty of time to reach some of the many other cities and sights in the island for the next trips to Sicily, such as Agrigento, Trapani, Catania, Syracuse, Cefalu, Messina, Taormina. There’s a lot in the island, good enough for 2 weeks travelling and visiting non stop.
With so many sights and that much history everywhere on every corner, it is physically, and literately speaking, impossible to see everything not in just a day, but even a complete weekend will still be too short. You should calculate at least 3 days if you want to fully explore it. Just to give you an idea on how much heritage Palermo houses, many buildings have been listed UNESCO World Heritage sites as part of the “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalu and Monreale”. This means Italy has the largest number of listings compared to any other country in the world, with the region of Sicily itself topping with the most number of sites.
The Arab-Norman style is something unique in the world and only to be found in Palermo and its nearby metropolitan area cities. This style was born right after the Normans conquered Sicily from the Arabs, destroying the majority of palaces and mosques of the once considered jewel not only in the Mediterranean but Europe itself; and in replacement emerged the new style combining arabesque decorations, Romanesque architecture and Byzantine mosaics, becoming once again a beautiful jewel city proud of its history.
It was shocking how much we’ve managed to visit on each trip here. It took me a long time planning to work out the most optimal route through the city, but it for sure paid off. The only sight we could not manage to get to it was the Admiral’s Bridge. But it was either getting to the bridge or to the Zisa Castle, which we visited as dusk, with beautiful lighting. What a hectic day, but how much we enjoyed it. Palermo is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
And then…it is food. Although it is very rare to struggle in finding good places to eat while anywhere in Italy, in Palermo you have them by hundreds. Everywhere, anything, but if I have to describe something unique to Sicily’s cuisine then it is the arancini. You will find this everywhere, at any patisserie for sure, or specialised places and restaurants. This are deep-fried rice balls filled inside in the middle with cheese, ham, or spinach, mince beef, and basically anything. They are delicious, but not something to have every day or more than once a day. Remember it is deep-fried and as such, not the healthiest. But after walking for 20 kilometres sightseeing, it is guaranteed you will burn few of them.
For more information about Palermo check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in Italy is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Palermo
- Porta Nuova-Via Vittorio Emanuele Is the principal street crossing through the historical city and in use since the creation of the city, the Decumanus Maximus during Roman times. It is along this street and nearby ones where you will find the most impressive and important monuments and buildings.
-Porta Nuova Original built in 1583 and rebuilt in 1669 is an important monument embellishing the starting point of the Via Vittorio Emanuele.
-Palazzo dei Normanni Or Royal Palace of Sicily. UNESCO listed. Is the oldest royal residence in Europe, one of the most beautiful Italian palaces once home of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and imperial seat with Frederick II and Conrad IV. Nowadays the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
-Palatine Chapel Added to the Royal Palace in 1132 by King Roger II is without rival the best example of Arab-Norman-Byzantine style still standing. It has stunning mosaics and tiles covering the entire interiors, and the typical muqarnas from the Arabic architecture.
-San Giovanni degli Eremiti Church UNESCO listed. Located near the Palazzo dei Normanni, to the east side of it. Dates from the 12th century and its characteristic are the small red domes, typical from the oriental style.
-Cathedral UNESCO listed. Originally erected in 1185 atop an earlier Byzantine church, was then turned into a mosque, and expanded through the centuries combining many architectural styles, being the last addition in the 18th century with a neoclassical exterior look. Inside you can find the tombs of kings and emperors.
-Quattro Canti Square Known as Piazza Vigliena, is the finest example of Baroque square in the city built in 1620, with the characteristic four buildings of the same facade on each corner at the intersection of the 2 principal streets Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
-San Giuseppe dei Teatini Church A good example of Sicilian Baroque architecture. Located next door of the Quattro Canti.
-Piazza Pretoria Dating from the 16th century and next door to the Quattro Canti is home to the famous fountain by Francesco Camilliani, the Fontana Pretoria.
-Piazza Bellini Meters away from the Piazza Pretoria.
-Martorana Chruch Also known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio. UNESCO listed. With foundation laid in 1143 and built through the centuries in many different styles, it combines Byzantine, Romanesque, Baroque. It’s spectacular interior has 12th century mosaics by Byzantine craftsmen.
-San Cataldo Church UNESCO listed. Founded in 1160 in Arab-Norman architectural style, was then used as post office until the 19th century when it was restored to its medieval look.
-Via Maqueda and Via Roma Are both the main perpendicular streets to the Via Vittorio Emanuele. Via Roma was the Cardo Maximum during Roman times. Many palaces and historical buildings align the streets and nearby ones.
- East and south of Via Vittorio Emanuele This quadrant of the old historical town contains many of the sights in Palermo.
-San Francesco di Assisi Built between 1255 and 1277 with many renovations through history, the restoration after the WWII bombings returned the building to its Medieval appearance. It’s just few streets ahead of Via Roma.
-Santa Maria della Catena Church Built between 1490–1520, at the end of Vittorio Emanuele right by the small Port La Cala.
-Porta Felice Marks the east end of Via Vittorio Emanuele, by the sea.
-Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri Built in the 14th century, it housed the Aragonese-Spanish viceroys of Sicily; then the Royal Customs and lastly the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. Nowadays a museum or art. Right by the small Piazza Marina.
-Santa Maria della Gancia Church Also known as Santa Maria Degli Angeli, 2 streets ahead of the Palazzo Chiaramonte.
-Palazzo Abatellis An example of Catalan Gothic style designed in the 15th century, was in origin the residence of Francesco Abatellis the port master of the Kingdom of Sicily. Now houses the Regional Gallery. Located just behind Santa Maria Degli Angeli Church.
-Santa Teresa alla Kalsa Church Built between 1686–1706 over the former emir’s residence is the finest example of Sicilian Baroque architecture in the island. Located few streets southeast from Gancia Church.
-Santa Maria dello Spasimo Just south from Santa Teresa alla Kalsa, built in 1506, transformed into a hospital and now an auditorium. It is here where Raphael created the famous painting Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, Lo Spasimo (nowadays in Museo del Prado in Madrid).
-Central Train Station At the south end terminus of Via Roma, on Piazza Giulio Cesare. The bus station is also located here.
-Admiral’s Bridge UNESCO listed. Built in 1131 upon orders of King Roger II, to connect the city to the gardens at the side of the river Oreto. Farther to the south form the train station, along the Corso dei Mille.
- North of Via Vittorio Emanuele Both Via Maqueda and Via Roma heading towards the north onto the 19th/20th century elegant extension of Palermo with wider streets and avenues.
-Sant’Agostino Church Medieval church with great Baroque interiors.
-Teatro Massimo The Grand Theatre, from 1897, is the biggest Opera House in Italy and 3rd largest in Europe just after Paris and Vienna. was opened in 1897. The square where it is located is names Giuseppe Verdi.
-Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas Housed in the Olivella Complex has one of the largest collections in the whole of Italy of the many civilizations that have occupied Sicily and Italy though history. 2 streets behind the Teatro Massimo.
-Central Post Office The building next after the Archaeological Museum.
- Northwest of Porta Nuova Where you will find one of the sights not to be missed.
-Hunting resort Genoardo Built in the 12th century by Arabian craftsmen for King William I of Sicily and completed by his son William II, meant to be the summer residence for the Norman kings.
-Zisa Castle This was the principal pavilion for hunting purposes. It now houses the Islamic Art Museum. Listed by UNESCO a World Heritage Site.
- West of Porta Nuova Only 2 sights in this part of the city. Nothing else beyond.
-Cuba Castle Was the personal recreation pavilion of King William I of Sicily. Located on Corso Calatafimi which is the main street continuation of Via Vittorio Emanuele to the west.
-Cubola Also knows as the Little Cuba for the smaller proportions, has a hemi-spherical cupola. Farther to the west on the same street Corso Calatafimi.
- City Walls Several sections are still standing across the city, with their gates.
- Monte Pellegrino At 600 meters high if offers the best views of entire Palermo.
- Outside the city of Palermo But within the metropolitan area, are another 2 UNESCO listed sites, both the Cathedral Church of Monreale few kilometres to the west of the city, and the Cathedral Church of Cefalù to the south eat.
The international airport is located 32 kilometres to the west of downtown Palermo, and its accessible by buses and trains, in both cases, twice hourly. The price for a single ticket by bus is 6.10 Euros while for the train is 5.80 Euros, taking approximately 50 minutes to reach the central train station, where the main bus terminal also is. Flights across Italy and most of Europe are frequent, but there are no intercontinental flights.
If coming from mainland Italy, although a lengthy journey, it is possible from Naples and cities way farther such as Rome or Milan. The ferry crossing is between San Giovanni in Calabria and Messina in Sicily, where buses get on-board ferries, and the trains in full get inside special boats and continue the journey from the opposite side at Messina on the mainline towards Catania or Palermo.
Another option is by ferry from some Italian cities such as Salerno, Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno, Naples and some international routes as Valletta, Cagliari or Tunis.
Within the city and because the medium to large size with so much to see and do, it is perhaps a good option to get a 24 hour bus ticket for 4 Euros. This way you can get on and off whenever you want speeding up your sightseeing and saving you from walking long distance. In any case, visiting the city on foot is definitely possible since the old town core is very compact with the sights one after another. Nothing can compares with walking through the historical streets enjoying the architecture than missing half of the city when taking a bus.
Being the largest city in Sicily and major tourist pole in the island, the amount of hotels strongly reflects this facts where you can find hundreds to anyone’s likes. From top of the top, to hostels and anything in between. For us, finding a great deal was as easy as few minutes searching on the usual hotel comparison pages, but we know this was only the case for being absolutely low season. Starting from Easter time and until October the situation changes dramatically, and not only that you will end up spending a fortune for a nice hotel, but the likes of the good ones to be sold out are high.
As usual, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Eurostars Centrale Palace, in Via Vittorio Emanuele 327. Almost next door to the Quattro Canti, and minutes away from the Cathedral, right by the main street of Palermo where majority of the sights are; location could not be better indeed. In the other hand, as this hotel was a bit behind the main street, was quieter than many others as I could read in the reviews. After all, this is an area with thriving nightlife hence expect some noise.
The hotel was beautiful! On a former palace. The breakfast room super elegant and full of history on its walls, ceilings and lamps. Big and nice breakfast by the way. The room was spacious and very comfortable, and so was all the staff, very polite and friendly, listening to the needs of everyone as precious guests and not just numbers. Will definitely not hesitate in returning to the same hotel in the future. Absolutely recommended to anyone.