Our personal guide to the best things to do in Palermo will have you covered for your city break to the capital of Sicily!
When the midday sun shines in Palermo, balconies of third and fourth floor apartments are dressed in red and white candystripe. This decision is not sartorial, but practical.
In peak summer, the heat in Sicily's capital city stifles and blinds.
Until we sat out on our own balcony in the Palermo sunshine, nowhere in Europe had reminded us quite so much of our travels in Latin America. It was in the Kalsa neighbourhood, a backstreet stone’s throw from the sea where litter piled up on corners and simple restaurants served that morning’s prizes from the sea from plastic plates on red plastic tables, where a gentle chaos would unfold on, behind, and above the streets every morning, noon, and night.
A man bellowing from the bottom of his lungs whilst selling oily fresh sfincione from his cart, women lowering buckets from balconies to collect deliveries of food or bad news, families shouting at each other in love and anger (often the two intermingled). An elderly gentleman would set up a few chairs on the crumbled corner with his handwritten signs and sell beers to his friends at the most irregular of hours. A pack of wild cats clambering over an abandoned truck, sharing the space with several chickens.
Not once did we see anyone who looked like they owned the chickens.
It was the type of raw atmosphere we had hoped to find during our month-long road trip around and across Sicily, and here in Palermo we had it in balcony bucketloads. Show me any movie depicting a raucous but convivial Italian quarter in 50s New York, and I would say that's what that I felt transported to when we would have our cold bottle of Morretti and let the sounds of the neighbourhood provide the backtrack.
However, for all that the coastal city gave us in gritty charms across our stay, it also delivered on cultural glimmers.
A growing alternative city break destination in Europe, Palermo's reputation has moved far from the blood and bombs of the Mafia-led 70s and 80s. Now travellers arrive in increasing numbers to sample some of the best street food in Europe, in markets which feel like they don't belong in Europe, get lost amongst crumbling baroque facades, learn to cook and eat like a Palermitani, and slowly start to uncover the oft illogical paradoxes and pleasures of the street life stories which you'll find on nearly every corner if you just open your eyes to them.
Whether you're visiting on a short city break, or as a jumping-off point for your own Sicily road trip, here's our advice on the best things to do in Palermo.
Devour The Street Food
Visiting any destination where you can legitimately get excited about its food is a bonus; visiting a destination like Sicily - a foodie heaven within the undisputed foodie heaven of Italy - is like winning the lottery two weeks in a row.
On the streets and stalls of Palermo you will be able to stuff your face on a daily basis - completely guilt-free - as eating street food is literally an essential cultural activity whilst you're in the city. And really cheap too, as the highly-regarded specialties are unfussy, unpretentious, and inexpensive due to their roots as the staples of the poor and the impoverished. An added bonus is that much of it is vegetarian.
Across Sicily, each city and region has its own dishes. This approach is so authentic and traditional, that you actually cannot find several items once you cross over into the west or south of the island. So, whilst in Palermo, you simply have to try:
Sfincione | A bit like focaccia, this thick slab of oily bread with a thin topping of tomatoes, onions, and cheese, is all over the place and often sold from the carts of singing men in neighbourhoods. We ate a bunch of these during our time in Palermo (some really good, some not so good), but we still dream of that first one from a non-descript baker's in Ballarò market. God I wish we could go back there now.
Pane e pannelle | These fried chickpea fritter sandwiches are very Palermo street food (although Emily thinks they're improved with hot sauce), and a popular breakfast street snack. I Cuochini is highly regarded, but the queues of hungry locals every morning at Friggitoria Chiluzzo near our Airbnb should be trusted.
Arancini | Plump deep-fried balls of sticky, stodgy rice stuffed will all manner of tasty savoury fillings, these make for a great quick snack as you explore Palermo (just wrap it in a napkin and go) or you can get a few and make a lunch out of it. They’re often really hot on the inside, so let them cool down before taking a big bite. It turns out that arancini are quite a divisive food in Sicily due to linguistics and historical rivalries - this article has more.
Brioche con gelato | That sounds a lot fancier than an ice-cream sandwich doesn't it? Andrew’s sister first told us this was a thing, and we didn’t really believe her. Turns out though, that Sicilians really do put a fat dollop of their wonderful gelato into sweet brioche buns more often than cones and, if you don't think that sounds appealing because you don't have the tastebuds of a 4-year old, then believe us. It. Is. AWESOME! In the historic centre, make a beeline for Cappadonia Gelati, and we also ventured a little out of our way to Antica Gelateria Ilardo based on a local’s tip!
We're both vegetarian, but even when we ate meat we're pretty certain that we wouldn't have got excited about munching on various other popular street foods in Palermo. For example, there's a stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat intestines on a stick) or pane con la milza (bread with veal spleen or lung) , but we really don't think anyone should be eating baby cow.
Tip | From our experience, the standard of the street food can vary wildly from stall to stall and cart to cart. Therefore, if you bite into your first sfincione and it tastes like a gift from heaven, take note of where you bought it (or immediately buy another one). And always have small change for spontaneous snack purchases!
Take A Street Food Tour
You will of course find street food all over the city and in its busting markets day and night, and locals can always let you know their favourite spots, but a street food specific tour is a great way for non-Italian speakers to learn more about how important street food is in Palermo, find the best local places quickly, and get a guaranteed full belly! This small group 3-hour street food tour is highly rated and recommended.
This Palermo street food tour is a popular alternative, but costs a little more.
Explore The Outdoor Food Markets
Ok, so a visit to Palermo REALLY does revolve around food. Again, this is no bad thing.
We love to visit local food and flea markets wherever we go, but it isn't always such an interesting travel experience within Europe where food markets tend to be cleaner, less chaotic, more structured, and too sedate to scratch that travel itch.
This is not the case at all in Palermo.
In fact, its outdoor food markets feel like a rule unto themselves. The chaos, the crowds, the catcalls, and the claustrophobia are all essential elements of what makes a visit to at least one of Palermo's markets during your visit absolutely essential. The range of fresh, local produce on offer is a feast for the senses, and it’s just a bewilderingly wonderful way to spend an hour or two.
On the sunny morning we first explored them, the atmosphere instantly triggered our senses and transported us back to the souks of Morocco and several markets in South America. We are certainly not the only people reminded of being somewhere further away, but, given the Arabic origins and associations of Palermo - and that it is indeed closer to northern Africa than northern Italy - this shouldn't be a huge surprise. If you haven't yet been able to travel outside Europe, then your eyes will be opened and senses treated by an hour or two exploring the stalls here.
Palermo has three main markets (we’ve listed them below), and each has a slightly different vibe. Markets are generally open from 7am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, but close at 1pm on Wednesday. Note that the popular street food tours visit one or two markets.
The largest, the oldest, and the most famous.
Sprawling cross several streets in a poor, neglected, and diverse central neighbourhood, Ballarò is so far removed from being a market for tourists that it has actually become more popular with tourists craving a peek into Sicilian authenticity.
You will hear several of the stallholders, trying to be heard amongst the smoke and the sizzles, shouting in a quite melodic manner. This is called ‘abbanniate’, and is a way to attract attention to your goods!
Where | Start out here (Google Maps) on 2-14 Via Dalmazio Birago, but you can also access via Piazza Casa Professa or Porta Sant’Agata.
When | Visit early after breakfast or before lunch for the best atmosphere. If it's worth a visit in the late afternoon or evening, let us know in the comments! On Sunday mornings, the market expands even further into a flea market.
Although photogenic as hell, with bright lemons, gigantic swordfish heads, and stalls staffed exclusively by handsome, leathered old boys, we were a little disappointed by Vucciria market during the day. Given that Vucciria means 'chaos' or ‘noise’ in Sicilian, it was all very much too sedate and compact in comparison to a frenetic walk around Ballaro in 33 degrees. It also more of a bric-a-brac market than we expected.
Thankfully, when we did return to Piazza Caracciolo in search of a sundown drink a couple of days later, the atmosphere was transformed. Cool little makeshift bars and street food stalls with graffiti backdrops, local students hanging out, and a handful of modern restaurants serving local fare made it all feel very much like hipster citybreak hangout spot 101.
Where | It runs through the single street linking Piazza San Domenico to Piazza Caracciolo, and also to Piazza Garraffello.
Mercato del Capo
Capo is colourful and atmospheric, meandering through the narrow streets and alleys of the Albergheria and Capo quarters. Pair it with a stop at nearby Teatro Massimo, one of Europe’s largest opera houses and filming location for the final scenes of Godfather III.
Where | Start at Via Cappuccinelle.
Take A Cooking Class
This is the very last time that we will mention food in this post, we promise.
But really, food is SUCH a big part of Sicily and any visit there, and if you’re on a city break to Palermo you basically have to accept that you’re going to eat your bodyweight in carbs. And EMBRACE the fact that you’re allowed to eat your bodyweight in carbs and mark it up as being culturally curious. Between the street food hunts, lingering lunches of fresh pasta, late dinners in romantic piazzas or rowdy backstreets, you may not have the time or inclination - but for anybody who really wants to discover a little more about the cuisine, produce, and pallete of Sicily, then a cooking class in Palermo is a fantastic option:
An affordable and well-reviewed evening cooking class with chef Antonio and his family in their home - click here to find out more.
This half-day cooking class and visit to Capo market is a on the expensive side, but very highly rated - click here to find out more.
Le Cesarine also has several classes available, all of which take place in a local’s home - click here to find out more.
Walk Vittoria Emanuele
The ancient street triumphantly runs in a perfectly straight line for nearly two miles from the sea and Porto Felice to Porta Nuova, and encompasses much of Palermo's main attractions from port to prayers and palaces. As we explored the old town of Palermo in a rather aimless fashion - stopping for espresso al banco, taking photos of cool old signs, going left instead of right - we criss-crossed Vittoria Emanuele many times.
This is the artery which the city has been formed around, which keeps it ticking over.
And so, simply setting out to walk it from point to point, or spreading off to its side streets and offshoots when the fancy takes you, is a really nice serendipitous way to uncover Palermo on your first or second day. You will pass by the famous Quattro Canti crossing at some point and eventually be brought to the cathedral and palace, but perhaps also be able to find your own new old favourite boutique or bakery or enclave of the city. Or stumble across a restaurant to return to in the evening.
We have to note however that after the famous Quattro Canti crossing, our hearts sank a little for the first and only time in Palermo. Where Vittoria Emanuele narrowed out, it became clear that this section was also the least Palermo part of Palermo. In comparison to many other Italian cities, it thankfully wasn’t overrun by cruise ship groups and bus tours, but it was the only part of Palermo where the allure was lost on us a little. But, after all, we were also there as tourists, and we’re not writing this to criticise it or anything - just more of a heads-up!
Responsible Mafia Curiosity
Any first-time visitor in Palermo and Sicily will naturally have a curiosity about the mafia.
However, please know and understand that the mafia's history and present remains very real in Sicily. In Palermo, up to 80% of businesses were forced to pay protection money to the mafia in the not too distant past, and it remains at around 50% today. The city’s streets witnessed murders and assassinations of judges, activists, and criminals over decades. Put simply, the mafia is/was not something from a TV show or the movies made to entertain tourists - it is/was reality.
As a visitor you need to be acutely aware of this and act responsibly. Of course, this is not to say that one should whitewash or be blind to the particularly Sicilian phenomena - and that it will always be one of the first things anyone will think of at home when your upcoming trip to Sicily is mentioned in conversation (same goes for Colombia and Escobar unfortunately).
One way that visitors can responsibly learn about the the mafia's role in Palermo - and support those fighting against it - is to support Addiopizzo. This grassroots movement, established in 2004, has built and empowered a community of businesses and citizens who refuse to pay the "pizzo" - the extortion/protection money the mafia takes whenever it wants. Most of the organisation's efforts won't necessarily be visible or relevant to travellers but an offshoot - Addiopizzo Travel - attempts to use tourism to raise awareness of the issue, change perceptions, and increase the revenues of those businesses who refuse to pay the pizzo. Their popular 3-hour 'antimafia' tour on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, brings you around the key sights of Palermo and visits the places and people that are important for the anti-mafia movement. You can find out more information and book online here.
To better understand the historic and residual role of the mafia in Palermo before your visit, we'd highly recommend the below articles:
Best of Sicily | The Sicilian Mafia Yesterday and Today
Hang out in the Kalsa Neighbourhood
If you read our introduction, and thought to yourself ‘this is the Palermo I want to experience’, then we implore you to take a stroll around the Kalsa neighbourhood.
In what feels like the beating heart of this vibrant city, the late afternoons along Via Nicolò Cervello are a circus of daily life; unapologetically loud, full of life, people and the smells of a thousand street food stalls. It was by far our very favourite place to explore and provided a daily assault to the senses every time we left our apartment, as well as street scenes and characters we remember fondly.
It also happens to be one of the best - if not the best - place to indulge in fresh seafood, with carts of the day’s catch filling the sidewalks and red and white plastic tables and chairs spilling out on to the street.
A Day Trip to the Palermo Beaches
If you are escaping to Palermo for three days or more, and hoping for some time on the sand as well as stuffing your face with Sicilian street food, then there is good and bad news.
Firstly, Palermo may be a city on the ocean and its history largely defined by it, but it doesn't have a city beach of note (although you can catch a fantastic sunset if you head to the coastal park near the harbour).
The good news is that there are a handful of beaches easily reachable by public transport or with a car which will give you that essential dose of vitamin sea. We visited one of the below on a day trip, and the other later on in our road trip around the island.
Mondello | A 30 minute bus ride from the city centre, this popular sandy beach with clear water is the place to head once the weather heats up. Just be warned that during summer it gets super, super busy - including the bus that most of you will use to get there. To find out how to get there plus other info, see our short guide to Mondello Beach.
Ustica | Located 52 km across the water from Palermo is the tiny volcanic island of Ustica; a somewhat unspoilt nature haven popular for its beautiful beaches, island-wide hiking trail and clear waters (perfect for diving or snorkelling). A little similar to Favignana off the west of Sicily, you’ll need a bike to get around and may well find that a few hours during a day trip isn’t quite enough time, in which case you’ll be pleased to know that the main town also has a number of accommodation options. To reach Ustica, simply take the hydrofoil (1.5 hours, €53 round trip, three departures a day) or the much slower ferry (3 hours one way, €38, one departure a day).
Cefalù | We loved Cefalu so much that we don't think it should simply be a day trip from Palermo. However, with a direct train bringing you there in under and hour and for less than €10, it actually represents a really excellent way to squeeze in another part of Siciliy on your visit plus hit the beach. Read our Cefalu guide for all the information and inspiration!
Read Next | The Eight Best Day Trips from Palermo
Skullduggery at The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
Nothing screams holiday more than going into an underground crypt to look at centuries' old remains of monks, does it?
The Catacombs of Palermo are becoming more well-known amongst travellers with each passing year, and provide a macabre alternative addition to itineraries traditionally more focussed on some of the the best things life can offer (that's an afternoon Aperol Spritz, gelato, and Sicilian food by the way).
As grim as the site may sound, it is undeniably fascinating.
In terms of origins, Capuchin monks' bodies were preserved and laid to rest in the crypts during the 17th - 19th centuries, primarily due to a lack of space in traditional burial sites. However, the 'service' was eventually opened up to residents of Palermo and became a relatively prestigious way to be interred; indeed around 2,000 skeletons and mummified bodies are found here pinned to the walls, sitting on benches, and in a variety of curious cadaverous contortions.
However, the thing that really sets the Palermo catacombs apart from others in Europe apart is that families dressed their loved ones (often changing their outfits throughout the year), and the skeletons continue to wear this garb.
Although all of us visit the catacombs out of curiosity, please note that it is still a final resting place for thousands. Also, photography is forbidden and you should respect this rule (which is why we don’t have any photos).
Don't have nightmares.
Cost | € 3,00 per person, pay at the entrance.
When | Open every day of the year, except Sunday afternoons (October - March), from 9am - 1 pm, and then 3pm - 6pm.
Where | Piazza Cappuccini. It's a bit of a walk through residential backstreets from the historic centre through faded residential nooks and crannies, so try not to do it in peak sunshine.
Visit A Few Churches & Cathedrals
We have been fortunate enough to travel in Italy quite a bit over the last few years, and it's actually overtaken Spain as our happy place in Europe.
Given the country’s rich history (and history of riches), and the primacy of the the Catholic religion, nearly every single destination has its fair share of chapels, churches - and even a cathedral or two. However, we don't think that a place can be best experienced, understood, or discovered solely based on how many beautiful churches one has visited on a city break. Despite not being religious ourselves, we also struggle with how several active places of worship are slowly being transformed into tourist attractions first and foremost, with many not respecting the site or people who actually use it for spiritual purposes.
Nevertheless, everyone will likely visit the cathedral and one or two churches during a Palermo city break, given their popularity, historic importance, and gilded splendour. These are the most likely to feature on your itinerary:
Palermo Cathedral | Completed in 1184 a re-converted Christian church on the site of a Muslim Mosque that was previously built over a Christian basilica, the cathedral’s aim was to “surpass the beauty” of Monreale Cathedral (a popular day trip from Palermo). Did the Normans achieved that? Yes. The cathedral, set within its palm-tree fringed piazza, dominates the skyline and its architectural grandeur (encompassing several distinct periods and styles) certainly impresses the first-time visitor.
The Cathedral is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am - 5.30 pm (March - October), only until 1pm in November-February. On Sundays, it is only possible to visit the Royal Tombs from 9 am - 1 pm. It’s best to go earlier to avoid crowds.
Entry is free for those only visiting the church, and €10 if you want to visit the tombs, treasury, crypts and terrace (which has the best views of Palermo). It is also possible to only buy tickets separately if you don’t wish to visit every area (i.e. you can visit only the roof for €5 - note it’s a climb up 100 or so narrow stairs).
Where | Find it here on Google Maps
Chiesa di Santa Caterina | Hidden away between Piazza Bellini and Piazza Pretoria, its exquisitely ornate and detailed marble interiors are a joy to behold, particularly after recent restoration work, and the rooftop has nice views too. There is also a bakery. Entry is €3, or €5 to include the rooftop and some other areas. Find it here on Google Maps .
Palatine Chapel | Built in 1130 and a UNESCO Heritage site, this is Palermo’s top tourist attraction according to the Lonely Planet. You know what though? We didn’t visit it (sorry!). That isn’t a decision we regret (see above rationale!), but you should almost certainly think about popping your head in to marvel at its golden mosaics and lauded Arab-Norman architectural styles if you’re in the city - its location (Google Maps) means it’s sensible to visit before or after the Cathedral. Entry is €11, and there are often queues. Afterwards, take a break in the lovely botanic gardens outside (which we did visit!).
When | Opening hours are Monday to Saturday 8.15 am - 5.40 pm (with last entry at 5 pm), Sundays 8.15 am - 1 pm (12.15 last entry).
Note that for visiting any of the above churches in Palermo, modest dress is expected and is strictly enforced at the entrance, particularly of women. No bare shoulders or bare cleavage, skirts should be below the knee, and remove any hats or caps. The cathedral offered modesty shalls and skirts for an extra fee of €1, but it’s worth remembering to put a t-shirt and a scarf / or longer skirt in your daypack so you don’t have to pay extra. If you don’t cover up, you will not be allowed entry.
If you have a specific interest in the art and religious history of Palermo, this walking art tour may be ideal for you.
Find Your Favourite Fountain Animal
Moved to Palermo in 644 pieces as a debt repayment, the circular multilayered Pretorian Fountain (Fontana Pretoria) is quite the curiosity.
On first look, it ticks various boxes for “beautiful Italian fountain of the 16th century” with its delicate statues and clean white marble. The nude and semi-nude figure, surveilled from the distance, appear to have had a spell cast upon them, doomed to keep a secret forever.
But then the people in charge of design must have got a little…well…confused? Drunk? All around the fountain, you will find dozens fantastical heads of elephants, dogs, cats, rhinos, and various other curious beasts.
In the 18th and 19th century, the fountain’s nudity and associations with corruption caused Piazza Pretoria to become known as Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame) amongst the Palermitani. Today, nobody is ashamed of a work of art that is free and accessible to everyone.
Good to know | It is possible to climb the stairs and walk around the circular fountain, but please respect the rules about not sitting on it and touching it (and make sure you tell off anyone you see breaking the rules!)
Enjoy a Sundown Aperitivo
Any city break worth its salt is all about balance, and not all of it should revolve around visiting churches, museums, or other attractions which can sometimes feel more like an obligation rather than a pleasure.
And, as you are in pretty pretty Italy, most of your fondest memories and experiences will be derived from seeking out that balance.
Our go-to place for a 5 p.m. drink or two was Ai Bottai (Google Maps) on the corner of Via Bottai and Vittoria Emmanuelle, largely because it had a great playlist, an extensive cocktail menu charging €4-5 for any drink, and prime people watching seats outside. Just across the road, all along the narrow Via Chiavettieri, there are another bunch early evening and late night bars and aperitivo terraces to choose from.
Another of our favourite spots for a drink in Palermo was on Discesa dei Giudici, just a short walk from the Pretoria fountain. The street has a few independent artisanal shops, plus a couple of cool bars.
Tip | An aperitivo in Italy generally means the pre-meal drink you have from about 6 pm onward; it’s the time to be savoured between work and a the late Italian dinner. The drink is usually a glass of wine or a cocktail, and is accompanied a by snack (included in the price of the drink). Now, depending on how touristy the place is, what the standard of the bar is, and where you’re having aperitivo in Italy, that snack can range from a cheap bowl of crisps to a full-on platter of fresh bread, meats, and cheeses or even a buffet! You’ll see various places advertising their aperitivo deals in Palermo from about 5 p.m. onward!
How to get to Palermo from Palermo Airport
Palermo Airport (officially called Falcone-Borsellino Airport) is 35 kms outside the city and a hub for most flight routes in and out of the island. The good news is that the shuttle bus to/from the city centre is easy, regular, comfortable, and not too expensive.
Running every 30 minutes, the bus picks up from just outside the airport entrance doors and drops off at various points in Palermo, terminating in the new bus station next to the central train station. Total travel time between the two points is 45 - 55 minutes depending on traffic.
A single ticket costs €6, but you can get a return for €10 if booking online. You can find the full timetable for the Prestia e Comande bus here or buy your tickets in advance via their app. Tickets can also be bought at their kiosk in the airport by card or cash (8 am to 10.30 pm), or on board the bus with cash - although it is a little bit more expensive if purchased this way.
There used to be a train running into the city centre - the Trinacria Express - but the line was closed when we visited and we couldn't find any word online about when it's going to be re-opened.
If Palermo is the start-point for your own Sicily road trip (like us), then you'll be happy to know that an abundance of local and international car rental firms are based at Palermo Airport (tip - we look and book via Auto Europe for the best deals). However, as it's a popular car rental collection point, expect lengthy queues (especially if you're renting with one of the cheaper firms).
All rental companies have their vehicles parked in the car park just a short walk across the road from the airport entrance (we were concerned when doing our research about renting a car that some of them had shuttle buses and long wait times, but that seems to have changed)>
If you're planning renting a car and taking a road trip in Sicily, then we will have a bunch of posts with tips and advice published soon! In the meantime, read our essential car rental tips article to save money and stress for your next road trip!
The quickest way into town, but also the most expensive at around €50 - 60. Taxi drivers in Sicily have reputation, not entirely undeserved, for overcharging and we wouldn't recommend taking an unbooked taxi over the bus. There are also collectivo taxis waiting outside the airport and the train station, which are 'unofficial' and charge €7 per person. Again, we wouldn't recommend these for city-breakers or first-timers in Sicily.
If you prefer convenience and certainty for your arrival, then consider this airport transfer.
Transport in and around the city
Palermo is a compact place for citybreakers, and we simply walked everywhere that we had to visit within and around the old town. The bus and rail network for onward connections to the east and west, or for your Palermo Day Trips, is also decent and affordable. Our recommendation for an overview of public transport connections from Palermo to the rest of Sicily is to look and book in English using Omio.