After centuries of invasion and wholesale mixing of cultures, Palermo's mélange of African and European influences is reflected in everything from the food to the architecture. Come and find out why you should escape to the capital of Sicily for a weekend break - or more.
1. Take a whistlestop tour of Sicily’s history on the Duomo’s facade
Palermo’s cathedral (the Duomo) is built on the site of an early Christian basilica which became a mosque under the Arabs. It was refashioned by the Normans in the 12th century, incorporating many Arab and Byzantine features including inscriptions from the Koran. The Spanish left their mark in the Catalan Gothic portico, while the Baroque-style dome and cupolas added in the late 18th century finally break up the unity of the facade – perhaps a metaphor for Sicily’s history of endless invasion?
Opening Hours: 7am-7pm Tickets: Free Address: Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 90040 Palermo
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2. Experience the flavour of Sicily in Palermo’s markets
The sensual intensity of Palermo’s street markets will inspire you to spice up your life and your cooking with the exotic colours, flavours and scents of Sicily. Sicilian cuisine is rich with the fruit, vegetables and spices that waves of travellers have added to the bounty produced on this island, and they’re all on display in the chaotic narrow streets and piazzas of the Ballaro and Vucciria markets. Street food is the order of the day – try raw sea urchin and deep-fried chickpea flour fritters (panelle) washed down with a spremuta d’arancia (orange juice) made from the local ruby red Tarrocco oranges.
Opening Hours for La Vucciria: Mon-Fri 10am-1pm Opening Hours for Ballaro: 7.30am-8pm, closes 1pm on Sundays Address for La Vucciria: Via Coltellieri 46, 90133, Palermo Address for Ballaro: Via Ballaro, 14, 90134 Palermo
3. Have a night at the opera
Palermo’s Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy. Completed in 1897, it is built on a grand scale and lavishly decorated. Where better to enjoy a performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, based on a story by Sicilian author Giovanni Verga and full of the dark drama of life in rural Sicily? Or you could take a special tour of the theatre, finishing up with cocktails in the royal box.
Opening Hours: 9.30am-6pm Tickets: €8 per adult, €5 per child. You can also book tickets to shows online. Address: Piazza Verdi, 90138 Palermo
4. Take a flight of fancy with Serpotta’s cherubs in Santa Cita
You’ll be bowled over by Giacomo Serpotta’s glorious yet delicate depictions of putti (chubby cherubs) lounging on architraves, floating on clouds and generally finding their way into scenes from the life of Christ throughout the lovely Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita (Oratory of the Rosary of St Cita). To top it all, the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – when a coalition of Catholic states defeated the Ottoman Empire at sea – is reproduced in three dimensions. Serpotta, the Palermitan sculptor in stucco who created this and other masterpieces (the Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico is just round the corner), demanded a lute player to accompany him as he worked and a flask of wine as part of his contract. Rock ‘n’ roll.
Opening Hours: 9am-6pm Tickets: €4 per person Address: Via Valverde, Palermo
5. See east meet west at the Capella Palatina
This dazzlingly vivid jewelbox of a building will take your breath away. The royal chapel, part of the Palazzo dei Normanni, is one of the high points of the fusion of Arab and Norman styles under King Roger II. Essentially a Byzantine basilica, its walls are decorated in mosaic with scenes from the Old Testament and Gospels while the dome is presided over by a figure of Christ Pantocrator. The Bible stories are fully brought to life in gold, crimson, emerald, lapilazuli a masterpiece of graphic art. The geometric mosaic floors and the magnificent wooden ceiling were made by Muslim master craftsmen at the peak of their powers in a thriving and tolerant society.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 8.15am-5.30pm, 8.15-9.45am, 11.15am-1pm on Sundays Tickets: €8.50 per adult Address: Piazza Indipendenza, 90129 Palermo
6. Pull a few strings at a Sicilian puppet theatre
You’ll see Sicilian puppets in all the gift stalls and shops, but they’re more than simple trinkets for tourists. Palermo is home to a wonderful puppet museum (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette) that includes fabulous Sicilian puppets and stage sets as well as marionettes and shadow puppets from around the world. You can watch ancient tales being played out, with knights and saracens battling over beautiful maidens, fighting mythical beasts and generally triumphing over evil, in addition to various Shakespearean plays and The Odyssey. Go over to Vincenzo Argento’s workshop on Corso Vittorio Emanuele to watch him making these magnificent puppets, and enjoy a show at Mimmo Cuticchio’s traditional theatre (Figli d’Arte Cuticchio).
Opening Hours: 9.30am-1pm – 2.30pm-7pm Mon-Sat Tickets: €5 per person Address: Piazza Antonio Pasqualino, 5, 90133 Palermo
7. Enjoy a little calm contemplation in Palazzo Abatellis
Housing the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, this Catalan Gothic palace provides an oasis of calm in which to contemplate a very fine collection of medieval art. Highlights include a magnificent but chilling fresco of the Triumph of Death – something of a theme in Palermo – and the beautiful 15th century painting of the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina. Francesco Laurana’s marble bust of Eleonora of Aragon is equally soothing in its simplicity. A lovely place to cool down and take stock.
Opening Hours: Tues-Fri 9.30am-6pm, Sat-Sun 9.30am-1pm Tickets: €8 per person Address: Via Alloro, 4, 90133 Palermo
8. Get an overview in glorious technicolour at Monreale
It’s worth the slightly white-knuckle bus journey out of Palermo to take in a panorama of the city from Monreale, a glorious Norman cathedral and cloister that is set in the Conca d’Oro valley between the mountains and the Mediterranean. Its sparkling gold and jewel coloured mosaics tell Bible tales with immediacy and impact, and on a grand scale. The peaceful cloister is surrounded by Arabic arches decorated with mosaics and supported by double columns that are festooned with intricate carvings and topped with elaborate capitals. Get up close to the mosaics with a ticket to explore the cathedral’s roof terraces and enjoy the thrill of standing at the apex of the apse overlooking Palermo and the cloister far below.
9. Meet the family in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini
In this multicultural melting pot of a city, where ghosts of the past look over the shoulders of current residents, the catacombs of the Convento dei Cappuccini give us a chance to look back at them. They became the resting place of choice for clerics and well-heeled Palermitans, preserved in their finery in various states of decay – some mummified, some skeletons, with the degree of preservation dictated by sex, profession and social standing. The catacombs were closed to new burials in 1881 after nearly 300 years of use, but special dispensation was given for a little girl who died in 1920 and is so perfectly preserved that she appears to be asleep. Be afraid…
Opening Hours: 9am-1pm, 3pm-6pm daily Tickets: €3 per person Address: Piazza Cappuccini, 1, 90129 Palermo
10. Eat and drink Sicilian style
After all that activity, you’ll need to restore your energy by trying the many culinary delights of Palermo. Making full use of the abundant local produce and incorporating exotic flavours from Africa and Asia, Sicilian cuisine has a real twist to it. Try pasta consarde, for instance, complete with raisins, fennel, chilli and pine nuts. Caponata is a delicious sweet and sour aubergine and vegetable stew, sometimes including swordfish or tuna. Try Sicily’s excellent wines, from a flinty white Catarratto to a dry Etna red. Sweet pastries and cakes are a favourite, including cannoli filled with lightly sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta and dusted with cinnamon, or cassata alla siciliana with its coat of marzipan and topping of glace citrus fruits, washed down with a glass of Malvasia or possibly Marsala.
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11. Go to the beach
Mondello beach is one of the closest beaches to Palermo, which you can reach on the 806 bus from the city centre. It’s a favourite for the white sands and blue waters, as well as the seafood restaurants. Aspra is another nearby fishing village which is popular due to it’s colourful fishing boats and photogenic sunsets. If you’re a serious beach bum, make your way west to San Vito Lo Capo beach – it’s been likened to the Caribbean (you’ll have to see it for yourself).
Address: Viale Regina Elena, Mondello, Palermo
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12. Head to Sferracavallo for dinner
Capricci di Mare (Via Scalo di Sferracavallo, 4, 90147 Palermo) is where to go for sundowners and heaped piles of spaghetti, heavily doused in olive oil in a sea front setting. The 616 and 628 buses go from the city centre to Sferracavallo. Head out around 5pm to make sure you get there for sunset, and stay till the last bus leaves.
Address: Sferracavallo, Palermo
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13. Look up in Martorana
If you’re on a walking tour of the city, made sure to add in this cathedral on Piazza Bellini. The Norman-Byzantine mosaics inside are some of the best preserved in the world, some dating back to 1125. If you head on a day when there’s plenty of sunlight, it’ll help to bring out the glittering tiles in gold, blue, red and silver on your photos.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-1pm, 3.30pm-5.30pm, Sundays 9am-10.30am Tickets: €2 per person Address: Piazza Bellini, 3, 90133 Palermo
14. Cycle through the Botanic Gardens
This 200 year old garden is a tranquil break from the shouting and bartering in the Old Town’s markets. It’s also a centre of botanic research, owned by the University of Palermo and growing hundreds of different flora from around the world.
Opening Hours: 9am-5pm Tickets: Free Address: Via Lincoln, 2, 90133 Palermo
15. Stop for coffee in Quattro Canti
Quattro Canti is a Baroque square in the centre of Palermo, which used to be the commercial hub of the city. It’s within walking distance of most of the historic centres’ attractions, which makes it a great place to stop for coffee if you’re about to tread the pavements of Palermo. Cafe Latino (Via Vittorio Emanuele 276) opens at 6.30am, so you can get your cappuccino before the markets open too!
Address: Quattro Canti, Palermo
How to get to Palermo
There are direct flights from London to Palermo. There are also connecting flights from Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter, Bournemouth, Liverpool and Leeds, usually connecting through Rome or Pisa. The airport is located 22 miles outside of the city centre, but the Autolinee Prestia e Comandè bus stops outside of the airport, and takes 50 minutes. It costs €6 one way – book online now.
Where to stay on a city break in Palermo
If you’re looking for a hostel:
Save your Euros for eating Sicilian food and boat trips by staying in Vucciria Hostel. This is a small, family run hostel with only 10 beds in the centre of Palermo.
If you’re looking for a hotel:
Enjoy access to a library, gym and terrace in the Hotel Palazzo Sitano. It’s in the historic centre, which is perfect for city breaks.
If you’re looking for luxury:
Treat yourself (or your better half) to a stay at Times Luxury Rooms. Once again, this is a boutique luxury hotel, and each of the rooms are designed with a different concept in mind. Check out their page to see what we mean!
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