Palermo is the capital of the Mediterranean island of Sicily, which sits at the foot of the Italian mainland. The island boasts a rich history that can be traced back over 3,000 years, and as a maritime port, it attracted attention from traders from all over Europe and the Middle East. The melting pot of different cultures which arrived on Sicily’s shores each left their unique mark which can still be seen today in Palermo’s architecture, culture, and gastronomy. This bustling city is teeming with colorful outdoor produce markets, palaces, cathedrals, and fine restaurants. Its atmosphere intoxicates and immerses you into local culture. Our Palermo Travel Guide brings you insider tips to guide your Sicilian stay, so you don’t miss a thing!
How to Visit Palermo
You can visit Palermo in several ways. The capital is the island’s main transportation hub, so it’s an easy place to reach from mainland Italy and most of Europe. You can fly into Palermo International Airport, but traveling by train is a truly unique experience! From mainland Italy, the train is guided off the tracks and transferred via ferry to Messina, where it continues on to Palermo! There are also ships and hydrofoils to Sicily from Genoa, Naples, Tunisia, Sardinia, and Malta. Public transport is readily accessible throughout Sicily, although bus services in smaller towns can be sporadic. Trains operate between the major cities to Palermo and taxis can be arranged – although prices tend to be high. If your Sicilian travel plans include exploring the island’s stunning landscapes, consider renting a car on arrival. And if you’re wondering when is the best time to go, consult this guide.
How to Get Around Palermo
Palermo is a sprawling city, but it’s still easy to access the main attractions on foot if you’re staying near the city center. Public buses operate throughout the city, although they can be infrequent. If you plan to take a taxi in Palermo, ensure you always agree on a price beforehand. There is also a small subway network with two lines that takes you to tourist spots and the airport, which is easy and economical. However, the best way to get around and keep your itinerary on track is by car.
Neighborhoods of Palermo
Old Town Palermo is a bustling quarter filled with old-world charm. Labyrinth lanes and piazzas are lined with faded, paint chipped buildings – offering a glimpse of the glory days. Yet, turn a corner, and you are greeted with ornate statues, beautiful fountains, and architectural gems. The area around Via Roma is punctuated with osterias, gelaterias, and several theaters. It’s a great area if you wish to be in the heart of the action. A bike tour through the Old Town with a local guide is a great way to dive in head first.
The neighborhood of Il Capo, between Teatro Massimo and the historical center of Palermo, is perfectly situated to explore all of the capital’s attractions. The contemporary art museum of Palazzo Riso is nearby and both Palermo Cathedral and Porta D’Ossuna Catacombs are within a short walk. Surrounding the district are abundant trattorias where you can sample local cuisine and several stylish bars and cafes. Read our Palermo design guide to find out all the best spots to feast your eyes.
This upscale area counts Palazzo dei Normanni, Torre di San Nicolò di Bari, and the colorful Ballaro market as part of its neighborhood. A richly historic area, it’s easy to lose yourself amidst the impressive art and architecture. And tucked away in the side streets, you’ll find a whole host of pizzerias, gastro-pubs, bistros, and fine dining options.
Nestled close to the lively harbor, Castellammare boasts beautiful churches, palaces, and a host of waterfront seafood restaurants. A large fortress once stood here to guard the city, and you can still imagine life when this historic trading port was teeming with boats transporting their wares throughout Europe. It’s a great area for nightlife and perfects if you want to experience vibrant days and nights in Palermo.
Food, Drink, & Nightlife
At the heart of every Palermo travel guide is the city’s culinary culture. Palermo draws upon its unique heritage as a Mediterranean island to create restaurants with Italian, Greek, Spanish, French, and Middle Eastern influences. Street markets allow you to sample dishes made with fresh locally-grown produce, osterias create traditional recipes fused with modern culinary techniques, and buzzing pasticcerias and gelaterias create every flavor under the sun. Whichever type of food tempts your taste buds, you will find a restaurant to suit your needs in Palermo. Or, learn how to capture the flavors yourself by signing up for a private cooking class with a local. Make sure to sample the delectable arancini and cassata flavored gelato – best done with a local expert on a street food tour.
After dark, there are myriad opportunities to experience Palermo’s nightlife. You can attend dance events in an old ruin, relax in a cocktail bar at sunset by the water’s edge, or enjoy an al fresco meal in the piazza. Most popular bars and cafes are located around Vucciria Market, Piazza Castelnuovo, and along Via Principe di Belmonte near the junction of Via Roma. And don’t forget the wine; Palermo offers a wide range of local and regional wines, which you can find out more about with our insider guide to wine travel in Italy. Go on a tasting extravaganza with our local wine tasting tour.
Palermo is teeming with hip boutiques, stylish shoe shops, and designer stores. However, tucked away in side streets near the center, you’ll discover a plethora of creatives at work. Specialty stores sell handmade furniture, tailored suits, candles, hats, and eco-friendly jewelry made from recycled goods. Additionally, there are several markets in Palermo. Most vendors enjoy the art of a good barter, so negotiating is encouraged. At Ballarò market, you’ll find fresh produce in abundance, street food, and creative clothing. Meanwhile, La Vucciria sells a range of handicrafts and Italy souvenirs.
The structure is a unique blend of architectural influences ranging from the medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance eras to Neoclassical and Arabic. Showcasing ancient porticos, well-preserved frescos, and even a magnificent bell tower and cupola, it’s a must-see highlight of Palermo.
Palazzo dei Normanni
This UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Palermo contains the famous Palatine Chapel. This symbol of multicultural collaboration shows a place where several different religions would come to worship at any one time. Texts in Latin, Greek, and Arabic and religious stories adorn the walls in a showcase of delightful frescos. You can also visit the palace, home to Sicily’s parliament, where you can delve deep into the history of this magnificent masterpiece on a private tour.
Near Palermo’s Pretoria Fountain stands the sacred site of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also known as La Martorana. This beautiful historic site dates back to the mid-1100s, offering exquisite examples of Byzantine art. The host of mosaics and frescoes is sure to captivate your imagination.
No Palermo Travel Guide is complete without suggestions on where to stay! And in Palermo, there is certainly no shortage of gorgeous hotels to choose from! Palermo offers a mix of stylish boutique hotels, guest houses, and apartments from mid-range to luxury. Across the neighborhoods, you’ll discover historic villa-style hotels, boutique residences with balconies overlooking lively piazzas, and design-driven accommodations If you’re traveling solo, or as part of a couple, family, or large group, there are hotel types to suit all in Palermo. Design-lovers who wish to stay in the heart of Palermo will love the Hotel Principe Di Villafranca. But if you’re looking to stay in an idyllic countryside retreat, Masseria Susafa offers a uniquely stylish atmosphere in an ancient stone farmhouse.
What to See Near Palermo
Once you’ve soaked up everything on our Palermo Travel Guide, venture outside of the city to discover local treasures. A short drive from Palermo you’ll find the pretty seaside town of Mondello. With stunning sandy beaches, picturesque bays, and an Art Nouveau lido to enjoy, it’s a great place to spend a day – this lovely bike tour from Palermo makes it easy and fun. Or visit Monreale, on the slopes of Monte Caputo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sprinkled with Norman and Arabic architecture. This e-bike tour will make sure you see all the highlights and more. Then head to Cefalù, an iconic tourist destination on the shore, with cobbled streets and a charming historic old town. Taormina, another urban gem of Sicily with much to explore, is not far away either. Check out these tours, perfect for a short Taormina city break.
Palermo Travel Tips
Chock full of culinary, cultural, historical, and natural delights, Palermo is a must on any visit to Sicily. A guided tour with an expert guide will help you get under the skin of the city, beyond the tourist traps, to discover its soul. There are also great multi-day packages that take you across the island and beyond, that make a stop in Palermo to reveal its unique delights. But whichever way you choose to travel in Palermo, we’re confident it will be unforgettable.