Some days ago, during one of my food tours in Palermo, a lovely couple from Netherlands told me: «Palermo is astonishing, we didn’t expect so much beauty!» Sure this awoke so much pride in me, but I wondered if those who visit the city have enough awareness of the jewels that Palermo, well-know for its food, good weather and welcoming people hides in its narrow streets of the Old Town, in its squares surrounded by palm trees, in its popular neighborhoods that would definitely deserve more than a quick visit.
To help you walking through such a rich and overwhelming city, here I come with my list of the best things to see in Palermo!
If I were told «I have two hours to spend in Palermo, tell me where to go», this would be my first thought. The Chapel, part of the Royal Palace, was built during the Norman Kingdom, and perfectly represents the fruitful cultural mixing that has always made Sicily such a rich land: craftsmen of three different religions worked together to realize its extraordinary wooden ceiling and mosaics, as one can imagine reading the inscriptions in Greek, Arabic and Latin. A must-visit among the things to see in Palermo.
Piazza Bellini and its three churches
Yep, religion in Sicily was a thing. Piazza Bellini, in fact, is an amazing square where you can find three churches built on different times and, nonetheless, equally beautiful, so beautiful that all of them deserves to be among my favorite things to see in Palermo.
Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, mostly known as “Chiesa della Martorana”, is famous for its incredible mosaics and for being the place where the “Frutta di Martorana”, marzipan fruits typical of the city, was born.
Next to it you’ll immediately see San Cataldo, a notable example of the Arab-Norman architecture, with its red domes, one of the symbols of Palermo. Just on the opposite side the recently-renovated Church of Santa Caterina surely deserves to be seen, with its beautiful cloister and a bakery that reproduces the ancient recipes of the nuns who lived in the convent (and one of the best cannoli you can find in Palermo, trust me).
Just around the corner, you’ll find Piazza Pretoria, also known as “Piazza della Vergogna” (Square of Shame), due to the scandal caused in ancient times by the naked statue of its extraordinary fountain. As I said, religion was a thing!
Palermo Markets (Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria)
Food, fragrances, tradition, street art, music, history, nightlife, all in one – or better in three. Three are, in fact, the biggest markets of the city, some of the best things to see in Palermo and, above all, one of the best experiences you may have during your trip to Sicily.
Among ruins of the bombing of the Second World War, the underground culture of the new generations and the always fresh fruits and vegetables, along with any kind of street food you can find in Palermo, you will fall in love with the city walking through its whole history in a nutshell.
Via Vittorio Emanuele and its two Gates: from Porta Nuova to Porta Felice
Also known as “Il Cássaro”, the most ancient street of the city deserves to be on my list of things to see in Palermo for two reasons: it’s old – and you can’t disrespect an old lady who’s there since the Phoenician occupation of the island, between the 7th and the 6th century b.C.– , and it crosses the city center taking you to some of the best attractions of the city.
It goes from “Porta Nuova” – meaning “New gate”– to “Porta Felice” – meaning, literally, “Happy gate”; I thought such a happiness was given by its closeness to the sea, but it’s actually named after a Spanish Vice-King’s wife.
Walking through the street, you’ll see the Cathedral, the Quattro Canti (meaning “four corners”) and Piazza Marina, the ancient location of the Spanish Inquisition now decorated by the beautiful Giardino Garibaldi (Garibaldi Garden), where every Sunday morning you’ll find one of the biggest flea market of the city.
Oratorio di Santa Cita e Oratorio di San Lorenzo
Here come the hidden things to see in Palermo: baroque treasures that with their white masterpieces of stucco will blow you away. Both of them are in the heart of the Old Town, in popular neighborhoods where you will never expect to find such rich and astonishing pieces of art. Built between 1500 and 1700, this two oratories are well described by this quote: «I walked in: I felt like I had entered into Heaven».
Chiesa dello Spasimo
This deconsecrated church, in the middle of the Kalsa area (from the Arab halisa, meaning «the chosen one), goes right into the best things to see in Palermo for the magnificent and superb emotion it gives to you as soon as you raise your eyes. Indeed, the building was never completed since the resources meant for its construction were allocated to realize new fortifications of the city against the Turkish threat, so that… it has no roof. The immense walls overlooked only by the blue sky of Palermo will take you to a brand-new world.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini e Castello della Zisa
If you feel like going a bit out of the city center, these two stops, both in the same area, will not disappoint you.
The Capuchin Catacombs provide an amazing historical record, with a macabre but impressive walk in the dungeons of Palermo. Among the most famous bodies, the one of Rosalia, a child who died in 1920, almost intact and whose eyes seem to open and close several times a day due to an optical illusion produced by the light.
Creepy, but really fascinating. If you’re not so much into corps, take a walk until reaching another of the incredible things to see in Palermo: the Zisa Castle, an Arab Castle in the middle of an urban area, whose name comes from the Arab al-Aziz, “the dearest” or “the splendid”. A popular legend says that nobody can count how many the devils painted on the ceiling of the entrance arch are because they keep moving, and who stares them for too long can see their tales and their mouths moving.
And in case you get hungry during your sightseeing… what about having a food tour together?