Precariously balancing at the very edge of Europe lies the island of Sicily. Its capital, Palermo, is a whirlwind of culture, brioche-covered gelato, and obstinately shabby buildings. This Palermo itinerary is geared towards spending one to three days in the city. Come with an open mind and leave with a full heart – and duly expanded waistline.
The beauty of falling in love with a Palermitan is the multiple “obligatory” pilgrimages undertaken to Italy yearly. I say “obligatory” because, in reality, it is me, rather than him, who counts down the days until I can next chow down on an Arancina and face the hair-rasing traffic in downtown Palermo. From the safety of the passenger seat.
This Palermo itinerary is the sum of many hours exploring the inner folds of its historical center, pouring over my proud father-in-law’s photography books and listening to Palermitans of all walks of life impart their wisdom about the place they have called home for many decades.
The guide is focused on one to three days in Palermo. While I did my utmost to add the most eye-catching sights in Palermo, some invariably did not make the list. For those, you might want to pull up a chair and read my complete guide on things to do in Palermo.
Is Palermo worth visiting?
Palermo is not an easy city to love. Like most good things in life, it takes time and patience. The city is an echo of the various rulers that once roamed the island: Romans, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Italian – having been reunited with the mainland only in 1861. Those who look carefully will find that what at first seems to be random chaos, is in fact an interesting hodgepodge of cultures.
From the souk-like historical markets to the UNESCO-classified red domes of San Cataldo Church, a Roman basilica converted into a mosque and re-converted into a Catholic church, to the jaw-dropping 6000 golden mosaics adorning the opulent Palatine chapel, Palermo is spectacularly different from anywhere else in the country. It is Italy, but with a twist.
To use the eternal words of Goethe “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.
Is Palermo safe?
Let’s start by debunking a popular myth: Yes, there is still Mafia in Sicily, however, the probability of running into them while exploring Palermo is microscopic. While the late 20th century saw beautiful liberty villa’s razed to the ground in favor of grotesque parking infrastructure in an overt display of power, these days, members of the Mafia do not go around advertising their existence. So tuck those Godfather-induced fears away, Palermo is perfectly safe.
Over the last decade, the historical center has become pedestrianized, crumbling palazzi left to decay since a disastrous bombing in World Word II are being given a thorough facelift and the number of AirBnb’s has skyrocketed. You might even find a sprinkling of English plaques in museums, which for the staunchly proud Palermitans is equal to rolling out the – richly adorned – red carpet.
My feet have taken me all around the historical center of Palermo, blissfully getting lost in the maze of alleys and tucked-away squares and with – yet another – magnificent church. Oftentimes my walks were undertaken solo, and not once did my well-honed spidey-sense tingle, indicating I was in danger.
Learn more about Mafia in Palermo: Take the locally run “No Mafia” walking tour through Palermo. Part of the proceeds go towards Addiopizzo – a charity supporting entrepreneurs who defy Mafia.
Best time to visit Palermo
The short answer is, you can spend one to two days in Palermo at any time of the year. It is noteworthy to mention Palermo has a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters (average temperatures of 16°C/61°F) and blistering hot summers (upwards of 35°C/95°F).
My favorite months to visit are May, September, October and November. In May locals start going to the beach, the sea is warm enough for a dip and the many attractions of Palermo are empty of the gaggles of tourists who flock to the island between June and August.
If you are bound to the summer months for travel, avoid the week of ferragosto (mid-August) when all of Italy takes their holidays. A trip to Palermo is often a top pick for local holiday-goers ensuring the city is bursting at its seams.
The perfect Palermo itinerary: How to spend one, two or three days in Palermo
If you only have 24 hours in Palermo, stick to the day one itinerary for Palermo as it covers the highlights of the city. Or alternatively, curate your own itinerary with the help of these guides:
PRACTICAL | Essential tips for driving in Sicily
AROUND PALERMO | 15 day trips from Palermo under 2 hours from the city
One day in Palermo: Classical Palermo
A day in Palermo will just about allow you to scratch the surface of this vibrant city. To make the most out of your trip, I would advise spending the day exploring the historical center of Palermo while visiting the main highlights: the Palatine Chapel, Palermo Cathedral, Quattro Canti and La Vucciria.
Time-saving tip: Guided tours in Palermo offer a pretty great bang for your buck. A guided biking tour will allow you to cover more ground
START YOUR 24 HOURS IN PALERMO AT PORTA NUOVA
Porta Nuova and Porta Felice are the bookends to one of the main arteries of the historical center, Via Vittorio Emanuele. Porta Felice spills out into the harbor of Palermo and a seafront promenade while Porta Nuova leads to sprawling less affluent neighborhoods. You will be spending the day in the pedestrian-only zone between the two gates.
Visit the Palatine Chapel
Start your day at Porta Nuova, more precisely at the Norman Palace which is located right next to Porta Nuova. Norman Palace might not ring a bell, but the UNESCO heritage Palatine Chapel therein ensconced probably will.
The awe-inspiring 12th-century Chapel is the quintessential expression of the Arab-Norman cultural melting pot that characterizes much of Sicily. Adorned floor to ceiling with 6000 tiny golden mosaics, depicting various biblical scenes and surprising Muqarnas, this Chapel contains architectural elements similar to those I found while traveling around Iran.
While the opulence of the Palatine Chapel had me picking up my jaw off the ground, the Norman Palace and the gardens left me decidedly unimpressed. Spend the majority of your time in the chapel, whizz through the rest. The €/$12 entrance ticket grants you access to the Norman Palace, the Palatine Chapel and the Royal Gardens.
Skip the line: The Palatine Chapel gets very, very busy in summer. Book the Art & Architecture walking tour which also includes the Cathedral of Palermo and the Teatro Massimo and avoid the cue.
Explore the Palermo Cathedral
A stone’s throw away from the Palatine Chapel lies the impressive Cathedral of Palermo, an absolute must-see if you have but 1 day in Palermo. This monumental building, historically oscillating between Catholicism and Islam, is a physical representation of the complex history of the city. Atop the decidedly Moorish structure rest baroque cupolas, a Gothic portal with inscriptions from the Quran and a majestic dome, topped by a cross.
It is noteworthy to mention, the intricately decorated outside stands in stark contrast to the austere whitewashed walls greeting you receive inside the cathedral.
Entrance to the cathedral is free, but you will need to pay a €/$7 ticket if you want to see the tombs, treasury, crypts, and terraces. The latter is well worth clambering up 110 stairs to witness one of the best views over Palermo while catching your breath.
TRY THE FAMOUS PALERMITAN STREET FOOD FOR LUNCH
Forget the quintessential Italian dishes of pasta and pizza, street food is where it’s at in Palermo. Readily available at all hours of the day, easily recognizable by the fragrant aromas that waft through the air or – depending on the time of day – the long line of locals impatiently waiting for their fix.
At its heart, street food in Palermo is poor man’s cuisine, not a single ingredient is wasted. It will therefore come as no surprise that entrails play a vital role, with the most famous of all being the Pane con la Milza or spleen sandwich. No self-respecting Palermo itinerary is complete without including a stop at Porta Carbone, the very best place to try this illustrious piece of street food.
More street food: Time permitting try taking a dedicated street food tour. Tours will take you deep into the heart of historical markets and stop at various local stalls to try a variety of different foods. Please note, most of these foods are not geared toward vegetarians.
EMBARK ON A SELF-GUIDED TOUR OF PALERMO IN THE AFTERNOON
Your 24 hours in Palermo is halfway finished. After a carbohydrate-rich meal, you might feel like a little snooze (I tend to in any case) but there is no rest for the adventurous. Chop chop, you have exploring to do!
What to expect along Via Vittorio Emanuele
As you resume your leisurely stroll down the main artery Via Vittorio Emanuele, you can’t help but notice the splendid palazzi lining the avenue. These remnants of a bygone Palermo, when the historical center was the playground of Palermo’s aristocracy, are being restored to their former glory and sharing their closely guarded secrets with the public. Scroll down to day three for more info.
Quattro Canti: The intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda which created a visual delimitation for the four historical neighborhoods of Palermo (Kalsa, Albergheria, Castellammare and Capo). Once a square used for entertainment and public execution now a safe haven for snap-happy photographers.
Chiesa di Santa Caterina D’Alessandria: Aside from the Palermo Cathedral, the Chiesa di Santa Caterina D’Alessandria is an absolute must-visit if you have but 1 day in Palermo. A 14th-century church with the most sumptuous Baroque interior. Purchase the extra ticket for the rooftop and the citrus-filled monastery gardens.
Piazza Pretoria: Piazza Pretoria is known for the eponymous fountain which takes up the majority of the square. Built in the 16th century for a Florentine palace, but scooped up by the then Palermitan senate who was set on beautifying Palermo. The 16 nude statues caused a vociferous upheaval in the heavily catholic city causing the square to be locally now as Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame). The name stuck.
ANIMAL WELFARE: Eager carriage drivers with overheated horses line Via Maqueda off Piazza Pretoria. There is no system set in place to safeguard the welfare of these horses. Forgo the horses and instead get into an APE-taxi (3-wheeled taxi) which will give you a 1.5-hour tour of the city Be prepared to bargain as prices start as high as €/$90 while my local partner was quoted €/$65.
Get more out of Palermo: If you are looking to get a little more historical info on Palermo, look into booking a great value-for-money Local Walking Tour.
FINISH YOUR ONE DAY IN PALERMO WITH DRINKS AND DINNER IN TOWN
Peak dinner time is around 20.30 pm, so if, like me, your body is used to eating at 19.00, chances are you are on the brink of starvation by the time dinner rolls around. Fear not, salvation comes in the form of aperitivo which commences at the respectable hour of 18.00 pm. Drinks are always accompanied by a little nibble (Hooray!), free of charge (Double hooray!).
Rooftop bars in Palermo
I am partial to a good rooftop bar for an aperitivo. There is just something about sitting high in the sky, with the hustle and bustle of the city below, gazing at the sprawling view with an Aperol Spritz in one’s hand. If you are up for a bit more “hoity-toity” try out Seven or Sicilo
Where to eat if you have but a day in Palermo
The aforementioned Seven or Sicilo are both excellent options if you want to extend your aperitivo time into a languorous dinner (make sure to reserve in advance). Looking for something a bit more typical? Buatta serves traditional Sicilian cuisine at reasonable prices.
Two days in Palermo: Delve into churches
and historical markets
An adventure to the wildly ornate churches is part and parcel of any visit to Palermo. It seems like every little square is anchored by, you got it, a church or at the very least a little shrine.
Before you let out a collective sigh, and dismiss this section of the Palermo itinerary completely, take a peek at my article ” 14 churches in Palermo you do not want to miss“. A quick scroll should be enough to show you the sheer variety of churches not to mention the unimpeded views from their belltowers.
Next up you will be weaving a labyrinthine path through small alleys and vivacious squares and exploring the local Palermitan treasure trove of culture, food and the ear-piercing cries of overzealous vendors. There is no place like the markets in Palermo, although the time of day you go is vital. Andiamo!
KICK-OFF DAY 2 OF YOUR PALERMO ITINERARY AT THE 4 HISTORICAL MARKETS
WHEN TO GO | Between 06.00 am – 10.00 am || WATCH OUT | Pickpockets!
Contrary to popular belief, Palermitans are early risers. I like going out at sunrise to take pictures and by the time 06.00 am rolls around the city is awash with runners, locals reaching for their first cup of espresso at the bar and street vendors. The conspicuous lack of tourists makes this my favorite time of the day to venture into the city.
IL CAPO: A bazaar-like market with a lot of food peddlers and tiny little restaurants. This market is positively heaving with tourists by 09.00 am. My top tip is to venture away from the main axis of the market to experience a more authentic side.
BALLARO: My favorite market, and the most untouched by the hands of tourism. Rough around the edges, very rowdy but hands-down the best place to get authentic (non-vegetarian) street food cooked right in front of you. Pane con la Milza (€/$3) or Stigghiola (€/$2), skewered & bbq lambs’ intestines are the local favorite.
VUCCIRIA: No longer a market but more a great place to get lunch/dinner (Osteria Dadalia is terrific!) as well as THE place to be for nightlife. Locals spill in and out of the bars here until the wee hours of the night. Drinks are cheap and the vibe is fantastic. Be very careful of your bags here though.
BORGO VECCHIO: The only market I have not been to. It is a bit further removed from the city center. In the morning it is a full-on market, while in the evening my Palermitan partner has assured me it turns into a great spot to hang out and chill with a couple of drinks.
TOURS | Some of the best street food can be found in Ballaro and La Vucciria. There are however an equal amount of tourist traps that have sprung up over the years. Time & budget permitting invest in a knowledgeable local guide to help you navigate in the direction of top-notch food stalls.
UNCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE CHURCHES IN PALERMO
WHEN TO GO | Between 09.00 am – 12.30 or after 16.00 pm || WHAT TO WEAR | Dress modestly
On day one of your Palermo itinerary, you visited Palermo Cathedral and the decadent Chiesa di Santa Caterina D’Alessandria. These are the more obvious choice to quench your thirst for opulent architecture. Palermo has better and bolder on offer. Trust me, last time visiting Palermo I embarked on a church-hopping bonanza. Below are a few of my favorite finds.
LO SPASIMO: An unfinished 16th-century church that was supposed to house a beautiful Rafael painting. The church was never consecrated and the painting was sneakily sold to Philip IV of Spain. These days a very popular spot for weddings and wedding photography.
CHIESA DEL GESU: Behind a surprisingly austere façade lies one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Stepping inside this 16th-century Jesuit church is like entering the equivalent of Baroque heaven. It took me 5 separate visits to actually find it open for visitors.
CAMPANILE & CHIESE DI SAN GIUSEPPE CAFASSO: Skip the church, instead make a beeline for the church tower. Pay €/$3 (cash only) at the entrance of the church tower and you will receive a hard hat and be invited to clamber up the stairs. At the end of the various sets of rickety stairs, you are rewarded with the very best views over John of the Hermits Monastery. The hair-raising climb is worth it for this view!
END YOUR TWO DAYS IN PALERMO BY EATING WITH THE LOCALS
While day one was all about fancy rooftop bars & restaurants, you might want to try something a little more local. Palermitans love to bar-hop, starting from aperitivo time (18.00 and later) they head to their favorite bar, order a drink and a nibble. They then proceed to do this at various bars until the early hours. Dinner is oftentimes street food, or nibbles served at the bar.
I love the always vibrant Via Chiavettieri to start the evening. Around the corner are two very good restaurants Gagini (recently awarded a one-star Michelin) and the fish restaurant Ajamola.
Or alternatively, go really local and head to Dal Barone wine bar for an aperitivo and a small bite to eat on the go. The whole length of Via Alessandro Paternostro is flanked by cool little bars, artisanal shops and tiny boltholes with locals spilling out of them onto the streets.
Three days in Palermo: Palaces and beaches
If you are lucky to be spending three days in Palermo – for the record, an absolute minimum in my books – you have plenty of time to delve into some lesser-known Palermo attractions or ditch culture altogether in favor of the beach.
HIT PALERMO BEACH A.K.A MONDELLO
Despite being located right by the sea, Palermo has no beach within walking distance from the historical center. Fear not, you will still be able to get your tan on. It will just take a short 30-minute bus ride to the outskirts of Palermo, in the neighborhood of Mondello.
Striking Liberty villas – the Italian take on Art Nouveau – hug the half-moon shaped beachfront known as Conca D’Oro. Gently sloping hills, which Goethe once described as “The most beautiful in the world”, dotted with old fortifications once used to spot invading armies, encapsulate soft sandy beaches.
Today the only raids this storybook neighbourhood experiences are by local beachgoers or boisterous gaggles of teenagers. Mondello’s popularity has however unfortunately turned most of the beach in private lidos, renting sun loungers and striped umbrellas for €/$15 a person. This means the “free” beach space is limited and it tends to fill up, fast.
We usually try and get there before 10.00, catch a few hours of sun on the free beach before heading to Touring Cafè for a gelato or, even better, an XL sized arancina aptly called “Arancina Bomba”.
GETTING THERE | Take bus 806, 544 or 603 from Palermo to Mondello Beach
COST | Bus ticket €/$1.5 single journey, to be paid in cash on the bus.
HUNT DOWN SICILIAN PRINCE CHARMING
A quick glance around Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda leaves one with the distinct impression that every second house on the main arteries is either a church or a historical palace. Palermo must have had one heck of a social scene with all these nobles flitting between their palaces. Something tells me I was born in the wrong century!
These palaces have flung open their heavy-set doors to the public and are ready to divulge their innermost secrets. Though it is worthy to note that the conspicuous lack of English signage means a visit is great for those with a vivid imagination, perhaps not so much if you are looking to learn the history of the buildings.
PALAZZO MIRTO: The most opulent of palaces. Think full-on chandeliers, grand pianos, porcelain tchotchkes and tapestries galore! No guide needed to visit.
PALAZZO CHIARAMONTE – STERI: The private house of a 14th-century lord who fell out of favor with the king, converted into the seat of the 17th-century Inquisition and prison. Inside you can see the former cells of inmates including their still preserved etchings. Only guided visits in Italian available.
PALAZZO ASMUNDO: A 17th-century Baroque palace that is still privately owned to this day. The Palace has some of the best views to be had of the Palermo Cathedral!
TAKE A SICILIAN COOKING CLASS
You might have noticed, but Sicilian cuisine is wildly different from anything you will find on mainland Italy. The flavor pallet is a quintessential representation of the various peoples that dominated this island, combined with the oftentimes harsh economic reality faced by locals back in the day. This led to a very creative cuisine in which not a single ingredient is wasted.
The truth of the matter is the best way to experience it is by cooking it yourself. I will spare you my attempts at recreating anything in the kitchen (a skill I sorely miss) and instead refer you to the top-rated 4h30 cooking class which combines a visit to the historical markets of Palermo with the creation of a 4-course meal. Check rates & book.
Recommended extensions for your weekend in Palermo
While I have been focussing on a travel itinerary for Palermo, I cannot help but make a small segway into the various day trips you can take from the city. There are plenty of storybook villages under two hours away. Let this section serve as inspiration on where to go next, after Palermo.
Nearby day trips from Palermo
Sandy beach, a UNESCO-classified cathedral and a colorful fishing town is what awaits you in Cefalu. This trifecta has made Cefalu one of the most visited places in all of Sicily.
I love strolling through the mazelike alleys as dusk starts to settle in. The streetlights cast a deep orange glow over the tiny village as it springs to life in time for an aperitivo by the sea. During the summer months the village is bursting at the seams with visitors, which takes away a bit of the magic. I tend to avoid Cefalu during these months, opting to come here in shoulder season instead.
Perched atop a hill, overlooking Palermo, lies the village of Monreale. This sleepy hamlet contains an unexpected UNESCO world heritage site: The Arab-Norman Duomo di Monreale. The cathedral itself is impressive from the outside, but it is the inside that will knock your socks off. 6500 (!) square meters of golden Byzantine mosaics adorn the vault. I literally sat down to catch my breath upon seeing it.
The €/$6 entrance ticket also includes a visit to the nearby Cloisters of the Benedictine Monastery, with its majestic gardens containing 200 decorated columns with – sense a theme here? – mosaics. The cloister was under renovation when we visited in 2022.
Don’t feel like driving? This half-day tour leaves from Palermo and combines both Cefalu and Monreale.
Where to stay in Palermo
RECOMMENDED – Cathedral View Appartments: The accommodation with the absolute best view in all of Palermo. Set in the Historical Center of Palermo, right opposite the stunning Cathedral in a historical 17th-century palazzo.
VALUE FOR MONEY – La Terraza sul Centro: Located a 2-minute walk from Piazza Pretoria, this accommodation is great for travelers looking to get value-for-money accommodation with an unbeatable location.
CENTRAL & PEACEFUL – B&B Dimora Tomasi: Top-rated B&B Dimora Tomasi is located in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Palermo, in possibly the most beautiful Palazzo in the whole city. Palazzo Cammarata is a favorite of both locals and tourists.
HISTORICAL LUXURY – Villa Igiea: Once the home to the famous Florio family, the most important family of Sicily. The 20th-century jet-set vacationed here with the Florio family before the palace was turned into a luxury hotel.
How to get to Palermo from Palermo Airport
The ”Falcone-Borsellino Airport” i.e. the main airport in Palermo is located 35 km outside of the city center. There are a few options to get to Palermo from the airport.
BUS: Buses operated by Prestia e Comandè run every 30 minutes from and to the city center. Tickets cost €6 ($6) and can be purchased on board or online, ride time 60 minutes. Check schedule and purchase tickets. Head out from the arrivals terminal, walk 20 meters to your right to find the stop.
TRAIN: Twice hourly trains operated by Trenitalia run between Palermo Airport and Palermo Centrale railway station. Tickets cost €6 ($6), ride time 50 to 70 minutes. Check schedule and purchase tickets.
TAXI: Go to the official taxi stand outside the arrivals terminal for a taxi. Prices vary between €35 ($36) and €45 ($47) depending on the drop-off point.
PRIVATE TRANSFER: By far the most efficient and reliable form of transport. At €25 ($27) it is considerably cheaper than a taxi. Check availability.
FAQ about spending one to two days in Palermo
Is Catania better than Palermo?
The rivalry between the two cities is fueled by the famous Arancina debate – Should it be round or oval? Yes, leave it to Italians to pull out their battle swords over food.
What is true is both cities are choc-a-bloc with historical monuments, baroque churches and the ever-present aroma of delicious food. Catania has beautiful views over Mount Etna and is the perfect jumping board to visit Taormina and eastern Sicily. On the other hand, Palermo has the Palatine Chapel, the boisterous historical markets and is great for visiting western Sicily.
Palermo, as a capital, has slightly more things to do but that might just be my impression as I have spent a lot more time there and thus know the city intimately. As long as you promise to keep this between us: I think both cities are probably equally worth a visit.
Final thoughts on this Palermo itinerary
The historical center of Palermo has emerged from centuries of dust and soot: Palaces are being lovingly restored and opened up to the public, walking along Via Vittorio Emmanuele is now enjoyable versus a harrowing experience (hurray for the pedestrianized zone) and the prolific bar & restaurant scene means you will never go hungry, trust me.
I would highly recommend spending at least two days in Palermo, three is even better. The city rewards those who take the time to get to know her. Veer off the main arteries and into the dark labyrinthine alleys, small shrines revering the Madonna lighting your path into the inner folds of the city. Here you will find the city’s oldest artisanal shops, the best gelateria and you might even catch senior citizens playing a passionate game of Briscola – Sicilian cards.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING SICILY
Sicily – The best areas to stay in Sicily, and which ones to avoid!
Sicily – Quaint little villages to explore while visiting Sicily
Palermo – A local guide to the best Palermitan street food
Palermo – 14 unmissable churches to visit
Palermo – 20 things to do in Palermo
Palermo – 15 day trips from Palermo
Catania – 15 day trips from Catania
Italy – Comprehensive guide to being a vegetarian in Italy including regional specialties