Benvenuto! (or “Welcome” in Sicilian)
When deciding where to go in Sicily, there is one thing I can tell you one day in Palermo, Sicily is not enough.Walking through the streets of Sicily is pretty spicy to me, not just for its tasty Sicilian pizza and the challenges of its past connection with the mafia, but more so for its capital city of Palermo. Palermo is a unique blend of its history of being the most conquered city in the world, and a must see if you are in Italy.
Originally I went to Sicily to see some of the other beach towns on the island, but then I decided to stop in Palermo to see Sicily’s capital city before heading off to Naples and I was so glad I did! Palermo was so amazing. It also had some equally impressive beaches in Palermo, Sicily. Sicily’s culture, food scene, architecture and history spanning over 10,000 years can best be felt by walking through the streets of Sicily. As a solo traveler I can say Sicily has also really cleaned up its act, and is safe to walk around as a solo female traveler. While many think of Sicily and relate it to the mafia, it has really changed that reputation.
The wonderful Mediterranean climate long attracted visitors to see this amazing walkable city and now has drawn me in to explore more of its past.
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Palermo Sicily History in a Nutshell
Palermo is the capital of the Island of Sicily and was founded by the Phoenecians in 734 BC and is in southern Italy. The metro area is the 5th largest in Italy with close to 1.2 million people. There are so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites given its long history. After the Phoenecians, the Greeks came and then the Romans ruled for 1000 years. For a few hundred years after that the Arabs ruled, then after the Norman Conquest the city was the seat of power for the Kingdom of Sicily (from 1130-1816) before it was unified with the rest of Italy and has such close ties with Naples.
Palermo’s Gastronomic Scene and Architecture
While I love Italian food and the amazing Palermo gastronomy scene, the architecture was one of the most diverse I have seen in Europe in such a small area. It was influenced by the past rulers reflected in the Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau styles seen in its palaces, buildings, and churches. The majority of the people in Palermo are Roman Catholic like many in Italy and this too greatly influenced their lives. Some of the most impressive things to see in Palermo are its’ churches, which I will delve deeper in my section on the best things to do in Palermo.
From talking with folks on the ground in Palermo, most consider themselves Sicilians first and Italian second and have a strong local cultural heritage. I loved talking to these beautiful, expressive people, and walking around here felt like a warm embrace. Here are some tips and advice on how to get around Palermo and the language.
The primary language is the Sicilian dialect of Italian, but Palermo also has some slight variations but it is rather easy to get around since this long has been a place for tourists to visit. Notably, standard Italian is based more on Latin, while Sicilian Italian also includes pieces of Greek, French, Arabic, Spanish, and Catalan, due to the various groups that lived here at one time. I found many people knew English and it was easy to get around.
Getting to Palermo
Palermo has an international airport, ships that sail to other destinations, and even by train as outlined below.
- Palermo’s International Airport: The airport is known as Falcone Borsellino (PMO). You can fly to Sicily via the airport that is about 22 miles northwest of the Palermo, www.gesap.it
- Palermo Train Station: You can also get to Palermo via trains from Rome, Milan, Naples, and Genoa. The trains are transported by ferry and the central railway station in Palermo is Palermo Centrale. www.trenitalia.it
- Palermo Ferries: There are various ferries that go to the Port of Palermo, from other Italian cities like Naples and islands like Sarfinia and Malta. I traveled to Naples via an overnight ferry with a sleeping compartment, which I thought was great. I used the GNV Grimaldi ferry that takes about 9 hours. www.gnv.it Another source for ferries to Palermo Sicily was Ferry Hopper www.ferryhopper.com I found that the ferry was a better option for my needs.
One Day In Palermo, Sicily: Top Things To Do In Palermo, Sicily
There are so many options to do things in Palermo, besides going to the beach when you think of an island. I did find Palermo a very walkable city, but I also sometimes love to get a hop-on hop-off bus to see a good overall look at a city and decide then what to go back and see. Food is always on my priority list, but I like adventure too. That’s what is great about Palermo, it has all the options.
Places to See in Palermo
Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel
The beautiful Norman Palace is one of my favorite places to visit in Palermo. It dates back to the 12th century when Palermo was ruled by the Normans and sits at the highest point in ancient Palermo. This is considered Europe’s oldest royal residence as part of the Kingdom of Sicily. You must also visit the Palatine Chapel, it is stunning. The mosaics and the impressive gold covered columns in the Chapel are so impressive and must be seen. I found the Palace and Chapel to be the most unique thing to see in Palermo. You can get your tickets from www.GetYourGuide.com
Cattedrale (Cathedral) Palermo
Palermo’s Roman Catholic central cathedral is so immense with a great view from the top; it’s a must see. The cathedral was built in 1185 by Norman Archbishop Walter Ophamil and King William. While it did get completed earlier, it has gone through several alterations and renovations.
The lovely and lavish Teatro Massimo is beautiful and the largest opera house in all of Italy. It is known for its performing arts and was built in 1897, 22 years after they laid the first foundation stone. Notably if you are a fan of The Godfather, Part III’s final scenes were shot here. Also White Lotus Season II was also shot here too. www.teatromassimo.it
Quattro Canti also known as Piazza Vigliena
Quattro Canti is the central square or piazza in the historic area of Palermo. It’s considered a Baroque style square and is a historic landmark in the city. It was planned and built in an octagonal shape by Spanish viceroys in between 1608 and 1620. The buildings that sit on 4 corners have a concave facade in the Baroque style. The fountains on each facade were added in 1630 and each nas a statue representing a season of the year and are known as the “four statues of Palermo”.
Things to Do In Palermo, Sicily For Adventure and Culture Seekers
Like I mentioned there is so much to do in Palermo besides the famous buildings and squares as noted below. Food was a main priority for me, so I took the Food Tour by Streaty Foods. I was dying for a great arancini. While on this trip I didn’t need the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus or take a Mt Etna Volcano tour that is very popular as are water sports and beaches.
Take A Food Tour
I love going on a food tour in various countries and regions. While in Palermo I did the Streaty food tour www.streaty.com. There are various options, I did the Street Food/Local market tour and it was wonderful. You can also get options like the food and wine tour, or evening tour. These tours also help you from having to look up various favorite food places while visiting. I liked it so much I used them in Naples too. Be brave on this tour you will have the famous arancini, but you will also try the spleen sandwich a street food staple in Palermo. You can also look on www.GetYourGuide.com for other options.
Depending on the length of your stay, you may want to go on a ½ day tour to see Mt. Etna. It is an active volcano so you should check if it is even possible while visiting but it is close by. You can see the tour available through www.GetYourGuide.com There is also a Mt Etna Wine trip version.
Hop On Hop Off Bus
If you want to go around Palermo to get a good overview, you may want to take the www.Hop-On-Hop-Off.com. There are two routes you can take with your ticket that lasts for 24 hours from when you start.
Five of the Best Beaches in Palermo, Sicily
There are several beaches and great beach towns in Sicily, but while in Palermo you may want to try Mondello Beach. Mondello Beach is only about a 15-20 minute drive from Central Palermo. There are various shuttle buses that make it easy to get to the beach without a car, thus making Palermo a great place to see. Now several of the beaches have private areas or clubs that you may want to reserve a spot, especially during peak travel times. Other great beaches in Palermo area include Sferracavallo, Capo Gallo, Lido Finanza, and Spiaggia Gorgo.
Explore The Best Markets in Palermo
Known for its great street food in Palermo, you can’t miss their markets. One of my favorite markets in Palermo is the Ballaro Market. It is one of the oldest outdoor markets in Palermo and has some hints of its Arab history. The markets in Palermo are quite lively and are another way to experience the culture of the area. In addition to Ballaro, you may want to visit Capo, Borgo Vecchio, and Vucciria; each offers a different cultural element to explore. The food tour I did actually brings you to Vucciria which has a very picturesque alley way in Palermo.
Places to Stay
There are a variety of hotels, Vrbos, hostels, etc. in Palermo. Since this was a last minute trip, I just stayed for a few days in Palermo, and then left on an overnight ferry and had a sleeper room. Here is the colorful place I stayed and others can be found on www.booking.com
- Palermo Gallery Art & Suites – a colorful, artful, place to stay in an Art Nouveau building in the center of town. The suites are each individual themed decor. I found the prices reasonable and it came with breakfast when I stayed there.
If you are looking for the best hotel in Palermo, Sicily check out these luxury and boutique options below.
Rocco Forte Villa Igea enjoy one of the finest hotels in Palermo that will make you feel like royalty.
Palermo in Two Days / Palermo in Three Days – both are a great treat.
Many folks ask me how long I would stay in Palermo, I think you can tour Palermo in 2-3 days. I was only in Palermo for 2 days, but I could have easily spent 3 days here given the long history and I love taking tours like seeing the sites and usually a food tour. It is quite impressive but no matter if it is 1 day or a few, you will definitely like Palermo. On my last night, I took an overnight ferry with a room and slept on the ferry on my way to Naples. (see my Naples article _____).
Is Palermo Safe?
Palermo is safe to travel, like anywhere you must be careful. While Sicily had a bad reputation for its mafia background from films like The Godfather and some bombings (over 1,000 killed between 1978 and 1983), etc. but since the early 90’s crackdown this has changed and now tourism is a major contributor to the island. Like anywhere you must be careful at night, but I found it quite safe.
I also loved doing the food tour which stretched into the night as I was able to see what the markets were like at night in a group versus alone.
Is Palermo Affordable?
Whether you are a budget traveler or like an element of elegance, you can find it in Palermo at reasonable rates. It is considered one one of the most affordable places to visit in Europe, especially since it is an island, with great food, beaches, etc. Palermo is very affordable and there are so many cheap things to do in Palermo even if it’s just walking the streets and outdoor markets.
Planning Your Trip To Palermo, Sicily
Here are some resources for you to prepare for your Palermo Sicily Vacation
SIM cards / ESIM Cards Airalo
Learn the language with Babbel
Get A VPN to safely surf the internet: NordVPN
Travel Items on my Amazon Storefront
Wrap up – Is Palermo Worth Visiting?
Palermo was an excellent place to discover and learn more of the history of Sicily and see some pretty magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites. Not only that, but I was able to see some great architecture, try some great Sicilian food creations, meet some awesome folks, while being so close to the water with access to beaches. A definite must see – Grazie! Want to check out more things to do in Italy, don’t miss my travel guide to Naples, Italy.
Palermo was the capital of Street Food in Europe in 2015; that’s food for thought.
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November 23, 2023