Last Updated on March 9, 2023

Don’t be surprised when you here the Southern Italians from Sicily refer to themselves as ‘Sicilian’ more often than they’ll claim to be ‘Italian.’ This is because, to them, being from Sicily is a badge of honor. Remember that when visiting Palermo, Italy.

Palermo, Sicily’s capital and Italy’s largest port, is a beautiful destination full of history, culture and architectural gems. It’s also a city of contradictions. Visitors will find neighborhoods bombed out during World War II still standing in disrepair, along with poverty, crowding, crime and traffic congestion. 

Then there’s the beautiful side of Palermo, with crown-shaped Monte Pellegrino looming over a place that Goethe described as “the most beautiful headland on earth.”

Perhaps what I love best about Palermo is the magic that manages to accompany the city’s chaos. It boasts one of Italy’s most vibrant outdoor markets, public squares, street bazaars, and food vendors, and, above all, its grand, discordant symphony of motorists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians who gather in the city’s squares each evening to simply celebrate another day of living.

Its people, though boisterous, absolutely love life and are immensely gracious and welcoming to visitors. 

Visiting Palermo, Italy is to truly experience Sicily. Those who look for its magic will find its many magnificent treasures.

The Cathedral of Palermo

This magnificent cathedral is a must-see for anyone visiting Palermo and part of what gave the city its UNESCO designation. Built in the 12th century, it has a unique blend of architectural styles including Norman, Gothic, and Baroque. The exterior is magnificent with two pointed arches connected to the archbishop’s palace making the church look a bit like a castle.

It’s the interior with its breathtaking mosaics that captures most of the attention.

In 1840, a complex of bell towers was built on the western side in the Gothic Revival style. Visitors can also see the royal tombs, the crypt, the treasury and climb up to the rooftop viewing terrace for a stunning view of Palermo.

Norman Palace

Sicily has spent many centuries at the crossroads of power and this is evident in its palace: the Palazzo dei Normanni. The historic palace built in the 9th century has served as the seat of power for Sicilian kings and emperors.

Visitors mostly come to the palazzo to explore the ornate royal apartments and the stunning Palatine Chapel with its glittering Byzantine UNESCO-listed mosaics. 

Quattro Canti

Also known as the Piazza Vigliena, this square located in the heart of Palermo is in its most famous intersection, situated at the crossing of the city’s two main streets.

The unique feature of this square dating back to the 1580s is its four identical buildings, each representing a season of the year, one of the four Spanish kings of Sicily and one of the patronesses of Palermo. Also known as the Theater of the Sun, at any given time of day, the sun will be shining on one of its four corners.

The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele

This grand opera house inaugurated in 1897 is one of the largest in Europe (just behind Paris and Vienna) and a symbol of Palermo’s cultural heritage. It quickly became one of the most famous theaters in Italy thanks to the quality of plays and operas performed here.

Today, the theater continues to host world-class operas. Though tickets can be quite pricey, visitors can take a guided tour of the theater that includes access to the Opera Terrace for a 360-degree view of Palermo.

Legend has it the ghost of a nun reportedly haunts the theater.

Ballaro Market

Italy loves it outdoor markets and without a doubt the one you must visit in Palermo is Ballaro Market. My close second choice would be Capo.

This bustling food bazaar is a feast for the senses with vendors selling fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and more. You’ll find mounds of purple artichokes, piles of red-blood oranges and even giant octopus. It’s a great place to sample Sicilian street food and soak up the local culture.

Be prepared to bargain – it’s totally acceptable and expected.

The Catacombs of the Capuchins

These by far are considered the creepiest and most bizarre catacombs in Europe.

From the 17th to 19th century in Palermo, an increasing number of people were mummified within these catacombs–some naturally and others intentionally, preserving them for all eternity.

The walls of the catacombs, often called the ‘library of corpses,’ are lined with clothed bodies that have their full skeletons intact, staring down at visitors with sometimes disturbing facial features. Some find it fascinating, some frightening.

Wearing their Sunday best, the dead are grouped according to sex and rank and included in corridors for men, women, children, priests, nobles, professors and even a separate section for virgins.

Regional Archeological Museum

An awe-inspiring repository of artifacts from Sicily’s many inhabitants and invaders—Phoenicians, Greeks, Saracens, Romans—are located in the former convent of the Filippini. Important treasures include detailed marbles depicting Perseus slaying Medusa, the Rape of Europa by Zeus, Actaeon being transformed into a stag, and other scenes bringing myths to life.

Other notable artifacts on display consist of anchors from Punic warships and mirrors used by the Etruscans and a very rare Egyptian find, The Pietra di Palermo (Palermo Stone), a black stone slab dating from 2700 B.C. known as the Rosetta stone of Sicily.

Hieroglyphics reveal the inscriber’s incredible attention to detail including a list of pharaohs and details of the flood levels of the Nile.

Mondello Beach

When in Sicily, travelers should visit its beautiful beaches.

Just a short drive from the city center, picturesque Mondello Beach is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Palm trees line the beach with its pale white sands and emerald and turquoise waters.

Art nouveau villas and colorful cabins dot the beachfront and an old fishing village sits just around the corner.

It’s a great place to bring a picnic lunch as chairs and umbrellas can be rented here for the day.

Try Authentic Sicilian Foods

Palermo offers no shortage of places to dine for every price range and taste and ingredients are fresh and plentiful from both the land and the sea. You’ll find these delectable dishes from street food vendors to sit down multi-course banquets.

These are the foods Palermo is most known for:

Pasta con le sarde means ‘pasta with sardines,’ and it’s an elaborate combination of flavors that’s actually quite impressive.

Sfincione is somewhere between a pizza crust and bread, seasoned with olive oil, tomato sauce, onions, caciocavallo cheese and anchovies.

Pezze di rosticceria are brioche doughs baked or fried after being stuffed with various toppings like ham, minced meat or just tomato sauce and mozzarella.

The arancina is a rice ball stuffed with tomato sauce, peas, meat and cheese and then fried.

Then There’s the Cannoli

Now let’s talk about the number one dessert Sicily is known for: cannoli.

Foodies from all over the world are drawn to the shores of Sicily to taste the authenticity and rich flavors of this amazing pastry. One of the oldest recipes for this Sicilian specialty originally came from a convent in Palermo.

The composition of the confectionary treat is a crisp outer pastry shell stuffed with sweetened ricotta. Optional additions include pine nuts, chocolate chips or bits of candied fruits.

Author D.H. Lawrence said it best, “and anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.”

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