Palermo, Sicily may not be the first place that you think of when you’re planning an island getaway. But if you are looking for a place where you can enjoy crystal blue water and white sandy beaches, comb through historic sites and indulge in world-class cuisine, then Palermo just may be the place for you.
Sicily is also one of the warmer winter destination in Europe, which is another good reason to consider it as a fantastic place to explore in the shoulder season.
Here are a list of top things to do in Palermo, Italy that just may inspire you to start packing your bags.
Take a Palermo Food Tour
If there’s a food tour wherever we travel, it’s almost a guarantee that we’ll be on it. It’s a great way to get to know a new city (and get recommendations about what to eat while you’re there). We took a food tour with Streats Palermo and got a great overview of Palermo. And of course, enjoyed some of its famous street food.
Hike Mt. Pellegrino
Mount Pellegrino looms over the city, enticing visitors to take the challenge and find their way to the top. If you do decide to hike up Mount Pellegrino you’ll be treated to some lovely panoramic views of Palermo as you travel over a cobbled path to the summit. And once you get there, be sure to visit the Sanctuary of Saint Rosalia. This unusual monument is built into a cave and is definitely worth checking out.
Find the Genius of Palermo
The Genius is the symbol of the city of Palermo. It depicts an elderly wise man or monarch with a young body and a serpent scrolled around his arm, biting his chest. The true meaning of the symbol is unknown.
If you visit and ask around, you will discover many interesting stories about the struggles of Palermo and lessons of perseverance in the face of adversity. There are many places where you will see this symbol, but the most important has been hanging on a wall in Vucciria Market since 1483.
Mondello is a beautiful seaside fishing village about 30 minutes outside of Palermo’s city center, easily reachable by bus. Here you can enjoy views of the stunning blue water from the sandy white crescent-shaped beach. And you can grab a table to try out some of the fresh catch of the day.
Enjoy the best Hamburger in Palermo, Sicily
Ok, I know, you’re visiting Italy, so what you’re really looking for is some traditional pasta or pizza and maybe a cannoli or two. And there is plenty of that. But every once in a while it’s fun to try something different.
At La Corte dei Mangioni you can find all of Palermo’s traditional dishes, but don’t miss the hamburger. The portions are huge, and their hamburger, which is the size of your head, is no exception. They recommend sharing one.
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Stroll Palermo’s Pedestrian Streets
When visiting Palermo, you will quickly find that while the city seems large, it is made up of small neighborhoods where families have been raising their children side by side for centuries. As you wander down the narrow streets you can see people having conversations from their windows across the street.
On the weekends, you’ll find large groups of people lingering over a big pasta dinner and wine on a lazy afternoon. In the evening you can walk through the city center and find vendors selling everything from jewelry to specialty meats, cheese and wine.
Enjoy the Architecture
There are many examples of beautiful buildings and statues and stunning architectural details throughout Palermo, Italy’s city center. While you are there, don’t miss the Cathedral of Palermo, the beautiful statues at the 4 corners depicting the patron saints of Palermo, or the most famous, building, the Massimo Theatre. Many tourists stop here of for a selfie on the stairs where the final dramatic scene of the Godfather III played out.
Visit the Outdoor Markets
Wandering through the vibrant outdoor markets of Palermo is a great way to spend a few hours and catch a glimpse of everyday life. Many shopkeepers have been running their businesses here for generations. It’s fun to watch the banter as people move along the street while grabbing a few treats to snack on later in the day, or, what the heck, right now.
Take in a Panoramic Rooftop View
There are plenty of beautiful rooftop views in Palermo, but our favorite was this one above the mall in the Piazza San Dominico. Ride the escalator to the top floor of the La Rinacente mall and find the outdoor space inside the cafe. Here you can take in the sweeping view of the Palermo’s historic city center.
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Below you will get a bird’s eye view of the narrow streets of the Vucciria market emptying into a large square with outdoor cafes and the colorful Church of Saint Dominic. In the center is a huge pillar topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is all surrounded by a picturesque mountain range in the distance. Best of all, you can take it all in for free.
Check out the Banyon Trees
There are many small parks in Palermo with large shady banyan fig trees. The branches of the trees sprout “prop roots” that drop to the ground to support their continued growth. The resulting massive tree provides a wonderful place to sit under and relax on a sunny day. You can find Palermo’s oldest banyan tree, logging in at 150 years, in Palermo’s Piazza Marina.
Visit the Catacombs of the Capuchins
The Catacombs of the Capuchins is a resting place in Palermo that was established in 1599 when the cemetery of the Capuchin monks became overcrowded. Instead of burying deceased friars, the monks began to mummify their brethren and hang them on the wall.
If that isn’t strange enough, the practice became the “in vogue” way to be entombed. Not only were relatives required to visit their relatives’ grave sites, but they were also required to occasionally update their clothing and make sure that the remains were chic and presentable.
Take a side trip to Catania
On the other side of the island of Sicily, Catania is a seaside city founded in the 8th century at the foot of mount Etna. Its long history and precarious position makes for many interesting stories of surviving earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and concurring invaders. It also has a large outdoor market with a fish market where the catch of the day is bought and sold in a loud and flamboyant Sicilian style that you have to witness in person to fully appreciate.
In Palermo, the favorite way to enjoy a gelato (don’t call it ice cream – mama mia!) is not in a cone or a cup. Here the locals love their gelato served in a bread roll. It’s served with a tiny plastic shovel to scoop out the cold creamy confection. The Italian version of the “ice cream sandwich” has little resemblance to its American cousin. But on a hot summer day it could be just the perfect thing.
Grab an Aperitivo
Italians know how to end the day. If you have traveled outside of the tourist zones in Italy you have noticed that everything shuts down for a few hours in the middle of the day. Italians languish over lunch and then head back to work. Between 6 and 7:30 p.m. the bars and cafes open and people start to gather for a drink and a light snack.
In Italy, wine, food and friends go together. You likely won’t be able to get a dinner menu during this time, but if you order a drink you will be served anything from a bowl of chips and peanuts to a small board of assorted sandwiches. Italians know how to sit, pause and enjoy the day. Maybe that’s one reason those of us who travel there almost always return.
Considering a trip to Italy? Visit our related articles about travel in Italy (including some recipes inspired by our time here). We also have some great tips about ways to save money and travel in comfort in our Resources section.
And, check out our other posts on Sicily travel and food: