A Palermo itinerary: what to see in the city in 2 days
Palermo is a city unlike any other I’ve been to in Sicily. There’s an electric, and slightly chaotic, energy in the air — in part from the honking cars and ‘motorinos’ whizzing by. The other part comes from the stories of everyday life. Fruit sellers at the side of the roads, speaking loudly with acquaintances they know, and passers-by they don’t.
Palermo is a city rich in Roman, Norman and Arab influence, and a place where history mingles with the present. There’s a historic surprise around every corner, in a city that’s over 2,700 years old. If you’ve only got 2 days to see Palermo, this post highlights the 10 sights you cannot miss.
Palermo things to do – the best attractions to see in 2 days
Attractions in Palermo can be divided into the following categories:
- Palaces and monuments
- Markets, and
If you’ve got longer than 2 days in Palermo, I advise taking a day trip. Nearby beaches (by car) from the capital include Mondello and the magnificent San Vito Lo Capo.
There are several good starting points in the city to begin your Palermo trip. However, with just 2 days in the city, I suggest heading straight to the historic center. Many of the attractions are a stone’s throw from the other — something you’ll appreciate when the Sicilian sun’s beating down.
One of the principle streets in Palermo is Via Ruggero Settimo. This stretch of road runs through the city, and is filled with chain, as well as independent stores.
Close by is Antico Caffe Spinnato, a café and dessert shop that dates to 1860. Just stepping through the door will trigger your inner glutton, sending your senses into overdrive. Satisfy your curiosity, and sweet tooth, by trying a classic Sicilian Canolo, or a slice of Cassata.
Things to do in Palermo – Antica Caffe Spinnato
Teatro Massimo – Palermo things to do
As you walk down Via Ruggero Settimo towards Via Maqueda, you’ll come across Teatro Massimo on the Piazza Verdi. Its grand scale instantly captures your attention, and the neoclassical architectural style is quite a display.
Opened in May 1897, Teatro Massimo is one of the largest in Europe. The opera house was dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II and hosts performances ranging from ballet to classical music.
Unless you’ve got tickets for a show, the only way to see inside is to book a guided tour. These take place daily, in both English and Italian.
Aside from entering the main auditorium, my favorite part of the Teatro Massimo tour is the allegedly haunted staircase. Legend has it, that a nun who lived in the convent before it was a theater, trips up any non-believers. There have since been reports of people tripping over the last step on this staircase, so don’t doubt the stories!
The Olivella – what to see in Palermo
Opposite the theater is the historical district of the Olivella. This charming quarter of Palermo comes to life in the evening, and is packed with small restaurants and artisan shops.
Also, in the Olivella is the Church of Saint Ignatius and the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas. The museum houses one of the largest collections of Ancient Greek art and items related to Sicilian history.
If you prefer to go straight through, you can skip the lines and buy your tickets in advance.
Palermo things to do: inside the magnificent Teatro Massimo, one of the oldest theaters in Europe.
“Palermo is a city rich in Roman, Norman and Arab influence, and a place where history mingles with the present. “
A map of the top attractions to see in Palermo in 2 days
Palermo things to do – Day 1
One of the main roads in Palermo is Via Maqueda. It was built in the 17th century to facilitate the construction of new palaces. Today, everywhere you look is another restaurant, bar or ice cream shop. No spot is vacant here.
Vendors compete to sell a variety of goods like cellphone covers and handmade jewellery to visitors and locals. It’s a scene that’s fast, busy, and at times loud, showing the vibrant energy of Palermo.
Via Maqueda is notable for more than its places to eat and drink. It’s the main street that leads to Quattro Canti Square.
Extra tip: just before the intersection of Quattro Canti is an excellent dessert spot called Pasticceria Costa. They serve all the usual Sicilian sweets, but the canolis are something else. The ricotta’s fresh, with the right amount of sweetness, piled richly into the canolo pastry.
We also took a lemon and orange granita, which was a refreshing addition after our canolo. Don’t miss it if you’re there!
Best things to eat in Palermo – a ricotta-filled canolo at Pasticceria Costa
Quattro Canti – Palermo best things to do
I was completely taken by surprise the first time I saw Quattro Canti. After passing by what seemed to be an endless stream of food and drink places, I’d become a little desensitized.
Loosely meaning ‘four places’, Quattro Canti is an octagonal square with 4 baroque buildings and with almost identical façades. Its official name is Piazza Vigliena, but ask any local for ‘Quattro Canti’ and they’ll know what you’re looking for.
Each façade has a fountain, and statues representing the 4 seasons, the Spanish kings of Sicily and the patronesses of Palermo.
Quattro Canti is where Via Maqueda meets another principle street in Palermo, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. It’s the oldest street in Palermo, dating back to the time of the Phoenicians. The square divides the old city into 4 neighborhoods: Loggia, Capo, Kalsa and Albergheria.
Kalsa neighborhood – what to see in 2 days in Palermo
With just 2 days to see Palermo, the Kalsa district is a must see. It’s home to many of the top attractions in the city, and is also one of the most interesting boroughs.
Built during Islamic rule, the neighborhood was the fortified citadel where the emir and his ministers lived. Its Arabic name is ‘al halisah’, meaning the chosen, the pure.
Kalsa is a large area, starting at Quattro Canti and encompassing the region until it reaches the sea front. Kalsa sometimes get called the Arab quarter because of the several monuments in Arab-Norman style within the area.
Stroll around the Piazza della Kalsa to see Palermo life in action. While here, look out for any vendors cooking and selling ‘babbaluci’. This is a traditional Sicilian dish of small marinated snails, with oil, parsley, garlic and pepper. Its name derives from the Arabic word ‘babush’, an Arabic style slipper with a pointy head.
Quattro Canti in the historic center is one of the best attractions in Palermo
Must-see churches near Quattro Canti in Palermo
As I mentioned earlier, the churches make up some of the best sights to see in Palermo. And from Quattro Canti, it seems like there’s one immediately after the other. Here are several that we visited in and around this neighborhood.
Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini
From the outside, this 17th century baroque Catholic church looks like any other. However, inside’s a whole other story. The detailing is so intense and mesmerizing, it sends a chill up your spine at the sight. Look up to the ceiling, which is a work of art in itself, with the large dome the icing on the cake.
Chiesa Ipogea della Madonna della Provvidenza (Cripta di San Giuseppe dei Teatini)
You can enter the underground crypt and cemetery from the church of the Madonna della Provvidenza. The site preserves the sacred image of the Madonna of Providence. It also protects the embossed silver that’s used on the main altar of the upper temple.
Santa Caterina dalla Clausura – Palermo things to do
Cross the road from Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini, and you’ll see a large square with a fountain. This is Piazza Pretoria. Its landmark attraction is Fontana Pretoria, a 16th century monumental fountain representing figures such as Olympians and mythological creatures.
Behind Fontana Pretoria is Santa Caterina dalla Clausura. The main entrance to this church is on the other side, but you can see its dome from the piazza. For a small cost, you can visit the cloisters, convent and rooms around the church. There’s also the rooftop and courtyard to explore.
The church mixes Sicilian Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance architectural styles, and is worth a visit if you’ve time.
The incredible ceiling inside Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini – Palermo things to do
Things to see in Palermo – Rifugio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale sotto Piazza Pretoria
Step inside a Palermo historical landmark at Rifugio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale sotto Piazza Pretoria. It literally translates to as ‘the World War II refuge beneath Pretoria Square’. The underground air-raid shelter is a stark reminder of the realities of life during WW2 for the citizens of Palermo.
It only opened in 2016, but has quickly become one of the most popular attractions in the city. The entrance to Rifugio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale sotto Piazza Pretoria is inside the Palazzo delle Aquile. Look for the main door of the town hall, inside the porter’s lodge.
The entrance to the air-raid shelter is inside the Palazzo delle Aquile – sights to see in Palermo
Must-see churches in Piazza Bellini – Palermo things to do
A few minutes walk from Piazza Pretoria is another significant landmark in Palermo, Piazza Bellini. This grand square’s home to 2 UNESCO heritage sites, and with photo opportunities at every turn.
Chiesa di San Cataldo
The church of San Cataldo was my first experience of seeing Arab influence in Palermo. Dating to 1154, this Arab-Norman structure with the 3 red domes is quite special, especially in person. The shape and style of the windows with its grid-like pattern reminds me of the architecture we found in Morocco.
Arab-Norman architecture is unique to Sicily, so skipping out on seeing La Chiesa di San Cataldo just isn’t an option.
Best things to do in Palermo – The Martorana
Officially known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, this 12th century church is right next to the Church of San Cataldo. It embraces a blend of various architectural styles, given the several changes in rule over the centuries.
To give you an example of this, the current façade is baroque, with a Roman belltower and a byzantine dome.
Certain elements of the exterior show the Islamic influence on the architecture, particularly from North Africa. There are also Arabic inscriptions painted on the wooden beams, reinforcing the period of the Arab-Norman rule.
No words can describe the feeling as you step inside the church.
Colorful and detailed mosaics from the 12th century dominate the interior, leaving you speechless from the sight. There’s fierce competition in Palermo as to which church is the most beautiful, the church that most moves you. And after visiting the Matorana, it’s certainly a contender for the top 5.
The exterior of the Martorana in Palermo
Things to see in Palermo – other churches to see in Kalsa
Chiesa di Sant’Anna della Misericordia
Leave Piazza Bellini and head north deeper into the Kalsa district. As you cross another main road in Palermo, Via Roma, you’ll reach the area of Lattarini. It’s home to an ancient Arab street market, as well as another church, Chiesa di Sant’Anna della Misericordia.
This baroque church dates to 1632, but its façade seems older than neighboring structures. The Church of Saint Anne the Mercy has survived several earthquakes, and its convent houses a museum of modern art.
Basilica San Francesco d’Assisi
Carry on north from Sant Anna square and you’ll soon arrive at a small piazzetta, Piazza San Francesco di Assisi. It’s the location of a basilica of the same name, and is one of the most important churches in Palermo.
Pope Pius XI gave the 13th century church the title of Minor basilica in 1924. Every year, on 8 December, they celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Thousands of people walk the streets of the historic center till it reaches Piazza San Domenico.
Also, in the same piazza is Antica Focacceria San Francesco. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Palermo going back to 1834. Expect big portions of typical Palermo and Sicilian dishes, and at reasonable prices too.
Antica Foccaceria San Francesco – where to eat in Palermo
Where to eat in Palermo: Ai Cascinari
We had a fantastic traditional Sicilian meal at a trattoria called Ai Cascinari. Everything’s made fresh on the premises, and the portions are great for sharing too.
From the homemade bread basket to the rich Caponata, every plate was cleared and we left with full stomachs.
The trattoria’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so visit any other day to avoid disappointment.
What’s the difference between a trattoria and Osteria?
When eating in Italy, you’ll come across several types of eateries: ristorante, trattoria and an Osteria. Ristorantes tend to be the upper echelon of the 3. They’re usually more formal, with top quality food and higher prices too.
Trattorias serve home-style cooking in a relaxed environment. Many trattorias are family run, and portions are big and reasonably priced.
An Osteria used to be a place where they served wine and simple food. However, nowadays, you can find an Osteria serving food of the same quality you’d find at a trattoria. Menus can be short, and feature local specialties. Prices also tend to be lower, but this depends on the Osteria and the region in which it’s located.
Where to eat in Palermo – Trattoria Ai Cascinari
Palermo things to do – day 2
Palazzo dei Normanni
The best advice I can give to visiting the Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans) is to visit early. It’s one of the most popular sights to visit in Palermo, and lines build up quickly.
Outsmart the crowds by booking your ticket in advance. The benefits of arriving early outweigh those of arriving later. There are less people to spoil your view of the rooms and the chapel, plus it’s cooler early morning too.
The Palazzo dei Normanni is the oldest royal residence in Europe, going back to 1487. It was once the seat of the Kings of Sicily during Norman rule, before becoming the seat of power for subsequent rulers. Today, it’s the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
La Cappella Palatina at Palazzo dei Normanni
It’s an indescribable moment the second you enter La Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel). Rather than use clichés to describe the scene, I’ll let the photos do that for me.
La Cappella Palatina is the best example of the mix of Arab, Norman and Byzantine styles of the period. The glorious 360° mosaics in the royal chapel instantly grab your attention, leaving you in awe of the masterpiece.
It took 8 years to build La Cappella Palatina, which was partially finished in 1143. The mosaic chapel sets the bar high when visiting the rest of the palace. As striking as the rest of the palace is, there’s no other room that comes close.
Which ticket to buy at Palazzo dei Normanni?
It may sound obvious, but make sure you buy a ticket for the entire palace grounds. We got tickets that included the chapel, state rooms and for the exhibition, but not for the gardens.
You should also note that there are guards at every part of the palace that will check your ticket. That said, hold onto your tickets as you’ll need to show it upon request.
La Cappella Palatina inside the Palazzo dei Normanni is a must-see sight in Palermo
Cattedrale di Palermo – Palermo things to do
Upon exiting Palazzo dei Normanni, take a short cut through Park Villa to reach the Cattedrale di Palermo (Palermo Cathedral). Tall palm trees provide some shade from the mid-morning Sicilian sun in the pretty park and garden.
The façade of the Cattedrale di Palermo is one you spot well before you reach the main entrance. After centuries of restorations and additions, the cathedral has a number of different architectural styles. Many Kings of Sicily were crowned, and subsequently buried here, with their tombs on display.
While many people tend to go straight inside the church, for me, the exterior’s far more impressive. Take the main entrance to the cathedral. You’ll notice the incredible portico (roof supported by columns), in a Gothic-Catalan style that dates to the 15th century.
There’s also a mosaic of Lady Madonna above the door from the 13th century. Two monuments on the wall represent King Charles III of Bourbon and Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia. Both date to the 18th century.
Inside the cathedral is a crypt, and there’s also the opportunity to go to the roof. There’s a small fee to see both, and is well worth it if you’ve the time.
Extra tip: at the entrance, they’ll ask you to cover up if your shoulders and legs aren’t covered. They sell ponchos for €1 at the door so you can still enter. Keep hold of your poncho upon leaving the cathedral, as you can use it to visit other churches in Palermo.
Palermo things to do: the incredible portico at Palermo Cathedral
Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore – churches to see in Palermo
On the same street as Palermo Cathedral is another ‘blink and you might miss it’ church. Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore doesn’t look like anything special on the outside, but inside, it’s quite unique.
Reminiscent more of a theatre than a church, it was built in 1682 and unlike any Catholic church I’ve seen. Chairs replace the traditional pews, and grand, heavy-set curtains in the church reinforce the theatrical feel.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time, but it’s possible to climb the summit of the dome for €2.50 (£2.27 / $2.78). There’s a metal spiral staircase you’ve to climb to get there, so it may not be for everyone. However, the views from the top are said to be some of the best in Palermo and worth the price.
Churches to see in Palermo – Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore
Ballarò market – Palermo things to do
In Palermo, there are several outdoor markets to choose from: Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio.
We only had time to visit one during our 2-day break in Palermo, and opted for the largest. Ballarò market is in the Albergheria neighborhood, just next to Kalsa. It has that fast-moving energy and pace I enjoy about visiting markets, not forgetting all the tempting things on display.
What to expect at Ballarò market
Fruit sellers pitch up alongside food sellers, shouting robustly at passers-by for their trade. At some points, it almost doesn’t feel like you’re in Italy. It’s a market where locals come to get their fill of fresh produce, and at low prices too.
Here, you’ll not only find local fruits and vegetables, but also fish and meat stalls. The visitors stick out like a sore thumb, peering in curiously at the serving at every food stall. While we found Ballarò to be very safe, keep an eye on your belongings, as it does get very busy.
Don’t come to Ballarò if you’re expecting a clean-cut market. This is real Palermo life at its best, and the locals don’t make any exceptions for visitors. Visit, embrace it, and grab something to eat. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Fresh octopus at Ballaro market – Palermo best things to do
Palermo things to do – Monreale
The last stop on our 2-day trip around Palermo was to Monreale. You’ll need a car, or take a bus to get here as it’s around 25 minutes from the center. A third option is to take a tour that includes Monreale and other sights in Palermo.
The small town is located on the slope of Monte Caputo and the views are quite something from above. However, the main reason visitors come to Monreale is to see the cathedral.
Cattedrale di Monreale
On first sight, Monreale Cathedral appears to be similar to other Norman churches you might have seen in Palermo. Completed in 1178, Monreale Cathedrale is a landmark Norman cathedral, and is also a UNESCO heritage site.
As you enter the main doors, your attention’s immediately drawn to the grand gold mosaic above the altar. The half-dome of the central apse of the cathedral has a full-length figure of Jesus Christ. Below is the figure of the Virgin Mary with child, and saints Peter and Paul also on the side.
The glass mosaics were completed between the late 12th and 13th century by local and Venetian masters. Another noteworthy sight at Monreale Cathedral is the magnificent cloister. Measuring about 2,200m2, its size and intricate detail make it one of the finest in Italy.
Like the Palermo Cathedral, you also have to cover up your shoulders and legs upon entering. I kept my poncho from my earlier visit, and I suggest you do the same — if necessary.
The striking ceiling at Monreale Cathedral – Palermo best things to do
Other points of interest to see in Palermo – Palermo things to do
We didn’t have time to see everything in Palermo during our stay. If you’re staying on longer than 2 days, you may be interested in seeing the following places.
Vucciria market – a historical outdoor market in Palermo (Loggia neighborhood) selling fish, spices and other goods.
Piazza Marina – a square near the marina of Palermo, with a garden (Villa Garibaldi), and a market every weekend.
Santa Maria della Catena – a church built around 1500. Its name comes from the chain (catena), attached to the church’s wall, that closed access to the Port of Cala.
Where to stay in Palermo?
Luxury hotel in Palermo – Grand Hotel Wagner
We stayed at Grand Hotel Wagner, simply for the convenience of location. This luxury hotel embraces a traditional and classic style, and has a great breakfast selection.
Boutique hotel in Palermo – Hotel Palazzo Brunaccini
An alternative, and boutique choice, is Hotel Palazzo Brunaccini. Situated in the Albergheria district of Palermo, you’re a stone’s throw from Quattro Canti and the sights of the historic center.
Rooms are spacious, decked in marble flooring, and they also serve an impressive breakfast buffet.
Over to you. What do you most like about Palermo? Is it a city you’d like to visit? Let me know in the comments below.
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience; a demographic (late 20s onwards) that enjoys glamping over camping, staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels, sampling the local food and wine, cultural activities, and indulging in a spot of wellness on their travels. Read more here…