Touring Historic Palermo, Italy

High above Palermo (Source: iStock/trabantos)

Travel brief

  • Palermo is big enough to be exciting but small enough to cover in a three-day excursion.
  • Flights to Palermo’s international airport are available from mainland Italy, all over Europe, and (less frequently) from New York.
  • You won’t need to rent a car for a shorter visit—unless you’re allergic to Palermo’s infamous bus system.
  • The city is filled with churches that range from tiny to massive—and many have dark and dusty catacombs beneath.
  • The city center features more street-facing cafés than you could visit in a year—just walk around and find one that looks appealing.
  • Palermo’s beaches are spectacular and less than an hour away by bus.

Most of Italy’s cities and regions are so crammed full of must-see activities that you’d never think to limit your visit to three days. Palermo, the capital of Sicily, offers an enticing alternative: a city that’s densely packed with things to see and do, but compact enough to make a three-day tour memorable and worthwhile.

TRACK YOUR PALERMO ADVENTURE:

Getting there

Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport is about 30 minutes west of downtown. You’ll find an assortment of short flights from Rome, Milan, and other Italian mainland cities that will get you there in no time. There are also flight options from London, Dublin, and even New York if you look for them. For something more unique, try taking the train—yes, the train to an island. Rail cars are loaded onto massive barges that cross the strait from Villa San Giovanni to Messina and on to Palermo.

Getting around

Unless you’re experienced with driving in Italy, we recommend that you don’t rent a car for your trip to Palermo. The city’s attractions are all easy walking distance from the hotels, and while the local bus service is famous for its scheduling “fluidity,” it’s reliable enough to get you from point A to point B.

Cattedrale di Palermo (Source: iStock/majaiva)
Cattedrale di Palermo (Source: iStock/majaiva)

What to do: Explore the churches and catacombs of Palermo

Turn your gaze towards the heavens and explore Palermo’s extensive system of churches and cathedrals. Start at the Cattedrale di Palermo, a 12th century Arab-Norman building that’s been subjected to various architectural modifications over the centuries. The result is a fascinating building whose mismatched domes, façades, and gardens tell the story of Sicily’s changing power structure over much of the last millennium. Take in the countless smaller churches (many of them brightly colored and fascinating in their own rights) during the mile-long walk to your next destination — this one subterranean. The catacombs beneath the Capuchin monastery are the final resting place for nearly 8,000 souls. The corpses have been remarkably well preserved by the dry air below ground and are divided into rooms based on types of people interred, including monks, doctors, virgins, infants, and others.

Boats anchored in Mondello Bay (Source: iStock/Animaflora)
Boats anchored in Mondello Bay (Source: iStock/Animaflora)

Where to play: Palermo beaches

Just getting to nearby Mondello Beach is part of the experience of a trip to Palermo. The cheapest and (some say) most charming way is to hop on the 806 bus from Palermo’s city center. If you’re in luck, the bus will actually arrive and have room; if so, you’ll reach the charming beach town of Mondello in about an hour. Once you reach the beach, the trip suddenly becomes worth it. White sand and rocky shoals lead to crystalline blue waters that reflect the rugged peaks in the distance. You could easily spend all day either lounging in a shaded chair or walking through Mondello’s rustic streets. The return bus beckons just before dark, but maybe splurge for a private cab back instead. You deserve it.

Making pizza at Palermo’s Ballarò market (Source: iStock/gandolfocannatella)
Making pizza at Palermo’s Ballarò market (Source: iStock/gandolfocannatella)

What to eat: Pizza, cannoli, and more via a walking food tour

After a sun-soaked day at the beach, you’re ready to embark on one of Sicily’s finest traditions: a walking food tour. You can reserve an organized tour of the city—in English—but you’ll have much more fun and a more authentic experience if you go it alone. Breakfast in Palermo means a cappuccino and pastries at any one of dozens of cozy cafes. Choices range from simple brioche and miniature cannoli to a decadent fried ciambella doughnut. Work off your sweet breakfast with a walk to the Ballarò, Palermo’s oldest market. Among the crowded stands filled with the freshest imaginable fish, meats, and vegetables, search out the stand offering panelle, traditional Sicilian chickpea fritters, for just one euro each. After an afternoon nap, head back out on the streets to Palermo’s famous Quattro Canti and settle in for one of Sicily’s trademark square pizzas and a cold birra (beer) at one of many bustling street-side pizzerias.

Extend your trip

A tour of Sicily’s wine country is a great way to expand your visit beyond Palermo. Spend a couple of days in Menfi on the island’s southern shore, where you can sample many different bottles of Sicily’s trademark Nero d’Avola red wine. Then, head west to the slopes of Mt. Etna, where breathtaking views of an active volcano pair magically with a glass of Etna Rosso from grapes grown in the mountain’s rich high country soil.