What comes up to your mind when you read about Sicily? Crystal clear sea? Burning sun? White sand beaches? Yes, those are just some of the many things the island has to offer but if you think that Sicily is just a summer destination, then you are wrong. Palermo, the capital of the region and the fifth bigger Italian city, is an amazing destination also for the autumn period. The mild climate, pleasant temperatures and beautiful sunny days will accompany you during your city exploration.
Known as the most conquered city in the world, the historic center of the city is one of the biggest in Europe. As one nation after another gained control of Palermo each has left its mark in the city which makes it a real cultural treasure; Norman, Arab, Roman and Catalan marks, the mix of culture and architectural styles will leave you speechless and will take you back in time. Also, since 2015 Palermo is part of the World Heritage list.
If I already convinced you to hop on a flight to Palermo and explore this amazing destination, here are some tips on how to best organize your vacation and sample itinerary that can help you discover the city and its timeless beauties.
Dive into history and culture of the city and start your Palermo experience with visiting The Royal Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni), built between 11th -12th century, it is renowned for being the oldest royal palace in all of Europe. The palace is a model of Arab-Norman architecture and represents the wealth of the Norman kingdom on the island. Inside the architectural complex of the Norman Palace, you’ll find one of the splendors of the city and the whole Sicily – The Palatine Chapel. Commenced by Roger II, it was found in 1130, the chapel is considered a religious jewel and is in the list of UNESCO as a world heritage. The stunning Byzantine mosaics of the chapel depict sacred images and are among the most important of those found in Sicily.
After visiting the Norman Palace stop for a quick pit stop with typical Sicilian pastry and cup of espresso and then head to the Cathedral of Palermo.
It is believed that the Cathedral of Palermo has been built to surpass the one in Monreale (n.r. small town close to Palermo part of the Norman Arab heritage in Sicily). The cathedral is one of the most important monuments in Palermo and is a must-visit. First a Christian basilica, then a Muslim Mosque and then re-converted again to a Christian church, it is a real treasure and stunning mix of different architectural styles; from Gothic to Medieval, from Arabic to Neoclassical, today can be seen different elements because of the stratification over the centuries. Besides its architecture, the cathedral is also very famous for its royal tombs. King Roger II along with his daughter are buried here. Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen and Henry VI Hohenstaufen are also laid to rest in one of the chapels.
Additional advice: Climb the terraces of the cathedral and enjoy a spectacular view of the city. You can climb it as well at sunset or in the evening when all the lights are on and the view is even more magnificent.
Note: You can’t climb the terraces yourself but with a guided tour included in the ticket price.
After visiting the cathedral walk approximately 10 minutes to reach the Four Corners of Palermo.
The four corners of Palermo, known by the locals as I Quattro Canti, lie at the intersection of two most prominent streets of the city – Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. Spectacular monument in Baroque style, it was built in 1661 to divide the town into four districts. Famous also for its octagonal shape created by the four corner buildings, it is a central and very busy point of the old town. Stop and take time to observe the magnificent facades of the curved buildings. Each one is divided into three levels and is skilfully decorated with marble sculptures that illustrate various themes. The fountains on the first, ground, level, represent the seasons: Spring, summer, autumn, and winter represented respectively by Venus, Ceres, Bacchus, and Aeolus. On the second level, above the seasons, are represented four Spanish Kings Charles V, Philip II, Philip IV, and Philip III. Looking higher toward the last, third level, you’ll find the four patroness Saints of Palermo- Santa Cristina, Santa Ninfa, Santa Olivia, and Sant Agatha. Heroines of faith, each one of them is a patroness of the districts behind her. The square is magnificent both day and evening time.
After visiting The Four Corners, head to Piazza Pretoria that is only two minutes’ walk.
Piazza Pretoria, known also as “Square of Shame” due to the numerous nude sculptures around the spectacular fountain in the center, has a long and very curious history. Originally built in 1554 in Florence for the private gardens of a Spanish nobleman, it was later sold to the Senate of Palermo to solve the financial problems of the owner. All 644 elements of the fountain were packed and sent to Sicily’s capital. To make space for the immense fountain, some houses were demolished. With its sixteen nude statues of humans, mermaids and nymphs this unique fountain is a focal point in the city and is well worth visiting.
Finish the first day in Palermo with strolling around Via Maqueda which is a pedestrian zone. Along the street, you’ll find souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants where to sip a glass of Sicilian wine and enjoy a typical dinner.
Besides being an open-air museum with its spectacular architecture, Palermo is also known around the world for its culinary traditions. Historical markets and bizarre street food are two things you should explore while in the city; they are real doorways into the past.
Start with Ballarò, the biggest and oldest among the historical markets of Palermo, it dates back when the city was ruled by the Arabs. Fresh food, vegetables, typical cheese, fish and antique objects, the market is an authentic picture of the past perfectly preserved in the present. Stroll around the stalls to feel a unique atmosphere, enjoy all noises and different perfumes and enter into the real spirit of Sicily. Stop at some of the small shops to taste the local street food; just to list some – sfincione (Sicilian style focaccia with anchovies, onion and caciocavallo cheese ), panelle and crocchè (chickpea and potato fritters) , arancini (rice ball full with meat and vegetables) , pani ca’ meusa (spleen sandwich) and cannoli (crisp pastry tube filled with sweeten and creamy ricotta). Full of life, colors, and traditions, Ballarò is an enjoyable (and yummy) experience that will show you how the locals live.
Advice: I do recommend to visit also the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio well known as La Martorana. It is one of the first Christian churches in the city and without doubt one of the most important religious symbols. Close to the market, built in the 12th century, La Martorana preserves majestic Norman – Byzantine mosaics and Baroque frescos that create an extraordinary synergy. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, the church is among the most beautiful in the city and is not to be missed.
After visiting Ballarò, your next stop is Capo Market, another historical open-air market close to Teatro Massimo. Besides the delicious typical food and species, it is also popular for its street art you’ll find around almost every corner.
Advice: Visit the markets in the morning. Since all of the markets are really busy places, be aware of yourself- your phone, camera, and money. Don’t wear any valuables and do not carry a lot of money.
After visiting the markets, have lunch (if the street food wasn’t enough) or just enjoy a typical Sicilian ice cream or fruit, creamy granita.
As I wrote at the beginning of this itinerary, one of the things that come up in first place in your mind when talking about Palermo is the sea and it definitely can’t be missed during your trip to the Sicilian capital.
With very pleasant temperatures throughout the year, Mondello is perfect to be visited in the afternoon of your day two and set yourself on the beach. Mondello is outside the city, approximately thirty minutes’ drive or if you don’t have a rental car, you can get there, in approximately one hour, by bus 806 from Piazza Politeama. As autumn in Palermo is a shoulder season, you can fully enjoy the white sand beach, the turquoise sea without the summer chaos and crowds. Take a break from the sightseeing schedule, walk around the small harbor, relax and enjoy the panoramic views Mondello has to offer.
I do suggest you have dinner at Sferracavallo, another seaside town. It is a perfect option to eat excellent fish and seafood specialties in local restaurants. Delight your palate with typical pasta with sardines and fennel, baked swordfish rolls, mixed seafood platter, roasted anchovies or octopus’ salad. Of course, if not possible for you to reach Sferracavallo you can go back to Palermo and enjoy your dinner in the city.
Start day three by visiting Teatro Massimo, another important landmark of the city of Palermo. The third biggest opera house in Europe, next to the Opera in Paris and the Vienna State Opera, the theatre is a breath-taking venue. Built-in the 19th century, Teatro Massimo is an architectural marvel and it is the largest indoor stage in Italy. The legend has it that to build the massive structure two churches and a convent have been destroyed and the mother superior of the convent still haunts the Teatro Massimo. Another curiosity about the theatre, especially for the Godfather fans, is its appearance in the third part of the movie. Besides the magnificent exterior inspired by Greek temples and classical art, the interior is nothing less than spectacular. Red velvet seats, golden decorations frescos and artistic paintings are just a small part of what the theatre has to offer you during your visit. Wonderful ballets and operas are performed throughout the year so if you are interested you can also check the program of Teatro Massimo, get a ticket and live an unforgettable experience.
To finish the third and last day of your trip to Palermo, I do suggest to opt for a relaxing afternoon and visit the Botanic Gardens, the most beautiful public gardens of the city, close to the city harbor in the Arab district Kalsa. An enormous outdoor museum covers around 25 acres and is home to 12,000 different species, it is an amazing way to take a long walk and fully immerse yourself into nature.
Optional: If you don’t want to rush on the last day of your trip, just enjoy an afternoon of free time to discover in-depth the city and local life. Wander in the typical labyrinth-like streets of the historic center, discover nestled small shops and restaurants, look at the architecture that surrounds you, explore history and tradition with all your senses. Palermo will always surprise you.