15 Best Sights in Palermo, Sicily

La Martorana

Quattro Canti Fodor's choice

One piazza over from the dancing nymphs of Fontana Pretoria, this church, with its elegant Norman campanile, was erected in 1143 but had its interior altered considerably during the Baroque period. High along the western wall, however, is some of the oldest and best-preserved mosaic artwork of the Norman period. Near the entrance is an interesting mosaic of King Roger II being crowned by Christ. In it Roger is dressed in a bejeweled Byzantine stole, reflecting the Norman court's penchant for all things Byzantine. Archangels along the ceiling wear the same stole wrapped around their shoulders and arms. The much plainer San Cataldo is next door.

Palazzo Butera

Kalsa Fodor's choice

Dating from the 18th century but closed for most of the last four decades, the Palazzo Butera has been transformed by its gallerista owners, Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi, into one of Sicily’s (and Italy’s) most imaginative museum collections. Its labyrinthine rooms now display a heady mixture of old and new art. The collection’s strength lies in its bold juxtapositions, with works by an international roster of experimental modern artists of the likes of Gilbert and George, and David Tremlett, exhibited alongside classical landscapes and graceful Sicilian furniture from the 19th century. Painted ceilings remain from the palace's Baroque beginnings, some of them artfully peeled back to reveal the wooden construction behind them. Diverse temporary exhibitions displayed on the ground floor add to the mix. There’s a lot to take in, but if you need a break from all the hectic creativity, head for the terrace, accessed from the second floor, which provides benches and a walk around one of the two courtyards as well as views over the harbor. You can get even better views from the viewing platform reached from the roof, while further up, steps lead to a lofty view of the harbor, Monte Pellegrino, and, inland, the whole of the Conca d’Oro bowl in which the city sits.

Palazzo Reale

Near Palazzo Reale Fodor's choice

This historic palace, also called Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace), was the seat of Sicily's semiautonomous rulers for centuries; the building is a fascinating mesh of 10th-century Norman and 17th-century Spanish structures. Because it now houses the Sicilian Parliament, parts of the palace are closed to the public from Tuesday to Thursday when the regional assembly is in session. The must-see Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) remains open. Built by Roger II in 1132, it's a dazzling example of the harmony of artistic elements produced under the Normans and the interweaving of cultures in the court. Here the skill of French and Sicilian masons was brought to bear on the decorative purity of Arab ornamentation and the splendor of 11th-century Greek Byzantine mosaics. The interior is covered with glittering mosaics and capped by a splendid 10th-century Arab honeycomb stalactite wooden ceiling. Biblical stories blend happily with scenes of Arab life—look for one showing a picnic in a harem—and Norman court pageantry.

Upstairs are the royal apartments, including the Sala di Re Ruggero (King Roger's Hall), decorated with ornate medieval mosaics of hunting scenes—an earlier (1120) secular counterpoint to the religious themes seen elsewhere. During the time of its construction, French, Latin, and Arabic were spoken here, and Arab astronomers and poets exchanged ideas with Latin and Greek scholars in one of the most interesting marriages of culture in the Western world. From Friday to Monday, the Sala is included with entry to the palace or chapel; it sometimes hosts special art exhibits.

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Catacombe dei Cappuccini

Near Palazzo Reale

The spookiest sight in all of Sicily, this 16th-century catacomb houses more than 8,000 corpses of men, women, and young children—some in tombs but many mummified and preserved—hanging in rows on the walls, divided by social caste, age, or gender. Most wear signs indicating their names and the years they lived, and many are Capuchin friars, who were founders and proprietors of this bizarre establishment from 1599 to 1911. The site is still managed by the nearby Capuchin church, but was closed to new corpses when an adjacent cemetery was opened, making the catacombs redundant. Though memorable, this is not a spot for the faint of heart; children might be frightened or disturbed.

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Cattedrale

This church is a lesson in Palermitano eclecticism—originally Norman (1182), then Catalan Gothic (14th to 15th century), then fitted out with a Baroque and neoclassical interior (18th century). Its turrets, towers, dome, and arches come together in the kind of meeting of diverse elements that King Roger II (1095–1154), whose tomb is inside along with that of Frederick II, fostered during his reign. The exterior is more intriguing than the interior, but the back of the apse is gracefully decorated with interlacing Arab arches inlaid with limestone and black volcanic tufa. It's possible to visit the cathedral's roof for some fabulous city views.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo, 90134, Italy
329-3977513-mobile
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Free; €15 treasury, crypt, royal tombs, and roof visit; €6 treasury, crypt, and tombs; €2 royal tombs only

Chiesa del Gesù

It is more than worth the short detour from the lively Ballarò Market to step into the serene Baroque perfection of Chiesa del Gesù (Church of St. Mary of Gesù). The ornate church was built by the Jesuits not long after their arrival in Palermo in the late 16th century, and was constructed at the site of their religious seat in the city, so the chuch is also sometimes known as Casa Professa (mother house). The interior is almost completely covered with intricate marble bas-reliefs and elaborate black, tangerine, and cream stone work. The splendid church was severely damaged in World War II, but careful restoration has returned it to its shiny, swirling glory.

Piazza Casa Professa 21, Palermo, 90134, Italy
329-5617162-mobile (Whatsapp text messages only)
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Free

Museo Archeologico Regionale Salinas

Olivella

This archaeology museum is the oldest public museum in Sicily, with a small but excellent collection, including a marvelously reconstructed Doric frieze from the Greek temple at Selinunte, which reveals the high level of artistic culture attained by the Greeks in Sicily some 2,500 years ago. There are also lion's head water spouts from 480 BC, as well as other excavated pieces from around Sicily, including Taormina and Agrigento, which make up part of an informative exhibition on the broader history of the island. After admiring the artifacts, wander through the two plant-filled courtyards, and be sure to check the website for special culture nights, when the museum is open late to host musical performances.

Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino

Kalsa

This collection of more than 4,000 masterpieces showcasing the traditional Opera dei Pupi (puppet show), both Sicilian and otherwise, will delight visitors of all ages with their glittering armor and fierce expressions. The free audio guide to the colorful displays is only available in Italian, but the well-designed exhibits include video clips of the puppets in action, which requires no translation. There are also regular live performances in the museum's theater (stop by or call in advance to check times), which center on the chivalric legends of troubadours of bygone times. The museum can be hard to find: look for the small alley just off Piazzetta Antonio Pasqualino 5.

Palazzo Abatellis

Kalsa

Housed in this late-15th-century Catalan Gothic palace with Renaissance elements is the Galleria Regionale. Among its treasures are the Annunciation (1474), a painting by Sicily's prominent Renaissance master Antonello da Messina (1430–79), and an arresting fresco spanning two floors (and visible from both the ground floor and a first-floor gallery) by an unknown 15th-century painter, titled The Triumph of Death, a macabre depiction of the plague years.

Piazza Pretoria

Quattro Canti

The square's centerpiece, a lavishly decorated fountain with 500 separate pieces of sculpture and an abundance of nude figures, so shocked some Palermitans when it was unveiled in 1575 that it got the nickname "Fountain of Shame." It's even more of a sight when illuminated at night.

Piazza Pretoria, Palermo, Italy

Quattro Canti

The Four Corners is the decorated intersection of two main thoroughfares: Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. Four rather exhaust-blackened Baroque palaces from Spanish rule meet at concave corners, each with its own fountain and representations of a Spanish ruler, patron saint, and one of the four seasons.

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Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, Palermo, Italy

San Cataldo

Kalsa

Three striking Saracenic scarlet domes mark this church, built in 1154 during the Norman occupation of Palermo. The church now belongs to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and has a spare but intense stone interior.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Near Palazzo Reale

Distinguished by its five reddish-orange domes and stripped-clean stone interior, this 12th-century church was built by the Normans on the site of an earlier mosque—one of 200 that once stood in Palermo. The emirs ruled Palermo for nearly two centuries and brought to it their passion for lush gardens and fountains. One is reminded of this while sitting in San Giovanni's delightful cloister of twin half columns, surrounded by palm trees, jasmine, oleander, and citrus trees.

Santa Caterina

Quattro Canti

The walls of this splendid Baroque church (1596) in Piazza Bellini are covered with extremely impressive decorative 17th-century inlays of precious marble. There are marvelous views from the terrace, and a bakery selling delicacies made using the nuns' recipes.

Piazza Bellini, Palermo, 90133, Italy
091-2713837
Sight Details
Rate Includes: €3; €10 combined ticket, includes church, monastery, and rooftop

Teatro Massimo

Olivella

Construction of this formidable neoclassical theater, the largest in Italy, was started in 1875 by Giovanni Battista Basile and completed by his son Ernesto in 1897. A reconstruction project started in 1974 ran into severe delays, and the facility remained closed until just before its centenary, in 1997. Its interior is as glorious as ever, but the exterior remains more famous thanks to The Godfather Part III, which ended with a famous shooting scene on the theater's steps. Visits, by 30-minute guided tour only, are available in five languages, including English.

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