Located in a strategic territory on the Italian island of Sicily, Palermo has been inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Bourbons through history.
Later on, it became known for Art Nouveau at the beginning of the 20th century and for being the starting point of the Allied reconquest after the Second World War. However, in recent decades, it has been unfortunately denoted by incompetence, corruption, and especially the Mafia or “Cosa Nostra”.
In spite of Palermo’s bad reputation in terms of order, cleanliness, and security, we were greatly seduced by its history, cultural variety and acclaimed gastronomy.
As our time was limited (we were only going to spend 10 days in Sicily), we couldn’t stay longer than one day in Palermo. However, we believe that it was enough to get an idea of the city and visit the top must-see attractions in Palermo. If you have plans to visit Monreale for its famous cathedral or to sunbath on the beaches of Mondello, perhaps spending two to three days would be better.
In this article, we are only recommending a travel itinerary to see Palermo in one day. Whether you are making a stop in Palermo on a cruise or traveling Sicily by car, this post will let you know what to see in the city.
main neighborhoods in Palermo Sicily
Before discussing our one-day itinerary in Palermo, let’s talk about the different neighborhoods of the city.
The historical center of Palermo is a compendium of narrow anarchic streets and alleys. Remember the architecture that you saw in other cities with similar Arab influence and dominance, like that in the south of Spain? They are distributed around 4 main areas of Palermo, separated by the arterial streets of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. The famous and historic Quattro Canti intersection is right in the center of the four neighborhoods.
These famous districts include Vucciria, La Kalsa, Capo, and Albergheria. You can visit all four districts of Palermo in one day.
Top things to do in Palermo in one day
In this section, we will tell you about the top things to do in Palermo in a day.
MERCATO DELLA VUCCIRIA
When visiting Palermo in one day, it is essential to see Vucciria during both day and night.
VUCCIRIA in the morning
We came across our first point of interest in Palermo when wandering the streets and alleys just outside of the famous Mercato Della Vucceria.
As we commented, the neighborhood had a rather run-down and decadent appearance, with dirty historical buildings and street works. Palermo, like other cities I’ve visited such as Naples and Havana, gives you a glimpse of an ancient era of heyday, culture, beauty, and refinement that fell into disrepair with historical matters. The Vucciria market was a place where we found it best represented in the mentioned contrasts.
Here, undoubtedly, also lies the originality and beauty of the city which are found in the details – in the lights and shadows between art and flaking walls, in the noisy markets and empty alleyways.
After exploring several streets within the neighborhood, we reached the start of the famous “Mercato di Vucciria”. We found food stalls selling fresh foods such as fish, meat, and fruit; as well as others that were selling antiques and second-hand items. You can find old relics like Walkmans, film cameras, coins, newspapers, and magazines from the Second World War. Just around these stalls, there were numerous bars full of people having the classical Italian aperitivi.
We left the market toward one of the streets that ended in Piazza di San Domenico. In this square, you will find the impressive Chiesa di San Domenico, the most important architectural work in the Vucciria neighborhood.
Perhaps it is because we were used to the huge Madrid street market “El Rastro”, this market did not surprise us as much as we expected. We loved the atmosphere and ambiance of the Vucciria, but its market did not quite live up to our expectations.
VUCCIRIA by night
We also toured the Vucciria neighborhood after dinner. The same streets that were a bustling market in the morning were filled with teenagers eager to party at night. At this time, you can find bars full of people, football tables on the street, scooters passing through impossible narrow alleys, and various food stalls. The cherry on top was the live DJ playing music at Piazza Garraffello.
Although the general look might appear unsafe, we had no problem at all. All the young people of Palermo were very nice and eager to have fun.
In our day in Palermo, we did not plan to go partying. However, it was very interesting and gave us a much more general view of the neighborhood. I invite you to discover the B Side of the Vucciria too.
After our diurnal immersion in the Vucciria market, our route continued northwest towards the Capo neighborhood, first with a stop at the famous Teatro Massimo. The opening hours are from Tuesday to Sunday, 09:30 -16: 30. The price is € 8 with a guided tour. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter because it was under construction at that time.
This theater is one of the most well-known and photographed attractions in the city. It is known for the final scene of The Godfather III worldwide. The film closed the saga on the stairs of this theater. It is undoubtedly one of the best and most emotional scenes in film history.
If you are traveling to Sicily, we highly recommend watching The Godfather saga. Apart from it being one of the greatest cinema classics, the mythical stories within are a great introduction to the modern Sicilian reality.
MERCATO DI CAPO
After we left Teatro Massimo to see the Palermo Cathedral, we stumbled upon the Mercato di Capo without realizing. Unlike Vucciria, this looked more original to us. There were streets after endless streets full of all kinds of posts, from furniture, chairs, arts, antiques, to innumerable and varied stalls of food per portare vía that make your mouth water.
Here you will experience chaos, smells, and merchants shouting products and their prices to passers-by… we found the Palermo market that we were really looking for.
We had no setbacks. However, it is necessary to mention that with all crowded places, you have to be careful with pickpocketing. It is important to have our cell phone, wallet, and camera in hand at all times.
CATTEDRALE DI PALERMO
After Capo, we descended again southwards toward the cathedral that intersects with the busy Via Vittorio Emanuelle.
The Cathedrale di Palermo was built during Norman times, but with so much cultural passage, it underwent numerous modifications and additions mainly of gothic influence.
The outside appearance is monumental, but nevertheless quite austere on the inside. Its main interest is the Treasury of the Cathedral of Norman time and the crypt. Unfortunately, we could not visit them as we were running short of time. On top of that, we would’ve had to pay an extra entrance fee in addition to the basic entry of € 3 to see the treasures.
CAPPELLA PALATINA AND PALAZZO DEI NORMANNI
Our next stop was the most famous point of interest of the city, La Cappella Palatina and Palazzo dei Normanni, a short distance from the cathedral in the Albergueria neighborhood.
The Capella Palatina is a chapel from the Norman period, one that leaves you speechless as soon as you enter the premise. Marbled incrusted floors and ceilings with wooden Mozarabs will certainly stand out at you, but the most attractive feature in this place are the Normandy mosaics. Settings of precious stones adorned with a gold background, these are some of the most famous and best-preserved ones in the world. The illumination of the chapel makes you understand why Palermo was one of the capitals and main axes in Europe during the XII century.
Adjacent to the Chapel is the Palazzo dei Normanni, seat of the Sicilian Parliament. We were lucky to be able to visit, since parliamentary sessions are held from Monday to Thursday.
The group entrance to La Cappella Palatina and Palazzo dei Normanni is priced at € 8.50. The visiting hours are from 08:15 to 17:40.
CATACOMBE DEI CAPPUCCINI
Undoubtedly, we cannot miss a visit to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in this guide of things to do in Palermo.
Getting there is relatively easy from the Palazzo dei Normani. You would follow Via Vittorio Emanuele straight and then take the detour via Cappuccini. The walk takes about 25-30 minutes.
The Catacombe dei Cappuccini (09-13 / 15-18, € 3) consists of several galleries. There are more than 8000 bodies from XVII century to XIX buried here. They are divided into different corridors cataloged by gender, age, profession, etc. You can find sections of Cappuccinos friars, nuns, children, teachers and even the aristocracy of the time.
Because not all corpses are equally preserved, we can expect to see pure skeletons, embalmed bodies, and anything in between.
The visit was somewhat gloomy. There was practically no one and we were lost in innumerable corridors surrounded by hundreds of corpses. Suddenly, a monk in a brown robe and hood that covered most of his face appeared. Ascen could not help but let out a scream. We do not know with certainty if the scream amused or frightened the monk, but he disappeared down a corridor and we did not see him again.
Continuing back to the historic center, we could not miss the intersection of Quattro Canti, one of the most well-known points of the city that we mentioned above.
It is located at the crossroads of La Corso Vittorio Emanuele Avenue with La Via Maqueda, which divides the four quadrants of the four neighborhoods (La Kalsa, Vucciria, Capo, and Albergheria). This intersection consists of a square surrounded by a circle of historic buildings, forming a unique perspective.
Its build was inspired by the Quattro fontane of Rome in the 17th century. It emphasizes the effect of the sun illuminating different facades with the passage of time, resembling a solar clock. For this reason, it was also named “Il teatro del sole”.
The architectural fronts of the buildings are similar with varying sculptures and inscriptions. The structure is as follow: 4 virgins at the top, 4 kings at the middle (including Charles V and Philip IV of Spain) and 4 springs at the base with 4 nymphs representing the 4 seasons.
Piazza Pretoria is located next to Quattro Canti down Vía Maqueda. In our opinion, this is the most beautiful square and fountain in Palermo, surrounded by Palaces with the imposing Fontana Pretoria in the center.
The fountain is covered with statues of nymphs, newts and gods. Unlike the rest of the city, everything here is made of marble, lights and splendor. For a moment it transports you to the famous squares and fountains of Rome, distancing from the chipped Palermo buildings.
CHIESA DI SAN CATALDO
Down the street just next to Piazza Pretoria, you can find the Chiesa di San Cataldo. We could not see its interior since there was a wedding at that time. The print reminded us of the descriptions of stone, sun and palm trees that Giuseppe de Lampedusa made in his book “Il Gattopardo”
CALA DI PALERMO
To finish your day in Palermo, I recommend visiting the oldest port in the city, Cala di Palermo, located in the La Kalsa the neighborhood. We ended our visit to Palermo by taking a peaceful walk here.
Our advice is to accompany your walk along this port with one of the marvels of Sicily, the thousand flavors and types of “granites” (crushed ice), ideal for cooling off from the powerful Sicilian heat.
Next to Cala di Palermo we will come across Piazza Marina in the La Kalsa neighborhood. Within this square, there is also the Villa Garibardi park, a place that many tourists visit on their day trip to Palermo.
Although the square is surrounded by several historic buildings, what stands out most here is a Ficus Macrophylla that turns out to be the largest in Europe.
We recommend visiting the square on Sundays when a large antique and book market is set up.
OTHER THINGS TO do IN PALERMO
Here we suggest some alternatives to do in Palermo if you visit this city for more than one day.
On the outskirts of Palermo, we found one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe, the Duomo di Monreale, built by the Norman king Wilhelm II. This cathedral best represents Norman architecture, where modern Arab art intersperses with European influence. Here you will also find impressive medieval mosaics made of more than 2,200 kg of gold.
To get the best panoramic view of Palermo, it is highly recommended to climb to the roof of the cathedral.
To get there, take bus line 389 at Piazza Indipendenza next to the Norman Palace. The journey takes about an hour or maybe more depending on traffic. Keep in mind that buses run every hour and a half so the bus option is only good if you are staying in Palermo for more than a day and not in a hurry.
If you are going to spend more than a day in Palermo, you may also want to take a day to go to the beach. The closest beach is in a town called Mondello that is 13 kilometers from the center of Palermo. Once a fishing village, the town has since evolved into a tourist destination. For this reason, it is crowded here in the summer all day long, with Sicilians and tourists enjoying the beach during the day and socializing on the summer terraces in the evening.
To get to Mondello from Palermo, you can take the 806 bus from the Politeama Theater which runs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 50 minutes.
With this, we finish the guide of things to do in Palermo in one day. Following are two sections that will be very useful if you visit this city.
HOW TO GET TO PALERMO FROM THE AIRPORT
Palermo is a real chaos in terms of traffic. If you make a stop in Palermo during a Mediterranean cruise holiday, there is no problem. However, if you are on a Sicilian road trip with a rental car, I recommend against entering the city with it.
The best way to get to Palermo from the airport is via the 29 bus line which takes you from the airport to Piazza Giulio, where the central bus station is located.
Driving is not only difficult for this city, finding parking in Palermo is also almost impossible. In the end, it is quite likely that you will have to pay for private parking in a carpark.
We spent our first day on the island in Palermo, and the next day we returned to the airport by bus and picked up our rental car. Although the website of the company states that the airport – Palermo journey is 20 minutes, in reality, it is longer than 40 minutes with traffic. The price of the round-trip bus ticket is € 10 per person.
accommodation in Palermo
We stayed in the Capo neighborhood, a quiet district less frequented by tourists. Because of that, we were able to find a fairly well-priced apartment.
If on the other hand, you want to stay in the center of Palermo where all the movement of the city would be, I recommend staying in the Vucciria neighborhood. Although the area is usually more expensive, it is possible to find cheap accommodation.
The neighborhood of La Kalsa is also a good option, since we would be near the port and the bus station. This hotel is not horribly priced compared with other accommodation we saw, and it is famous for its excellent breakfast.
However, if you want to have the best views of Palermo from your window then you cannot miss this accommodation in the neighborhood of Albergheria.
Keep in mind that these 4 neighborhoods are all fairly central, walkable, and close to each other. Rather than focusing on a staying in a specific neighborhood, I recommend paying more attention to the quality than the price of the accommodation.
If the four options that we have proposed do not convince you, you can always look for other accommodation in Palermo from here.
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WHERE TO EAT in palermo
Our day in Palermo gave us a chance to indulge in amazing Sicilian food. Rather than having planned meals in restaurants, we were stopping at different local street food stalls. It was Ascen’s first day in Italy, so naturally she wanted to try everything: an Arancino accompanied by a rich Estathé in Mercato Della Vucciria, a Trancio di pizza in Cattedrale di Palermo, the first of many gelatti di Pistacchio we ate along the tour…
The only time we sat down to eat, and even so was improvised, was at Pizza Ferrari.
The only time we sat down to eat was at Pizza Ferrari, and even so it was improvised.
We entered this restaurant simply because it was the only place we found to be open at 11 o’clock at night. On the outside, it looked like a normal pizzeria. However, we were surprised by the amazing pizzas they made, one of the best we tried on our whole Sicily road trip. Having one of their pizzas accompanied by a Peroni, an Italian beer, is undoubtedly one of the best experiences in Palermo. You just need to look at the menu to start drooling.
And with this map of Palermo where we have indicated all the points of interest and tourist attractions that we have mentioned, we finish this article.