Here is the guide on what to see in Palermo in 2 days: historic districts, monuments, museums, churches, palaces, theatres, local markets… Not to forget the sea and good food.
Palermo is one of those world-famous cities, one of the most beautiful in southern Italy, which makes people talk about it for many reasons. We are in the regional capital of Sicily, a land suspended over the sea with an ancient history, thousands of years old, influenced by many cultures and civilisations.
According to some Greek historians, the Phoenicians were the first to settle in the area where they founded the first nucleus of Palermo in the 8th century BC. Over the centuries, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards followed, leaving indelible traces of their culture.
So much so that today Palermo boasts a multicultural identity and a mixture of architectural styles: Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Gothic, Baroque, making it unique. This rich variety of cultural influences is also reflected in the food and wine. It is no coincidence that the city is also known as a vibrant Sicilian street food capital with its fixed and mobile street stalls.
There is a cosmopolitan atmosphere in Palermo, a characteristic that leaves you with wonderful memories of this sunny and boisterous city. Especially when you wander through its historic markets, such as those of Ballarò and Vucciria.
As you may have guessed, visiting Palermo in two days means planning a dense itinerary, because there are so many things to see. Not everyone, however, has the time to explore every corner of such an intense city.
With this practical and complete guide we therefore want to suggest what to visit in Palermo in 2 days, and also what to do in this splendid city.
If this is the time you have at your disposal, a whole weekend, you should make the most of it so you don’t miss the most representative places and monuments of art and architecture; the famous opera houses; the UNESCO sites (the 8 stages of the Arab-Norman itinerary); the food and wine specialities; and the surroundings of Palermo.
The best things to see in Palermo in two days
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Is two days enough time to visit Palermo?
Time is subjective and depends on your own priorities and how you want to invest it. That said, to be honest two days are not enough to explore everything about this city.
But with a concentrated itinerary to follow, the weekend can prove to be an excellent opportunity to discover Palermo’s most unmissable places and atmospheres. That is what it’s all about: having exciting experiences, alone or shared with those you love, bringing home memories that will remain imprinted even after a long time.
That’s why we have created this itinerary that can also be done on foot, to visit Palermo in 2 days, starting from the historic centre.
1. Teatro Massimo
Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and one of the largest in Europe (over 7,730 square metres), dating back to the late 19th century. The imposing neoclassical building, designed by architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, is located in the historical centre of Palermo, opposite the Palazzo Sovrana.
What strikes one at first glance is its façade embellished with statues and reliefs representing music and dance. Inside, elegant halls and galleries with over a thousand seats.
2. Politeama Garibaldi Theatre
Another historical theatre worth seeing is the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi (late 19th century) located in Piazza Ruggero Settimo. It is accessed through a large triumphal arch and is characteristic for its circular structure with two levels of columns.
A guided tour of the theatre will reveal some architectural and pictorial works, such as the Quadriga, by sculptor Mario Rutelli, frescoes and other decorative elements.
The theatre is famous for having been the scenario of Puccini’s Bohème in 1896. And today it is home of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra.
3. Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio
If you’re wondering what to see in Palermo in two days, our advice is not to miss this church located in the historic centre and dominating Piazza Bellini.
Also known as “La Martorana”, the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (1143), built by George of Antioch, admiral of King Roger II, next to the Norman church of San Cataldo, is a Byzantine-style monument with architectural elements of Islamic taste.
In the 15th century, it was granted to the convent of Benedictine nuns, founded in 1194 by Goffredo and Aloisia de Marturano. This is why it was then called the “Martorana”.
Visit the interior to admire the famous 18th century frescoes and Byzantine mosaics depicting episodes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Saints, created by Byzantine and Latin-Norman artists.
The church has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other Arab-Norman monuments in Palermo, such as the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, which we will discuss shortly.
A curiosity: Martorana fruit, one of the most typical traditional Sicilian sweets made with almond paste, was invented by the nuns of the Martorana Monastery.
The Martorana Church can be visited daily, Monday-Saturday from 08:00 to 13:00 and from 15:30 to 19:00. Sundays and holidays from 08:30 to 09:45 and from 11:45 to 13:00.
The full-price ticket costs 2.00 euro (reduced 1.00 for groups of at least 5 people, over 65s and students, with a Sacred Art Circuit ticket).
4. Palermo Cathedral (Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary)
On Corso Vittorio Emanuele is one of Palermo’s architectural masterpieces, the Cathedral or Duomo (12th century), a fine example of a mixture of different architectural styles, from Greek to Roman, from Gothic-Norman to Arab, Byzantine and Catalan influences.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a stop along the Arab-Norman route, the Cathedral is striking for its richly adorned façade.
You should visit inside to see the many works of art of great historical value, the altars, the holy water fonts, the baptismal fonts, the majestic sarcophagi of the Norman kings, the tomb of Emperor Frederick II and other royals, and the Cathedral Treasury rooms.
Admission to the Cathedral is free from Monday to Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – Sundays and holidays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission to the Monumental Area (Royal Tombs, Treasury, Crypt, Roofs) from Monday to Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. is charged. The cost of the ticket varies according to age and the areas you wish to visit.
5. Pretoria Fountain
In Piazza Pretoria is this monumental fountain with a peculiar history. It is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy, made by Francesco Camilliani in Florence in 1554, then brought to Palermo in 1581.
Also known as the “Fountain of Shame” because of the naked statues all around, the fountain was purchased by the Palermo Senate, but during its transfer from Florence to Palermo it was dismantled into 644 pieces and then reassembled differently from the original design.
The fountain is characterised by the numerous symbolic and allegorical statues representing mythological deities, monsters, animals, dolphins, harpies and sirens among others, the three concentric basins arranged on three levels, and the play of water gushing from Bacchus.
6. Villena Square
Worth visiting in Palermo is Piazza Villena (1600), also known as Piazza dei Quattro Canti or “The Theatre of the Sun” or “Octagon of the Sun”, because during all hours of the day one of its sides is illuminated by the sun’s rays.
The square, a meeting and gathering place, is located at the crossroads where Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele (the Cassaro) meet, dividing the ancient city into its four districts (“i mandamenti”): Kalsa, Albergheria, il Capo and la Loggia
The square is characterised by its octagonal shape and the Baroque architecture of the palaces and historical monuments it houses, including statues of the four seasons, the four Spanish kings and fountains with statues of four saints.
7. La Kalsa district
The Kalsa is one of Palermo’s four oldest quarters, created during Islamic rule. Its name derives from the Arabic “al khalisa“, meaning “the chosen one”, as it housed the Emir’s fortified citadel and the seat of his court.
Strolling through the Kalsa, a multicultural district with an oriental atmosphere, one comes across almost all the most important monuments, museums, Arab-Norman churches and palaces, squares, trattorias, small craft shops and local street food.
8. Botanical Garden
Also worth visiting in Palermo is its historic botanical garden with over 12,000 different species of exotic and Mediterranean plants. The garden belongs to the University of Palermo and is one of the most famous Plant World Museums in Europe.
The garden can be visited from Monday to Sunday from 09:00 to 19:00.
The cost of the full ticket is €7.00; reduced, €5.00 for groups of a minimum of 10 people; reduced, €4.00 for children and young people 6/25 years old; over 70; school teachers; FAI-Lega Ambiente and other organisations or associations); free admission for UNIPA students, disabled persons and accompanying persons; Family Pass €15.00 for families of up to a maximum of 3 children; Family Pass 1 adult + 1 child under 6 €5.00.
9. Museo delle Maioliche “Stanze al Genio” – “A. Pasqualino” (M.I.M.A.)
In the Kalsa district, in Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, is the Museo delle Maioliche “Stanze al Genio” (Museum of Majolica “Rooms to Genius”), inside a “House Museum” on the first floor of the 16th century Palazzo Torre Pirajno.
If you are interested in the genre, you can visit 9 rooms housing a collection of almost 5,000 examples of Sicilian majolica tiles and bells (15th-19th century).
Guided tours are available from Tuesday to Friday, by appointment only, at a cost of 9 euro. At weekends and on public holidays, at a cost of 10 euro.
10. Other museums to visit in Palermo
There are numerous museums to visit in Palermo, including:
- Museum of Contemporary Art of Sicily
- Geological and Paleontological Museum G.G. Gemmellaro
- Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum
- Diocesan Museum of Palermo
- Regional Gallery of Sicily ‘Palazzo Abatellis
- Museum of Islamic Art
- Museum of the Sea – Palermo Arsenal
- Museum of the Specola (Astronomical Observatory)
- Falcone – Borsellino Museum
- Sicilian Ethnographic Museum Giuseppe Pitrè
- P. Doderlein Zoology Museum
- Villa Zito Art Gallery
- Museum of Wine and Rural Civilisation
- Palermo Planetarium – Museum of the Earth and Space
- Palazzo Bonocore Multimedia Museum
11. Gallery of Modern Art
Palermo’s Gallery of Modern Art was established at the suggestion of Empedocle Restivo, on the first floor of the Politeama Garibaldi Theatre. Today, the museum complex is housed in the former Franciscan convent of the Church of Sant’Anna la Misericordia and in the Palazzo Bonet, where it exhibits over two hundred works including paintings and sculptures that illustrate the course of figurative arts in Italy between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
12. Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
The Royal Palace in Piazza Indipendenza, also known as the Norman Palace, is one of the most beautiful monuments in all of Sicily, built on a hill in the 9th century by the Arabs, initially as a military garrison.
In 1702, with the coming of the Normans, the castle was transformed into a royal residence, one of the oldest in Europe, of Arab rulers, Norman kings and Spanish kings.
Today, the palace is part of Palermo’s Arab-Norman route, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Inside it houses the Regional Parliament, the Palatine Chapel, an exemplary religious building of Byzantine art and place of worship of the royal family, built by Roger II in 1132, and the Hall of the Winds decorated with mosaics and frescoes.
13. Other historical palaces in Palermo
Worth seeing in Palermo are its many historical palaces, the historic aristocratic residences that today house museums, art galleries and exhibitions, among them:
- Palazzo Mirto
- Abatellis Palace
- Valguarnera Gangi Palace
- Chinese Palace
- Pietratagliata Palace
- Villafranca Palace
- Villino Florio all’Olivuzza
- Asmundo Palace
- Ajutamicristo Palace
- Chiaramonte “Steri” Palace
- Butera Palace
- Branciforte Palace
- Count Federico Palace
- Comitini Palace
- Praetorian Palace or of the Eagles
14. Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is one of Palermo’s most representative monuments. The church is located in the old quarter of Albergaria, near the Royal Palace, and was built between 1130 and 1148, during the reign of Roger II.
The building follows the styles of Byzantine architecture with some oriental architectural elements. Inside you can visit a cloister, now used as an exhibition space, and the “Arab Hall”, characterised by a stucco decoration in Arab-Norman style.
The church is included in the Palermo Arab-Norman route, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
15. Capuchin Convent and the Catacombs
The cemetery of the Convent of the Capuchin Friars, known as the Capuchin Catacombs, is a special place. Hidden in the dungeons are the macabre mummies of some 8,000 people, including nobles, religious and citizens who have lived here over the centuries.
16. Historic Palermo Street Markets
Palermo’s markets are a real attraction for those visiting the city, chaotic, lively places full of life. The most famous outdoor market is certainly the Arab-style Ballarò Market, the oldest in Palermo and the largest in Europe, where you can find typical products, from fresh fish to seasonal vegetables, from cheeses to cold cuts, from spices to traditional sweets.
Beyond the Ballarò market among the most famous and historic markets in Palermo are Capo market, the Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio.
17. Zisa Castle
Among Palermo’s historical palaces, the Palazzo della Zisa, also known as Castello della Zisa (from the Arabic al-Aziz), a structure in Arab-Norman style dating back to 1167, once used as the summer residence of the Norman royals of Palermo, is definitely worth a visit.
The Castle dates back to the period of Norman rule in Sicily and was commissioned by King William I of Altavilla to Arab architects. Today, the Palace houses the Museum of Islamic Art, with works produced between the 9th and 12th centuries.
18. Foro Italico – Lungomare and Porta Felice
Palermo’s Foro Italico Umberto I, or Passeggiata della Marina, is a pedestrian promenade, a green space that runs along the waterfront in the Kalsa district, between the Cala and Villa Giulia. The park was built in 1582 at the behest of Viceroy Marco Antonio Colonna.
The Foro Italico can be reached on foot, through the imposing Porta Felice, passing by the neoclassical temple of the Palchetto della Musica.
Inside the park you can admire Mediterranean plants, ceramic sculptures, statues and fountains, such as the ‘Mura delle Cattive’ or Porta Felice from 1582.
19. Monastery of Santa Caterina di Alessandria
Also worth seeing in the Kalsa district is the Church and Monastery of St Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th-century martyr. Church and Monastery are part of a religious complex, residence of cloistered nuns of the Dominican Order from 1311 to 2014. Since 2017, the two structures have been open to public visits.
Adjacent to the cloister is a famous pastry shop where you can taste the sweets of the ancient recipes recovered by the cloistered nuns.
Top things to do near Palermo in 2 days
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The surroundings of Palermo are also worth a visit, but if time is short, here are the most beautiful and closest destinations to consider.
On the outskirts of the city, visit the Palace of Maredolce or the Palace of Favara dating back to the Norman period; the towns of Mondello and Ustica with some of the most beautiful beaches near Palermo; the Cathedral of Monreale and the Cathedral of Cefalù.
Travelling just 5 kilometres from Palermo, you can discover the Cathedral of Monreale, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova (12th century) commissioned by the Norman king William II, known as ‘The Good’. The interior of the cathedral is a triumph of frescoes and mosaics from the Byzantine school.
But the Cathedral of Monreale is not the only architectural treasure of the area: Cefalù also has a Cathedral in Arab-Norman style, built in the first half of the 12th century in the historical centre, near the sea. In 2015, both the Cathedral of Monreale and the Cefalù Cathedral were recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Worth seeing near Palermo is Mondello with its famous white sandy beach, beautiful sea, Art Nouveau buildings, restaurants and shops that create a sober, lively atmosphere. In the summer months Mondello fills up with tourists. It would be best, therefore, to visit the village in spring.
Ustica, known as “the island of divers”, is also worth a visit for its Nature Reserve and Protected Marine Area to safeguard the many environmental species of this small island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
What to do in Palermo?
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We have talked about what to see in Palermo in 2 days, but what can we do in this city? What does Palermo offer?
Here are some ideas to make the most of your time:
- a visit to the museums
- a tour of Palermo’s historic markets
- the Street Art routes between the markets of Ballarò; Mercato del Capo; Vucciria; Borgo Vecchio; Kalsa; the Sant’Erasmo mural by Igor Scalisi Palminteri; Cala (with the mural tribute to Falcone and Borsellino by Rosk and Loste); the Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa
- a taste of the legendary street food specialities
- a tour of the craft workshops in the historic centre with typical products such as Sicilian puppets, the Sicilian cart, and handmade ceramics
- the Arab-Norman World Heritage route
The Arab-Norman route follows an itinerary that leads to the discovery of the architecture of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale, characterised by the mixture of different styles: Arab-Muslim and Norman-Catholic.
The route consists of eight stages:
- Royal Palace
- Palatine Chapel
- Palermo Cathedral
- Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
- Church of the Martorana
- Church of San Cataldo
- Admiral’s Bridge
- The Zisa
Local food and wine
One of the most rewarding activities one can do in Palermo, as in the rest of Sicily, is to taste the local specialities.
As with art and architecture, Palermo’s cuisine is also famous for its Arab and Norman culinary contaminations.
Between typical dishes and finger food, here is what to taste before leaving Palermo:
- sandwich with spleen (meusa)
- sfincione (soft focaccia with tomato and caciocavallo cheese)
- veal guts (stigghione)
- fried crushed chickpea flour (panelle)
- fried fish
- stuffed rice balls
- pasta with sardines
- swordfish alla ghiotta
- sicilian cannoli
- sicilian cassata
- martorana fruit
If you have a passion for local cuisine and want to bring home a centuries-old culinary heritage, you can take part in cookery courses or simply enjoy tasting experiences of Palermo’s most special and representative typical products, cooked by local people.
Most important events
If you come to Palermo during these periods, you have the opportunity to attend the most characteristic events, among them
- Santa Rosalia Festival (July)
- Una marina di libri – Independent publishing festival (June)
- FestAmbiente Mediterraneo (September)
- Festival of migrant literature (October)
- Morgana Festival (November)
- Palermo Street Food Fest – International Street Food Festival (December)
How to get to Palermo
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There are several ways to get to Palermo, depending on your preference and city of departure:
- by plane, landing at the “Falcone Borsellino” airport
- by train with direct lines from Reggio Calabria, Naples, Rome or Milan; from Venice with just one change
- by ferry from the main ports of Naples, Salerno, Genoa, Civitavecchia and Cagliari (the solution also for those coming by car, which can board the ferry)
Now that you know what to see in Palermo in two days, we wish you a fantastic food and wine trip in Sicily! 😍
Cover photo: cristina-gottardi-unsplash
Featured photo: giovanni-lauricella-unsplash