Discover hidden gems in Palermo, explore extraordinary accommodations, and try recommended restaurants. Read about my 4-day autumn visit to Palermo and get inspired to visit this vibrant Sicilian destination. Find a few essential tips on how to organize your sightseeing and stay in the city.
Palermo hidden gems – inspire yourself for a sunny autumn weekend
Our four days in late November in Sicily turned out to be a great escape from the gray, autumn routine in Poland. If you’re also wondering where to go for a quick getaway and if Palermo is a good idea!
I was worried about the weather forecast – rain was expected for all four days… But the temperature was supposed to be not so bad. 15-18 degrees with freezing temperatures in Wrocław sounded like pleasant warmth…
On site, it turned out that there was actually a lot of sunshine! Mornings were sunny, and the rain appeared around 2-3 pm, mainly in passing, alternating with the sun. It meant we had rainbows every now and then in the sky. And it rained a lot at night too. Evenings were chilly. I found a rain jacket and a warmer sweater useful. During the day, you could walk around in a short-sleeved shirt and a thin sweater. However, it was too cold for sandals. Although I must say, the sea water was quite warm (20 degrees!). It probably hadn’t had time to cool down yet.
Unlock Palermo: Discover Flights from Your Nearest Airport
Palermo Punta Raisi Airport – how to get to the city center?
From Punta Raisi Airport to the center of Palermo, there’s a distance to cover. We took the train. The ride from the terminal in the arrival hall to the main station takes about 45 minutes. The ticket costs 6 EUR. There was also a bus connection. Supposedly, it’s faster, but we didn’t check. There was a very long queue at the ticket counter, and not many people were heading for the train.
Palermo – where to stay?
I had spent some time searching for our accommodation. November has the advantage over other months that there’s a wide selection of places available, and prices are lower. I wanted to find something right in the historical center of the city. And, preferably, with a terrace and a nice view. In the end, I narrowed down a few options, and I settled on the Cathedral View Appartement. The apartment was even a bit too spacy for our needs. Instead of a terrace, there was a balcony, but the view was something extraordinary!
Palermo hidden gems: in a palace with the Cathedral view
It wasn’t mentioned in the description, but it turned out that we would be staying in a real palace. Palermo is simply overflowing with these 17th-century “palazzi.” There are so many of them, creating an extraordinary atmosphere saturated with history. You enter through the gate from the main street and step back in time. Courtyards, hidden corners, narrow passages, columns, and sculptures. Neglected old walls with a tangle of cables. These would be gems in our country, but here they’re just commonplace. Oh, how I love this ambiance! In the palace, one of the apartments is still occupied by a prince and princess. Prince Gaetano Starabba was a rally driver, well-known in the 1960s.
Our apartment was located on the second floor of Palazzo Starabba. Probably because the apartments were created by dividing the spaces in various layouts, ours was very long and quite narrow. In total, it had two bedrooms (enough for 4 people to stay), each with a double bed, a bathroom, a kitchenette, and a living room. It was about 100 square meters in size. Because it was pretty narrow, the journey from the living room to the bathroom felt quite far 😉
The owner, Francesco, was a delightful and easygoing person. He recommended restaurants, places worth visiting, and shared stories about the history of the place. The best part, opening the shutters overlooking the cathedral square, was saved for last. The apartment didn’t have a television. Instead of watching commercials, you simply opened the shutters and contemplated the architectural details of this magnificent building, observed people, lights, and soaked in the atmosphere of the city with a glass of wine in hand.
- Located in the city center, close to other attractions worth seeing.
- Amazing view, especially from Cathedral View.
- For me, they were not bothersome, but it’s worth knowing that the cathedral bells play Ave Maria at 7 am and 7 pm. There is also a nearby school, so you may hear the bell and some noise. In the evenings, there is urban noise, although the area in front of the cathedral is free from car traffic.
- The area is closed for cars. Public parking place is a matter of a few minutes walk. It is not easy to find a free parking place.
Accommodation options in Palermo – other recommendations:
Here are some other options that I saved as my favorites. Maybe one of these will catch your eye if Cathedral View is not available:
Getting around the city of Palermo
It’s best to explore Palermo on foot, wandering through narrow streets, corners, and among the market stalls.
If you have a rental car, it’s best to leave it in the parking areas near Foro Italico. There is a big problem with parking in the city due to numerous narrow streets and pedestrian-only zones. It’s worth remembering that Palermo is not a driver-friendly place. To quote our host, Prince Francesco, “We, Palermians, are so kind, nice, and friendly people. But not for drivers… For drivers – no mercy.” 😉
You can also use the free orange bus line to travel around the historic center.
Another option is to rent electric scooters. It’s worth noting that in pedestrian traffic areas, scooters have a speed limit of 6 km/h. If you enter a no-go zone, they simply stop working. I was surprised by how it works here because in Wroclaw, you can ride them practically without limitations. However, these restrictions have their advantages as they provide control over those who sometimes lack common sense. We rented scooters to ride along the coast, from Marina to the area near Foro Italico and Molo Sant Erasmo.
Palermo hidden gems: what to see on a weekend
Oh, there is so much to see here that it’s really hard to decide! Palermo is a paradise for history enthusiasts and those who appreciate the old atmosphere. At every step, there is something you want to see, peek inside, and touch. With limited time, you have to decide what interests you the most.
I don’t intend to create a comprehensive guide here. I’ll list some places that were on my list to see in Palermo and impressed me.
The Cathedral of Palermo
I gazed at it every evening from the windows of my apartment. Its unconventional style, or rather the mixture of styles, is a journey through different epochs. Norman influences, a Gothic entrance porch, Renaissance and Baroque elements, with a touch of Moorish… If not for the dome, it would look more like a fortress than a church. The expansive square in front of the cathedral houses the statue of Palermo’s patron saint, St. Rosalia.
Construction dates back to the 12th century and underwent various reconstructions and expansions until the 19th century. The interior didn’t impress me as much as the external appearance of the building because it underwent complete renovations in the 18th and 19th centuries, with little remaining from the Norman era. Admission is free. For a small additional fee, you can enter the tombs (including the tomb of the first Sicilian king, Roger II), the treasury, and the roof. Unfortunately, access to the roof was currently not possible.
Inside the cathedral, I noticed the relics of saints displayed in the side aisles, including relics of St. Rosalia, St. Agatha, and St. Mary Magdalene.
I was also intrigued by the meridian line, a north-south line marked on the cathedral floor that coincides with the local meridian. It is an astronomical instrument invented in the 15th century used to determine the moment of noon, when the Sun reaches its highest point above the horizon, at different times of the year. High up in the cathedral’s ceiling, there is a small opening through which sunlight enters. When the beam of light falls precisely on the meridian line, we know it is local noon.
Along the line, the zodiac signs are depicted. Towards the end of November, the Sun is in the sign of Sagittarius, hovering low above the horizon, and the beam of light almost reaches the end of the line. Fascinating observations! It was based on the observation of the shifting of the sunlight along the line throughout the year that the calendar was reformed (in 1582, the Gregorian calendar).
There are very few such lines preserved in the world. One of them is in Poland, in Wrocław, in the Mathematical Tower. It is the only instrument of its kind in our country (I wrote more about it in my post about visiting the University of Wrocław). Unfortunately, our Wrocław meridian line is not functional any longer. There is no opening in the ceiling through which light can enter. It was not made during the post-war reconstruction of the tower, which was heavily damaged by bombings.
In 2015, the cathedral, along with several other sites in Palermo and beyond, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a Norman-Arab heritage of Sicily.
Palermo hidden gems: palace of the Normans and Palatine Chapel
This is a place that you absolutely must see. It was the former residence of the kings of Sicily and is now the seat of the local parliament. The palace, dating back to the 12th century, may not make a huge impression from the outside, but the interior is a true gem.
In the palace’s underground chambers, we find the oldest history of the city – fragments of ancient walls and excavations from the 4th-5th century BC. The second floor houses the royal apartments, beautifully preserved ancient chambers and ballrooms.
But the most beautiful part is on the first floor: the Palatine Chapel. Drenched in gold mosaics (both literally and figuratively), it represents Byzantine, Arab, and Norman cultures. Originally designed for King Roger II, it served as his private chapel. The cedarwood ceiling, marble columns, arches, and vaults resembling the interiors of a mosque, mosaics created by the Cosmati group of artists in their characteristic geometric patterns. If you can only see one place in Palermo, let it be this chapel.
The entrance ticket costs 19 euros. It’s not cheap, but it’s definitely worth it. Plan at least 2-3 hours to explore the entire palace.
San Cataldo Church
This small church crowned with three red domes is another gem on the list of Arab-Norman architecture in Palermo. In fact, there is a whole Arab-Norman trail marked throughout the city. What’s interesting about this church? We have the 12th century here as well, but unlike the Palatine Chapel, the interior decoration of this church was never completed. The only decoration inside is the Cosmati mosaics on the floor, while the walls and vaults remain plain. Entrance fee is 2 euros.
The view from Bellini Square in front of the church is also fascinating. We see the Arab-Norman San Cataldo Church in front of us. Right next to it is the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio Church, adorned with golden mosaics and a gray Baroque entrance portal. It’s a perfect picture illustrating the Palermo’s mix of styles.
Palermo hidden gems: St. Catherine of Alexandria Monastery
The monastery’s roof was supposed to be my “alternative viewpoint.” Since the terraces on the cathedral roof were closed, we decided to visit the monastery’s terraces instead. But it turned out to be more than just terraces – the entire site proved to be exceptionally interesting and beautiful. It is also located near Bellini Square, so we have three beautiful, yet very different interiors practically in one place.
For 700 years, this was a women’s monastery. Closed off, with a rule of silence. Only young women from good, noble households had a chance to “enter” the Dominican monastery or simply be designated to be here, with a high dowry that allowed their families to count on the favor of the Church authorities. In the 16th century, a church was built to serve the monastery. Its interior is the quintessence of Sicilian Baroque in its purest form. Overflowing with Baroque embellishments – stuccos, sculptures, bas-reliefs – it creates an incredible impression of intricately woven lacework.
The church is connected to the monastery buildings. We can stroll through the corridors that were silently traversed by the nuns over the centuries. We enter the oratory, the room of the mother superior, the kitchen and laundry room, the prayer cells, and peek into the living quarters. Everywhere there are old, worn-out mosaics, simple furnishings, and wax sculptures. The monastery courtyard, known as the cloister, is adorned with rosebushes and citrus trees. Finally, we reach the terraces, offering a beautiful view of Bellini Square, the Fountain of Shame, and the entire city of Palermo. And for dessert – a pastry shop. The dolceria, where sweets are still baked using the traditional methods of the Dominican nuns, operates within the monastery walls, carrying on the ancient traditions.
The monastery functioned until 2014 when it was closed for economic reasons (the dowries ran out…). Today, it operates as a museum.
The admission fee for the entire complex is 10 euros. Separate tickets are available for the roof, church, or monastery only.
Gardens and parks are usually mentioned as an addition to sightseeing. For me, it’s a bit different. If there is a botanical garden or arboretum in the place I’m visiting, it usually climbs to the top of my list. And this time was no exception.
Orto Botanico in Palermo is an old garden, established at the end of the 18th century. What primarily caught my attention was its rich collection of cacti and succulents. Some of them grow in greenhouses, including Welwitschia, the oldest plant in the world. It originates from Namibia, and specimens there can be several thousand years old. The cacti specimens in the greenhouses are impressive. There are also many species of aloes and opuntias. Numerous cacti also grow in the ground, as it is their natural habitat.
Palermo hidden gems November greenery in Orto Botanico
November’s rainy weather has its advantages – greenery, greenery, greenery. All the city squares and lawns turn green, and in the botanical garden, it’s like paradise. The saturation of green is almost unnatural, as if someone enhanced the color in Photoshop. Instead of growing on dry, rocky beds, the cacti stand on green, thick clover carpets. What a sight!
There are numerous species of citrus, palm trees, and fig trees. Maples and plane trees shed their leaves, papyrus plants grow around the water basins, and green parrots fly around in the tree canopies, squawking incessantly. Due to the weather (rainy afternoon), I strolled through the garden alone. I felt like I was in paradise, and the pervasive “May” green was a feast for my tired, gray November eyes.
This giant fig tree is a 150-year-old specimen of Macrophylla Ficus. With its snake-like roots coiling around and “strangling” any other plants nearby, was truly impressive. It looked like a magical tree straight out of the Harry Potter books, but it would require children to see it to truly appreciate its magnificence 😉
Adjacent to the botanical garden is the beautiful Villa Giulia Park. Unfortunately, the increasingly heavy rain successfully chased me away from there.
The admission ticket costs 6 euros.
You’ll come across the Quattro Canti, also known as Piazza Vigliena, one way or another. We passed through here several times. Known as the heart of Palermo, it separates the city’s four districts, and two main streets intersect here. It’s bustling, probably around the clock. Four palaces with identical facades, the quintessence of Sicilian Baroque, stand at its corners (canti). Each corner features statues, columns, and fountains. But what surprised me the most was that these palaces are, well… in ruins? The shutters are open, and it seems that their interiors are not used at all, or perhaps there is ongoing renovation, but one that someone started about 20 years ago and forgot about…
It’s a fascinating sight, albeit a bit bewildering, to see these grand palaces in such a state. It gives a sense of the passage of time and the layers of history that Palermo carries. Despite their dilapidation, the Quattro Canti remains a vibrant and lively square, reflecting the spirit of the city.
Coastline of Palermo
The weather wasn’t particularly suitable for sunbathing, but we wanted to take a stroll along the sea. From Foro Italico to the Sant Erasmo pier, it’s a pleasant, green (at this time of year) walking area that leads to Villa Giulia Park. The sea water was warm, and there were stalls on the streets selling seafood. However, on the coastline, among unfortunately a lot of litter, there were fragments of floor tiles. They are probably a hundred years old, but in this city, I don’t think such age makes much of an impression.
Despite the debris and remnants of the past, the coastal walk still offered a refreshing experience. The soothing sound of the waves and the bracing sea breeze provided a sense of tranquility. Palermo’s coastline has its own charm, even with its imperfections. It’s worth exploring for its unique atmosphere and the beautiful views it offers.
If you had a few extra days…
It would have been ideal to have another two or three days to see more Palermo hidden gems. On this list, there is the archaeological park of Castello a Mare, the Capuchin Catacombs (I was considering visiting them), probably more churches. And some areas surrounding the city, such as the acclaimed Mondello beach, Mount Pellegrino, Cape Gallo, Cape Zafferano, the rocky arch of Arco Azzurro, or the Carini Castle… Well, there’s quite a lot to see, as you can imagine!
Palermo hidden gems – what and where to Eat
Last but not least, let’s not forget about food! I haven’t forgotten about eating! The pastries, street food, restaurants, and markets. In Palermo, in the autumn, you not only have the chance to enjoy a few extra rays of sunshine. Above all, a few additional calories (or rather kilograms 😉).
I believe that fans of sweets immediately fall in love with pistachio cream when they arrive in Sicily. Alternating with ricotta cream. There’s no breakfast without these delicacies, and even if we usually prefer scrambled eggs, in Sicily, we have what they have for breakfast! Which is a croissant or a crescent roll with cream, accompanied by a cup of cappuccino, because only in the morning can we indulge in it. While exploring, we snack on sandwiches, arancini (rice balls with various fillings), breaded zucchini flowers with ricotta, or something sweet again. The best options are usually a tart with pistachio cream or a cannolo, a crispy tube filled with ricotta cream.
For dinner, and it’s important to remember that it’s usually not earlier than 7:00 p.m., we tried all kinds of seafood, pasta, and pizza. Additionally, there were always cheeses, prosciutto crudo, bread with olive oil, and a bottle of local wine.
Here is my list of recommended places in Palermo:
- Pizzeria Timilia
- Passami u Coppu – street food, arancini, sandwiches
- Bar Marocco – sweets!
- I Cucci – seafood
- Bisso Bistrot (reservation recommended, very popular place)
- Osteria Villena – pasta, seafood
- Ciurma – Officina del Pesce – fish and seafood, pasta
Mercato Ballaro Market in Palermo
There is one more place among Palermo hidden gems, that you must see – the Ballaro market. It’s not a pretty, touristy market, but a real local marketplace. Known as the loudest market in the world.
On the stalls, there are piles of oranges, fennel, eggplants, and tomatoes. Various olives, sun-dried tomatoes, dozens of types of chili peppers in buckets. Cheeses, spices, wine in plastic bottles, bottles of olive oil. Right next to it, there are stalls with fresh fish, including large swordfish in their entirety, salted cod fillets, bowls filled with all kinds of seafood. Nearby, you can find fresh meat, cold cuts, sausages, tripe, offal (and various parts that I cannot name and prefer not to know what they are). The vendors shouting over each other, smoke from grilled lamb intestines, boiled octopuses, household chemicals, some clothes, slippers, and watches… It’s something that cannot be described; it must be experienced.
We came to the market for oranges and mandarins since citrus season has just begun. We wanted to pack some fresh ones without preservatives in our suitcase. I also bought peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and, of course, jars of pistachio and almond cream.
Be mindful of what you’re buying
When it comes to pistachio cream, it’s important to read the labels and be mindful of what you’re buying. Pay attention to the pistachio content. It’s best to choose one that contains at least 40% pistachios) and the type of fat used. Most creams contain palm oil, but you can also find ones made with olive oil. Interestingly, the price of all the jars is similar. 5 euros for 200g – regardless of whether you’re buying pistachio cream or sugar flavored with pistachio-infused fat.
The market is open every day from early morning until 7:00 PM, and on Sundays until 1:00 PM.
Since I couldn’t find the vegan pistachio cream I was looking for at the market (traditional recipes often contain powdered milk), we also visited Cassaro Bottega Alimentare on Via Vittorio Emmanuele 415. There, besides the vegan cream, you can also buy various liqueurs such as limoncello, arancello, or pistacchio.
Palermo – is it worth visiting?
Well, in short, yes!
When we first visited Palermo in 2008, I didn’t like it at all. I had the image of a dirty, chaotic city with neglected monuments, black facades, trash, noise, and heat lingering in my mind… Now I have completely different impressions. Probably because we stayed longer than just one day. We were able to immerse ourselves in the city’s streets without rushing while still staying in the historic center. There are still many neglect and garbage issues here, but overall, I feel that things have improved. If I had to come again, I would do so without hesitation.