Even after so many years visiting Sicily, I can still find surprises in its vibrant capital, Palermo. Despite being the largest city on the island, it’s often overlooked by tourists who head straight from the airport to the resort towns or more popular rural regions. While I can’t deny that the rest of the island’s attractions are hard to resist, the beauty of this wonderful city is that if you’ve only got time for a short break, it can introduce you to a very authentic slice of Sicilian life.
I’ve helped countless clients find the perfect accommodation and itinerary for a city break in Palermo, and I’ve discovered that even in a couple of days it’s possible to cover the most important attractions – and still leave time for aperitivi!
Culture, Art and Architecture
Even if you don’t set foot inside any of the city’s galleries or museums you’ll be able to enjoy the history and culture simply through its architecture. The Duomo, dating back to 1184, displays its Norman, Gothic, Spanish and Italian influences in a magnificent hotchpotch of styles; the exquisite Palatine Chapel is the embodiment of the Norman’s impressive achievements, decorated with Byzantine mosaics; and the Baroque masterpiece that is the Church of Santa Caterina is the jaw-dropping centrepiece of the city in all its over-the-top glory. (If you think the outside is spectacular, just wait until you step inside.)
For history aficionados, a visit to the Museum of Archaeology (Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas) is an absolute must, affording a fascinating insight into the ancient history of the island. As well as an extensive collection of Greek and Punic art, the museum houses an important display of ceramics, bronzes and sculptures from the ancient Selinunte temples.
The Teatro Massimo is a world-famous opera house renowned for its marvellous acoustics – try to book in for a show for a night to remember). It’s not far from the ninth-century Palazzo dei Normanni, an opulent former royal palace.
Slightly out of the city, but just a short bus ride away (number 327 if you’re asking!), is the macabre Catacombe dei Cappuccini. I’m afraid it’s got nothing to do with the famous Italian coffee, though, despite how it sounds! The site is a burial ground for more than 8,000 dead bodies, which was established by the Capuchin friars; what’s so confronting is that they’re lined up, fully dressed and vertical, along the walls of the catacombs for as far as the eye can see. It’s certainly spooky but it’s also extremely evocative – you won’t forget this place in a hurry, I guarantee it.
The Beautiful Beaches
But it’s not all about history and culture, because many of Sicily’s best beaches are also within arms’ reach of the city – so you’ll still be able to lap up some of that famous sunshine on your city break in Palermo. There are a number of excellent beaches just a few minutes from the city centre, with many more a comfortable drive (or bus ride) away. Mondello is the largest and best-known beach closest to the city, and for something a little quieter you can try Arenella, Aspra or Isola delle Femmine – an island just off the coast. The very popular San Vito Lo Capo and Cefalu are both less than an hour away.
For my clients looking for a short, compact holiday with everything at their fingertips, I often suggest taking a city break in Palermo. This eclectic city has its roots forged deep into the history of the island and, while there is plenty to see beyond it, I think that if you know Palermo you’re well on your way to knowing the true Sicily.
John Dixon is an experienced world traveller and the Managing Director of Prestige Holidays. If you're planning a city break in Palermo John can help find your perfect accommodation and offer tips on all the best attractions. An expert in luxury accommodation in Sicily, Bermuda, Croatia and many other destinations around the globe for over 30 years, John tries to visit each of the destinations regularly in order to ensure the quality of his properties and stay up-to-date about the latest local news and events. He has a taste for the finer things in life and has an interest in arts, history and culture.