About half a year before my big trip to Kenya (read the highlights of my Kenya trip here), I travelled to beautiful Sicily and spent one day solo in Palermo. The 7-km walking itinerary in this post made me discover Sicily’s turbulent history, architecture, culture and food.
I had a blast there in early September, after the first suddenly cold and rainy days in Germany. Summer lovers will enjoy the subtropical, Mediterranean temperatures. 12 hours of daylight, an average temperature of 27°C and only few millimeters of rain allow for an extended summer feelinge.
Walking itinerary with my top 10 sights
In Italy, it’s generally a good idea to check opening hours in advance. Many sights close around lunchtime. In Palermo, the Cathedral is a fantastic midday option because it remains open all day. If you follow my itinerary, you’ll pass by little supermarkets and shops where you can buy water on the way.
From Mercato di Ballarò to Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
I started my walk at Mercato di Ballarò. This colorful market got North African vibes. That’s where you’ll find fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, capers and spices. Even if you’re not planning to cook or eat street food, you should definitely stop by and absorb the bubbling market hustle.
My personal highlight and a must-see for all visitors interested in Palermo’s historic mix of Byzantine, Islamic and Latin architecture: The Palatine Chapel. I admired the transition from its walls filled with Byzantine mosaics and Latin marbles, and the wooden honeycomb ceiling, an Islamic architectural element also called muqarnas.
It’s admittedly not everyone’s shoe to walk half an hour from the Royal Palace through Palermo’s vibrant streets until the Catacombs. But I personally enjoyed the deep dive. Be careful and demanding at the same time when you cross the city’s streets.
The Capuchin Catacombs are a graveyard, which has become a tourist attraction. In 1599, the Capuchin monks started creating this burial place below the church because the cemetery had reached capacity. Until 1920, 1,252 mummies and 8,000 corpses found their final resting place. Only Giuseppe Tommasi, prince of Lampedusa and author of The Leopard was allowed to be buried there later, in 1957.
Duomo – Cathedral of Palermo
The Cathedral of Palermo is an impressive example of Sicily’s unique cultural and architectural blend. Its architectural style is a mix between Arab and Norman elements. The Catholic church was erected nine centuries ago, right on top of a 9th-century Saracens Mosque, which had itself been developed out of an earlier Byzantine church.
Highlights between Duomo and Teatro Massimo
The Church of Most Holy Saviour (Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore) is a special Barock-style church with plenty of angel figurines inside. I was told that you get a beautiful view of Palermo from the dome. Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive in time to reach the dome.
But I got beautiful Sicilian impressions on my way to Teatro Massimo, which made me pass by Mercato del Capo and other inspiring little streets.
Europe’s 3rd biggest opera house – Teatro Massimo
Vibrant Palermo got wonderful artistic and musical offers. Especially after my tour at Italy’s largest and Europe’s 3rd largest opera house Teatro Massimo, I craved for a concert. Unfortunately though, travel time is limited with a full-time job at home. But I was gifted an aria practice through an open window while strolling around the old town’s narrow streets. And if I had used more of my annual leave days, I’d have picked one of the evening shows at Teatro Massimo. Some of you may recognize the opera house from scenes in the movie The Godfather Part III.
Piazza Vigilena is better known as Quattro Canti, the intersection between the two main streets Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (also known as Cassaro). Nowadays, Cassaro is a pedestrian zone, which allows visitors to rest and fully grasp the richness of detail at this Baroque octagonal square. Quattro Canti is considered the center of the four historic quarters (cantons or canti) of Palermo called Kalsa (southeast); Seralcadi (southwest); Albergaria (northwest); and Castellammare (northeast). All four corners show beautiful Baroque facades with life size statues, as well as a fountain each representing one of the four seasons. Movie junkies may recognize this square from Wim Wenders’ Palermo Shooting.
Also called La Martorana, the Church of S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio is yet another architectural pearl composed of Arabic, Norman, Byzantine and Baroque art elements. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the afternoon after opening hours to enter the church. But even the exterior is worth a look, especially since directly next to La Martorana, you may whisk yourself away to San Cataldo.
The Church of San Cataldo was the final stop of my one-day solo walking tour through Palermo. The structure holds both clearly Norman features with its simplistic and austere, fortress-like ground plan and bell towers, as well as Arabic features with its external blind arches, the merlons and the spherical red domes on the roof. The interior also showcases Byzantines features, which I will visit next time in Palermo.
Food discoveries in Vucciria
At this end of my walking visit full of sights and other explorations, my search for taste and flavor treats got the upper hand. Vucciria was the perfect place for dinner. Sicily appears to be a heaven for sensual trips. You’ll find my food discoveries in Sicily in my next post here.
Solo travel tips in Palermo
My solo experience in Palermo was admittedly short but very positive and recommendable for solo travelling. Of course, as a female solo traveler, I take my precautions and don’t unnecessarily risk dubious situations. My highest recommendation for solo travelling to Palermo is to choose the safest neighborhood for your accommodation. It will save you time and energy. After exchanging with Italian friends and spending three nights in Palermo, I can recommend Palermo’s old town (Centro Storico) or downtown (Politeama/Libertà).
I fully enjoyed my one-day trip solo in Palermo and absolutely recommend spending time there to get a rich picture of this vibrant Sicilian hub!