Palermo, Sicily, is an ancient city even by Italian standards. Founded by Phoenician traders back in the eighth century BC, the city's origins go back to the dawn of recorded history. Plus, as an island in the central Mediterranean, Sicily has seen successive waves of invasion and immigration over the course of its long life that have given it a unique culture that is still vibrant today.
There's nowhere better to explore this culture and history than in the best museums in Palermo. Whether you're interested in modern art, Roman sculpture, Greek temples, or the relics of Moorish rule of the island, you'll find a museum or an art gallery that will suit your interests. You can even find museums that don't charge for entry, making them some of the best free things to do in Palermo.
When you arrive at Palermo Airport, you can start to explore the cultural highlights of the city immediately. Bounce can make sure your belongings are safely stored until you're ready to pick them up. By offering luggage storage in Palermo, Bounce makes travel easy by ensuring you never have to carry more than you need to.
The Top Museums in Palermo
Museum of Tiles Stanze al Genio
Keep an open mind for this one. A museum of tiles may not sound like the most fascinating place to explore, but after a visit to this Palermo institution, you may be surprised. This museum definitely falls into the category of hidden gems, and it's not one of the attractions visitors usually come to admire in Palermo. But this privately owned museum displays a collection of thousands of 16th-century tiles that is absolutely breathtaking. You'll be amazed by the skill and artistry of the ceramic works, and come away with a newfound appreciation of Sicilian craftsmanship.
Galleria d'Arte Moderna Sant'Anna
Located in a former convent, this museum, known as GAM for short, is foremost among the art museums of Palermo. In fact, this modern art gallery is part of a museum complex that includes the Palazzo Bonet and the Church of Sant'Anna la Misericordia. But GAM is the indisputable highlight here. This collection of modern works was founded in 1910 and contains art from the 20th century and beyond. Home to paintings and sculptures by artists like Giovanni Boldini and Felice Casorati, the museum is one of the top collections of modern art in Italy. It's also a great place to discover work by artists you may never have heard of before. In a city as ancient as Palermo, it's interesting to get an insight into more modern art and culture, and GAM is the perfect place to do it.
When it opened in 1897, Palermo's Teatro Massimo was the fourth-largest in all of Europe, after ones in London, Paris, and Vienna. It's a testament to the love of Sicilian people for art and culture that they built such a grand theater here. And the theater has been central to the cultural life of Sicily ever since. While the theater isn't technically a museum, it does have a fascinating history all of its own, and its importance in the city's cultural life makes it one of the top attractions to see during a visit to Palermo. You can experience the theater on a guided tour during the day, which will give you an insight into the stories of performances and scandals that have made the theater what it is. But if you're lucky enough to get tickets to a performance at the Teatro Massimo, you shouldn't pass up the opportunity to see a show in one of Europe's great performing arts venues. If you have the time, you could even do both, to learn more about the history of the theater and enjoy its current form.
Sicily is a proud and fiercely independent place that has a culture that is totally its own. As a result, Palermo is a great place to explore some quirky museums. The Puppet Museum is definitely one of those. The Antonio Pasqualino International Museum of Puppets, to give it its full name, is based in the Hotel de France right in the heart of downtown Palermo. Inside, you'll find an impressive collection of marionettes from around the world. You can learn more about this art form as you wander through the galleries of unique puppets, and the museum even contains a theater that stages puppet shows on Fridays. This makes it easily one of the best things to do in Palermo with kids.
Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum
With a history that goes all the way back to the Phoenicians, Palermo and Sicily at large have a wealth of archaeological riches to draw on. You can get a glimpse of this incredible history at the Regional Archaeological Museum. Named after a famous Palermo archaeologist, this is the oldest museum in Sicily and contains some of the oldest artifacts ever discovered on the island. Notably, it contains one of the best collections of ancient Greek art you'll find anywhere outside Greece itself, as well as many artifacts from the Punic or Phoenician period. There are also relics from Sicily's Roman past, and even items found in Sicilian caves that date back to the earliest human occupation of the island. In short, admiring the sculptures and relics of ancient civilizations in this museum means you can spend the whole day looking at wonders and traveling through time without leaving Palermo. And because this museum is located next to the Teatro Massimo right in the heart of the city, you'll also be in a great location to try some of the best street food in Palermo.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini
Fans of the unusual, the esoteric, and the downright spooky won't want to miss this one. The Catacombe dei Cappuccini has nothing to do with coffee, but after a visit here, you may find yourself in need of something stronger than a double espresso to recover. The catacomb is the resting place of more than 8000 people, with some of the bodies going back to the 17th century. Many of the corpses are dressed and posed in lifelike positions, making this an eerie and macabre but undoubtedly fascinating place to tour in Palermo.
For a journey back to the period of Arab rule in Sicily, head to Zisa Palace in the western part of Palermo. This fascinating castle dates back to 1165 and the Norman occupation of Sicily, but the architecture wears its Moorish influences on its sleeve. Although the castle fell into disrepair over the centuries, it has been restored to its former glory and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering around this former palace will give you a visceral connection to a large part of the history of Sicily, from the periods of Moorish and Norman occupation right through the Middle Ages. The Zisa is the perfect place to visit to better understand Sicily's rich past.
Palermo's Cathedral is a striking example of the merging of architectural styles from different historical periods. As one of the most beautiful and most significant buildings in the city, you're more than likely to see this place on your visit to the city anyway. But while you're there admiring the architecture, don't miss the opportunity to visit the Museo Tesoro inside the massive church. Here, you'll find the crown jewels of Sicily's now-defunct monarchy. This small museum is nevertheless an interesting record of Sicily's past as an independent kingdom, and it's a history that continues to inform the cultural life of the island to this day.
Museum of Zoology
Founded in the middle of the 19th century, Palermo's P. Doderlein Museum of Zoology retains some of the eclectic fascinations of the cabinet of curiosities it began as. This museum contains over 5000 specimens, including some animals that are now extinct such as the Sicilian wolf. It's also a leading institute for research into zoology and botany. But most importantly, it's a fascinating place to visit in Palermo. Kids especially will get a kick out of the preserved and taxidermied animals that bring natural science alive in the most immediate way.
Sicilian Ethnographic Museum
Sicily's unique history has made it what it is today. And to get more of a glimpse into the culture of the island, there are few better places to visit than Palermo's Sicilian Ethnographic Museum. This institution explores Sicilian culture through clothes, music, folktales, and other traditions. Many of these traditions are still alive to this day, so it's the perfect place to more fully understand Sicily during your visit.
Fans of modern art will have a great time at Palermo's GAM gallery. If you prefer your art with a more ancient pedigree, the Palazzo Abatellis is the place you should go. This 15th-century palace is home to an art gallery that collects and curates religious art from the 12th to the 15th century. The most famous work in the collection is the Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina, but fans of medieval and Renaissance art will find lots to like in this well-organized gallery.
Valley of the Temples
Agrigento lies on the other side of the island of Sicily from Palermo, and requires around a two-hour drive to reach. However, no history lover should miss the chance to see some of the most impressive remains of ancient Greek culture outside Greece itself. The Valley of the Temples is home to seven different classical Greek temples, along with impressive statues like the gargantuan telamoni. Thanks to the great state of preservation, the Valley of the Temples houses some of the most impressive ancient Greek ruins you'll find anywhere in the world. As a result, it's more than worth the drive to one of Sicily's top tourist attractions.
What are the best free museums in Palermo?
In Sicily, the first Sunday of the month is your best friend if you love art and culture. On this day, many of the city's top museums are free, including GAM, Zisa, the Regional Archaeology Museum, and Palazzo Abatellis. The hardest part will be fitting them all in. Plus, Palermo Cathedral is always free to visit.
Which are the best museums in downtown Palermo?
Teatro Massimo, the Regional Archaeology Museum, Palermo Cathedral, and GAM are all located within easy walking distance of one another in the heart of Palermo. Since this is also where you'll find some of the city's best shopping and restaurants, it's worth spending at least a few days getting to know the city's historic center.
Are there any cheap museums in Palermo?
If you're not lucky enough to be in Palermo on the first Sunday of the month to take advantage of free museum day, you may be pleased to know that many of the city's most interesting museums are not all that expensive to visit. In general, you'll find prices in Palermo are cheaper than much of the rest of Italy, making it a relative bargain to visit. The International Puppet Museum costs only five euros to visit, while the Zisa Palace costs only six euros. Even the Gallery of Modern Art, one of Palermo's top galleries, is only eight euros to visit, making it very reasonably priced considering everything you get to see.